Etching / mixed intaglio
It was the writer Garrison Keillor who commented on the marvellous works we could do if we didn’t have to begin it but could start somewhere in the middle!
When I arrive at what I feel is a fundamentally good idea, I frequently find that it can be some weeks before the idea begins to bear fruit. This usually happens after several variations on the initial idea. This method of working a healthy one as long as I am prepared to do the necessary editing, discarding the lesser pieces as part of the process. As these lesser pieces usually come at the beginning of a series I feel that in some ways I am indeed starting in the middle as this is when the most satisfying works appear.
I became instantly addicted to intaglio printmaking forty years ago after realising that a metal plate can be etched, scored, scraped drilled, hammered, ground down, burnished, polished and distressed in a wide variety of ways and still print the resulting marks onto a sheet of paper.
Until around 1990 I used steel plates (a harder metal than the traditional copper plates) for fear of reducing it to a heap of shavings on the floor. Furthermore I liked to utilise the natural grain inherent in the metal which could yield some lovely textures when open bitten with a range of stronger or weaker nitric acid baths. At any stage the plate would be subjected to the rather brutal action of an electric straight grinder. This serves to pull all the various tones, textures and parts of the image together whilst polishing off the slightly grainy surface of the steel to a mirror finish if desired.
It was in 1990 I started to use copper plates more often for both my own work and for the editioning projects at the Glasgow Print Studio. This was partly prompted by the amount of plate grinding and polishing I was having to do by way of preparing steel plates for the studio's artists’ editioning and co-publishing projects.
My love of copper was deepened when, in 1992 I started making mezzotints. It became a natural part of the whole intaglio process to use mezzotint in conjunction with etching, either as a small part of a composite image or with etching as an integral part of the mezzotint process.
The use of photo-etching techniques (not photography) is a minimal, though significant element in my work. I may, for example photo-etch typed lettering or traditional wood engraved illustrations onto the plate. The photo-etching process allows me to retail the nature and character of these elements which would have been lost if I chose to redraw them. However, by using predominantly soft ground drawing techniques (supplemented by hard ground), the emphasis is still very much on the auto-graphic. It is the juxtaposition of the two that appeals to me and such elements are quite commonplace in collage for example. But I have always felt that they acquire an even closer relationship when etched onto, and pulled from one plate.
I am also a firm believer in cognitive resonance or "the happy accident". When the process takes over, the results can be quite unpredictable. Frequently frustrating at the time, such events can work for the good for the artist who is wise enough to rise to the challenge. When events conspire and "make you do something about it" as a student of mine once put it, the whole creative experience can then start to sparkle. Consequently I frequently use the backs of older plates that are full of incidental foul bitten marks and printing them can often suggest a new composition.
I always title my work simply because the title is always there...somewhere. It is often the case where a phrase or word suggests a composition, governs the content and then develops alongside the image to become the title.
When I first started making mezzotints I foolishly though that a finer rocker would result in a more detailed mezzotint. As mezzotint was satisfying my craving to make realist works (although with a surrealist twist) I predominantly used a 100 line rocker for many of the earliest works.
It took me quite a while to realise however, that the finer rocker produced shorter burrs and this was responsible for much of my dissatisfaction with the lack of tonal range in the mid tones. With a shorter burr it is easier to scrape too quickly from the top (the blacks) to almost the bottom (the whites) while missing out the mid tones by failing to stop in between.
Some years ago, I was lucky to purchase from a retired mezzotint maker some fine old rockers which were made in England probably in the late1800’s. My favourite is a relatively course 35 line rocker with which I have laid some remarkably closely spaced grounds, yielding fine detail. The secret (no secret really when I stopped to think about it) is to lay the ground with very close spaces. A pole attached to the rocker is invaluable for this (see below). The pole also takes the strain out of rocking the plate and consequently I found it easier, though no less time consuming to prepare larger plates.
A shorter pole attached to the rocker (which is turned to face outwards) helps to hold the tool at exactly the correct angle for sharpening on a 1200 grit waterstone (see lower left)
Historically the reproductive mezzotint might have been partially engraved prior to rocking.
The idea being that when an area is scraped, the engraved details would reappear through
the mezzotint as part of the image. These details, such as a fine black line on a paler
background were perhaps impractical to try to render in mezzotint.
The idea of pre-etching a plate occurred to me as one of those happy accidents when I
rocked a small section of a pitted etching plate. The mezzotinted image was an egg and
ended up with some wonderful spots on it from the foul biting on the plate. I have utilised this
traditional trick a number of times by etching images such as the maps on the back walls of
As it transpires, this is something I grew out of after a few years...it's just the way that my work
The rocking pole assembly