Adventures in Printmaking: Day One in the Studio

Adventures in Printmaking: 15 March, 2012, Day One, making the printing plates

At the end of February, I started a zinc plate, using the diamond scriber. It was a simple knotwork border, 6×8. It gives me approximately a 4×6 space to work up an original drawing inside the border.

Zinc plate with Knotwork border: 6x8

Zinc plate with Knotwork border: 6x8

The steel scriber from the engraving kit was easier to use, but the diamond scriber cut deeper, so I stuck with it. It occasionally stuttered and I had to carefully control curving lines. I fussed and puttered with it.

On the 12th of March, more from curiosity than focus, I picked up one of the clear acrylic plates, laid it over one of my more intricate Celtic cross patterns that I had designed for digital reproduction and I traced it onto the transparent acrylic plate with the steel scriber. I moved the acrylic plate to a sheet of black paper and went back over it more carefully with the scriber, pleased with how easy it was to make.

acrylic plate, 8x10

acrylic plate, 8x10

It should be noted at this point that if you use an acrylic sheet to make a plate, they are cheap and easy to use, but the design traced onto the plate will be reversed when you print it. I didn’t care on this one, because the Celtic cross had a fourfold symmetry. Nothing would look odd reversed. Letters are, of course, the most obvious reversal errors to make, but reversing a landscape can look odd too. Trace a design on tracing paper and flip it over to make it easy. Or reverse it in the computer and print it off reversed before putting it under the acrylic plate.

acrylic plate

acrylic plate, 8x10

On the 15th and 16th of March, I had two days off in a row from my part time job. It was halfway through the month, and I needed to get to work. I gritted my teeth and got past the voice. On day one, I finished the zinc border and started on another border with an acrylic plate. I had been planning to get another zinc plate done, but found myself tied up with a bit more work than I expected on the 8×10 acrylic piece. I had picked a very involved spiral pattern, and had blocked out a space the size of an ATC, 3 ½ by 2 ½ inches, on the plate so I could draw an original piece inside the printed border later. The complex spirals included some areas I wanted black, so I went back over them with closely spaced diagonal lines.

There is a small tool called a ‘roulette’ which operates much like a tiny pizza cutter. The wheel has sharp points on it which leave lines of closely spaced dots. Other versions may create repetitive lines, or blocks of dots. The point is, that closely spaced dots or lines create areas that hold a lot of ink, and when printed they create solid spaces of black or whatever color ink you are using. I did not have the money to invest, so I went with a more time consuming option of layering fine lines with the scriber. I knew it was unlikely to be as even as the space created by a roulette, but I was willing to go with it. Telling the negative voice to shut up so I could get some work done.

Note that in the photos of the acrylic intaglio plates, the worked areas appear white. These are the areas that will hold ink, and become the color of the ink.

By the end of day one, I had my two older linoleum block print designs, a new zinc dry point border, and two larger and more complex, acrylic drypoint designs. I also had stiff hands.

Take THAT, negative Voice.



Making Prints: Prep and the Voice of Doubt

Adventures in Printmaking: Prep

First of all, let me make it clear, that I have not had any formal training in printmaking other than a session during art class in high school where I learned to make linoleum block prints. I made Christmas cards as a fundraiser for high school band. So, there is no one to blame for my lack of experience or skill, or for the mistakes I make, except me. Feel free to comment if you feel I’ve made a specific mistake that your teacher warned you about…

Second, I have a number of books, all of which are well thumbed. And stained with a bit of ink at this stage. I will provide a list. What you should know, however, is that the most detailed book I’ve obtained so far is “Practical Guide to Etching and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques” by Manly Banister. I will refer to Manly many times. I’m sure he would be irritated with me, considering my screw ups, but he’s my mentor for this run through. I have already been pointed towards “The Complete Printmaker” book, and I will pick it up soon.

I had a very difficult time getting over the internal voice that said I couldn’t do this. I bought a lot of the equipment five years ago, and poked at it again during the Derrybawn Project. And still I didn’t do much with it. I may be a little less than fussy right now, when it comes to the results, but I needed to jump in before the voice talked me out of it again.

In 2007, I purchased a small 906 etching press, an extended phenolic bed plate and high quality wool press blankets giving me 12×36 space to print. I ordered Stonehenge printing papers and a large package of golden, artist linoleum sheets. I also purchased a small hand press, capable of making 8×10 prints, linoleum cutting tools and a selection of ‘easy cut‘ rubber plates of different brands. Somewhere in there, while reveling in a sale, I also mistakenly picked up a very nice selection of engraving burins instead of the wood carving tools I thought I bought. Instead of returning them, I bought a book on wood engraving and I bought a few small wood engraving blocks. Since I was quitting my day job that year, I stocked up while I still had the paychecks.

What I did manage to do that year was to create four block plates. Three were smaller: a Scythian stag, an abstracted bird, and a Celtic cross. The larger was a very nice piece called ’Raven Sun and Serpent Moon’ usually shorted to ’Raven sun and moon’. I ran a number of prints from each block on my hand press, as the rubber plates were too soft to handle the pressure of the bigger press without distorting.

