Assignment 2: Copper Plate etching: Abstract

So, this was a copper plate etching I started on my last day at this summer’s Non-toxic intaglio course.

It is a combination of different techniques, so really just evolved as I practices various things, but the design principle was simple- keep balancing shapes, lines and textures.

The first stage here was to make a mask to protect certain areas form the ferric chloride bath. I could have used various stop-out methods, but the one that would give the securest edge and solid shapes, seemed to be with a sheet of photopolymer film.

So I’ll just go through the stages here,as this was so much about technique and craft practice, and as these processes are still new to me, I need to record them:

Mask layer

Laminated the copper plate with photopolymer film

Make a mask – I tore paper, and created some block shapes at angles- these had a mix of cut and torn edges.

The photopolymer film was exposed under a UV lamp, but could have been done in the sun (No need for an aquatint layer, as this was just black/ white), edges cut and left to harden for 2 minutes. Then it was developed in washing soda, which removed all the unexposed film and left the rest of the copper clear. (A quick dip in ferric chloride will determine if the film is completely removed, as the plate will oxidize if it is. De-oxidise in salt/ vinegar solution and dry)

I also hardened it in the sun to turn the photopolymer dark purple, but this may not have been necessary.

Aquatint layer

Without an aquatint layer, the copper would be open-bitten- that is to say, in large areas, there would be nothing on the eroded copper to hold the ink, except for the edges of the shapes. To create an aquatint layer that would resist the ferric chloride, I had to spray on a fine layer of acrylic using an airbrush.

Aquatint etching

Then started the process of creating layers using different exposure times. I had already got a list of times from practice plates.

I already had a white layer from my mask, so was not going to stop out anything in this first layer, which would end up as the darkest areas. One of the first things I did was to cut, with an engraving tool, a geometric shape- a thin line to counteract the solid shapes. This was cut into the masked area as well, to break up those shapes. (That was not recommended by the workshop leader, as it would result in harsh lines, which I liked the sound of however)

Then, using different stop-out material- a hard wax crayon, which I knew from my practice plate would give a textured result- and brushed on stop-out (Lascaux acrylic ink)- I made  layers of grey, with times ranging from 5 , 10 and 15. After each exposure to ferric chloride, the plate had to be deoxidised to make sure the stop-out materials would stick.

Finally the plate was dipped in caustic soda, which would remove all the acrylic- though this is best done in Mystrol, which is a bit less strong- but the caustic would take off the photopolymer film.

This is the first inked plate- some the different greys didn’t come out clearly but probably would have if I’d inked them again- they seemed to improve in subsequent inkings. It was all a bit rushed at this stage as time was running out and I might have left too much ink on. On the other hand, I had exposed the first layer for 5 minutes, quite long for a solution that worked to differentiate at intervals of one minute or less at the start of the process. The maximum length of time for dipping in that particular ferric solution was recommended to be 20 minutes to achieve black, and I hadn’t used all that time. I wanted to leave more room for working. But I was reasonably happy with this early result. The lines in the mask are indeed harsh, scored looking, not delicate. The wax crayon worked well. The other layers are not visible in this photo. There is clearly a bit of open bite where my aquatint layer may not have been thick enough, but it has created a happy accident that looks like a light source down the right hand side. I wanted this to have a floating effect, with planes going off at different angles, but it’s still quite flat in this print.


I kept the plate and brought it back with me, and once I had got all my own materials together, and had practiced with the timings, I added more layers to this.

Hard Ground

First up, I covered the back to protect it, and, after deoxidising the plate, brushed on a hard ground layer (Johnson’s Floor polish), then pressed two weights of sandpaper onto it and ran through my new press. I added more lines, using etching tools. After etching in the ferric chloride  I found that the sandpaper marks were rather slight, just visible in the centre as a few pale dots, so decided to have another go with soft ground. (15 minutes etch in my solution, which seemed to be working faster than the one at the workshop) There was also an interesting accident, in that perhaps some of the hard ground is not properly cleaned off and there are some pale marks where the wax crayon texture should be. This is certainly all much lighter now than the first inking. The etching tools- rockers as well as needles have created different line qualities- some quite soft. It has started to have a sensation of receding depths/ multiple planes.


Soft ground

This was an oil-based soft ground, which had to rolled on with a soft roller in a thin layer. (Of course this is not a smooth surface now, but should still work I thought) Then I placed the sandpaper on it again, plus some tarlatan, covered with an oiled layer of Mylar, and ran through the press. This was etched again ( 15 minutes)

The result is now much more complex, with an interesting variety of lines and shapes.

Abstract print
Abstract print

The torn sandpaper edges have added more organic shapes, and the tarlatan texture helps to mesh shapes together. There is an interesting range of greys, and the original solid shapes have now been modulated. I must admit I am still quite unsure of the exact science of what has happened, and how these originals have been affected when they were under a mask- but presumably the uneven surface that I was applying the ground to meant the ground was a bit uneven too. I’m not sure how deeply bitten areas get to look less bitten now- that’s not possible- but maybe it’s to do with the overall relative levels. or maybe I’m just inking better.

The two images above were just trying out the different new inks I’d got. I felt the Charbonnel was very thick. I could try out some viscosity printing- that’s something of a mystery to me as well.

Here is the plate: it’s clear that there are brush marks at the edges where the hard ground wasn’t entirely brushed on. The depth of that initial harsh cut through the mask is clear here too.



I printed it again on coloured banana paper which softens the whole thing and picks up the delicate grey tones created by the sandpaper on the soft-ground stage, as well as the larger marks of the rougher sandpaper from the hard ground stage.

Abstract on yellow
Abstract on yellow

Overall, I like the image, but it has been an experiment in repeating the etching process to achieve layers of different marks. I feel I could control some of these now.

I keep seeing geographical and political analogies in the image- an aerial view of a landscape, the Gulf of Aden,   fields laid out for agriculture, erosion of water, fishing, ruled lines in the landscape, like those straight ones made in the sand, ironically, in the middle east, a bombing sight, a pointing finger- and the awareness that this is damage, that some violence has been done to this plate, with sharp tools, with abrasive surfaces- and that tarlatan now looks like a frayed bandage.

I’m aware that I’m probably more excited by this result just because it’s a new process, and I’m using new materials, but I do have a sensation of having moved to an other level with this, and my previous monoprints are now looking very simplistic. It’s also a bittersweet feeling, because I’m now writing this up in Hong Kong, having had to leave a lot these materials behind, including my press of course, and am trying to restock here and feeling very frustrated.



Author: chrisocaprintingblog

Studying visual arts part-time with the Open College of the Arts

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