The Contemporary Printmaker CONTENT | SEARCH
Keith Howard's book The Contemporary Printmaker
was published by Write-Cross Press, NY, in 2003
The forward, written by Friedhard Kiekeben,
is reproduced below.
| Intaglio Type | Acrylic Resist Etching | Intaglio Manual | Beginners Compendium
A Healthy Fusion of Art and Invention
Printmaking involves processes.
And where there are processes there are always inventors.
Printmaking involves technology and where there is technology
there is always room for improvement.
The history of printmaking is a history of aesthetics, invention, and perfection
- not only in technical terms but also conceptually.
Whereas a canvas and the actual practice of painting
has changed very little in many centuries, the practice of printmaking
has been accompanied by continuous development,
and more recently be major re-invention.
When Rembrandt wanted to etch crisper lines he invented his own mordant.
When Goya wanted tonal richness in a print he perfected aquatint.
Andy Warhol was innovative not only by choosing a contemporary medium,
silkscreen printing, but by centering his entire art
around the notion of the reproduced image.
Although fusing art and invention, until recently the art of printmaking
had an unhealthy association with a whole range
of potentially harmful materials and processes.
The powerful fumes of acids, varnishes and solvents were the unfortunate by-products of this artform. Most technical innovations in intaglio printmaking originated in the 16th and 17th centuries when Rembrandt, Goya and their contemporaries researched and established the traditional etching materials and processes from resources available to them at the time. These basic ingredients were used in recipes that went unchanged until the late twentieth century.
Other major forms of printmaking which were devised and developed, including fine art lithography and screenprinting, expanded the creative scope of the medium but also contributed more chemical hazards to an already extensive list. The hydrocarbon solvents introduced into printmaking in the mid 19th century as general cleaning and thinning agents became a new and potent health risk. The only real option for safety conscious artist-printmakers and professional workshops was to attempt to control the various hazards by using protective equipment such as vapor masks and fume extraction systems.
The first significant breakthrough came in the mid 80s when a Swiss manufacturer of artist paints developed a screenprinting system based entirely on waterbased acrylic materials which no longer necessitated the use of any organic solvents, whilst producing quality results. Soon other manufacturers offered similar systems and in the following decade, waterbased screenprinting found widespread acceptance in art education. A healthy fusion of art and invention.
Adam Worth and a large scale Intaglio Type assemblage
(RIT thesis show)
Keith Howard was the first artist to systematically investigate alternative methods in intaglio printmaking in the late 80s. After suffering from ill health (attributed to printmaking hazards), Howard realized that Rembrandt's print medium was in urgent need of modernization. Initially he developed a gelatine-based alternative to toxic photo-etching which gave photo reproductive quality whilst being safe to use. But Keith Howard was aiming to find a comprehensive set of all intaglio methods, including manual etching, which would eliminate the airborne fumes and other hazards of the old system.
He started with the basic assumption that acrylics might make a suitable alternative to the solvent-based varnishes of traditional intaglio. After experimenting with a range of acrylic products Howard found ways to use these as etching resists for all major processes, such as hard ground, stop-out and aquatint. In 1991 he published his first book, Safe Photo Etching for Photographers and Artists and embarked on a worldwide workshop and lecturing program to outline his innovations.Keith Howard demonstrated the potential of his nontoxic intaglio approach to the Edinburgh Printmakers staff during a workshop in 1994. The EPW already had a history in nontoxic developments as they had been the first professional print studio in the UK to embrace waterbased screenprinting. I had just completed a program of research at the RCA in London and was invited by Edinburgh Printmakers to become their dedicated research consultant for Safe Etching. When I first met Keith Howard during a workshop in northern England, there was a real buzz among the participating group. In his enthusiastic Australian manner Howard demonstrated an intaglio method which looked so alien to the usual acid etching approach that I was simply stunned.Two weeks earlier he had been introduced to an etching resist called Riston, a product from the circuit board industry. Instead of using this to etch metal Howard simply exposed the photopolymer emulsion to a random dot screen and then to a tonal positive, which could be hand drawn or photographic. He then developed the plate in soft water, and produced printed images of stunning clarity directly from the film surface. This was the birth of the non-etch etching. Arguably, non-etch photopolymer printmaking or Intaglio Type as this medium is now called, is one of the greatest innovations in 20th century intaglio printmaking. This safe and straightforward process greatly expands the creative possibilities of intaglio, and is now used by many artists who are working with photo reproductive and digital approaches, or indeed with direct drawing techniques. Photographic imagery acquires new depth through this intaglio process.In my own research program I was aiming to extend the range of acrylic resist mark-making and etching methods, and in collaboration with Keith Howard the generic term Acrylic Resist Etching was coined. I was looking for processes that would allow the various intaglio metals to be etched without the hazards of strong acids. Keith Howard had already improved the usability of ferric chloride as an etchant for copper by using agitated tanks. In 1997 I invented the Edinburgh Etch which solved the sedimentation issue that normally hinders this electrochemical process. Publications in Printmaking Today and in Keith Howard's seminal manual Non-toxic Intaglio Printmaking in 1998 aided the rapid dissemination of the Edinburgh Etch throughout the printmaking world.Around that time the electro-etching expert Cedric Green started to promote a copper sulfate based process, The Bordeaux Etch for etching zinc and steel, on his website and Bader and Semenoff published similar research in 1998. A new copper sulfate based solution, the Saline Sulfate Etch is described in this book. The complete system of innovative etching systems