Tag: aquatint

Printmaking 101: Applying Rosin for Aquatint (Using a Rosin Box)

Printmaking 101: Applying Rosin for Aquatint (Using a Rosin Box)

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.

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:

aquatint box design and diagram by Annamie Pretorius (AKA inugie).

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

    3M 8511 Particulate N95 Respirator. This mask is approved for non-oil-based particulates. Rosin is not oil-based, so we're good to go.
    3M 8511 Particulate N95 Respirator. This mask is approved for non-oil-based particulates (like rosin).
  4. 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.

    Heather McLaughlin fixing jammed blades in a rosin box. It's messy!
    Heather McLaughlin fixing jammed blades in a rosin box. The whitish powder all over her clothes and hair is rosin.
  5. Wait around 30-45 seconds. The heaviest (and thus largest) particles will fall in this time. Do the next step while you wait.
  6. 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.)

    Plate set-up for inserting in a rosin box.
    Plate set-up for inserting in a rosin box. If you look carefully, you will see that the backing board is set on a piece of newsprint. This is to minimize the spread of rosin powder around the studio.
  7. 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.

    Get it in and shut the door.
    If you move too fast, you might accidentally slide your plate off the backing. Close the door quickly, but gently; slamming it can result in clumps of rosin falling on your plate.
  8. 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.
  9. 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:
      1. 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.
      2. 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.
      3. 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.)

    This is about right. It could be a little heavier, but I wouldn't suggest any lighter.
    This is about right. It could be a little heavier, but I’m satisfied.
  10. 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.)

    Whew! Getting the plate safely from the rosin box to the hot rack is the trickiest part.
    Whew! Getting the plate safely from the rosin box to the hot rack is the trickiest part. If you tilt the plate too much, breathe on it, or walk by a good draft, the rosin will move and clump on the plate.
  11. 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).

    If you have rosin on your hands, remember that it's flammable.
    If you have rosin on your hands, remember that it’s flammable.
  12. 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.

    This shows the movement pattern that I typically follow.
    This shows the movement pattern that I typically follow: back and forth, then side to side, repeat.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.

Bonfire on Fiesta Island

Today, I’m sharing a little  print that I never posted in its finished state (though I did post an early proof). I didn’t share the finished version here because I intended to surprise my friend Rachelle with it for her birthday, but I missed the mark on that one: I posted it to Flickr, where she saw it (and shared it on Facebook) before the actual print made it to her doorstep–after her birthday. Ah, the folly: I posted it on Flickr because I didn’t think she would see it there, and I rather like this print and wanted to share it. I should know by now that I’m no good at keeping quiet about things like this. Next time, I won’t try to surprise.

Bonfire on Fiesta Island, 3.75″ x 5.5″ (plate size), etching with aquatint, 2012.

As you can see from the watermark, it’s on Magnani Revere paper. I like their smooth option (“silk” in their product nomenclature) for printing fine aquatints and detailed lines. I knew, after producing two states of this print using line work only, that it needed aquatint. I also knew that it needed some sparkle in the sky and in the crackling sparks from the fire.

In following the sage advice of Sarah Horowitz, I applied rosin to the plate in two stages. First, I applied an even, thick coat of fine particles using an aquatint box. Second, I hand-dusted a smattering of mixed-size particles over the sky and fire using a rosin bag. The variation in particle size resulted from breaking the big lumps of rosin down using a hammer. It was the first time I tried using a rosin bag, and it was fun.

Melting had me feeling a little nervous: I was concerned that the larger pieces would take too long to stick, and that the smaller particles would puddle out. It all worked out beautifully, however. In printmaking, the first time I try anything usually works out well–it’s the second attempt I usually muddle through and wind up having to re-do. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t had another go at the rosin bag since finishing this one in May.

Sketch for "Bonfire on Fiesta Island"
My (very) rough sketch for “Bonfire on Fiesta Island”

I developed the image from a sketch, began in the half-dark of late evening. In February, I went to visit my friend Rachelle in San Diego, to see a little slice of her life and her apartment before she moved back to Las Vegas, where I never visit if I can reasonably avoid it. My first night there, we drove out to the fire pits on Fiesta Island for an impromptu gathering. Rachelle and I got there first, to secure our fire pit, and her friends followed with some dumpstered Ikea furniture, scraps of wood, and a cake.

The more abstract and exuberant lines are all I had time for, before stowing my sketchbook in favor of actual participation. Later, the next morning I think, I fleshed it out from memory (if you can even call that sparse, messy thing “fleshed out”). While I enjoyed all the time I spent in San Diego (and all the food–I had the good sense to schedule my visit during Restaurant Week), I think the bonfire was my favorite event. I so rarely gather outdoors around a fire in Portland, and there is something delicious and magical about watching fire consume something like that. And, of course, the beach was much more hospitable and sunny than our gloomy Oregon coasts, even in February, with semi-overcast skies.

Lately I’ve been doing prep work for the evening class I’m helping to teach with Heather McLaughlin, editioning prints I’ve already shared, and doing a good deal of reading and writing. I’m working my way through The Accelerating Universe by Mario Livio (some parts are harder for me to work through than others, I confess) and Art & Physics by Leonard Shlain, which has been on my “to read” list for several years. Oh, and the PAN Emerging Printmakers Residency program is finished, and the show might actually go on, despite the currently uncertain location of Print Arts Northwest itself.

Kmotřička Smrt – First edition of 2012

Kmotřička Smrt by H. L. Birdsong

This print was conceived for a print exchange organized by the proprietor of Santa Lucia Press here in Portland, Oregon.  The theme was “V.S.”, and could be interpreted as verses or versus.  Many of the folk tales I’ve been reading are about a common man’s wits against the wiles of a supernatural being, whether god, the devil or a culturally-specific creature that occupies a morally ambiguous (and therefore much more human) place.  One story, about a peasant man and Death (Smrt in Czech), caught my interest; it’s a gentler tale than many of the stories I’ve read recently.

Many–let’s say most–of my prints begin with stories.  This edition is no different, so let me share the story with you.  I have my own way of telling it, but since this blog is full of writing and not speaking, I will share the story as I first read it in that magical old fairy tale book that I stumbled across at Powell’s back in November.

You can read the text in a digitized book form HERE, or in plain text form after the jump.  I broke the text in a few places, for ease of reading.

Continue reading “Kmotřička Smrt – First edition of 2012”

New item: Buffalo Jump

I just listed a new item on my Smidgeon Press Etsy shop.  I made this print a few years ago, and have been meaning to get it up for sale on Etsy since I opened my store.  I only have two (make that one!) of these left for sale; it was printed in an edition of five, and four of them belong to others already.

Buffalo Jump etching with aquatint and spitbite

The subject matter for this print is a little dark, but that’s not unusual in my work.  I find that I keep coming back to the theme of death and mourning.  This is, after all, why I have a tattoo on my chest styled after a piece of Victorian memento mori jewelry.  The rhythm of life is steadily interrupted by deaths, sometimes shockingly unexpected, and sometimes expected.  The truth is that death is part of the rhythm of life, for what meaning would life have without it?

This is one of my favorite pieces that I have made.  I’ve always intended to revisit these plates and experiment with them, push them further and maybe incorporate some tedious chine collé into another edition.  But when I look at the plates, I find it hard to start on them again.  They are heavy with history.

Though it is that very heaviness, the weight of sincerity, that makes this beautiful for me.

So, here it is, up for sale, at a bargain of a price for all the effort and emotion that went into it.