Stephen Whittle Etchings

The etching process

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The first step in creating an etching is to make a detailed pencil drawing of the subject. A copper plate is then prepared, and after cleaning and heating, a thin, waxy, acid-resisting ground is applied with a roller. The main elements of the drawing are traced onto this surface with tracing paper. The ground is then scratched off with a fine etching needle where a line is desired in the finished piece, so exposing the bright copper metal. A sharper needle is used for fine lines and a blunter one for strong outlines. However, the real gradation in strength of line is produced with the next process, called “biting.” The plate is immersed in an acid bath of ferric chloride, initially for about twenty minutes, which eats into the exposed lines. The lines that are sufficiently “bitten” are then painted over with an acid-resisting varnish, and the plate replaced in the acid. This process continues until the artist is satisfied with the results. Both ground and varnish are now cleared off the plate and a proof print of the work so far undertaken is made.

At this stage the print looks fairly stark, but the next stage of the process, called the “aquatint,” adds tonal variations to the lines so far etched. The etched plate and a second, blank plate are cleaned and coated in a thin layer of powdered rosin dust. On heating, the rosin fuses to the plate and serves as an acid-resisting ground in tiny granular dots, leaving exposed copper in between. Those areas that are to print white are painted with acid-resisting varnish, and the plate then immersed in the acid for about two minutes. This causes a pale tone to be bitten over the exposed areas. Some of these are then painted out and the remainder etched for a further period. This process is continued until only the dark shadows remain exposed. The second plate is now etched to print background colors by tracing the main elements of the design from the first plate and etching accordingly. Often a third plate is likewise etched as the complexities of the color scheme demand.

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At this point, a first proof can be made. The plates are cleaned, the edges filed smooth, and the colored inks mixed. Several colors can be applied to each plate with muslin dabbers. Excess ink is carefully removed from the plates using tissue paper so that ink remains only in the etched areas, the smooth surface thus printing white. The first plate can now be placed on the bed of the press, and its position clearly marked. The dampened printing paper is laid on the top, followed by the printing blankets (which protect the paper from the metal of the press). As the fly-wheel turns, the action of the press exerts such pressure on the paper that it is pressed into the etched areas of the plate and takes the ink with absolute fidelity. The paper is peeled back and the plate carefully exchanged for the second inked plate, and so on until all plates have been impressed on the paper. For every print, the plates must be inked and wiped again, making each an original and no two identical in every detail.

In the creation of a completed piece, this first proof is usually a starting place for refining the design. Colors are mixed and remixed, and the tones of the aquatint lightened with a scraper and burnisher. Several proof cycles may be undertaken before the “perfect” print emerges, which acts as a guide for the production of the whole edition.

When the prints are dry they must be re-dampened and re-dried between blotting paper under pressure to ensure that they remain flat. Each complete print is signed in pencil. Those prints that are published in limited editions are also numbered, with an additional 20-25 “artist’s proofs,” some of which serve as sample and reference copies.

When printing is finally complete the plates are cancelled by scoring across so that no further prints may be pulled, thus ensuring that the limited edition remains strictly limited.

The process of creating the plates typically takes about ten working days. The edition is generally printed to order with a few extra for stock.