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.
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:
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!
The owner of the gallery where I worked never loved the business side of running the place and wanted to just be an artist again. Who can blame him? The director/curator has an opportunity to work more intensely with digital media art (her particular field of interest) in Bordeaux, France. Who wouldn’t want to try that? So I no longer work at a gallery, and it was a sad day when I relinquished my key.
At almost at the same moment when I found out about the decision to close the gallery, I received an offer for a very different kind of job. I couldn’t turn it down. I also couldn’t leave the gallery with only two months left. There was a lot to do that fell under my jurisdiction: press releases and e-mails to write, mailings to design and send, social media to manage, the website to update. I wanted those things done right, our farewells heartfelt and carefully managed. So I negotiated to keep working at the gallery and took the new job. I may have spread myself a bit thin. It was emotional and exhausting.
I hope that, now that the gallery is closed and the work I have left to do marginal, I will have time once again to work on my art and update my blog.
Working at a gallery, and being an artist in general, requires that you ask people to spend money on objects that are in no way necessary for life. Art feeds the soul, and shapes human culture (no small thing, that!), but it does not feed bellies or build houses. I believe that the buying of original art is important, even if the “gallery system” is flawed. It’s easier and more accessible to buy art than most people realize.
It’s something we talked a lot about toward the end, as the date of closure drew near. Our last show, the grand finale, consisted of process murals painted throughout the exhibition directly on the gallery walls. The work was the work in progress, unfinished until the last two days. It could not leave the space and would end as we left. We let that be our final note. Interpret it as you will.
From all this work work work the last few months, I managed to earn some extra money, and I bought myself some art. I plucked it off the wall of a store specializing in mid-century modern furniture, and I’m very pleased with it. It’s one of those things that I had to have, that I was afraid I’d think of longingly and regretfully forever if I didn’t buy. (There is another work I had a similar reaction to that I did not buy, and I do indeed still think of it.)
Leonard Baskin is one of my favorite artists. His art books have had a huge influence on me. Look at this print (try to ignore the glare from the glass): isn’t it wonderful? I love it. It’s hanging on my wall, to my left when I’m sitting on my bed. Owning it feels like a small triumph.