Aquatint workshop

This weekend was spent on another printing workshop.  The focus was aquatint. I had tried this once before and wanted to learn the technique so that I could develop it more creatively in later workshops (these happen about twice a year).  I chose a photo reference of a field of poppies as the starting point.  From this photo, I created a motif of poppies flowers, buds and grasses.  The initial idea is shown below.  Following that is the sketchbook page, with the finished sketch and the planning process (partly hidden behind the photo…)

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The first step was to draw the motif into a layer of lacquer on a zinc plate (15cm x 10 cm).  I drew the design freehand using the sketch as reference. The surface is highly reflective!

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The underside of the plate must be covered in plastic tape to avoid its surface being etched, too, when the plate is immersed in acid. The plate was etched in concentrated acid for 7 minutes, the lacquer was then removed using turps and the plate washed in soap and water. Prior to inking, the plate is oiled and the ink then rubbed in using a gauze pad. Excess ink is carefully added with clean paper (old telephone books are really good for this!).

I made two prints under high pressure.  The first one in green was unclear.  I over-rubbed the plate, removing some of the ink from the etching.  It showed the importance of taking time in preparing the plate.  The plate must not retain excess ink but over-cleaning can remove ink from the etched lines, too. Cotton wool buds are good for cleaning up small areas.

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The design is clearer in the second print:

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The plate is then treated with kolophonium (a resin).  The powdered resin is placed in an old tea towel, which is tied around it.  The “ball” of resin is then hit with a stick 10-15 cm above the plate to create a fine and even coating of fine resin particles.  The plate is then carefully transferred (avoiding touching the edges) to a hotplate and should be moved gently around the plate to enable the resin to melt sufficiently to bind to the surface.  This takes 2-3 minutes.  I watched this stage and have not yet done it myself – it definitely requires skill and judgement, not to say care with handling, to get it exactly right. This plate overheated slightly and the resin became a little too hot at the base.  This creates a more open-pored texture to the plate.  I couldn’t get a good photograph of the plate at this point without angling it to the lens, hence there is a certain amount of distortion in the image below:

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This picture illustrates the difference in the surface texture before and after the application of resin. It is visible in the altered reflective properties of the metal:

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With aquatint, the design is built up in a series of tones, beginning with the lightest first.  Therefore, this has to be part of the planning before you begin to apply the lacquer. The lacquer is added progressively in four or five stages (the more used, the subtler the tonal variation that is possible).  With a small plate such as this and for a beginner, five tones are enough, which can be achieved with four successive applications of lacquer plus the “naked” plate.

Having decided on the lightest parts of the final image, these were covered with the first coat of lacquer, using a fine brush.  The plate was then etched for 45 seconds, rinsed well and dried.  The second layer was then applied and so on. The etching times increased progressively: 90s, 220s and 360s.  The illustrations below document some of the stages in this process.  I became a bit slap-happy in the last stage and coated the remainder of the plate!  The lacquer near the base of the plate was then removed with turps applied with a fine brush.

Stage 1 – the coated sections will appear lightest in the prints made from the final plate:

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Stage 3:

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Stage 4:  This last stage creates the darkest tone (uncovered plate – at the bottom) and one a little lighter (the rest of the background).  I tried to obtain a tonal gradient in the flowers but, as will be seen in the prints, below, this did not work.

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After the final acid bath, the lacquer is removed using turps.  The plate is then wiped well with white spirit, and washed with warm, soapy water. Here is the etched plate.

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The plate is then oiled and ink applied as described above.  I took pains to rub the ink in well and then clean up the surface carefully.  I picked up a piece of paper that appeared clean but was slightly stained with black ink, which resulted in “contamination” of the sanguine ink and the print below.  I decided that I liked this effect – it adds depth to the background.

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The two colours above gave me the idea of deliberately mixing colours on the plate.  As the flowers are poppies, I tried to create red flowers against a black background.  Not entirely successful – I have removed too much ink from the top, left corner of the image (top right of the plate) but the general idea is worth exploring further, possibly as a layered image printing in single colours and building up the image successively.  The image here has been reproduced smaller because it creates a more accurate colour reproduction of the print than the full-size scan did.

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Reflection on the process:

–  Clean lines on the initial plate are really important.

–  Care must be taken not to add too much ink to the plate.

–  Cleaning up the plate before printing is best achieved slowly.  Telephone books work well – single, clean pages rubbed gently against the surface with the “heel” of one hand while holding the plate in the other works better than applying too much pressure to the surface.

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