Dry Point Etching and Itaglio Print Making

I’ve been mulling over producing dry point etchings for a loooooooong time. I was 17 yrs old in the middle of my Art A-levels the first (…and last) time that I had a bash at dry point print making. If memory serves I only ever etched one finished plate and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. It was a typically means-to-an-end type affair where I simply copied a picture of Nicole Kidman from a TV magazine onto an acrylic plate with a metal scribe and made a mono-print triptych. So long story short, I’m going to get on the case join Spike Print and produce dry point etchings and intaglio prints from my life drawings.

I really have been thinking about how to do this for a very long time. Its been a source of considerable frustration that I’ve not been able to turn my sketchbook life drawings into more finished (perhaps saleable) pieces, but I’ve been doing a lot of research recently and I think I’ve finally got it. I did a quick test a couple of days ago on one of my sketches to prove the principle and I thought I’d post up the results. It didn’t turn out quite how I imagined but that’s really beside the point, its the enjoyment of the process that counts, and I reckon I will. I took this sketch as an example:

After researching the print-making process online I realised/remembered that you have to 1st reverse the image to make the resulting print the correct positive image (I remember that I hadn’t cottoned on to this with Nicola Kidman and it weirded me out the fact the final print was the wrong way round!) When I come to doing this in anger it will be the only digital step that I take in the process – flipping the scanned image in p’shop and printing the reversed out results to work from. I take solace in the fact that I could just use a light box to view the reversed image if I wanted it totally old school, but as its not going to effect the print process in any way, a bit of labour saving/ease of use is not an issue ;)

(begin digression…) A bit of background… I’ve steadily developed a bit of a ‘thing’ about digital processes and printing over the years. The nail in the coffin has been hammered in by 2 photography exhibitions I’ve recently attended. The 1st from a practising photographer who is a friend of a friend Barry Cawston. He makes these huge, beautiful prints from a large format camera – tweaked out in photoshop and printed on very large canvas in extremely high resolution. The resulting images are lovely, but when you look very, very closely (as I love to do…) I can’t help noticing the peculiar blotchy quality that anything printed with a digital process somewhere down the line has – even when when printed in a ‘traditional technique’. Suffice to say its only really me who will notice what I’m seeing, but its there and it bugs me.

The 2nd exhibition was Edweard Muybridge at the Tate Britain. Being an animator I know the human and animal figure in motion work of Muybridge intimately, what I didn’t know is that he was also an extremely accomplished landscape photographer. There were many prints from photos taken in Yellowstone national park and San Francisco at the exhibition. What particularly struck me about these (other than him producing many early 3D stereoscopic images) was the stunning quality of the prints. He used huge silver colloid glass plate negatives (I’m not a photographer, so forgive my inadequacy in describing the technique….) with the resulting prints the same size as the negative itself, so the clarity was mind-blowing. Proper one would say. This is what I’m looking for in final artwork. Analogue clarity. (…end digression)

So… I’ve got a reversed image. How do I get that onto a copper plate ready to print? Again, back to school! When I was 13, another pivotal moment in my art career was that I realised I was very good at realistically reproducing sections of artwork. We had an exercise where we took an image, divided it into 3rds stuck it onto a sheet of blank paper, cut out the middle section and filled in the resulting gap ourselves. It turned out well. (I loved that picture, If I ever find it, I’ll scan and post) Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that give me a grid to work from and I can re-create images very accurately just by-eye, so that’s what I was testing here (in a very slap-dash fashion…)

This is all a learning experience. The main thing I take away from it is that its not going to be easy to replicate the energy of the original drawing. I used a bic biro on a very hard surface to give a nod to the dry point technique. It felt really nice just transcribing the image so that’s most of that battle won.

I spent a great deal of time recently grappling with different ways of getting an accurate reproduction of the original drawing into a printable format. I did a lot of research into digital laser printing, photo-lithography and all sorts of acid etching techniques but frustratingly nothing seemed able to give me the resolution and detail that I’m looking for in the finished article. So it once again comes down to the skill of the artist. Can I accurately reproduce the spontaneity of the originals? How can I possibly get exactly the same searching, compositional lines that provide the building blocks to a 5min sketch? The answer is I can’t. But what I can do is try to faithfully replicate the feeling and intention of the original. And that’s where the fun lies. I will be creating new artwork – final pieces from quick sketches, and that’s appealing.

When I scanned the image and flipped the test back to the how it was originally drawn it was all too revealing about the challenges ahead:

It was fun to try and ‘sculpt’ the line with the tip of the biro on a hard service, but it gave a scratchy, angular quality that was very much at odds with the smooth flowing lines of the original. I like poking and prodding with the drawings I make – exaggerating things to give them energy and life, its the animators mindset. But that doesn’t work with this technique. I need to flatter the drawings to make them work – not something that comes naturally. I like to distort and mis-shape, sometimes out of humour, sometimes out of spite, but it seems that won’t work here.

So there we have it. The first step into finally producing artwork that I can call ‘finished’. I hope that this isn’t one of those pipe dreams that so often take me. I’ve had this dry point etch niggle fizzing away at the back of my mind for so long now that to get this close and not run with it seems ridiculous!

One final thing to note is that I’ve spent most of today geeking out on the etchings of Lucian Freud and discovered some artists I wasn’t previously aware of (most notably Hans Bellmer) and that has been fun indeed. Merry Christmas! :D

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