Making an Etching:

         The Intimate Embrace of Process and Aesthetics

    Etching is a technical medium about which even knowledgeable collectors and curators often know surprisingly little. This medium, however, affects my imagery and my approach as surely as water flows downhill. Therefore, to help you understand the process, this chapter will welcome you into my world as an insider; I will offer you no secrets, no esoteric mumbo jumbo, but instead a process that is eminently comprehensible.  The following Chinese parable is a doorway to my realm:

“ The emperor, born under the sign of the rooster in the ancient Chinese zodiac, wished to have a painting of this subject for his chambers.  He was directed by his courtesans and calligraphers to an elderly master who agreed to paint a cockerel for his birthday – not immediately however, but for his next birthday.  The artist’s conditions were, that he would receive a year’s pay, a well-equipped studio, and a quiet home with servants for this work to proceed without disruptions.  After the year was up, he received a call from the emperor’s retinue.  The two men retired to the studio together, leaving the others to wait.  There, the artist unhurriedly rolled out paper, prepared his brushes and inks and then calmly sat down to paint.  In half an hour he had painted an absolutely exquisite rooster before the emperor’s eyes.  The emperor was at first delighted with the demonstration of dexterity and amazed with the beauty of the result.  Soon however, he began to grow angry with the painter for his extravagant conditions, demanding to know why

he had required a year’s wages for work that took only 30 minutes.  The elderly artist in answer silently escorted him to a closed door, behind which the emperor was shown a room containing ten thousand paintings of cockerels.  “ This,” said the artist,” is what I’ve done in the intervening year, in order to be able to perform that which you have witnessed today”.


    It is in the moment when I stand before the gleaming copper plate with etching needle in hand that ‘the ten thousand drawings’ come into play. I must have commensurate confidence that my actions will bear fruit; I dare not approach with trepidation – in dread of spending hours scraping down the metal and sanding out the blunder of an impetuous moment. The hours of disciplined practice, summing over the years to an intimate familiarity with my medium, are the dues I have paid. The reward I reap is the calm confidence with which I now proceed: I take a deep breath and fluidly engage with the material - dancing with the diamond point across the gleaming surface. Every nuanced gesture must convey authority; in harmony with all that has brought me to this instant, I am fully present and ride the unpredictable wave of surrounding circumstance and mood.  If the spirit guides my hand, I leave convincing form in my wake.

   Etching demands strict methodological steps and like the firing of ceramics or the foundry work of bronze casting, the many integral practical steps between idea and finished artifact influence the outcome as surely as night follows day.  For many practitioners etching is a frustrating discipline; I, too - enamored of the results - often find myself impatient with the process. In my work patterns I cycle from the spontaneity of drawing to the rigorous refining of images in hard metal, then back again to the simplicity of drawing in the field. The studio work and the fieldwork are two sides of a single coin.  For months I will avoid the clutter of specialized tools and the toxic solvents and acids in which I immerse my plates and hands. While my body is purging its tissues of strange chemicals - the exotic and colorful metallic salt solutions, acids and aromatic hydrocarbons - I enjoy the simple liberties and lightness of pencils and paper out in the field.

    Inevitably, though, the day arrives when the compulsion again overcomes me to metamorphose those drawings filling up my folios and desktop into complex expressions of greater depth. I need to smell the inks; I need to feel the subtle warmth of copper giving way before my well-honed tools as they cut into its lustrous and seductive surface. Once again, the sublime beauty of these materials overtakes me and I pull out plates, acids and papers for months of intense immersion into that which can be accomplished in no other way.

How I Make and Print an Etching

   Etching is an intaglio process of printing; a term that originated with the Italian Renaissance masters, intaglio means that the printing is from the depths of the plate. The grooves etched into a metal surface are engraved directly with sharp specialized tools (this is the way that plates for stamps and currency are made), or are etched into the metal plate with acids. These grooves hold the ink, and when all the surface ink is wiped away, before printing, only the etched, recessed lines will transfer their ink – and thus the desired image - to the paper. A woodcut is the exact opposite process wherein one cuts away the empty or negative space and rolls ink onto the remaining surface to form the desired image. This is called a relief print and is ordinarily a simpler form of printing - like the linoleum and potato prints we made in grade school.

     Because the chemistry of etching demands a logical progression of technical procedures with attention paid to safety, the medium presents daunting barriers to seeing one’s vision through to completion. Many artists are dissuaded from even trying, yet the beauty I find in a delicate aquatint or the delight I take in a velvety drypoint line is physically manifested, as I peel the freshly pressed print away from the copper plate, and my breath ceases as my heart speeds up in anticipation of seeing what my hand has wrought.

