October 17 through November 15, 2014
Photo & Print Gallery at PNCA’s main campus
1241 N.W. Johnson St., Portland, OR 97209
Reception with the artist: Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014, from 6-8 p.m.
Where do math and metaphor meet? In this body of work, which includes a fine press book and etchings, printmaker Heather Lee Birdsong pairs the crisp visual language of planar geometry with folk tales. The application of metaphor (mathematically expressed as x = y) is a powerful associative tool that can unite otherwise unrelated elements.
This project was funded in part by an Individual Artist Project Grant awarded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
Here’s a sneak preview of some of the work:
Welcome to Printmaking 101 with Smidgeon Press! This demo covers applying rosin to copper plate to create aquatint etchings, using a rosin box. This is Part 1 of 2, of my aquatint tutorial. Safety tips are bolded because they’re important!
Aquatint is a way of working with tone, so you don’t have to rely only on lines and step-biting to create variations in darkness on your plate (though Rembrandt never used aquatint, and some contemporary artists like DeAnn Prosia don’t either). Essentially, we’re going to cover a copper plate with teeny-tiny little specks of (in this case) rosin that will act as a stop-out (something that prevents the mordant from etching a particular area of the plate). This will allow an infinitesimal number of little pockets to get bitten (etched) into the plate, creating little “cups” where ink can stick during the printing process. How deep those cups are will determine how light or dark the tone will print, because deeper cups will hold more ink and shallower cups will hold less. With me so far? (This is usually where my new students give me a glazed look accompanied by some vague nods.) This is involved process, so bear with me.
Rosin is a natural substance: purified sap of pine trees. You can buy it as lump rosin, then pulverize it for use in aquatint (using a good old-fashioned mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder–either way, dedicate them to the purpose; do not share food preparation items with your studio). While it is classified as non-hazardous, powdered rosin is dangerous to breathe in–it’s fine if you touch it, but the second it gets moist, it becomes intensely sticky. You can imagine the damage it will do in the moisture-rich, delicate tissues of your lungs, so wear a dust mask and eye protection when working with powdered rosin. Rosin can be cleaned up while dry by thoroughly dusting surfaces. When damp and sticky or melted, you will have to use denatured alcohol. Printmakers interested in non-toxic processes often eschew rosin for these reasons. You can read about methods for making aquatints without rosin here.
A rosin box (sometimes called an aquatint box) is a piece of equipment used to evenly coat entire plates with rosin powder. I prefer using a rosin box because of how smoothly the rosin can be applied (and thus how even the tone in finished prints). I’m using a paddle-driven box, so there is no electricity required–just elbow grease. Fan-dispersed rosin boxes are also popular, but sometimes the fan blades get gummy and stick after a while. If you want to make your own, plans abound online, from super low-fi to ones that require more handiwork. Here is a visual diagram:
As you can see, the box has a flap on the front that opens. This is how you will insert and remove your plate. Inside, there is a rack; this is what your plate will rest on. Below that, there is a paddle system that can be turned by a hand crank. The box I’m using functions on the same principle.
There are other methods of applying rosin to your plate, of course. Francisco de Goya applied powdered rosin by hand. He used variability in the size of rosin particles and areas of application to great effect (see: Los Caprichos). You can find a nice tutorial on that process over at Wretched Etching.
Supplies for this demo:
- well-degreased copper plate
- dust mask
- goggles/eye protection
- disposable, solvent-resistant gloves (like nitrile)
- apron/protective clothing
- denatured alcohol
- shop rags
- aquatint box (with powdered rosin inside)
- backing board, larger than your plate (masonite works well; plastics have too much static)
- extra piece of copper, bent in an “L”
- hot rack/cooling rack with adequate space below
- single-burner propane stove and matches (or reliable hot plate set at 250ºF)
Let’s get to it:
- First, make sure your plate is well and thoroughly clean and degreased. Anything on the surface of your plate (including fingerprints and solvent residue) with affect how the rosin melts to your plate.
- Be courteous! If you’re in a shared studio, make sure the rosin box is not already in use. If someone else’s plate is already in there, turning the crank will make a real mess of their plate. Peek inside if you’re not sure. If someone else is planning to use it at the same time and your rosin box is large enough to accommodate multiple plates, you can coordinate the next steps.
- Put on your protective gear: dust mask without question; for extra safety/sensitivities: apron, goggles and gloves. Remember, powdered rosin is dangerous to inhale and potentially harmful for any moist tissue. It is also messy, hard to clean up, and will dry out your skin.
- Make sure the rosin box is tightly closed, then crank the hell out of that handle (nicely). Be sure to turn it in the correct direction; mostare designedto function well in one direction only. If you turn it the wrong way, the fan blades can get stuck, and then you’ll have a real mess to deal with.
