A return to etching

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.

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