The Exhilaration of the First Print

Today, my one day off every week that I get to spend with Daniel, provided some much-needed rest, complete with breakfast in bed, followed by visits to Reading Frenzy and Powell’s. A few days ago I was complaining to Daniel that I didn’t feel focused, and he pointed out that I am working three jobs, one of which is unpaid (though not without compensation), in addition to trying to keep up on making art.

The unpaid job might be the one that is most rewarding. Thursday was an exciting day for me; I hope it was for the students in the class as well. They arrived in the morning with their homework: copper plates covered in ground, drawn through and ready to go into the etchant. As Tom observed, there was not one timid drawer in the bunch. They each came with something varied, lovely and unique.

So the plates went into the acid – or, to be precise, the ferric chloride. While their plates were getting etched, Tom pulled out his old jars of powdered pigments to show the students how to make their own ink. I love this part, even though no one ever makes their own ink ever again. The experience is richer, I think, when one understands all the parts: where pigment comes from, how it binds to oil, what the physical process of mulling ink is. Less romantically, after taking the time and effort to mix ink, the perfection of a quality industrially-produced ink seems more valuable.

The real fun was watching them pull their first prints. I was all over the place, telling them how to handle and blot the wet paper, helping them figure out which side was the correct side to print on, and reminding them not to forget the newsprint to help keep the felt from getting dirty or too wet. I watched as each student timidly turned the giant wheel of the Ray Trayle press (Tom said that students sometimes feel like they’re steering the school like a ship when they turn it), pulled back the felt, and peeled their very first print from their very first etched plate. A well-made print is so satisfying! And seeing, for the first time, the drawing you spent time on turned backwards makes it seem new and different. Sometimes, not even what you expected.

Everyone did remarkably well for their first try: no over-wiping, very little plate tone, and they even did a great job pitching in to clean up. Tom fielded questions, helped get fresh prints into the blotters, and encouraged them to begin relying on one another to answer questions: feedback and help from your peers in the print studio is one of the greatest things artists can get out of sharing space.

All in all, the day was incredibly successful. Part of me wishes I had taken some pictures to share, but I was too busy living in the moment. Which, after all, is a pretty good place to be.

Next week: aquatint! I am going to introduce them to Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War and Max Klinger’s graphic works. Goya is often considered the “father” of the aquatint process. Klinger is probably my favorite printmaker, and I discussed his graphic work and philosophy about printmaking in my thesis. His work does not seem to be widely known in America; finding good books about him in English is difficult, so I am glad I have one to share.


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