     I invest a great deal of effort in preparing the copper or zinc plate itself: first the plate must be cleaned of unwanted nicks and scrapes, then polished and degreased. A flawless ground must be rolled over the surface (this is the substance through which I inscribe the image to be etched and which protects the non-image areas from attack by the acid bath). Only then can I begin to etch the metal surface - with layer after layer of organic texture - to create a foundation for the more intricate delicate line work that comes later. These initial layers on the virgin plate are the coarser side of my image. Because work with acids inevitably introduces foulbiting – unintended corrosion, (which I find intolerable in refined line-work) – this rough and tumble stage comes first.  As you can see, the work must proceed from raw and crude and build upon itself to the refined graceful and fragile.

    The dramatic, organically eroded effects seen along the border areas of the bird prints and the larger Lake Superior plates, in particular, were achieved with aggressive etches in concentrated acids. This doesn’t happen in one shot but in a progression of loosely controlled etches.  The mark of a beginner is the anxious timing of etches and the timid shallow bite of a single immersion.  The master etcher will etch long and hard, and then - hardly at all – building up an image with multifarious, almost geological levels.   A wonderful story is told about Kaethe Kollwitz, who was a master of masters with the intaglio print.  She was pregnant, and of course hard at work in her Berlin studio, when contractions set in and all thoughts of art went flying.  While she was giving birth to her son, the lines in the metal plate she had abandoned in the acid just etched deeper and deeper until the plate was discovered exhausting the last vestiges of caustic ions in the etching tank.  It wasn’t by any means a loss, but became a wonderfully bold and innovative new work for Kollwitz.

   I value the accidents that emerge as I submit the plate to processes beyond my control. Initially, I have rolled out thick layers of inks, paints and tar-like acid resists in the centers of the virgin plates, allowing them to thin out towards the edges.  I then submerge these crusty, coated plates in a tub filled with concentrated acid, often before the surfaces are completely dried, and then allow the gods to surprise me with what will be wrought in the corrosive bath.

  The result is a breath-taking mix of scarred, pockmarked surfaces and jagged edges that form haphazardly as the bits of ink or ground or paint lift up and peel off with the corrosive action of the acid.  The concentrated acid generates enough heat of reaction to begin raising the temperature of the bath; the higher temperature, in turn, speeds up the rate of reaction, which gives off even more heat, resulting in an exothermic feedback loop - so aggressive, so dramatic that it can even bring the acid to a roiling, fuming boil.

   After extracting the plates from the acid, I clean them - filing the edges, sanding down and polishing the passages where subtle and fragile line-work will be introduced. Delicate line-work enters the picture towards the end of the etching process; any earlier and all of it would be obliterated on plates that, until that point, are treated roughly – in that first stage, the phase where I mimic the processes of erosion in Nature.

    Next, the plate is covered with a thin layer of acid-resistant asphaltum, a material that looks like a waxy tar. Typically this is a firm layer of hard ground, which I then inscribe with a thin line - creating images reminiscent of pen and ink drawings. At other times I use a soft-ground, formulated so as not to set up and fully harden.  A tightly stretched sheet of paper is taped down over the prepared plate. I then draw my image in pencil - analogous to drawing through carbon paper. The pencil presses the paper down into the soft ground, adhering it to the tacky plate surface, causing minute bits of the soft-ground to be picked up off the plate when the paper is pulled off. This results in a pattern of microscopic textures being exposed in the metal. Afterwards, you can indeed see a silvery ghost of a pencil drawing on the plate. When this drawn plate is then immersed in a weak acid, the exposed metal is dissolved away and the pattern of microscopic pitting in the plate holds ink in a delicate pencil-like line.

    I can no longer proceed without knowing what has taken place on the plate. In order to see the work’s progress, the plate must be cleansed of all grounds and a working impression, called a proof, pulled on the press.  To accomplish this, I roll the surface of the plate with thick oily ink, taking meticulous care to squeeze the ink into every groove. Redundant ink is wiped from the surface with rags, and little more than a microscopic film - called plate tone - remains on the surface.  A thick, blotter-like etching paper is dampened, laid over the plate and then cranked through the press under a pad of cushioning blankets. The ink in the grooves is crushed into the fiber of the absorbent paper and transferred completely. Peeling back the paper, we see a mirror image of the etched plate. Because the paper is molded under great pressure, around the plate and into all the grooves and textures, it results in a characteristic embossing that can be both seen and felt. This time-consuming, ritual-like process is repeated with each print pulled.

