Click here to edit subtitle

The Orono Ground 

Soft Ground
     The Orono Ground
     Soft Ground drawing
     Soft Ground impressions

The Orono Ground
This innovative nontoxic ground was developed collaboratively by myself and Professor Susan Groce at the University of Maine in Orono - hence the name. Susan had many years of experience of mixing traditional grounds and acquired exacting standards at Stanley Hayter's famous Atelier 17. She writes about our collaborative work on the Orono Ground as aiming;

to duplicate and excel the conventional oil based grounds
She goes on to say
... this ground proves to be remarkably sensitive to all materials pressed into it, whether through thick or thin applications ... it is remarkable acid resistant, and used as a hard ground gives superb flexibility in drawing curvilinear marks ... even weeks after application.

In the technique of soft ground etching the surface of a metal plate is made so sensitive that any textural material impressed onto it will be accurately reproduced in the intaglio print. It is predominantly used to emulate the pictorial qualities of pencil and crayon drawing and to transfer the patterns and textures of found objects into the intaglio medium. The roll-on grounds used for the acrylic resist soft ground method also function as a more malleable hard ground alternative, allowing greater fluidity in drawing than is possible with the liquid hard ground.

The suitability of Graphic Chemical waterbased relief ink as a substitute for the traditional wax/asphaltum based soft ground was discovered by Keith Howard. His original method using this ink works well on copper plates etched in ferric chloride, but was less successful when used with other metals as it gives insufficient etchant resistance and inconsistent results. Whilst attempting to remedy this, I came across various substances which when added to the ink, dramatically improved its reliability, ease of application and mordant resistance. This research culminated in the development of the Orono Ground, an admixture of acrylics that represents the best soft ground and wax-like acrylic hard ground available to date.


        Products and equipment needed for standard soft ground application:
  • prepared metal plate
  • BASE: graphic chemical waterbased relief ink, No 1659 black or No 1661 crimson red for maximum definition
  • BINDER: Golden GAC 200 or Lascaux clear gloss varnish No 2060 or Johnson's Future floor varnish
  • THICKENER: W/B Silkscreen Printing Medium/Paste
  • medium or hard ink roller, preferably larger than the width of the plate (nitrile surface is best)
  • spatula
  • glass or Perspex slab
  • concentrated detergent
  • bowl containing detergent, water and sponge

        Apply a standard soft ground as follows:

  1. Dispense three parts of the ink onto the slab with a spatula. Now work 25-50% Lascaux No. 2060 varnish into the mix. This enhances the resist, improves rolling and imprinting properties and reduces drying time. The more varnish added, the quicker the ink dries but the more resistance it attains. If using acrylic floor varnish as a cheaper and slightly weaker modifier, bear in mind that the mix should not get too runny for rolling.
  2. Now roll out the fortified ink from various directions until the plane looks evenly covered. A well mixed soft ground ink should make a distinct rolling sound similar to rolled out relief printing ink.
  3. Roll out a second plane of ink next to the first by repeatedly collecting a thin deposit from the first plane. Do not add extra ink.
  4. Once the second plane is sufficiently rolled out transfer ink from it onto the surface of the prepared metal plate; repeatedly rolling over the surface by alternating vertical then horizontal strokes. Rolling is complete once the plate is fairly thinly and evenly covered. Remember that a thin ground has the best sensitivity but that zinc and steel plates will need a slightly thicker coating for best resistance.
  5. The ground is now ready to use and the plate should be handled very carefully as anything coming into contact with it will register on the image. You can assess the ground using the finger print test - when you press your finger into the surface it should leave behind a perfect imprint, thus exposing the metal.
  6. The working time for transfer methods ranges from 20 minutes to several hours depending on the amount of binder that was added to the slow drying relief ink.
  7. Before proceeding further with your soft ground remember to soak the roller in neat detergent to keep it from drying out before it is properly cleaned. At the end of a soft ground session the ink slab and tools are easily cleaned with a sponge and detergent; any dried ink deposits can be removed with Ajax.
Many workshops make up batches of Orono Ground and keep them in sealed containers, ready for use.

Soft Ground Drawing
Soft ground etching or vernis mou was devised by French etchers as a means to extend the vocabulary of etching to include marks of the soft quality of pencil and crayon work. Here the ground is not shaped directly by the implement used but by a simple transfer process similar to the old-fashioned carbon paper method of making copies. Even though the lines and marks created by this method have the fuzzy, granular appearance typically produced by soft drawing utensils it is not actually those utensils that determine the character of the mark but the texture of the paper used for the transfer process. So choosing the right texture of paper in soft ground etching is equivalent to selecting an appropriate pencil or crayon in drawing.