- Wait around 30-45 seconds. The heaviest (and thus largest) particles will fall in this time. Do the next step while you wait.
- Set your “L” piece of copper down on the backing board, then set your plate on top of the “L”. The lip that sticks up will allow you to pick up your plate later. You want to set your plate on backing board, rather than directly on the rosin box’s rack, because the powdered rosin will wind up being thinner at the edges of your plate if you don’t do this. (There is a great principle of physics in this, but I do not have the math for it. If anyone wants to explain it in the comments, though, I would love that.)
- This is kind of tricky: the goal is to set your plate (and backing) inside carefully while acting quickly. As soon as you open the door, a could of rosin will waft out, and it will keep wafting out as long as that door is open and there is rosin to fall. You want it landing on your plate, not all over the studio! Carefully open the rosin box and pop your plate setup inside, ASAP.
- Leave your plate in for at least 4 minutes, and not more than 10 minutes. Leaving it in longer won’t hurt it, of course, but if other people are waiting to use the box, waiting longer is discourteous. You can remove your mask, etc. while you wait, but you will need to put them back on.
- Put your protective gear back on (if you removed them). Carefully open the door a crack andpeek in. If a lot of rosin is still wafting around, close the door and wait a couple more minutes. If the rosin is completely or nearly done falling, look at your plate. If it looks pretty evenly coated, move on. It should have a dense but smooth layer of rosin on it. Thereshould be no obvious clumps and no bits of shiny copper showing through. Troubleshooting:
- If the coating is too heavy (i.e., there are distinctive, irregular clumps of rosin or you can’t even see your plate), reach in and knock it all off your plate, then take your plate out. Clean it well with denatured alcohol (3 times), and start over.
- If the coating is too light (i.e., you can see too much copper), carefully remove your plate setup, remembering to close the door, and repeat from step 4. This can happen if you wait too long to insert your plate or if the rosin box is getting low.
- If the coating is just right, carefully remove your plate setup, remembering to close the door. Use the “L” piece to gently pick up your plate and slide a hand under. DO NOT TILT, JOSTLE, or BREATHE ON your plate (this is when that dusk mask is useful for something other than its intended purpose). That rosin powder is very fine, and this is the most delicate part of this operation. It’s VERY EASY to screw it all up, so be patient and careful. (Before removing my plate, I will turn off all fans, A/C, and cover any vents that blow air in my path, because I’m a perfectionist.)
- Walk your plate over to the hot/cooling rack (thisshould not be inclose proximity to the rosin box, which is kind a bummer, but necessary). Very carefully place your rosin-covered plate on the rack. Try to avoid “sliding” it, because that movements seemsto be where people tend to mess it up. (Alternatively, you can set your plate on your pre-heated hot plate, but make sure to have a good plan for how you will lower it on to thehotplate, and how you will remove it without burning yourself.)
- Rosin is flammable, and we’re about to light a fire. Exercise caution. Remove your gloves (if you’re wearing them). Grab the propane stove and matches. Turn the gas on low and light it. Slowly turn the gas up until you just start to see a few orange flames lick up out of the ring of blue flame (the orange flameshould not be consistent).
- Holding the flame 2-4 inches below your plate, carefully and slowly move the flame around so that your plate gets heated evenly. Copper is a great conductor, but it should still take a couple of minutes (or more, depending on the size of your plate). Make sure your movements are steady and consistent; I follow a set pattern as I move around. Make sure you are actually reaching your whole plate, too; beginners often don’t move the flame far enough away from or close enough to their bodies,in relation to their plates. Side-to-side is less of an issue.
- While you carefully move the flame around, watch your plate. When the rosin melts, it will flash from whitish-yellow to clear. When it flashes clear, move the flame away and turn off the propane.
- The copper will be hot. Let your plate cool for around 15 minutes, or however long it takes to cool down enough that you won’t burn yourself when you touch it. The rosin, once melted to the surface of your plate, won’t be nearly as delicate as when it’s just powder, but you should still handle your plate carefully.
- You are now ready to etch aquatint (tone) into your plate.
Next up: step-biting an aquatint! I decided to divide the application of rosin and the actual etching of the aquatint into separate tutorials. While they are both steps in the same process, each part contains a lot of detailed steps and information. Please check back for updates. It will likely take me 3-6 weeks to get that new tutorial written. I’m sorry to leave you hanging, but you can send me encouragement via the “Thanks!” button below. Until then, happy printing.
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Welcome to Printmaking 101 with Smidgeon Press! This demo will walk you through how to make plate carriers using a few readily available materials. Safety tips are bolded because they’re important!