    Now that I have seen what is in the plate, I can continue.  I stand at a crossroads; the plate now contains a delicate tracery of fluidly drawn pencil-like lines as well as robust organic textures. The visual contrast between delicate and rough elements excites me as I now prepare to go into the plate with aquatints to create gray halftones. This is achieved with powdered rosin dusted on the plate. The plate is heated; the rosin dust melts, forming tiny droplets; the plate is cooled and the droplets solidify - forming a pattern. The acid will now etch only the exposed metal around the tiny globules. If, instead of using an acid bath, I brush the mordant solution on - the nitric acid reacts vigorously at first, and as it spreads out in a pool towards the edges the etchant eventually becomes spent and weakened. What I have described is a loosely controlled means of etching half-tones without hard edges. This results in a swathe of microscopic pitting that holds and prints ink in ways that resemble watercolor washes. In the shop we call it a spit-bite; the best source for a liquid medium - with just the right surface tension to hold the pool of acid in its desired place without spilling out too far - is as close as the artist’s own mouth.

    Now my plate has both an aquatint and a soft-ground etch. At this point, I would be a fool to compromise the substantial investment I have made in this plate. It is of utmost concern to preserve the delicate passages; the chance of foul-biting by the acid - the dreaded loss of detail - ensures that beyond this stage, I work only in drypoint (without wet acids), drawing directly with a diamond-point, plowing through the metal and throwing up a microscopic metal furrow - called a burr - to each side of the groove. The burr is irregular and holds ink in ways that result in velvety, feathery impressions. Drypoint, although it often breaks down quickly under the immense pressure of the press, can greatly enhance the richness of an image,

     The beautifully opulent impression of a fresh drypoint burr is hailed not only by printmakers; it is also coveted by the connoisseurs of etching. Do you remember Daumier - his drawings of hook-nosed and gangly introverts, in top hats and suit coats, examining postage-stamp-sized prints at antiquarian print shops, suffering eyestrain under low light just to closely examine the precious jewel-of-a-fine etching under a magnifying lense?  Who are these weirdoes? They are print connoisseurs, looking for that perfectly pulled, low-numbered impression, perhaps with a unique remarque, signed in the hand of the artist - with just the right amount of drypoint burr.

       Next, the choice of ink adds another dimension to the work-in-progress. Inks are not all the same, and we printers - who laughingly refer to ourselves as  “practitioners of the black arts” - are in love with poly-chromatic blacks: by this we mean blacks that are composed of a mixture of pigments; blacks that began as a vine or charcoal black, with a judicious dollop of smeary lamp black added, and then perhaps later enriched with blue and red pigments, introducing barely visible warm or cold undertones that give added sparkle.  Some printmakers go so far as to make separate plates and overprint them in precise registration of cold and warm blacks - which sum to what is called a duo-tone in printer’s lingo and which yields lustrous tonalities that just glow from within.  A light linseed oil varnish mixed into the ink will yield a lighter impression; a more viscous varnish gives a thicker, organic plate tone. These considerations are all part of the integrated ‘look’ of a proper etching.

    Wiping the plate - prior to printing - is another sensitive and painstaking process.  I use a progression of rags from rough to silken to wipe the plate before I crank it through the press. When I strip the ink off the plate surface - with a devoted and attentive touch, down to a desired amount of surface film – I walk a tightrope. I run the danger of wiping the ink out of the more delicate line-work.  Too much oily surface film muddies the image, while too little results in excessively stark impressions. I frequently use my bare knuckles and palms, the most responsive instruments of all, to pull the final highlights from a plate.

     The choice of paper enters into the equation at this point.  A print has to meet certain standards of the craft: it must be aesthetically placed on a sheet of paper that is of just the right dimensions and just the right tone; it must be cleanly imprinted - without fingerprints or wrinkles.  I soak my papers a day or two in advance, because it requires that certain level of dampness - evenly distributed throughout the sheet - to get optimal transference of ink: ink that doesn’t merely sit on the surface but which penetrates into the very fibers of the paper.  Such an impression possesses an inner radiance that emanates from deep within, because the ink has been pounded under pressure into its very molecular structure. The most responsive sensor for detecting just the right amount of dampness is the printer’s lip; and thus you’ll see the adepts of intaglio getting a little overly familiar with their work - kissing their papers and such.


     And we printmakers do get particular about our papers:  I beat the bushes for the right sheet of hosho or mulberry fiber, or an African esparto grass sheet for a wood engraving, or a soft absorbent cotton fiber paper to pick up a delicate aquatint.  There are admixtures of wool or linen in some papers that can be vexing to print, but which can look oh-so exquisitely elegant once you’ve figured out how to make the paper become pliant and do your bidding.