The technique can of course also be used to trace existing drawings or images onto the plate.

        Products and equipment needed for soft ground drawing:
  • metal plate with soft ground freshly applied to it
  • sheet of tissue paper, larger than the plate
  • sheet of water repellent paper (greaseproof or similar)
  • various drawing utensils of different widths capable of exerting pressure e.g. pencils (not too soft), biro pens etc.
  • masking tape

Soft ground transfer drawing works as follows:
  1. Lay the soft ground plate on a hard surface and cover it with the tissue paper. Tissue paper has a matt absorbent side and a shiny side which is less absorbent - make sure that the matt side is face down in contact with the plate.
  2. Cover the tissue paper with a sheet of textured paper of your choice and attach it to the work surface with pieces of masking tape. NOTE: If you are using the process to transfer an existing drawing this drawing should be used as the top sheet.
  3. Mark the outline of the plate by drawing registration marks onto the top sheet. You can now begin to draw onto the surface. The drawing utensils should be held upright.
  4. When the drawing is completed, remove the top sheet and the tissue paper from the plate. You can easily tell whether your soft ground drawing has been successful by the simple fact that all drawn marks should have offset from the plate onto the tissue paper, thus revealing the metal.
  5. If the metal has not been exposed, investigate the following possible causes:
  • not enough pressure exerted during drawing
  • soft ground rolled on too thickly
  • top sheet too thick

Before etching, the plate needs sufficient time to dry; about 2-4 hours by itself or half that time in a drying cupboard.
Typical biting times for a copper plate would range between 40-60 minutes.
The soft ground can also be etched and stopped out in successive stages to achieve a varied depth of intaglio mark.
Other kinds of mark can be easily added to the transferred soft ground. Crisp lines can be drawn straight on the ground using a drypoint needle; reticulated washes can be incorporated simply by adding water; and textures can be pressed into the ground using various objects.

For more information on Soft Ground click on the following link:

Hard and Soft Ground

Anne VanOppen - 

plant impressions into soft ground

Soft Ground impressions
Making soft ground impressions is very much a ready-made technique using found objects and materials. Rather than creating marks by manual means the artist selects suitable textured materials and surfaces which are then pressed into the etching plate. The great sensitivity of the acrylic soft ground allows materials as delicate as tissue paper to transfer their surface texture to an intaglio print and even lightly touching the ground will produce very detailed finger marks that will etch and appear on the printed image. Virtually any material that is thin and soft enough to travel through an etching press without causing damage can be used. Soft ground impressions taken from plant leaves are particularly successful as the image will show the leaf's texture, structure and outline in graphic detail. Other materials typically used include pieces of scrim (tarlatan) or other woven fabrics, wire mesh, feathers, textured papers, steel wool; whatever else the artist considers appropriate.

Materials with a fine dot or mesh can also be used to bring about tonal areas on the plate in a way similar to aquatint. It is not uncommon in workshops lacking an aquatint facility to make soft ground impressions of sheets of sandpaper which are then etched and stopped out in stages to produce a spectrum of greys up to a dense black. Particular care has to be taken when metal objects or other hard objects are used for taking soft ground impressions - a coin can make an indelible impression on an etching press roller!

        Products and equipment needed to make soft ground impressions:

  • metal plate with soft ground freshly applied to it
  • etching press with one blanket removed and pressure slightly lowered
  • textured pieces of material etc. to be impressed
  • sheet of firm coated paper e.g. greaseproof or glossy photo paper

        Make soft ground impressions as follows:
  1. Carefully place the soft ground plate onto the bed of the etching press. If plant leaves or other organic matter is being used, place a sheet of absorbent paper underneath the plate.
  2. Arrange your textured objects on the plate surface.
  3. Carefully place a sheet of coated paper on top - do not use any kind of textured or absorbent paper for this purpose as it will register on the soft ground.
  4. Cover with a couple of sheets of Mylar or acetate to protect the press blankets.
  5. Lower the blankets onto the plate and run this set through the etching press as though you were taking a proof.
  6. Pull back the blankets and carefully take off all items covering the plate; so as not to damage the ground you may need to use tweezers to remove the compressed objects.
Before etching, the plate needs sufficient time to dry; about 2-4 hours by itself or half that time in a drying cupboard.
Once fully dried (copper and brass) plates can be etched in metal salts.
Typical biting times for a copper plate would range between 40-60 minutes.
The soft ground can also be etched and stopped out in successive stages to achieve a varied depth of intaglio mark.