Tag: how to

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.

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Printmaking 101: How to Make an Etching Plate Carrier

Printmaking 101: How to Make an Etching Plate Carrier

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
  • ruler
  • cutting surface (I suggest investing in a proper cutting board)
  • utility or X-Acto knife – be careful when using
  • pencil
  • optional: burnisher or bone folder

Step-by-step instructions:

    1. 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″.

      Three mats, a ruler, utility knife, cutting surface, acid-free tape, and your plate.
      Supplies to make a plate carrier.
    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.

      Trace around your plate, marking where you will cut a hole.
      Trace around your plate, marking where you will cut a hole.
    3. 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.

      I cut to the outside edge of my pencil line.
      I cut to the outside edge of my pencil line.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

      Tape all four edges like so, trimming extra tape from the sides.
      Tape all four edges like so, trimming extra tape from the sides.
    6. 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.

      Taping the inside edge will keep the plate from slipping between the mats when stored vertically. You could also just apply an even layer of glue around the edge of the frame mat, but then you'd have to wait for the glue to dry.
      Taping the inside edge will keep the plate from slipping between the mats when stored vertically. You could also just apply an even layer of glue between the mats, but then you’d have to wait for the glue to dry.
    7. 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.

      Wrap tape around the top edge of your mats, as they will sit when closed. You can stop here, or make a super-duper-awesome mat by continuing on to the next steps.
      Wrap tape around the top edge of your mats, as they will sit when closed. You can stop here, or make a super-duper-awesome mat by continuing on to the next steps.
    8. 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.

      Applying tape to the sticky inside of the tape hinge will prolong the life of the carrier and make it easier to open.
      Applying tape to the sticky inside of the tape hinge will prolong the life of the carrier and make it easier to open.
    9. 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.
      My finicky, effective method of using tape closures on my etching plate carriers.
      My finicky, effective method of using tape closures on my etching plate carriers.

      Ta-da! All ready to go.
      Ta-da! All ready to go.

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!

 

 

Printmaking 101: Preparing a Plate: Bevel, Polish, Degrease

This is the next installment of Printmaking 101 with Smidgeon Press. In this demo, I’ll take you through beveling, polishing, and degreasing a copper plate.

All photos for this demo were taken at Atelier Meridian.

Beveling and polishing a copper plate is probably my favorite bit of tedium in etching; it’s a way of getting to know the surface, and a place to start if one suffers from a dearth of ideas. For me, that’s part of the alchemical nature of etching: the process leads to inspiration. I always tell students who don’t know what they want to make to just start preparing a piece of copper, and something will come of it.

The repetitive, careful movements involved can be really tedious and boring for people, but I experience it as a form of meditation. Thinking of it as meditation, and more specifically as a way of getting to know the plate, helps make this necessary preparation enjoyable.

Supplies for this demo:

  • copper plate, cut to desired size
  • a few sheets of newsprint
  • double-cut flat metal hand file
  • piece of rubber drawer liner (optional, but very helpful)
  • 3-in-1 oil or similar
  • fine steel wool
  • 2000 grit sandpaper (nothing toothier will do)
  • sink with running water
  • whiting powder (A.K.A. calcium carbonate)
  • vinegar (optional: add a pinch of salt to the vinegar)
  • a couple of clean, lint-free shop rags (or soft paper towels if you must)

There are plenty of methods and approaches to preparing a piece of copper, but I’m going to show you mine. I like to polish my copper to a bright, smooth, shiny finish so that my plates have very little or no plate tone.

Set the copper on the drawer liner to help hold it in place. Some people use clamps, but clamps can damage the soft surface of the copper.

1. Start by beveling the edges of your plate. You want to give your plate a 45° bevel the whole way around. This makes it easier for the drum on the press to “jump” onto your plate. Heather McLaughlinlikens this to skateboarding: the press drum can’t ollie, so you need to give it a ramp. Keep in mind that the file’s teeth only work in one direction, so only use it in one direction (don’t see-saw it; you waste your energy and can hurt the file’s teeth). If the corners are sharp, file those a bit too, so that nothing on the plate will cut or pierce the paper when you print.

The angle I’m holding the file at in this image is a bit too steep; it should be closer to 45 degrees. (That’s what happens when I take my own photos while working.)

2. Once you have the edges nicely beveled, carefully brush all the copper shavings off of the surface of your plate and set aside that piece of rubber. Set down a clean piece of newsprint; it should be a few inches larger than your plate in all directions. Get your 3-in-1 oil and your fine steel wool.

3. Put a few drops of the oil on the plate (no more than a few drops!), and smear it around with your fingers. Note the direction of the grainof your plate. Pick up the steel wool and make smooth, even, straight strokes across the plate, in the same direction as the grain. Do this for at least five minutes. Fight the urge to make curved strokes or start/stop your strokes in the middle of the plate. Use light pressure; remember, you’re polishing a plate, not shaping it.

Just like wood, copper sheets have grain, and one should always* polish in the direction of the grain, not across it.

4. Using a lint-free rag or soft paper towel, pick up your copper and gently wipe any steel wool hairs from the surface. If you use pressure, those little hairs will scratch! You’ll notice a bunch of them clinging to the newsprint, too. You can either get a new piece for the next step, or simply turn that sheet over. Make sure there are no steel wool hairs on or around your plate before you go on.

5. Get a piece of 2000 grit sandpaper, cut to the size of your palm or slightly larger. Set your sandpaper down on the plate, lay your palm on it, and continue making straight, even strokes in the direction of the grain. After a minute, you should see the copper start to brighten and become more mirror-like. Some people insist that you need to add 3-in-1 oil to the plate for this part too, but I find that the very small amount of residue left from the steel wool is enough, and people who add oil usually add too much, which only makes a mess. Keep polishing with the 2000 grit sandpaper until the plate reflects a clear image, like a mirror.

Ta-Da! But I’m not quite done yet.

6. Now you’re ready to degrease the plate! Don’t skip this step: the oil on the surface will prevent your ground from adhering properly to the copper, which can result in foul-biting and/or flaking. Take that plate over to the sink and get your whiting and vinegar ready. (Many print shops add a small amount of salt to the vinegar as well. Add roughly 1 tbsp. salt to 4 cups of vinegar.)

whiting and vinegar, before mixing into paste

7. Put a little whiting and vinegar on the plate, in a ratio that will make a thin but not watery paste (only experience can tell you what the correct ratio is). Be careful not to inhale the powder or vinegar. Using a clean rag or sponge (or verywell-washed fingers, so there are no oils on your skin), mix the whiting and vinegar into a paste and work it over the whole plate in little, circular motions. Do this for at least a minute, or however long it takes you to go over the whole plate two or three times.

I use my fingers, but this is generally not a great idea because the natural oils in your skin can counter-act your efforts. Use a soft sponge or cloth.

8. Rinse with warm or hot water (you can’t get steak grease off your dishes using cold water, can you?). Hot water can oxidize copper, however, so be careful. If the copper has areas of oxidation (dark spots, not white; if it’s white, then you still have whiting on your plate), flush the plate with a little soy sauce. Seriously, it works like a charm. Just don’t leave vinegar or soy sauce sitting on your plate: they are acidic, and will start to affect your plate if left on for too long.

See how smoothly the water runs across the surface? That’s what you want.

9. Dry your plate off with a soft, clean cloth or paper towel. Now you are ready to ground your plate.

*As with everything in printmaking, there are exceptions to this rule.