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Printmaking is a two stage process. The first stage is to create an acid-etched image on a polished metal plate. I etch this plate so that areas that I want to be darker in the final print are etched most deeply so that they trap more ink. The second stage is to print from the plate onto paper.
My etchings are original prints, not reproductions. They are individually inked and printed by hand from a hand-made plate. This is different to the digital reproduction of pictures often described as "fine art prints". Unlike the identical prints made by digital reproduction, there will be small differences in hand printed editions due to slight differences in inking the individual prints.
In my recent work I have been using brass plates which I etch in a solution of ferric chloride. I use a range of techniques to selectively mask areas of the plate, using an acid resist to protect the plate and build up different tones and textures.
Often I will start by etching lines on the plate by coating the brass with an acrylic 'hard ground' and then scratching lines through this with an etching needle to expose the brass. When the plate is put into the acid for a few minutes, the exposed brass is eaten away to leave grooves in the plate which will hold the ink when printing.
This is another technique that I often use when starting a plate. Using paintbrushes and dip pens, I paint sugar solution onto the plate in the areas I want to etch. When the sugar has dried I coat the plate with spirit-based varnish. Putting the plate into a tray of warm water causes the dried sugar to dissolve lifting off the varnish in these areas. This lets me etch those areas originally painted with sugar whilst the other parts of the plate are protected by the varnish.
When etching an area of the plate, like that exposed by the sugar lift technique, it is important that the plate is etched with a rough surface that will trap the ink. To do this I use the technique of aquatinting. Aquatinting involves putting a fine dusting of resist onto the plate. I use either a fine spray of acrylic varnish, or a fine dusting of rosin melted onto the plate. The resist gives a fine, random pattern of spots that should cover roughly fifty percent of the exposed metal. Subsequent etching only eats away at the metal between the resist spots giving a pattern of pits in the metal that traps the ink.
I produce different shades of grey by successively stopping out the aquatinted plate with varnish and then acid etching so that different parts of the plate are exposed to the acid for different times. I combine this with the use of a range of wax pencils which protect areas of the plate and can produce different textures.
Sometimes, rather than etching a plate in a tray of acid, I paint the acid directly onto the aquatinted plate with a paintbrush. This can give a smoother range of tones as I can paint acid onto the plate for longer or shorter times to give darker or lighter tones.
In practice, I usually combine these techniques and often work on sections of a plate at a time, blocking out other sections with varnish.
Once the plate is etched I often use scraping and burnishing tools to smooth small areas of the plate, thus lightening those parts of the eventual print. Alternatively, I use engraving tools to produce more texture in particular areas in order to darken them.
I have also used steel and aluminium plates which I etch in a solution of copper sulphate and salt. With some of my steel and aluminium plates I used a photo-etching as part of the process. Photo-etching involves coating the plate with a photo-resist which hardens in ultraviolet light. In this process I produce a high contrast black and white image, often from one of my photographs, on a sheet of acetate. This, I place on top of the coated plate in a vacuum unit and expose the plate, through the acetate image to ultraviolet light. The light hardens the resist in clear areas where light shines through the acetate, but not where the light is blocked by black areas of the image. I then wash away the unhardened parts of the resist to expose the metal plate ready for aquatinting and etching.
To make a print from a plate I use a small piece of hard rubber squeegee to push specialist etching ink into the plate.
I then wipe the ink using tarlatan fabric, newsprint and tissue paper. This cleans the ink from the parts of the plate that have not been etched, leaving ink only in the areas that have been bitten by the acid.
I then put the plate through the press with a sheet of dampened paper, usually Somerset Satin paper. The high pressure of the press forces the damp paper into the etched plate, picking up the ink.
I dry the resulting paper print for about a week sandwiched between tissue paper and mdf boards to ensure the prints dry flat.
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