Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Printmaking I, Spring 2014 - Part One

Cross-hatched test linoprint

When making the difficult decision of which classes to take for the Spring 2014 semester, I was excited to discover that my college offers a printmaking class. I'd never actually tried printing anything before (unless you count stamping cards). Some art history books I'd read gave descriptions of printmaking methods such as etching, but I had a hard time picturing and understanding the process just from a paragraph in a book. Since I had the opportunity, I opted for the hands-on experience. Unfortunately, I didn't take photos while I was working, so I can't really show you the process. But I'll talk about my experience with the class and the projects, at least.

We had a total of six projects over the semester: a collograph, a reduction lino print, a woodcut self portrait, a line etching, an aquatint etching, and a soft ground etching.

My attempt at the collograph was pretty hideous and not at all worthy of being called art, so I'm not even going to post it. Anyway, the main intent of that project was to get us acquainted with using the printing press.

Once we were done with the collographs, we moved on to the reduction lino print. I started off with a couple of small pieces of linoleum (cut off from the single block of linoleum I'd bought). One of the pieces was to be cross-hatched, and the other was to be stippled, using a linoleum cutter. The cross-hatching part was fun; the stippling got really old, really fast.

Carving the linoleum was pretty straightforward. We heated it on the hot plates in the printmaking studio for a few minutes to soften it up. When I was carving at home I used the toaster oven to warm it up--for the smaller pieces, at least. As the linoleum cooled it grew harder to make deep cuts.

After the carving came the inking. This was a reduction linocut, which meant we carved away the areas we wanted to leave white, printed the first, lightest, color, then went back in and carved away the areas we wanted to leave colored. Finally, we did a second run of printing in black.

(This yellow ochre is much closer to the true color of the print than the previous photo)
Getting the prints to line up for each printing takes some serious practice. I can't say I've perfected the art, but at least, with practice, I saw some improvement.

I think I made 15 prints of the linocut, which meant 30 runs through the press since I was using two colors. Thankfully there weren't too many students in Printmaking I (we shared the studio and the class period with Printmaking II students), because we were all supposed to be making these prints during the same class periods, with two printing presses to go around.

Moving on to the woodcut... we were assigned with creating a self portrait. Otherwise I definitely would have chosen a different subject! I had, at least, been taking my Portrait Drawing & Painting class for umpteen weeks at this point, so I was more comfortable with creating a portrait than I would otherwise have been. Especially since I was only working off a very simple pencil sketch drawn directly on the wood.

One thing about this project that took me a while to realize was, with the woodcut, you carve with the grain of the wood. And the natural knots in the wood add character to the final print. Most of the prints I've seen are woodblock prints, which are carved against the grain. I was so relieved when I found out that difference, because I was wondering how on earth printers created such gorgeous prints with such a high level of detail, without ever accidentally gouging a line across the things.

Carving wood was harder than carving linoleum. It's a rather violent process; I could actually feel myself getting angry just working on the project, even when I wasn't having a difficult time. Creating self portraits tends to bring out the worst in me, anyway (I might be fine with my face starting out, but by the time I've been staring at it for hours on end, I start to look like an alien or a blob, and I just get really sick of my own face). I was glad to try my hand at carving, as that's a craft I've wondered about since I was pretty young, but I can't say it brings out the best in me.

The other students in my class were so, so friendly and supportive. They raved about this one, which kind of shocked me (describing the end result to my mom, I said I looked like a fat Egyptian), but it was really encouraging.

Printmaking equipment is expensive. The tools especially, but also the paper. For the linoleum prints, I got away with printing on Bristol paper (which thankfully didn't have to be soaked), but the woodcut took mulberry paper. A sheet of that cost me almost $10, and I got four prints out of it. At least I had opted for the cheapest set of woodcarving tools I could find. (That didn't make for the greatest carving experience, but I didn't see the point in making a big investment when I wasn't planning on taking up woodcarving for a living.) I'm just happy I didn't gouge myself with the carving tools at all during the process.