is now called Metal Salt Etching and is recommended by the Rochester Institute of Technology chemistry professors Dr Paul Craig and Dr Paul Rosenberg (Art meets Science) as a contemporary alternative to Acid Etching.While the acrylic resist etching methodology started as a safer alternative to the traditional methods - which it rivals in terms of quality - it is now widely recognized as a field which actually offers a whole range of new creative possibilities not previously thought possible. This includes a wealth of painterly and textural processes, modulated aquatint and the unique combined intaglio and collagraph approaches. Acrylic resists facilitate a more painterly pictorial language than their oil-based counterparts, while also satisfying the needs of line-based etchers. Rather than losing some of the essential imaging possibilities of etching, as was initially feared by some printmakers, the new approach has been shown to fully retain the unique vocabulary of intaglio while extending it and making it a viable option for 21st century art.The need for nontoxic etching materials has also been recognized by the art materials industry and a number of paint and ink manufacturers are now offering acrylic resist etching grounds. The traditional oil-based inks are very suitable for acrylic resist etching but still require sweat and patience in the inking and wiping process. The New York artist Susan Rostow was recently awarded a Krasner Pollock award for her innovative ink developments. Her soft gum-based inks allow intaglio plates to be inked and printed with much greater ease than conventional inks.Innovations can be costly but nontoxic developments have proven to be economically viable too. The initial investment in new or refurbished facilities for acrylic resist etching is often quickly recouped by reduced running costs. An expenditure calculation carried out at EPW in 1996 (after the change to nontoxic processes) showed a 40% reduction in the annual consumable cost of the print studio, amounting to thousands of pounds worth of savings. Nontoxic practice can also attract new sources of funding; at the University of Maine, Professor Susan Groce received a major increase to her printmaking budget in support of her efforts to reduce health hazards.
Perhaps the most resistance to healthy innovation has come from lithography, but now acrylic resist etching and waterbased screenprinting have shown that the aesthetic qualities of lithography can be easily emulated. The comparative slowness of nontoxic developments in lithography caused many workshops to eliminate Senefelder's printing chemistry from their program. However, a number of recent innovations now make it possible to practice lithographic printing safely.
In 1991 Nik Semenoff refined Waterless Lithography in which silicone is used as an ink repelling substrate, but the process required acetone as a solvent. In the spring issue of Printmaking Today (2000) the Tamarind master printer Ross Zirkle reported that waterless lithography used in conjunction with a new kind of waterbased ink can now be practiced as a nontoxic medium in which no organic solvents are used.
George Roberts, a lithographic artist and university professor, pursued a different line of investigation in the mid 1990s. The polyester plate process widely used in India as a low cost commercial printing option intrigued Roberts. He managed to develop a system in which polyester plates are used as the matrix in a new lithographic medium he called Polyester Plate Lithography. This process is characterized by three main factors: it is much safer to use than conventional lithography, it fully incorporates the various mark making options typical for the medium (such as ink washes, lines and crayon marks), and is much easier to master. It also integrates effortlessly with photography and digital imaging as plates can be produced straight from any laser or inkjet printer. George Roberts summarized this groundbreaking research in his book Polyester Plate Lithography in 2001, but sadly died of cancer soon after its publication.
Keith Howard realized early on that new knowledge would have to be shared and communicated as widely as possible for the nontoxic approach to gather momentum. The publication of books, magazine articles and websites are all-important, but nothing is as effective or persuasive as the practical knowledge gained from hands-on demonstrations and teaching sessions.
Encouraged by the success of his traveling workshop sessions Howard set up a professional summer school in Alberta, Canada in 1993. This was also the location of his academic program at the Canadian School for Non-Toxic Printmaking. At the same time I created a UK based program of educational events in collaboration with Robert Adam, then director of Edinburgh Printmakers. Both these programs were well subscribed and proved pivotal in attracting key printmaking educators from around the world to the new methodology. Many participants subsequently changed over their home printmaking departments and became ambassadors for the new approach.
The Danish printmaker Henrik Boegh attended both the Scottish and Canadian programs, published a book, and soon became instrumental in the rapid introduction of acrylic resist etching in Scandinavia where there is a strong awareness of the health issues surrounding traditional printmaking. This dissemination process was very much helped by a conference-and-workshop series staged by Boegh for Scandinavian printmaking professionals in 1998. In 2000 I established an international summer school program, Innovative Intaglio, in South West Scotland and many other institutes around the world now offer training in nontoxic printmaking, both in the form of short courses and as part of a university curriculum (see PRINTMAKING RESOURCES).
Today many educational print departments in the UK have adopted intaglio type methods and waterbased printing, and an estimated 50% have replaced traditional etching with acrylic resist etching. A recent survey carried out by the Tamarind Workshop shows that 89% of art departments in the USA have adopted nontoxic processes, while 33% also state that over the past five years one or more conventional print processes were abandoned due to health concerns.
Keith Howard now heads printmaking research at the Rochester Institute of Technology, RIT, in upstate New York. After over a decade of technical innovation and with the help of many artists, inventors and educators, nontoxic printmaking is now flourishing as an exciting and mature medium which offers a wealth of creative possibilities. The new incarnation of printmaking now needs today's generation of artists and educators to harness its enormous aesthetic potential.
Friedhard Kiekeben, RCA, April 2003.