Raven Sun and Serpent Moon

But then I stopped. The prints did not sell well, and I ended up without the room to make prints as our house was renovated after the kitchen flooded. My studio became a catchall for kitchen stuff, and it was hard to work. I had room to make drawings on a board in my lap on the couch.

During the Derrybawn Project in 2010, I promised myself I would start in on printmaking again. I purchased a diamond tip scriber and two zinc plates. Money was tighter, so I didn’t go crazy. I also bought two acrylic plates. The Project took a different turn when I was asked to create plates for digital reproductions. Other than two linoleum plates of birds and two more small easy-cut plates, I didn’t produce anything for hand-pulling prints. The digital printing fell through and I was left with a large selection of black and white art, no money and a deep funk.

Shield Raven

I took up a part-time job in 2011, and I pulled myself out of the funk with some experimentation in gelatin printmaking. Less intense and more free-flowing, I splashed a lot of color around and got some really good results. I also started plotting out some large landscape pieces, though I did not have the money for the supplies I wanted. By the end of 2011, I was promising myself to use only supplies on hand to do artwork, so the landscapes were put on hold, and I began experimenting with collage using only materials in my studio. It came around to the printmaking again, as I realized that I needed to use the equipment or sell it.

Finding that three of my original four plates were cracked, including my favorite Raven, I gave up on the easy-carve plates. I was having some health problems that affected my joints, so making linoleum blocks was a bit problematic with only old, dull linoleum cutting tools. I had to throw out the remaining golden linoleum sheets as they were water damaged and hard as a rock. I still had two linoleum plates that I had never printed, a small selection of zinc, wood and acrylic plates, the engraving tools, and the diamond scriber.

I had all the makings for dry point plates and engravings. I even had paper. But the negative voice kept at me, and it wasn’t until March of 2012 that I managed to get past it. It kept telling me how difficult it was to get good results, how I had never taken classes, how much more money I would have to invest, etc. etc.

All I needed was the fiddly, little bits. Manly listed everything I needed. Chalk, blotting paper, a bin to soak the printing paper, rags, a drying rack and … oh yes, etching ink. I had block printing ink, but dry point is an intaglio process, requiring a different ink.

A storage bin became a soaking bin. I put screws into the walls in the corner of my studio and strung up some clothesline. I bought clothespins. I found carpenter’s chalk and a box of rags at the Home Depot. Newsprint pads were on clearance at the local craft store. Etching ink was the most expensive thing I had to get. There were six pricing levels at the store, so I dug through the colors until I found two of the cheapest; a soft black and red ochre. Budget would drive my choices, but it was a guideline, not a hammer. Staying with the inexpensive series allowed me to pick two.

No voice of doubt could stop me now…..



Three words (HrK)

‘Hall of the Raven King’ is proceeding apace. I have finished two layers of rabbitskin glue, added the muslin sheeting, and the gesso is drying.

NOTE: Forgot to mention two things about rabbitskin glue. First, do not boil the solution as it loses adhesiveness. Second, do not reheat congealed glue, as it also reduces adhesiveness.

Anyway. Gesso. The undercoat of a piece of artwork is something to consider when planning your colors. Gessos are primarily white, as white does not add anything to the colors of your paints. Even opaque paints can be affected by the undercoat.

I do not use acrylic paints very often, as I like the luminosity of watercolor and I’ve mentioned the list of reasons I like to work with tempera in another post. I find acrylics a bit rubbery and lacking a feeling of light. This may be my lack of experience with acrylics, but I usually avoid using them. In this case, however, I wanted to be able to layout color blocks of background and layer on the detailed Celtic design without having the background and foreground do any blending. Acrylic is very useful for this sort of technique, and I am using ’soft body’ acrylics by Liquitex which will suit my more watercolor style as they are far more fluid than tube acrylics.

I have an extremely detailed layout, primarily a seascape crafted of Celtic design elements. It has a very stylized and ‘old manuscript’ feel to it, especially as I used an old medieval illumination of Jerusalem to help me layout the towers and gates of the Hall.

I decided to challenge myself with a drastically limited color palette, selecting two colors to go with black and white tones. Quinacridone Violet and Permanent Green Dark are my color selections. They fall nearly opposite on the color wheel. Shadows and tones will be provided only with black and white. I am hoping, with these colors, to maintain a feeling of things being ‘bleak’ and ‘unreal’ as I work up the spirals and twisting knots.

To add to this, I have used black gesso as an undercoat, and black as a mixer on the palette. One of the first things you learn in art class is not to use black, but to develop other colors within the painting to provide shadows and darks that are not black but appear so to the eye. Here, I am using black. I want the feeling of gloom that a black mix will provide. The black gesso will affect the colors, which are not completely opaque. I’m thinking of a mix between Patrick Fitzgerald and Edward Gorey. And if you get both of those artistic references, we should talk.

As a whole, the piece should feel a bit unfinished or even shoddy. Worn. Maybe damaged. The board is not squared, and I have allowed edges of the muslin sheeting to show. I kept the gesso thin and I did not build up a smooth surface. The texture of the muslin and glue is rough under my first layers of paint. Black gesso, applied in almost a dry-brush technique, is bringing out the fabric crosshatching and wood grain near the unsanded edges and corners.

‘Bleak, unreal, damaged’ are my words for this piece.



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