I was already starting to realize that printmaking was going to be much more of a workout than I'd expected after carving the linocut and the woodcut. Once I had finished with the carving for the woodcut, I was hoping my arms would get a break for the inking and printing, assuming we'd be using the printing press again. No such luck. I hand-printed the woodcut, placing the paper over the inked wood and rubbing a wooden spoon in little circles all over the thing, pushing down with all my might. For the first several prints I created (including a couple of practice ones on newsprint), I didn't push hard enough, so the ink didn't come out very black. Turns out you have to push really hard to get mulberry paper to soak up ink. The result was worth it, but I sweated a lot during that class.

The next project was a line etching. I decided to go all-out fairy tale with this one. My idea was more Beauty and the Beast-inspired, but people mostly compared it to Little Red Riding Hood. Either way, cloaks are awesome.

I created several preliminary sketches beforehand, to use as a guide while etching.

Pen & ink sketch
For the process of etching the plate, I took this zinc plate (also seriously expensive; my wallet was crying at this point), cut it into a few pieces (reserving two of them for the next couple of projects), and beveled the edges of the one I was using for the line etching. The beveling was basically like filing down the edges of the plate so that it wouldn't cut into the mats we used for printing. Then I had to polish it, using this orange gunky stuff called Putz Pomade. The process got me sweating as well, as it also required rubbing with all my might.

Once polished, I cleaned the plate off and put hard ground on it (hard ground is this runny black stuff, kind of like tar, which protects the plate from the acid) and put it on the hot plate to melt the hard ground, let it cool, and transferred a simple pencil sketch onto the plate (which was now shiny black; it reminded me of nail polish) as a guide for the etching. For the etching, I just used an etching needle and scratched lines through the layer of hard ground to the plate beneath. The etching process took much less muscle than carving, since the acid would be doing the real work. My worst struggle--in addition to scratching silvery lines on a black background in order to print black lines on a white background--was that I was working in reverse from my drawing. I kept accidentally adding lines for shadows in the areas that were supposed to be light, because the light source was now flipped from the direction of my drawing.

Once I'd put all the lines in, I dipped the plate, still covered in hard ground, in the acid. The first time it was only in for a few seconds, to create very light, thin lines. After washing and drying it off, I covered the areas I wanted to be lightest by blocking them off with more hard ground. Then it went through the acid for a longer amount of time, and I repeated that process a few more times, blocking off more lines each time, in order to get different line variations. The longest the plate spent in the acid at one time was five minutes for the last round, getting the darkest darks. Here's what the plate ended up looking like, when the hard ground had been removed:

For the printing, I had to soak paper for about 15-20 minutes. Another type of paper I used for printing etchings took 2 hours of soaking. While the paper was soaking, I covered the plate with ink, rubbed it in so it filled all of the etched lines, and then wiped the ink from the surface. I had expected the etching part to require some finesse, but I hadn't realized the important role applying and wiping the ink played in the process. I had a hard time wiping ink off properly. It took me forever, making a countless number of quick swipes with this special kind of cloth bunched up in a ball, and I didn't ever really reach a point where I was happy with my inking. I usually either had too much ink on the flat part of the plate, making the white areas look dirtier than they should, or I wiped too much off and the black areas weren't as intense as they should have been.

Here's one print of my line etching:

And here's another print. This one had more ink left off on its surface, but it worked to make the corners of the print look darker, which had a nicer, less stark effect.

I had my struggles, but for the most part the etching process was much more inside my comfort zone than my previous projects were (aside from the acid part). I think it helped that I was making lines to form a picture much in the same way I might when creating a pen & ink drawing.

Well, I think I've rambled enough for one post, so I'll save the aquatint and the soft ground etching for another time.


  1. What an interesting class! And I would say you definitely have a skill for it, Paige.

    O.O The last, line-etching piece is gorgeous!

    1. It was an exciting experience. I definitely learned a lot!
      Thank you! *blushes*

  2. Wow! So cool. Sounds like a fun class :)

    1. I had a lot of fun with it! I wish I could try printing more sometime when I'm not being graded for it; I stressed out too much over getting everything done in time, but the process itself was fascinating.