You have prepared and grounded your etching plate. You worked hard to get it ready, so how do you take it home or out into the field to draw without damaging the plate or the waxy ground? You could just wrap it in newsprint or drawing paper and toss it in a bag, but if anything rubs too hard against or pokes the paper, you may wind up with unintended texture on your plate known as foul-biting. Some printmakers prefer the rough randomness of this approach, but not me – I spent time getting that plate to a pretty polish, and I want to maintain control over my final image.
When I took advanced etching and lithography at PNCA, Yoshihiro Kitai showed us a simple way to keep our plates in great shape while carrying them around. Over the years, I’ve modified somewhat what he initially showed me. For every plate, I make a carrying case specifically cut to fit it, and I label each case with the working title of whatever it holds. This is helpful when I’m shuffling through carriers looking for a specific plate to work on (I’ve accumulated plenty of these by now, all in process or waiting to be editioned).
Supplies for this demo:
- copper plate
- 3 pieces of scrap mat board, larger than your plate
- 3/4″ artist tape
- cutting surface (I suggest investing in a proper cutting board)
- utility or X-Acto knife - be careful when using
- optional: burnisher or bone folder
- Measure your plate. You will want your mat board piecesto be larger. For small plates (6″ x 9″ or less), you can get away with ~1″ all around (so 8″ x 11″minimum for a 6″ x 9″ plate). For larger plates, I suggest at least 2″.
- Choose a mat to be your center piece and set the other two aside for now. Place your plate in the middle and trace around it with a pencil. Because plates aren’t always perfect, I will usually note “top” and “bottom”. Set your plate aside.
- Using the X-Acto knife and ruler, cut out the shape of the plate. Make sure you cut on a surface that is safe to cut into, and mind where your fingers are. I err on cutting to the outside of my pencil line. Cutting inside it can result in a hole that istoo snug. Pop out the center piece and set it aside.
- Grab one of the other pieces of mat. Line it up with the one you just cut to see how they will fit together. Trim edges to line up snugly if needed. Make sure you can still see your “top” and “bottom” marks.
- Cut a piece of artist tape is roughly 1/2″ longer than any one side of your mat’s outer edge. Lay it down on that edge, so that its lengthis centered to the mat, and a little more than half of its width hangs off the bottom. Carefully and snugly wrap the tape around the two mats, pressing all three sides carefully with your fingers (or burnisher, or bone folder). Repeat for all sides.
- Now you need to seal the inside of the frame too. Otherwise, your plate can slip between the two pieces of mat, which can cause unwanted scratching and gouging. Cut lengths of tape that are narrower than the inside lip of your frame mat, then apply them to each inside edge. I try to avoid letting the tape overlap.
- Now to attach the cover mat! Line up your cover mat with the backed frame you’ve just made. Wrap a piece of tape around the top edge, just like you did to seal the outside edges of the frame mats. Now it’s a functional carrier.
- Optional: Lay the carrier open, and apply a piece of tape over the hinge, to cover the sticky side of the tape that shows between the two mats. I like to do this for mats I know I’ll be opening and closing a lot.
- Optional but strongly recommended: Wrap pieces of tape around the three edges, right in the middle. The carrier can come open very easily if stored vertically (as in tossing it into a backpack). I will stick pieces of tape to the front side, to give the tape “straps” somewhere to stick that is still easy to peel open again.
Now you are ready to take your plate with you wherever you go–perhaps for some plein air drawing directly on your plate? If you’re new to etching, I highly recommend giving some plein air etching a try. It can be intimidating, but it seems to really encourage students to broaden their mark-making and think differently about composition. Heather McLaughlin and I took our CE etching students on a field trip to the Lan Su Chinese Garden for exactly that purpose. It’s one of my favorite places in Portland. It feels magically isolated from the city around it, and the tea house is a real treat. Enjoy!
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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure and expense of attending (for the first time) the Southern Graphics Council International conference. It was all rather quick and full, and I really didn’t take many photos. I was blissfully caught up the multitudinous moments, and thus the very best things are documented only in memory.
Rather than write a post about my experiences (though I may yet sit down to do my experience a proper service word-wise), here are the photos I took (with one exception) during my three-day, whirlwind tour of SGCI San Francisco.
The Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado has scholarships available to help artists interested in attending their summer workshops in printmaking, painting and drawing to access these opportunities. ARAC has accommodations and meal options available to attending artists.
Workshops aren’t listed through my Calls & Contests page (unless there’s a special exhibition attached), so you won’t find this info there. After the jump I list the ARAC workshops I would attend if I could.