I received my MFA in printmaking, concentrating in traditional etching and serigraphy. I felt an immediate affinity for the discipline, but both processes involved a number of highly toxic materials, and so, once I finished my degree, I reluctantly left printmaking to explore other art media. About five years ago, I learned about a relatively new, nontoxic method of etching, using a thin steel plate coated with a light-sensitive polymer that is, in essence, etched in water.
The first step in the process is to create an image on a transparent surface using an opaque black medium. This can be a drawing or painting done directly on glass or acetate, or a photocopy or scan of an existing artwork or photograph. In the latter case, the image is converted to grayscale and adjusted as desired to emphasize brightness, deep blacks, and contrast, then printed out on transparent film via an inkjet printer. This transparency is placed on the etching plate, which is covered with glass and exposed to the sun. Wherever light reaches the plate, the polymer is hardened, while unexposed areas remain soft. To achieve a range of grays, the plate can be exposed a second time using an aquatint screen (a transparency covered with a random pattern of tiny, closely spaced dots). After exposure, the plate is gently scrubbed in lukewarm water, which washes away the areas of emulsion that have remained soft. The plate is then placed again in the sun to set the image. Once the plate has been exposed and developed, it is ready to be inked, wiped, and printed, exactly like a traditional etching plate.
Next, etching ink is mixed to the desired color and degree of transparency, and a thin layer is spread across the plate using a small piece of mat board. The plate is wiped first with tarlatan, a lightly starched, open-weave cotton fabric, then polished with newsprint. This removes all the ink from the surface of the plate but leaves it in the etched depressions. The plate is placed on the bed of the printing press on a piece of newsprint, then covered with a piece of damp printing paper and two or three felt blankets, and run through the press under high pressure. The press roller forces the printing paper into the etched depressions in the plate, thus transferring the ink to the paper.
The obverse of the etching is the relief print, where the negative parts of the image are cut away and the remaining surface of the plate is inked. I use this process occasionally, but it results in a print that has only two values (white, plus black or one other color), and I usually prefer the subtler midtone gradations that can be achieved by etching.
Most of my prints require three or four to as many as seven plates printed sequentially, each in a different color, to achieve the final image. Chine collé is another method for adding color and texture. A thin paper is placed face down on all or part of the inked etching plate and coated with wheat paste. When the plate goes through the press, the image is printed on the chine collé paper, which is simultaneously glued onto the printing paper. All of this is a process of experimentation that inevitably results in a lot of unintended outcomes—which are sometimes lucky and other times not. Since I begin with small editions, usually no more than four or five, often by the time the print is finished it is “unique”—that is, only one of the number I started with is resolved in a satisfactory way and thus it becomes a one-of-a-kind print that I cannot repeat. For this reason, my prints are very different from giclées and other kinds of digital prints that can be reproduced an indefinite number of times.