   Handmade papers - yet another chapter in the saga of making a print - are the exquisite and expensive objects of a desire that many a printmaker takes to near fetishistic excess.  We easily turn into driven collectors, hoarding beautiful and rare papers, assembling stashes from obscure shops all over the world.  When you’ve carried the paper on your back from central Asia or Eastern Europe, you can get pretty stingy with it. Just imagine if I were I were to die and some unappreciative adolescent were given my paper collection and just used it up proofing Megadeath album cover plates? Perish the thought!

      Not just any image – not just any collector is worthy of the papers I find in the back alleys of Lhasa and shepherd through customs. These hand-made sheets have luscious deckled edges, which come about in the process of hand-forming sheets.  Macerated fibers are suspended in vats of water and scooped up on a flat woven sieve.  The master paper-maker is capable of forming each sheet just so, with a perfect amount of the irregular, feathery wisps of fiber hanging over the edge - the deckle.  The weave of the screen upon which the papers are formed impresses itself like a watermark into the backside and can be seen when held up against the sun. And watermarks...yes, the wondrous watermarks of old Italian papers pilfered from the endsheets of musty foxing volumes at antiquarian book shops, dated and tarnished by the passing centuries, oh yes - We find joy in our papers.    

     Does this all sound far-fetched; like the arcane ritual of some medieval order - spitting and kissing in obscure rites involving alchemical processes and precipitates of metallic salts; a compulsive maniacal priesthood of an obscure cult making images that can only be achieved through a long convoluted process of exposing plates to complex progressions of frothing acid baths; the building up of skeins of lines, each of which holds and releases the varying amounts of ink in its own characteristic way; the embellishing of the sensuous and opulently complex inks, in conjunction with yellowing varnishes and exotic papers ?


     But there are no secrets with this technology; it is public knowledge, which hasn’t changed significantly since Goya etched his Disasters of War in the early 19th century.  The artist needs to know when to reach for the right trick in the technical arsenal, and when to keep it simple. In order to communicate what is in the soul, the practitioner must be capable of transcending the hurdles posed by the technology of this medium. At that point we can speak of the image undergoing transubstantiation: like taking part in the Eucharist, when simple wine and bread are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Simple sketches find their way into a new incarnation; enriched by copper, ink and fine papers, they become multilayered exhumations of the subconscious. Transcendent.

Limitation as Liberation: Working in Black and White

     I have a compelling agenda. As an artist I must take the critical step and turn my visions into physical expression, or they are lost forever. The limitations of my chosen medium benefit me because they channel the boundless river of potential like a riverbank channels the rains and harnesses the wild and tumultuous energy of the current.  The countless discarded ideas make room for the few to become realized potential. Critics, like gourmands, can pick and choose among the tasty morsels spread before them at the laden tables of artistic production, enjoying a little delectable symbolism here and some piquant social commentary there, before digging into real blood and guts German expressionism and finishing off with some erotic bon-bons and intoxicating after-dinner esoterica.  Practicing artists need to be narrow in their appetites and preferences.  We learn to limit ourselves - an important strength of will on the path to mastery - asking ourselves: What matters enough to do in the limited time I have on this earth?

    Before I was a printmaker I went through a phase as a colorist; I was so enamored of color theory and subtle color combinations that I found myself opening up to virtually all possibilities.  The vast array of options became a vertiginous swamping of my senses, and I found that I was becoming immobilized by the formless void of unlimited potential opening up before me.  Quite suddenly, I became disinterested in color.  I found myself instead, looking at the fundament of all two-dimensional art – simply wanting to work in black and white.  This decision has served me well.

    Somewhere in my inner recesses there still lurks a scientist who hunts for underlying structural purpose. My compositions have something analytical about them, and I still look intently at how something is constructed – I study its underpinnings. My drawings are, after all, a form of empirical knowledge and testimony about observed experience. Drawing is to all two-dimensional art as a skeleton is to musculature and surface form. By staying graphic I don’t cover my tracks or disguise my origins and I leave more skeletal structure visible. Since I have barred myself from tarting up a weak image with bits of flashy color, my drawings live or die on the basis of their graphic prowess.

    Graphic expression has forced me to examine closely: What do I care enough about – to commit it to copper and edition prints?  I cast aside the superfluous, and what finally remains, comes from the ‘the ten thousand sketches’ that came before - every one of which lies embedded in my neural and psychic network, informing each line and galvanizing each gesture I make. 

Now I release the finished creaturas into the world; I allow them to find their place in the galleries, homes, museums, garages, frame shops, studios. I become still. I wait for those with the eye and the heart to see.