Saturday, 14 July 2012


I don't know whether I mentioned that for a time I championed the concept of original printmaking. I specialized in the making of intaglio (etching, drypoint, mezzotint, engraving and aquatint) prints, had my own press and studio, produced more than a hundred intaglio printing plates, and after working with the various materials involved in the process for some 25 years was rewarded with a permanent cough. Yes, making art can be hazardous to your health.   

Intaglio printmaking is a very challenging means of making original prints. It requires a great deal of planning and preparation without guarantee that the end result will be as envisioned in your sketches and tonal drawing. As to why then are artists attracted to making intaglio prints? Perhaps, it’s the idea of employing techniques dating back to the late Renaissance. Perhaps, it’s the idea of making multiple originals in the face of the many present  day artists who have surrendered to a photo-mechanical  means to produce multiple copies of their paintings and drawings. For my own part I found it somewhat rewarding to make multiple originals much as was done by the likes of Rembrandt. I also felt good knowing that those that purchase my intaglio prints were getting the real thing, real art, a print that, although a part of an edition, is very unique.  Being human I was unable to create two prints that were identical, similar in appearance perhaps, but still, different. For this reason, intaglio prints, not unlike woodcuts, linocuts and lithographic prints, are referred to as multiple originals.

NOVEMBER DAWN: The idea for the print “November Dawn” came from a childhood memory of going hunting with my great uncle Joe and my dad early one morning in November.  We’d left home before dawn arriving at what is now Awenda Provincial Park located near to Penetanguishene, Ontario on the shore of Georgian Bay. My father made what they referred to as “bush tea” using a large tin can to heat water over an open fire. When the water came to a boil my dad threw in a handful of tea leaves and some sugar and then allowed the tea to steep and cool a bit before we drank it. With the dawn we hid out on the shore and watched and waited for the bay ducks to come close to, or fly over the shore. I don’t recall whether we shot any ducks. I do recall that it was bloody cold and that I almost froze to death while we lay there on the shore waiting for the ducks to get close enough for a shot. I suppose that I can be excused for not remembering. I was about 9 – 10 years old at that time and, as I write this, I’m  seventy years old. Time has a way of dulling memories.

Now, we all work differently, but no doubt my fellow printmakers will agree there really is no easy way when it comes to intaglio, especially etching and aquatint. I’ll try to explain just how I used to go about creating an intaglio print: - 

STEP ONE: First of all there is the “idea”. You know, the inspiration, something you’ve seen, wanted to see, and you convince yourself that, perhaps, just perhaps, someone else would enjoy seeing the picture that hides in your head, as well. So, convinced that the effort will be worthwhile you begin the process (some call it the creative process) of coaxing the image from inside your head onto a piece of paper. A rough sketch is made followed by many more rough sketches until a final image begins to take place. Then, there’s the research and a final, detailed, drawing is made……in reverse of how the print will appear. The drawing must be done in detail, and must be monochromatic as it will provide a tonal reference for the aquatinting process.

Original Drawing

STEP TWO: The plate is prepared by cutting it to the right size, beveling the edges, degreasing, then coating it with asphaltum, which when dry will act as an acid resistant ground allowing only the bared surfaces to be etched. Once dry a tracing of the detailed drawing is placed on the plate and the principal elements are transferred to the plate. A needle is then used to scratch a line drawing onto the plate.

Transfer Tracing of Original Drawing

STEP THREE: Once the drawing has been transferred to the plate it is immersed into a nitric acid bath and left for several minutes, sufficient time to allow the acid to bite, or etch, the line drawing into the plate. The plate is then removed from the acid bath. The asphaltum, or acid resistant ground, is the removed with varsol, or paint thinners, and the plate is cleaned of all residue.

STEP FOUR: The plate is now prepared for the aquatinting process which when inked and printed will produce the tonal effect. Powdered resin is dusted onto the plate and the plated is evenly heated until the particles of resin melt and adhere to the plate. The plate is allowed to cool. Once cool lacquer is painted onto those areas that are to remain white. The plate is then returned to the acid bath, but this time for no more than 30 seconds, or so. The plate is then removed from the acid bath and washed clean of acid. Once dry more lacquer is applied exposing areas of the plate to a further etch lasting less than a minute. This goes on until the etching/aquatinting process is completed. 

STEP FIVE: The etching/aquatinting process finished the plate can be inked and a final state proof can be pulled. It’s at this point that the artist can step back and either breathe a sigh of relief realizing that all of the hard work has paid off, or, as it happens in some cases, adjust to the fact that despite the hard work compromise is the order of the day. There are so many variables in the process, right down to the temperature of the acid bath, That it’s rare to have a plate etched perfectly.

STEP SIX: I decided  with this print, entitled “November Dawn (Canvasback Ducks)” to take the finished print one step further from monochromatic to colour. I introduced colour with a roller to a second (blank) plate of the same size and over-printed the original print. The colour was for effect. 

November Dawn (Canvasback Ducks)        Open Edition  Ernest Somers

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