A return to etching

Photograph of two prints showing medlar fruits being hand tinted. The prints have black outlines and are coloured in greens and browns. A brush sits atop the nearest print
Skewed photograph of copper plate and a black ink etched line print showing ripening medlar fruits closely packed together
A proof of ‘medlars’ and the copper plate

I last tried etching at art school, and it felt like alchemy back then. I made a sketch of the rooftops visible out of the large windows of the top floor studio of the Victorian building the art school called home. Under the tutor’s direction this became a line etching and later gained some aquatint tones. Extreme caution was observed around acids and rosin boxes, in the print room off the main studio I’d barely been in before.

The print wasn’t great, but I do wish I still had one of them. A memory of how velvety the tint was has stayed with me.

Sadly I never got to do any more intaglio as I moved in the direction of graphic design from that point, and that was becoming increasingly digital.

Safer, modern processes and chemicals have not replaced the traditional ones, but they do offer a much better alternative for revisiting intaglio in the small studio. So I equipped myself with Edinburgh etch chemicals, tools, plates and some modest safety gear to get started again.

Hard ground line etching

Baldwin’s Ink Ground is amazing stuff, I was quickly able to prepare a copper plate by rolling a thin layer on and baking it in the oven for short time. I then began a modest line design of medlar fruits set out on a window ledge to ripen. I underestimated just how fine a line could be achieved, so the results were not as ambitious as they could have been, but they were educative non the less.

Close cropped photograph of a black ink etched line print showing ripening medlar fruits closely packed together
A proof of the ‘medlar’s plate in it’s early line-etched state

I briefly improved the design with drypoint, but keen to try other techniques involving the roller again I didn’t pursue this. The burrs raised by the drypoint tool would have damaged the roller on applying more ground.

Sugar lift aquatint

This was equally easy and really satisfying. Freshly rolled ground is treated with a dusting of fine icing sugar before baking, very carefully washed and then etched to produce a fine, somewhat velvety surface. I managed to get a gentle tint to the medlars image in just five minutes.

Burnishing – mezzotint style

Having placed a fine tone over the whole plate I used a burnishing tool to restore highlights. This worked a treat and gave me really exciting scope for tonal control when I start to work on better pieces.

Hand tinting

Photograph of two prints showing medlar fruits being hand tinted. The prints have black outlines and are coloured in greens and browns. A brush sits atop the nearest print
Hand tinting ‘Medlars’

Next I tried hand tinting – with gouache rather than watercolour – which I don’t think is ideal. I’ll be using a watercolour box for this in future, balancing the opacity with dilution was tricky with gouache – which is otherwise a go-to medium for me. I wasn’t too concerned will colour accuracy so much as working with the line tones so the results aren’t final.

If I learned anything from this it was the importance of considering tints as part of the design process, and to balance tones as far as possible in the etch so that tinting is it’s most effective when simply applied in straightforward washes. The temptation to paint the surface with tones was strong.

Soft ground etching

Finally, I used the ground unbaked and applied pencil marks over a sheet of paper to impress the marks into the ground surface. It worked a treat, I was really surprised by the softness of the line. Etching all the prior marks and seeing the before and after states gives you a sense of what you can expect from the etch. So for these marks on some scrap copper I did not bother to etch them.

Doing it all

It’s been a fun week or so revisiting these techniques, and learning new skills along the way. Being able to design, inscribe and etch safely – without toxic fumes – opens up many new opportunities. But there are some limitations I think, particularly in the difference between rosin and other tint processes which will mean adapting or finding new ways to create those effects. Nevertheless there’s much to be pleased about and I look forward to adding line, tone and tint to my design process.

Kunichika – Japanese woodblock prints exhibition highlights

This exhibition of the work of Toyohara Kunichika closes very soon, for visiting information please take a look at the exhibition page.

I was delighted to visit this show of woodblock prints by Toyohara Kunichika at the Lady Lever Gallery. I had a basic familiarity with Ukiyo-e (‘Pictures of the floating world’) but to see so many works by a late master was a treat.

The first thing that strikes you is the depth of colour, these are water-based inks and I would have assumed that they can deteriorate as fast as a watercolour painting under the same conditions. This collection is therefore much loved and looked after. These prints are immaculate and vibrant, with only a few works bearing notes that certain colours had faded or changed over the years.

Kunichika’s work was the affordable, popular imagery of the day – household name theatre stars, ‘beautiful women’ pictures, scenes from well-known tales and the activities of Emperors and actors.

Detail from Seven Evil Women woodblock print by Toyohara Kunichika, 1879
Detail from Seven Evil Women woodblock print by Toyohara Kunichika, 1879

One startling set of pictures shows theatre actors in intimate settings, mopping a brow after a performance and being fanned by an attendant. These works were direct challenges to the rise of postcard-style, mass produced celebrity portrait photographs. Kunichika knew and socialised with many of the stars of the day and could depict them (with flattery) in candid, and full-colour, moments.

In another work entitled ‘Seven Evil Women’ you can see the artist’s disdain for photography. All figures in this picture are shown in dazzling attire.

One figure holds a small photograph which pales in comparison to the rest of the scene. Photography was to replace woodblock printing’s hold on celebrity imagery , and inevitably affect the livelihoods of print artists. Kunichika himself spent his last years working in a relative’s photographic shop.

‘Seven Evil Women’ is dated 1879, and shows actors playing the role of real-life women with criminal, even murderous backgrounds – ‘dokofu’ or ‘poison women’. Then as now the popular press was obsessed with the idea of women who kill, and knew money was to be made from their notoriety.

Seven Evil Women woodblock print by Toyohara Kunichika, 1879
Seven Evil Women, Toyohara Kunichika 1879

The show describes Kunichika as both an important designer and a master of his art, though reading the history of this artform – and not unlike others – both the genre and the individual’s importance have been reinvigorated by rediscovery and the appreciation of modern collectors.

As for mastery, each print is inked and impressed by hand, though this was probably undertaken by a team. Nevertheless the skill in design and the fineness of line is impressive. One good example of this is in the image ‘Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon’ of 1883. Kunichika has employed multiple blocks and different ink tones to mimic the effect of fine brushwork.

Close up of ink and brush effect achieved with woodblocks from Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, 1883
Close up of ink and brush effect achieved with woodblocks from Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, 1883
Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, 1883
Nakamura Shikan as the boatman Matsuemon, Toyohara Kunichika, 1883

A final delight are the works that depict actors in the roles of famous westerners, my favourite of these was ‘Baiko as the balloonist Percival Spencer

Woodblock print 'Baiko as balloonist Percival Spencer', from 'One hundred roles for Baiko', 1894
Baiko as balloonist Percival Spencer, from ‘One hundred roles for Baiko’, 1894

As is always the case with The Lady Lever Art Gallery (and particularly their print shows) the exhibition is beautifully presented, the context boards and related materials describe the man (alcoholism, womanising, misspent youth and all) and the period in a way that really brings the pieces and their subjects to life.

All photographs in this post were taken on site at the exhibition, so show some reflection from gallery lighting and do not do the pieces justice. Of course, no flash was used.

Print shop and Etsy store temporary closure

I’ve taken the decision to close the print stores for a few months, to allow me to work on new paintings, drawings and prints. I also want to learn some new techniques, and experiment with other tools.

I am brimming with ideas and concepts that I do not get the time to explore, so this brief closure should help me realise some of those.

As a preview, I expect to be working on new, larger and more colourful prints (see my recent post on developing ideas), producing many more small paintings and exploring some techniques I’ve not used in years.

I’ll share what I can of new work in development here, on Pinterest and Twitter.

Developing print ideas

I’ve been making pictures for as long as I can remember, and have wrestled with the process and results for just as long.

Like most painters I have spells of doubt and discontent about what I do. Gaps in capability, hindrances to the work I’d like to produce will always arise, but are rarely insurmountable. Getting there can be a hard road.

Early sketchbook work on the Cherhill Horse view. Working out the picture balance for both tone and content

Recently I have tried to re-balance the equation between a print’s development and its production. It would be usual to start the process with a rough sketch, an idea, a thread, a spark that has enough life to light the future it might fulfill. The sustaining life of the idea, the sketch or the handwritten note is as important as the work put into the final, finished piece.

So I have decided to give more life-support to an idea’s earliest days, by nurturing and reworking it in different forms and at different scales before committing to a final print design.

I began with my latest print of Cherhill Down in Wiltshire in the usual way, with pencil and gouache sketches – all at roughly the same size as the intended final print.

I moved on to working up the design large scale in soft pastel, a far cry from the sharp lines and tonal difference of a black and white relief print, and many times the size of the final piece.

The rough pastel sketch, at the point of its abandonment

Scale aside, I am working in colour, and rapidly. This permits me an intuitive response to the idea, and helps me capture feelings and atmosphere as much as the raw physicality of the view. While responding a golden sky at sunrise I am wondering to myself how I’ll represent this in just two tones. At the same time, I am in the moment of learning about the view and the image I am making.

The large, full-colour pastel is destined to be screwed up and discarded. It is a sketch, it will have problems, but it will have served its purpose in helping me devise future responses to the subject.

Adapting for print

With the subject examined through one or more sketches, I begin to paint it using pens and gouache. For this print a gouache sketch was created in my current sketchbook, and then repainted directly on the lino block. Gouache is remarkable medium for print development, every misstep can be overpainted. Over a period of a few days the lino block was amended until it roughly resembled what the final print ought to be. But from experience this is rarely the end of the design process.

Cutting commences in the ‘safest’ areas – those parts of the design that’re most satisfyingly resolved. Right up until the final cut is made I might make redrawings on the block in black or white gouache.

The completed gouache-painted block, cutting about to begin

With this print proofing, making changes and re-proofing took a couple of days. Some missteps required the block to be patched and recut. Eventually an endpoint is reached, where the design lives up to (or gets very close to) the original concept and the developmental work that preceded it. The large pastel sketches can now be discarded.

Where next

The process was very satisfying on this print, so I am developing new subjects using the same techniques. I remain mindful of the possibilities of other approaches, but for now large scale drawing for small prints is proving both reliable and rewarding.

Latest large scale study for a new print

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