Understanding the Fine Print (chapter 2)

Understanding the Fine Print (chapter 2)

Adam Cave - Artsee Magazine

Within every artistic medium, there are an untold number of techniques and materials, some dating back a thousand years. When it comes to understanding how different art is made, printmaking seems to have more than it’s fair share of confusing terms. Most readers are probably familiar with woodcuts, etchings, silk screen prints, and even lithography. If not, take a look at the January 2011 issue of ARTSEE where these basics are covered. But, printmakers today are using many lesser-known techniques as well and familiarity with a few more terms should aid with the overall appreciation of the art form.


Against the grain

Let’s start with wood. Despite woodcuts being well understood today, a variation known as wood engraving was the primary printing technique 150 years ago. Used for commercial illustration prior to photography, this medium is now the domain of fine artists. Whereas woodcuts are made by carving an image into the flat side of a board, wood engravings are made by standing the board upright and carving into the end grain of the wood. The grain adds character to a wood block print but makes it hard to create fine lines. By working in the end of the board, the artist has no grain to contend with and can create much more detail.


Scratching the surface

Wood engraving should not be confused with copper or steel engraving. These intaglio processes create a plate similar to an etching plate, where the ink is held in the grooves. But, instead of using acids to etch grooves, the artist scratches directly into the metal plate with a v-shaped tool called a burin. The line quality is very clean but requires a very strong and steady hand.

A variation on metal engraving is drypoint where a sharply pointed needle is used instead of the burrin. The resulting grooves have a burr (buildup of metal shavings) on either side that gives lines a soft characteristic when printed. Since the pressure of the press crushes the burr quickly with multiple printings, drypoint is only used to make very small editions.


Watch your tone

Mezzotint is alternative engraving process known for subtle variations in tone as opposed to the expressive line work in etchings and engravings. Invented by Ludwig von Siegen in the 17th Century, mezzotint was originally used to make small copies of paintings. The art form was almost completely lost prior to the 20th century but rediscovered by fine artists in the 1920’s.

The key to a mezzotint is preparing the metal plate and the signature tool is the rocker, a curved knife, similar to a mezzaluna, with teeth like a saw blade. The artist rocks this knife back and forth, hundreds of times, scratching pits and creating burr evenly across the plate. A print made from the plate at this point would be a solid, velvety black. The artist now works in reverse, burnishing and scraping smooth areas to create an image with a full tonal range from the deepest black to pure white.

Artists who make etchings like to create tones as well as lines and the process of choice is aquatint. First the plate is dusted with powdered rosin, then heated, so that the rosin bakes on to the metal as a dense group of tiny hard dots. These dots resist the acid bath when the plate is submerged and tiny pits are etched around and between them. These pits will hold ink in the same manner as the etched lines. By playing with the time in the acid, the artist can use this method to create areas of differing tones.


Colorful language

The most common means to print color is to prepare different blocks or plates for each individual color and print them in succession on a single sheet of paper. But of course, there are other ways. In a reduction woodcut, the artist carves a partial image on the block and uses it to print one color on all the sheets in the edition. Then he carves more material out of the same block and prints another color, etc. This takes a lot of careful planning since, by carving more and more away during the process, the artist destroys the block.

In traditional Japanese wood block printing, a combination of watercolor paint and rice paste is used instead of oil-based inks, a technique referred to as Moku Hanga. The resulting prints have much more translucent color often printed over each other in washes.

Chine Collé (French for “Chinese Paper”) is an alternative to “printing” color all together. A piece of colored rice paper is sandwiched between the inked plate and the main sheet of paper. In passing all three through the press, the two pieces of paper are glued together and the ink is printed over the top of both the regular paper and the sheet providing the color.

Another color variation that does not require multiple plates is Á la Poupée (“of the sponge”). Instead of applying one color to the entire plate, various colors are sponged on to different areas and all printed on to the paper together at one time.

Of course, no two artists ever do anything the same and often, many of these printmaking methods are used in combination. The results are hand-made, one-of-a-kind artworks, where every technique has been carefully chosen to best communicate the unique ideas of the artist. Still confused? My advice is to first let yourself fall in love with the image in front of you and then, later, investigate the mysteries of how it was made.