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StillRagColorStep250x302: Still Ragged Color Steps250x302

The Making of the Etching "Still Ragged After All These Years"

By Christopher Hill Morse

There are many steps in creating an etching. This one took me about three weeks, full time, just to make the plate. It will take me two years of printing at demonstrations to finish printing the edition. You may be able to watch me print it at your favorite Arts and Crafts show. It takes me about an hour just to re-ink it each time. Following are the steps I used to create it...

Step 1: Step 1

Preparing the Edges of an Etching Plate

When one prepares to do an etching, the plate must first be made ready. The edges of the plate must be beveled. This is so that the sharp edges of the metal do not cut the press blankets when the plate is later printed. The edges may be beveled with a scraper or a file.

The scraper is a tool with a three sided blade. Its blade has a triangular cross section and tapers to a point at the tip. The edges of the scraper are very sharp and strong. As the scraper is pulled along the edge of the plate a peel of metal is removed. Repeating this action will eventually produce a beveled edge on the plate. The scraper is also the tool used to remove an undesired detail when etched into the plate.


Burnishing the edges of an Etching Plate

After the edges and corners are beveled, they must be burnished smooth and prepared for polishing. The burnisher is a smooth sided tool with a curved tip. The curved tip allows one to focus its polishing action into a smaller area as it is used further toward its tip. Pressure is applied as the burnisher is rubbed on the plate. The smooth steel is harder than the zinc plate and this rubbing action softens surface textures.

Here, the inside of the curved blade is being used to rub the beveled edge of the plate. Care must be taken not to scratch the plate with the very tip of the burnisher.

The burnisher is also the tool used by mezzotint artists to smooth the texture of the mezzotint plate.

Step 3: Step 3

Polishing an Etching Plate

Before the plate is ready to etch, the plate must be polished. As etchings print the most subtle of details, any surface texture must be polished off in order to allow the highlights to stay bright. Remember the white areas in the final print are areas on the plate which have no texture and therefore hold no ink. To assure the greatest range of tonal value, one may polish the plate to an almost mirror finish. Here a polishing compound is being rubbed on the plate with a circular motion.

The plate must also be polished to remove any oxidation which could affect the way the rosin powder sticks to the plate during the aquatint part of the etching process.

Step 4: Step 4

Coating an Etching Plate with a Ground

After the edges, corners and surface of the plate are prepared, the plate is ready to coat with a ground.

An etching ground is an acid resistant coating. Here an asphaltum hard ground is being applied with a brush. Great care must be taken to get a smooth and even coat. Working too quickly can result in bubbles which can allow the acid to etch the plate where it is undesired. For an even coat, use a slow even stroke with the brush. The ground is allowed to harden and dry.

There are a variety of grounds available for different purposes. Hard ground is best for drawing with an etching needle or echoppe. Soft ground allows one to impress objects of different texture directly into its surface. When the textured object is removed the soft ground peels away leaving the pattern of the textured object exposed to the etching solution.

Step5: Step5

Line Drawing through a Hard Ground

After the hard ground has been allowed to dry and harden, the line etch may begin. The drawing is done with an etching needle. Where the needle peels through the ground the plate is exposed. When the plate is immersed in a bath of acid, the exposed metal dissolves, creating valleys which later hold the ink during the printing process. The ground allows only the drawn lines to be exposed to the acid and protects the rest of the plate.

This is one of the most time consuming part of the process. For this etching, I was drawing moose hair for eight hours. Drawing and etching the line work took almost a week.

Step 6: Step 6

Etching the Plate

The word etching comes from a German word which means bitten. A corrosive is used to dissolve the plate in controlled ways. This plate is zinc and is etched with a nitric acid solution. Copper now is often etched using a less toxic ferric chloride salt solution. Different solutions for different metals.

The depth of the texture is controlled by the length of time that the plate stays in the corrosive etching solution. The longer the plate stays immersed, the deeper the lines etch.

Often, the plate is removed many times during the etch to block out certain areas that the artist wants to stop at that stage. In this way lines of many different depths can help the artist to imply space in the image, or focus attention on more important elements of the design.

Step 7: Step 7

Removing the Ground from the Plate

Mineral spirits remove the hard ground after the etch. Note the lines now show up on the plate as they are actually little valleys in the zinc. An etching is a topography of texture. It is the texture of an etching which holds the ink and prints the image.

The dissolved ground must be completely removed. It is a good idea to again polish the plate before the next stage. Any residue from the asphaltum or the solvent could block the action of the acid during the etching of the aquatints when the continuous tonal areas on the plate are etched.

Step 8: Step 8

Aquatinting the Plate

The plate has been cleaned and polished. A rosin dust has been melted onto the plate. Each rosin particle acts as a tiny acid resist. As the acid dissolves the plate around these particles it results in a field of tiny bumps. Each particle of rosin creates a little butte as the plate dissolves around it. The ink gathers between these microscopic bumps. This enables an area to print a continuous tone. The longer the plate etches, the deeper the texture -- holding more ink and printing a darker tone. Each different tone is etched a different length of time. This was the most time consuming part of creating this piece.

Here the highlights or non-printing areas are being blocked before the plate is etched for its lightest aquatinted tone. The way the plate is blocked can result in a variety of textures. A grease crayon can create soft-edged gradations. Asphaltum can create hard edged areas or even water color like textures. The ink of certain felt tipped markers is acid resistant allowing fine lines to be blocked from etching.

Step 9: Step 9

Inking the Plate

"Still Ragged After All These Years," is inked by hand in color. It is inked in the a la poupee technique. All the colors are on the plate when it goes through the press. It is printed from a single plate. Here I am inking it at the Washington International Print Fair.

The colors have to be carefully applied is a sequence. It this print I ink the mountain first, the sky and foreground dark color next, middle-ground greens next, then several different colors are blended onto the moose, and lastly rocking chair. During this hour I enjoy sharing history and technique with others.

Step 10: Step 10

Pulling the Print

When the inked plate has been cranked through the press the finished piece is peeled off the plate. More than the image has been transferred to the paper; the texture of the metal and all the topography of the plate is embossed into the hand pulled etching. This helps to give dimension to the piece and a crisp sharp focus that is one of the most attractive features of an original etching. Each piece is individually hand made.