Friday was a good day. I was expecting to get responses about two things I applied to recently, and though I have plenty of experience of rationalising disappointment (‘What a relief – I didn’t really want it anyway – it probably would be a poisoned chalice’, etc. etc.), to avoid spending all day checking my email for possible rejections, I gave myself a day off from proofreading and went to the print studio.
Whenever I go there it feels a bit like going back in time, partly because the technologies are so old, and also because until last summer I hadn’t done any printmaking since my first year at art school (a long time ago). In the first term we had to choose whether to spend our Fridays printmaking or lettercutting in the stone yard. I chose printmaking, and I still have vivid memories of the many-windowed printroom with its massive presses and its fume cupboard over the acid bath, the black towel hanging on its hook in the corner.
It was (and still is) a light and orderly place, separate from the busy sculpture studios where anything went – clay, plaster, steel, paper, junk…. In the printroom we were initiated into a practice, shown some of the long-established tricks of the printmaker’s craft: filing the edges of the plate so that it would roll smoothly through the press without damaging the paper or the blankets, dabbing the ground on to the heated plate, using a feather to brush away the bubbles that formed on the plates while the acid did its work, lifting the dampened printing paper with little folds of card to keep it clean of finger marks. Everything had an air of long and careful use. And the thrill of turning the huge wheel of the press to roll the paper through and then lifting it off the plate to see how the image looked was addictive. The process has a slow rhythm to it, requiring focus and consistency, everything done in the right order, contributing to a sense of ritual, almost monastic, a timeless space dedicated to one activity.
The print studio I go to now is not so venerable, relatively recently set up in a newish building in the midst of an industrial estate, behind a tyre shop, above a signage company. But once you are in it the same kind of atmosphere prevails, the smell of turps and printing ink, the bundles of inky scrim used for inking up, and the presses waiting.
So, on Friday, I had two plates nearly ready to be etched and printed – I had been resisting the temptation all week (‘must get some work done first’). One is the largest plate I’ve worked on since art school and the other is a first attempt at a soft ground etching.
Last week, Bill, the experienced printmaker who runs the studio, demonstrated how to put on the soft ground, a waxy layer which protects the plate from the acid (or in this case, ferric nitrate). You can impress textures into the ground, or draw into it through tracing paper and the wax is pulled off when you take off the tracing paper. I had attempted the latter, tracing a quick life drawing. Where the ground comes away, the acid will bite the plate. It is the grooves and erosions created by the acid that hold the ink when you wipe it off the rest of the plate. Hard ground is like soft ground but harder (surprise, surprise), so you draw directly into it with sharp metal scribing tools, creating crisp, fine lines. I had already stopped out the backs of the plates (to prevent the ferric from eating them away) and, after a few dabs more stop-out on the edges, they went into the tray of brown ferric solution (no feathers this time as this etching reaction makes a solid rather than a gas – the plates have to go in facing down to let it drop off instead of face up to let the gas escape). Fifteen minutes or so – it looks ok, the exposed copper has gone a bit grey – clean off the ground and the stop-out and it’s ready to make a print…
It turned out the soft ground had only come off where I had pressed my hardest in the tracing so the print is pretty faint and minimal, but it’s a start. I may try an aquatint to add tone, or redraw it as I’ve still got the tracing to work from. The hard ground worked quite well though, so I’m looking forward to making an edition of sleeping whippets soon. (I have not yet worked out how you decide how many to print.)
Oh, and when I got home and checked my email, I had a ‘yes’ from one thing (a painting selected for a regional open exhibition, which is pleasing) and a ‘no’ from the other – which of course I really didn’t want to do anyway…
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts