back to topThe creative process in etching is by no means over once a plate has been made. Printing a plate involves numerous creative choices that will affect the appearance of the final print. Even though etching is often used for the production of limited editions, this does not mean that the printing process is merely a reproductive mechanism comparable to industrial printing. In etching, key stages that will determine the character of the print i.e. inking and wiping the plate are entirely in the hands of the artist.
15. Intaglio Printing
Blankets Setting up a registration sheet
Inking up the plate Preparing the paper
The etching ink Setting the pressure of the press
Blending and making up etching inks Printing
Inking up Press Safety
Wiping pads Drying the print
By regarding the printing stage as a creative one, the artist will greatly extend the expressive vocabulary of etching. Printing a plate that you have been engaged with for a period of time and through several processes, can be the most exciting part of the whole process.
The most essential pieces of equipment for intaglio printmaking are an etching press and a set of blankets. The function of the blankets is to make sure that the fibres of the damp paper are firmly pressed into all intaglio grooves thereby absorbing the ink as the plate moves through the press. If the plate and paper were run through the heavy rollers without the springy cushioning of the blankets, the paper would be torn and deep intaglio work would not register on the print. Conventionally the blankets are woven felt of varying thicknesses. Often a set of three blankets is used: a thick blanket known as swanskin facing the top roller and two thinner blankets called fronting that go underneath against the press bed. The blanket that is in contact with the paper should have a very fine weave so as to prevent any transfer of its texture onto the print. It is advantageous to use a set of felt blankets of the same size as this arrangement allows the blankets to be interchanged which reduces the build-up of moisture during editioning. As most etching papers contain a certain amount of seize blankets should be washed fairly regularly to keep them soft. Use a mild washing powder and fabric conditioner on the wool setting of a household washing machine.
Problems can occur when printing long thin plates. The fibres of the blanket expand and can be pushed forward during printing, causing warps to get trapped under the rollers which may result in the blanket being torn. For this reason printers often work with a second person straightening out the blankets while the press is in operation. Blankets can also be cut by plates that have not been sufficiently bevelled. A good set of blankets is expensive to replace so care is needed, especially in shared workshops.
The use of a foam blanket in conjunction with a sheet of vinyl interfacing as fronting material is a cheap and highly effective alternative to conventional blankets. These dense sheets of foam do not produce the tension problems of felt blankets and are just as suitable for printing a typical etching as a thick collagraph. One kind of foam found to be very well suited to printing is called K-tex. It should be of a thickness of 2 inches and a density of 38 ounces per cubic foot and can be obtained through foam and mattress wholesalers. The fronting material - sewing vinyl interfacing - is similarly inexpensive and available in fabric or needlecraft outlets. If this blanket combination is used on the etching press the pressure settings need to be somewhat tighter than for felt blankets and the sheet of interfacing should be replaced periodically with a dry piece during editioning to compensate for the build up of moisture.
Inking up the plate
The intaglio printing process is best conducted in a carefully laid out environment and in a methodical fashion. It is advisable to set up and organise all materials and facilities before you start inking up the plate.
Using etching inks is a rather messy affair! For this reason, old clothes and an apron should be worn. Try to be clean and organised when inking and wiping. Oil-based inks contain pigments and burnt linseed oil, and although they do not represent a major health hazard, should be handled sensibly. Do not allow inks to bake on a hot plate as carcinogenic fumes may be emitted. Inking and wiping can always be carried out cold, and instead of heating, the ink can be modified to make it easier to wipe. Frequent contact with etching ink can make your hands very dry and people with sensitive skin may experience rashes. For this reason it is always advisable to wear some form of hand protection and use a moisturising cream. The use of gloves also makes good sense for the messier part of the wiping process.
The etching plate is ready to be inked up after the mordant resistant covering has been removed from the back and a good bevel has been applied to all four edges. If metal plates look tarnished or show patches of rust or other residues from the etching process they can quickly be polished with a rag and a suitable metal polish such as Brasso. Make sure that no bits of tape or varnish are left on the back of the plate as these may produce unwanted embossing.
The etching ink
Etching ink is manufactured by numerous companies. Products often have particular properties such as being more or less easy to wipe, best for drypoint, warm or cold blacks etc. It is recommended to build up experience with a variety of inks, to get to know the character of the image they produce: Charbonnel black ink No 55985, for example, is known for producing a very deep black but being somewhat difficult to wipe. The innovative AKUA range of etching inks, by contrast, wipes extremely easily, making it very suitable for education and quick printing.
Etching ink usually comes in a tin and the required amount should be carefully (sparingly) skimmed off the surface with a spatula before being dispensed onto the mixing slab. Tinned inks can quickly dry up if the spatula is used for gouging rather than skimming and the surface of the ink should always be covered with plastic film or sprayed with anti-skin spray. It is now possible to buy etching ink in plastic tubes which can help prevent wastage and drying out.
Even though most inks can be used straight from the tin or tube it is in most cases recommended that the ink be modified with additives prior to printing. These additives, which can be either light copperplate oil or easy wipe, improve printing and wiping and speed up the drying time of the print. A few drops of light oil thoroughly blended into the ink will improve the ink retention in the deeply bitten areas and prevent the occurrence of a streaky plate tone. If a strong and even plate tone is desired - especially in color printing - the consistency of the ink should in this instance be such that it runs off the spatula in a long string rather than in lumps. Alternatively, a small amount of easy wipe will help speed up wiping. Here, more contrast is given to the print rather than tonality and care should be taken not to over wipe the plate.
Blending and making up etching inks
Artists may not want to restrict themselves to the etching ink manufacturers range of colors. Many hues can be produced by mixing and it is also common practice to tint black inks in a particular direction, for instance by adding some burnt umber to make it appear warmer. The darker colored inks, especially, can also print differently depending on how thickly/translucently they are used. An ink that looks warm black in its opaque form can become a reddish tint when printed as a thin film.
is also possible to make up your own etching ink from pigments and oil,
but it takes considerable experience and effort to make an ink which is
ground as well as a manufactured one. If you are going to make your own
ink, it is important to wear a dust mask to prevent inhalation of
Products and equipment needed to mix your own inks:
- mixing slab
- glass or marble muller
- 2 flexible palette knives
- medium and light copperplate oil (burnt linseed oil)
- vinyl gloves
- dust mask
Make up etching ink as follows:
- First dispense a small mound of pigment onto the slab. Create a well in the center.
- Add some linseed oil of medium viscosity. Heavy oil should only be used if very stiff ink is required or if the environment is very hot.
- Mix thoroughly using two palette knives in a paddling action.
- Gradually add more pigment and oil and mix continuously. A few drops of light oil can be added to the stiff mixture at this stage.
- When all dry particles and lumps have been absorbed into a uniform consistency which should drop off the knife as a viscous lump, the actual mulling process can begin.
- Scrape up the mass of mixed ink with a spatula and place it in one corner of the slab.
- Lay down a small amount at a time for mulling. Grasp the muller with both hands and move it backwards and forwards across the ink whilst exerting as much pressure as possible. This process is laborious and each small quantity of mixed ink needs considerable mulling before it becomes serviceable. If too large a quantity of ink is used the muller will fail to grind the ink and merely slide back and forth.
- Once all mulling has been done, wrap the ink in a sheet of plastic or in an airtight container. It is now ready to be modified for printing in the usual way.
METHOD Ink up as follows:
- Cover the entire plate surface with etching ink using a piece of card or rubber spatula. The aim is to squeegee the ink into the intaglio grooves as thoroughly as possible by dragging the card which is laden with a generous amount of ink gently across the plate. Excessive pressure should be avoided so as not to scratch the surface or damage delicate marks such as drypoint. The new waterbased inks wipe so easily that a lot less pressure is required than with oil based inks. Watch out not to over wipe plates with these soft inks!
- The first stage of inking up can be followed up by gently pushing the ink into the grooves with an inky pad of wiping scrim using a rotary motion.
- After ensuring that all grooves are sufficiently filled with ink any of the following processes can be used to remove ink from the plate surface.
Experienced printmakers may speed up the wiping process by using a piece of clean card to squeegee excess ink from the surface before scrim wiping.
The material most commonly used for wiping intaglio plates is called scrim or tarlatan. On a more improvised level, scrunched up pads of newsprint can also be used. Before use, cut up the scrim into sheets of a suitable size and remove any starchy coating by prewashing or rubbing against a hard edge to soften it. To make the material suitable for wiping it needs to be folded into a number of scrim pads or dollies. These are made by repeatedly folding in the corners of the scrim until an absorbent pad that fits into the palm of the hand is formed. Often a set of three scrim pads is used; one to carry out the heavy cleaning; the next for medium stage cleaning and the third is used when the plate is almost clean. Any scrim used in the later stages of wiping should have at least a small amount of ink on it as clean scrim tends to take too much ink out of the intaglio grooves.
Wiping is a matter of experience and most artists and printers will develop their own particular ways of carrying out this process; the following are some basic examples. Since wiping is an entirely manual process it is important to wipe the plate in a systematic and uniform way, usually without emphasising any particular area. Even though it is possible to achieve tonal differences by leaving varying amounts of ink in different areas of the plate the general idea of etching is to have the bitten work, its grooves and roughened areas, determine the tonality of the print rather than the wiping - otherwise it would be difficult to produce a consistent series of prints and the results may look patchy.
Wipe plates as follows:
Scrim wiping. Method 1:
One common method of wiping is to move across the plate from top to
bottom moving the scrim in a circular motion, without applying much
pressure. The bulk of the sticky ink is dragged away by the first scrim
pad which should be frequently rearranged so that fresh areas are used
to absorb further ink. When the first scrim pad is laden, the second is
used, again in a circular motion, until eventually the image begins to
appear beneath the dark film of ink. At this stage pay particular
attention to wiping around the edges as too much ink is often left in
these areas. Finally, scrim wiping is completed with the third pad
which is rotated lightly over the plate until the required surface tone
has been achieved. All streaky wiping marks should have disappeared at
Scrim wiping. Method 2: A second method is to alternate between this kind of rotary action and a wiping movement that guides the scrim pad in parallel strokes across the plate, first in a horizontal direction and then crossing over in a vertical direction. After the final pass of the third scrim, the image should be clearly visible on the plate. However, many etchers have developed a more intuitive sense of discerning the point at which their plate is ready for printing. Certain metals are also better at giving an accurate idea of the resulting print than others. For example, it is fairly easy to assess the printed outcome from a wiped zinc plate, while the deceptively dark surface of a steel plate or a photopolymer plate can make this more difficult.
Paper wiping: There are also a number of specialised wiping methods that can be used in conjunction with scrim wiping. Often pieces of tissue paper are used to take off the plate tone so that a pure white background can be printed. Also the later stages of scrim wiping can be replaced altogether with paper wiping which only effects the raised areas and leaves maximum amounts of ink in the intaglio grooves. Sometimes plates may have localised burnished areas which are intended to produce pure white on the print and these too can be paper-wiped so that all remaining tone is removed.
Hand wiping: Experienced printers can also reduce or remove plate tone by using their hand as a wipe - producing a result which can surpass a scrim or paper wipe in clarity and detail. In this instance, the fleshy palm of the hand serves as the wiping tool. During the process, excess ink should be wiped onto a clean rag or the hand can be intermittently cleaned with French chalk; ensuring that no powder is transferred to the plate. To create an extremely rich plate tone a similar technique can be used if sufficient light oil has been added to the ink. After some initial scrim wiping, the ink on the plate is given an even appearance by lightly dragging the palm of the hand across the surface. Because, in this method, the ink is driven into all ridges and indentations it enhances even the finest detail on the plate and can give the print an almost metallic look.
Before the wiped plate is ready to be printed some final attention has to be given to cleaning the bevel and the underside of the plate, both of which tend to collect ink deposits which can spoil the print. Simply clean these areas by running a clean rag along them. Once the plate has been wiped to satisfaction, it can safely be left for a while. It is often assumed that the plate needs to be printed immediately after wiping. Rushing to blot paper and prepare the press can lead to mistakes. In fact, the plate remains printable for quite some time and all print preparations can be carried out with the care and precision they require.
Setting up a registration sheet
Before an etching is printed some consideration should be given to how the size of paper will relate to the size of the print. The conventional way of presenting an etching is to use a sheet of paper larger than the plate so that the embossed plate mark provides a natural border to the image while the unprinted paper around it serves as a kind of frame or mount. The image can either be centered on the paper or more commonly, a larger bar is left at the bottom edge.
Without registration marks on the bed of the press it is virtually impossible to achieve good positioning, and often artist just wanting to pull a quick proof produce a wonderful print which seems wasted because it is badly aligned. Some etchers actually draw marks on the bed of the press, but a more practical system is to use changeable sheets of cartridge paper covered by clear acetate. This registration sheet has the outline of a particular plate and after having been used for printing can be replaced by another tailor-made for a different plate. A system like this is particularly useful in a busy workshop where a number of artists make use of the press.
Preparing the paper
The quality of an intaglio print very much depends on the right choice of paper. Even though some cheap types of cartridge paper can be used for proofing purposes the investment in specialised etching papers is nearly always rewarded by the superior impressions produced. Etching papers are low in seize (glue) and made from acid-free cotton linter rather than wood pulp. They swell and become soft, malleable and ink absorbent when wet so that during printing they can be cast both into the faintest as well as the deepest indentations of the plate. Other papers, e.g. watercolor papers are unsuitable for intaglio printing because their high seize counteracts the softening process.
General purpose printmaking papers such as BFK - Reeves are serviceable but not as good as the specialised papers. In some cases thin papers like Japanese papers may be considered but on the whole the thicker varieties of etching paper tend to yield the best results both in terms of print quality (especially with deeply etched plates) as well as drying.
some recommended paper brands:
Somerset Papers - especially Somerset T.P. (UK)
Arches Papers (France )
Fabriano Papers (Italy)
Hahnemuhle or Zerkall Papers (Germany)
American Masters (USA)
Even though most sheet papers show the signs of handmade paper such as the rugged Deckel edge, they are in fact machine-made substitutes. True handmade papers are today quite rare but both professionally produced and self-made sheets are usually very suitable for intaglio printing.
Once a number of different types of paper have been sampled, it is often more economical to invest in whole reams rather than in single sheets.
Of course, prints need not be presented in traditional fashion. Paper can be cut rather than torn; large plates may be produced as bleed-prints where the plate is the same size or smaller than the plate; or a print may be made on a different material altogether.
Unless printing is carried out as a team effort, the artist is likely to have ink stained hands after wiping the plate and must wash them before any paper can be handled.
Prepare paper as follows:
The actual sheet size is often too large for most plates so it is necessary for them to be divided up into smaller pieces.
The traditional way of doing this without losing the deckle edge is by tearing.
- Mark the tear line at each edge with pencil and then place a heavy metal ruler between these points.
- Hold the sheet by the top corner and quickly tear downwards about 2/3rds the length of the line.
- Take the bottom corner and tear upwards until the sheet comes away.
Etchings cannot be printed on dry paper.
The paper needs to be allowed to absorb water for a considerable length of time before it is ready for printing.
It is advisable to have a clear idea about how much paper will be needed for a session of proof printing or editioning so that sheets can be prepared and soaked in advance.
- Fully submerged the sheets of paper in a tank, tray or bath of water for at least an hour.
- Warm water can be used to shorten the soaking time.
- After soaking, remove the papers and blot. The paper is now ready and will allow a fairly satisfactory print to be produced.
If etchings of the best possible quality are sought, the paper should be immersed for much longer.
- After soaking for one hour, remove the pile of papers, allowing excess water to drain off for a couple of minutes.
- Place the pile of papers between sheets of glass or inside a polythene bag with a heavy board on top and leave it to steep for several more hours (up to 24 hours). It is during this second soaking phase that all the fibres of the paper swell to their full extent and become saturated with water (any seize contained in the sheet will soften and become dissolved).
Another method of soaking the paper that is mainly practised in Europe involves less equipment but makes slightly higher demands on the skills of the printer.
- Moisten each sheet individually with a wet sponge.
- Stack the soaked sheets on top of each other.
- Keep the stack between sheets of Perspex or aluminum plates for 24 hours.
If the right amount of water has been applied the whole stack will have the required moisture level on the following day and can then be used for editioning.
The aim of blotting is to absorb all superfluous moisture from the sheets of soaked paper.
- Prior to blotting a substantial amount of excess moisture can be removed by placing your sheet of paper on a perspex draining board and gently running a window squeegee from top to bottom. This saves time and keeps the blotters drier for longer.
- Next place the sheet between sheets of blotting paper and cover with a sheet of acetate.
- Now brush the palms of your hands over the acetate using firm pressure.
- Remove the sheet from the blotters and you may wish to repeat the process using the dry side of the blotters.
- The sheet should now contain the right amount of moisture for printing. If however there are wet, shiny patches still visible on the paper some more blotting has to be done.
- A soft brush can be used to remove any unwanted particles.
- Especially in warm weather damp paper can get mouldy very quickly. The best way to safeguard a workshop from mould is to ask all users to always keep damp papers in separate polythene bags.
Prints made with the innovative AKUA inks have different soaking requirements.
Just a quick dip followed by blotting yields the best prints.
Setting the pressure of the press
If you are uncertain about pressure settings, a dry impression can be taken from a blank uninked plate to assess the depth and evenness of embossing. Good pressure is indicated if the plate completely compresses the texture of the paper to a smooth surface and produces an even impression of the bevel. If the bevel appears weaker on one side the press is likely to lack some pressure on that side. The pressure settings should be altered, preferably with the blankets released. If however the wheel of the press seems difficult to turn and the plate even becomes bent, the pressure needs to be eased off.
Adjusting the pressure of the press is very much a matter of experience and different types and thicknesses of plate require a varying degree of pressure. Deeply etched plates may need more pressure to reveal all their detail while particularly sensitive or soft surfaces such as aquatint, mezzotint, drypoint or non-etch photopolymer plates should be printed with lower pressure settings. The pressure always needs to be lowered if thicker plates such as Perspex or collagraph plates are printed and these also require the use of a foam blanket to prevent cuts and tears.
Print as follows:
- Trap the press blankets between the rollers of the etching press and fold them back over the top roller.
- Lay the paper registration sheet in the middle of the press bed and cover with a sheet of clear acetate. For editioning purposes the registration sheet can be taped to the press bed.
- Now lay a piece of tissue paper on top to prevent the registration sheet from being soiled with ink.
- Place the plate within the smaller rectangle marked on the registration sheet. To adjust simply pull the tissue, thus sliding the plate into place.
- Pick up a piece of blotted etching paper using hinged paper grips to prevent marks and carefully lower onto the press bed, fitting it to the larger rectangle of the registration sheet.
- Place another piece of tissue on top of the paper to ensure that ink cannot offset from the blankets marking the reverse of your print. This also prevents moisture and seize from seeping into the blankets.
- Slowly lower the blankets onto the bed of the press. Gently pull the blankets to smooth out any creases.
- Turn the wheel of the press at a steady pace until the press bed has emerged at the opposite side of the rollers. The press must be controlled at all times. Never let go of the handle; and slow down the press gently by using one hand as a break. If printing is carried out too slowly or even stops at some point, dark lines are likely to appear on the print. If the wheel is turned too fast the press bed may be difficult to slow down and the plate may not receive sufficient pressure.
- Lift the blankets over the top roller. NOTE: A set of felt blankets is best folded in half as this stops the press if the wheel is unintentionally turned.
- Remove the top sheet of tissue. This can be dried and reused.
- Gently lift the print off the plate, handling it by a corner and using paper grips.
The press is a truly wonderful piece of equipment but owing to its heavy construction, accidents involving presses can be quite serious. For this reason some essential safety measures should always be followed:
- Do not let press wheels spin freely.
- Always tie back long hair.
- No one should come near the turning rollers while the press is in operation.
- The press bed must be fitted with effective stops to keep it from flying out of the press.
Some press models are dangerous and have caused serious accidents. If for instance you own a Brand etching press it may have hazardous press bed stops. Ask an engineer to remove these and replace them with safe rubber stops.
Drying the print
If the print is a working proof it may be useful to be able to pin it up for thorough scrutiny. There are numerous plastic clip solutions on the market which will not damage the print but a string with clothes pegs serves just as well. In print workshops the printed images are too often assessed at a distorted angle whilst lying on a workbench.
If prints are dried in the kinds of metal racks used in screenprinting there is no danger of damaging the sensitive ink deposits lying on the surface of the print. The prints will be touch dry after a couple of days but since most papers are likely to warp, they will then have to be dampened from the back and then flattened between boards.
The most convenient method of drying prints makes use of stacks of absorbent boards (pin board is ideal) or thick sheets of cardboard. Each print is laid on a board after printing, overlaid with tissue paper and then covered with another board and so on. If the boards are very light some extra support can be given by placing weights on top of a stack.
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