My week of Intaglio Printmaking at Crown Point Press.
Since 1962, Crown Point Press, located in San Francisco, has produced original fine art print editions by notable artists. In addition to their work with art world luminaries, Crown Point Press offers a few summer workshops.
Kathan Brown, who founded the Press, welcomed us, and introduced three master printers: Emily York, Sam Carr-Prindle, and Courtney Sennish. For one week, they were our wise and supportive guides to the mysteries of intaglio printmaking.
Our brilliant instructors:
Emily looks so serious here! We quickly learned that, for a really difficult technical problem, Emily was the final authority.
Sam showed us many elegant solutions to technical challenges. Here he demonstrates how to dry Japanese paper, which printmakers use in a a form of collage known as “chine colle“.
Courtney’s expertise and contagious enthusiasm kept us going. Here she prepares to run a plate and paper through the press.
Emily, Sam, and Courtney shepherded us through hard work, minor setbacks, successes, and fortunate accidents. In addition, they showed us how intaglio printmaking provides almost unlimited ways to make a visual statement. All my classmates produced inspiring work, and we all wished fervently that one week could magically become two or more.
Intaglio printmaking was a favored method of Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso, Cassatt, and Degas. The technology is hundreds of years old, but new artists, like Wayne Thiebaud, Julie Mehretu, and Chuck Close, (all three have printed at Crown Point Press) are constantly expanding its expressive possibilities.
Notice, too, that all of the artists I just named are also famous painters. Although painting and printmaking are very different methods, they pair up nicely. Both are ways to combine line, shape, and color to produce rich and unique effects on a 2 dimensional surface. It is no wonder that painters become fascinated with the possibilities of intaglio.
The intaglio method involves scoring, notching, and/or pitting a metal plate, usually copper. Often an artist will use acid to “bite’ marks into the plate, then those openings in the plate’s surface can hold ink.
Once ink has been applied to the plate, the plate and paper are run through a press. By pressing the paper into the inky grooves, the printer transfers the design onto the paper. Printers usually damped the paper to help it sink deeper into the inked places on the plate.
One method of preparing a plate is to cover it with a layer of waxy “ground”. The artist draws through the ground with a sharp point, exposing the copper underneath. In the photo below, I have coated the plate with ground. Then I drew my design, using the double pointed tool (“etching needle”) lying to the left of the plate.
You can see the bright shine of the exposed copper where I drew through the ground. Later, when I immersed the plate in an acid bath, the acid “bit” into the exposed copper, making grooves, while the untouched ground protected the rest of the plate.
Here is the plate in the acid. I was able to etch deep or shallow grooves, which would print as dark or light lines, by controlling how long the acid etched the copper. To get different levels of etch in different areas, I periodically removed the plate, brushed liquid tar, known as “asphalt”, on the lines I wanted to protect, and put it back in the bath for further etching.
Printing etched line drawing:
When all the lines were etched, I cleaned the ground off the plate, and spread ink on it. Then I wiped the ink off the surface, but left the ink in the etched lines. When the inked plate went through the press, the paper picked up the ink trapped in the lines, and voila!
The print I made from that plate.
I wanted to add some dark shapes, so I prepared a second plate of the same size. The process of etching shapes on a copper plate, known as “aquatint”, involves using tiny particles of resin, heated to stick to the plate, as a way to control the acid’s bite. The exposure time in the acid determines how dark the shapes will appear on the paper.
As before, I varied the depth of the etch by removing the plate from the bath, painting the plate with asphaltum to mask out certain areas, and then returning it to the bath. The masking process looks like this:
You can see my tarry brushes and dish of asphaltum on the right.
Printing lines and tonal areas together on one sheet:
In the next photo, Sam has printed the aquatint plate I prepared as the background. We have just removed the aquatint plate from the press and replaced it with the inked plate bearing the line drawing.
Now, using the plate with the drawing, we will send the paper through the press one more time. In this way, we will print both the background and the line drawing on one sheet of paper.
The moment of lifting up the paper is always exciting. The press is a big participant in the process, and will have its say. You never know how the many hours of work and planning will turn out!
Here is the print after both plates went through the press.
Intaglio printmaking can produce rich tones and effective images. I will certainly be doing more work in this wonderful medium. There are many techniques to learn, and many effects to create, and I haven’t even gotten started with color!
Now, some podcast recommendations.
If sculpture fascinates you, check out The Sculptor’s Funeral with host Jason Arkles. He and his guests cover history, contemporary sculpture and technical issues that will warm any enthusiast’s heart. You will learn a lot about stone, clay, casting, etc..
Interested in marketing your creations online? You will find success stories, ideas and encouragement on The Abundant Artist Podcast, with Cory Huff. He writes books on the same topic, but you can listen to the interviews for free. I particularly liked the interview with Spanish artist Leonardo Pereznieto.
Being an artist has its joys and challenges, but, through it all, your support and encouragement sustain me. Thank you so much for being my audience.
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