The annual Southern Graphics Council International Conference is happening right here in Portland, Oregon from March 31 through April 2, 2016. Even if you aren’t a member of SGCI and aren’t officially attending the conference, many events are free and open to the public – including a few exhibitions I’m involved with: two as exhibitor and one as curator.
Iteration includes work by ten PNCA professors, staff and alumni. Mastery/Emergence features work by PAN members and Emerging Printmakers Residency graduates. The exhibition I curated at Upfor, Variable States: Prints Now, considers the intersection of printmaking and technology through work by eight artists from all over the United States.
Iteration: printmaking pop-up
March 31 – April 2, 2016
Reception March 31, 6:00–8:00pm
Hand-Eye Supply: 427 NW Broadway, Portland, OR
Mastery/Emergence: PAN Members & Emerging Printmakers
March 30 – June 1, 2016
Reception April 1, 5:00–8:00pm
ECOpdx: 2289 N Interstate, Portland, OR
Variable States: Prints Now
March 3 – April 9, 2016
SGCI NW Gallery Walk: March 31, 6:00–8:00pm
Artist talk: Brenna Murphy & Alyson Provax
Saturday, April 2 at 2:00pm
Upfor: 929 NW Flanders Street, Portland, OR
I will mediate the conversation between Brenna Murphy and Alyson Provax, centered around the co-evolution of printmaking and digital media, and how that relates to their respective practices. Murphy, working primarily in digital media, uses 2D and 3D printing and computer-aided design to manifest her ideas. Provax works in letterpress, silkscreen and etching; she recently began using these techniques to create animated gifs and digital video works.
Printmaking requires a harmonious balance between detail-oriented analytical thinking and big-picture creativity. It is meditative and does more to stretch out the kinks in my psyche than anything else I’ve ever tried. I am basking in the immense relief of getting my (tiny) home print studio set up and functioning.
Finding balance between my full-time job, my creative practice and my relationships is a constant work in progress, as it is for many. Lately my creative practice has suffered. With no looming deadline before me, it was easy to push aside in favor of other responsibilities (and, I admit, things that offer instant gratification). But one of my challenges, if I’m being fair to myself, is the space and equipment that printmaking requires. My partner and I share a one-bedroom apartment near Forest Park. It’s beautiful and quiet, but it is small and a little tucked away from convenient lines of public transit.
Traveling to a membership-based print studio proved ineffective. The time it took to get across the river, do some work, and get back again didn’t leave me enough time to spend with my partner, get a good night’s sleep, or even have a proper dinner (by which I mean something other than a slice of pizza).
I tried dedicating myself to drawing – one ought to do it every day. But drawing just to draw, without anything else, felt like an endless parade of unfinished work. I like to draw, but it’s a problem-solving thing for me, not an end in itself. Starting and stopping there felt frustrating and pointless, even as I subjected myself to internal lectures about the importance of practice.
Last month, I pulled my mini press out of its box and dusted it off. Printing intaglio with a tiny press is challenging. It requires an intense amount of pressure to push damp cotton fibers into the fine lines etched, scratched or carved into the plate’s surface. Little presses require elbow grease and often some funky workarounds (your edges had better be well-filed). But I always say that printmaking is creative problem-solving, so I set out to solve my creative problem (wink, nudge). Once I did, I requested a couple of days off from work to get my studio set up.
I bought an electric griddle with adequately low temperature settings (I didn’t expect it to be quite so onerous) to use as an inking plate and carved out a space in our apartment for wetting, blotting and drying. Yesterday I got everything set up; today I printed. I finally editioned a little plate I made in 2012. Tomorrow I will glide into work with much greater peace of mind.
If you use a tiny press for intaglio, I’d love to hear about it – the make, model, and any modifications that were required to coax it into putting out reliable prints.
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 requiremorehandiwork. 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.
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, carefullyremove 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.
This is one of my preparatory sketches and early concepts from my undergraduate thesis at PNCA. If you click on the image to see the larger version, you can read my note that says, “Needs some kind of border,” which ultimately directed the format I used for Stories From the Stone House. I like this sketch, but it didn’t fit with other images from the suite as the aesthetic of the project developed. Still, it kind of nagged at me that I didn’t have a use for this.
This is where keeping sketchbooks came in handy: a couple of years later (this year), when I needed something for a print exchange and felt like I had too many ideas to focus, I flipped through a few of my sketchbooks, and came across this again.
“A-ha!” I thought, “finally, a use for this.”
The title is a quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita. It’s a difficult book for me to read because the first part of it feels so gnawingly familiar; and Humbert Humbert, that horrible raconteur, reminds me of a monster I once knew (though my monster was not half so charming or intelligent). The quote I used is from later in the novel, when H. H. has a moment of realization: that Lolita is an individual, and that she has depths that he did not and could never know about. It’s one of the only places in the novel where her abuser sees her as an actual human being and not just a fetish object. It’s a razor thin moment where the balance of power becomes skewed between them, and one feels a shred of hope for Lolita, for the internal life she might live, because her exterior life is so unrelentingly terrible.
But it’s not a resolute thing. Lolita is never given her own voice, and we are left to guess at and interpret who she is between the lines of H. H.’s lyrical expression of his pathetic self-justifications and illicit desires. Those are the things in that story that most disturb me: the things that readers cannot know. It is a story about her abuser’s version of her, so much so that the title isn’t even actually her name, but the nickname he bestowed on her – an act that completely erases her identity. Who remembers what her “real” name is?
All these complex ideas about storytelling, perspective, identity, and power seemed appropriate for the print exchange. The theme is Gray Area.
For the initial etch, I used a carelessly treated but new copper plate, coated with a thin layer of ball ground and drawn through pretty thoroughly. I wanted it to be dark and rough.
My print, I fear, is a clumsy translation of the sketch. After pulling the first proof, I scraped, burnished, and scratched into the plate using drypoint.
I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with the image yet, but I ran down to the deadline for the exchange and had to print and mail it. I’m not sure that I’d get anything finished if I didn’t find or make deadlines to meet! This is the second state, the first to be editioned:
I think it’s safe to say that you can expect a third state, and even a fourth. This plate seems to want a lot of work, and I’m willing to dedicate myself to nitpicking and fine-tuning it. If it comes out at all well, I’m sure you’ll see it later.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.