A Prelude to Printmaking – Part 1: Etching
I’ve never really paid much attention to prints, and still less black and white prints which, in a gallery full of paintings never seemed to capture my attention. All of this began to change around last summertime. The first trigger was the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition where, amongst the numerous galleries full of paintings of often rather questionable quality, I found myself inexorably drawn to the print gallery, a room packed to the rafters with prints of every conceivable style, technique and colour (and in fact bought two!).
The second trigger came on a visit to the Courtauld Gallery at London’s Somerset House, where a newly acquired collection of Lucian Freud etchings had been hung. I was completely entranced by these works, which, in their monotone black and white seemed to shift focus from what is usually Freud’s fleshy textured paintwork to the almost visceral, fervid lines and cross hatchings by which Freud had reimagined many of his painted portraits in this new medium. In particular I adored Freud’s etching Man Posing (1985) in which the use of etching as a medium seemed to me so artfully applied to capture every hair, muscle and contour of the figure’s naked body.
Completely captivated, I went home and that very evening researched the internet for tips on how to etch. I very soon realised that unlike painting, etching would not be so easy to self-teach, and promptly enrolled myself for a printmaking course at the Art Academy in London Bridge (there being no introductory course dealing exclusively with etching).
Having now done this short weekend course, I can unconditionally say that I am hooked on printmaking, and on etching in particular. On the course we undertook two techniques – one was relief work (we used lino cutting – which I’ll tell you all about in Part 2 of this post); the other was the much anticipated etching technique, something which I found every bit as enjoyable to execute as I had taken delight in looking at Freud’s finished prints.
The process of etching is surprisingly fiddly. Of a whole day’s work in the studio, I probably spent a maximum of around 45 minutes actually drawing out my image onto plate – the remainder of the time was engaged in preparation and printing. Etching uses metal (we used zinc) and an image is etched into the plate using acid. That plate is then plied with ink and used to print an edition. So how does it all work? Well basically, once you’ve got yourself a metal plate (and carefully degreased it), you apply a dark “ground”. This is the layer which protects the metal when it is placed in acid. Once applied, you use a needle to draw your image. It is this process which reveals the metal underneath which will then be “etched” into the metal once acid is applied. So the process of drawing into the ground is a somewhat perplexing one – not only do you have to plan the image in reverse, but you’re also working in the colour negative, cross-hatching into metal to create shadows on your print, when what you end up drawing appears to be light on dark.
Anyway, I’m getting a little techy and I’m sure what you actually want to see is the result. And here it is: Sailor Norm on a beach in Mallorca (holding a fish). I probably ought to think of a better title, so any suggestions are welcome.
Here’s the metal plate with the image etched into it.
Then below, you can see what it looks like once printed: a series of prints which shows me experimenting with ink removal. In the first, I removed all the ink off the plate apart from the application of ink to the narrow etched lines. In the second, I left a little ink on the plate to create a moodier effect, and for the third and fourth left more and more, specifically targeting certain areas where I wanted more shadow. My favourite is probably the second or third. What do you think?
So that’s my first etching done, and with an intermediate course now booked, I cannot wait to create more and explore this new medium further. The etching is truly my oyster…
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