ELISABETH MEYER: Welcome to the Print Shop at Cornell. My name is Elisabeth Meyer. I'm a professor of the intaglio processes here, and I'm also an artist.
Daria and I are going to show you how to make an etching in the method that Rembrandt used. Daria's been teaching here this semester, and she's going to help us with the demonstration today.
DARIA SYWULAK: Hi. I'm Daria Sywulak, and I've been a master printer at Crown Point Press in San Francisco for the past 15 years. And as Elizabeth said, I just recently had the opportunity to teach here at Cornell this semester. And we'd like to show you how to make an etching.
ELISABETH MEYER: We begin our demonstration with a copper plate that has been cut to the desired size. First, we bevel the edges of the plate to reduce the angle of the cut. Beveling the plate prevents the edges from sharing the blankets used when printing.
The copper plate usually arrives scratched or with a film on the surface. It requires polishing and should be done rigorously to achieve a mirror-like finish. We use a soft cloth and some sort of polishing agent, such as Brasso or Putz Pomade, also referred to as "jewelers rouge."
Using a circular motion and lots of muscle, it will take a fair amount of effort to produce the desired effect. In Rembrandt's time, the copper likely would not have been nearly as refined as that produced today. And he would possibly have had a team of guild workers to prepare his materials and assist in printing.
After the plate is polished, we remove any remaining residue with mineral spirits and acetone.
The next step is to degrease the plate. We must have an absolutely clean surface so the resist ground will adhere to the plate and not lift off in the acid. First, we remove any residual tarnish with a mild acidic solution of vinegar, salt, and water. Then, we rinse the plate with water.
Next, we use whiting to degrease the plate. Whiting is calcium carbonate, commonly known as "chalk." Sometimes, a little ammonia is mixed in with the whiting to help amplify the degreasing process. When rinsed, the water should sheet off. The presence of any bubbles means that you must degrease those areas again. Removing both the tarnish and the grease is essential for a clean edge.
Next, the plate is dried and placed on a hot plate. We'll heat it to about 300 degrees, preparing it to receive the hard ground. The hard ground contains mostly tar, resin, and beeswax. It comes in a ball or lump and is melted onto the hot surface using a roller. The essential characteristic of the hard ground is that it's acid-resistant, protecting the plate in the bath.
It's applied to the plate in a thin, even coat. This often takes a certain amount of time and patience to achieve. Later, we'll selectively remove the ground where we want the plate to be etched by the acid.
It's best to roll in different directions to form the most consistent layer of ground. Watch how Daria lifts the roller off the plate, letting the roller spin. If she were simply to pass the roller back and forth on the plate, the ground would collect at either end and become thinner in the middle. By lifting the roller off the plate, the ground is redistributed on the roller, instead of collecting at the end of each stroke.
Another resist-- similar to hard ground, but also containing tallow-- is called "soft ground." This ground wasn't used in Rembrandt's time, but was developed more recently. Soft ground allows for a wider range of effects, because it's tacky to the touch.
Once the hard ground is applied and the plate is allowed to cool, we protect the back with clear tape. We could also coat it with an asphaltum ground, like that used on the front.
Next, Daria draws into the ground with an etching needle to reveal the copper, defining areas that will be exposed to the acid. The exposed copper will form the lines that will become the printed image.
Daria then covers the beveled edges with a lithographic crayon. These are primarily wax and also act as a resist to the acid, protecting the edges from corrosion.
Now, we're ready to etch the exposed plate. We submerge it in a bath of acid, in this case, ferric chloride, which is essentially a corrosive salt. We rock the tray so the salt doesn't settle in the lines. Vertical baths and etching upside down are other techniques that assist printmakers in preventing the salt from settling.
The longer you leave the plate in the acid, the broader and deeper the lines will be. Sometimes, the ground may break down, producing what we call "foul bite." This can appear as an overall tone on the clean areas of the plate.
Once etched, we remove the plate from the bath and rinse it off with water. We remove the hard ground using mineral spirits and acetone.
Then, clean the plate again with a polishing abrasive to remove any tarnish that may have accumulated.
Now, we're ready to ink up the plate. First, we warm the copper on a hot plate so that when the ink is applied, it will be supple and easily spread. Daria protects her hands and arms with a thin coat of barrier cream. This makes cleanup much easier.
She removes a thin layer of ink from the can to work by hand on a glass surface, until it is warm and pliable.
For the purposes of this demonstration, we're using a copper plate from our archives, made by a former student of both the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts programs at Cornell. Kip Brady had an exceptional love of the etching processes, specifically those time-intensive techniques of the masters. In memory of his talent and commitment, an annual award was established for excellence in printmaking among Cornell students.
We apply the ink to the plate using a stiff card. Drawing the card across the plate forces the ink into the etched lines.
Tarlatan, which is a fabric much like cheesecloth, will be used to wipe off the excess ink. Working the tarlatan vigorously breaks down the starch in the fabric. Then, we form the tarlatan into a mushroom-like shape to use in wiping the plate.
Next, we clean the surface of the plate using only the hand, a perfect tool. This removes the ink from the clean areas of the plate, but leaves the ink in the lines as much as possible.
As a final stage in the wiping process, we use chalk to reduce plate tone or leftover ink on the surface. Finally, we clean the edges of the plate before printing.
Next, we need to prepare the paper. 100% rag paper is used exclusively in printing etchings, as it is archival and very strong. If the paper is cared for properly, it will last for hundreds of years.
There are a couple methods that can be used to moisten the paper. One is to submerge it in a bath of water for several minutes, up to an hour. Another is to place moistened paper in a plastic wrap, weigh it down, and let it sit overnight.
Here, I blot the paper with a towel to remove excess water. Dampened paper will be soft and easily pressed into the etched recesses of the plate.
Now, we are ready to print. We position the plate in the middle of the press bed and cover it with the pre-moistened paper.
Two wool felt blankets are laid between the paper and the rollers of the press. The blankets cushion the effect of the roller and allow the paper to receive the optimum measure of ink from the recesses of the plate.
It's interesting to note that the press design we use today is essentially the same as that Rembrandt would have used. The main difference is that ours is made of steel, rather than of wood. Ours also takes advantage of modern gearing in the mechanism.
The plate with paper on top is now cranked through the press under very high pressure. The first prints from a plate are most often regarded as working proofs. The artist generally pulls the first proof in order to see the image, if for no other reason than that the resulting print is the reverse image of what's etched on the plate.
To begin a second state on this plate, we remove the ink with solvents, degrease the plate again, and roll on another hard ground, essentially a repetition of the first process. This time, however, we would card the hard ground into the lines to protect the lines that are already etched and then roll a layer of hard ground on top, ensuring that the ground reaches the intaglio portion of the plate, that is, the portion of the plate that is below the surface.
We can also work directly on the plate without acid, using a drypoint needle. Watch how I drag the tool through the copper. You can see that this kicks up a burr of metal. This burr holds ink in a different way and allows for thicker, fuzzier lines. Rembrandt used drypoint extensively in combination with etching to achieve a greater range of expression in his images.
Prior to Rembrandt, metal-plate printmaking was primarily practiced with hand tools, without the use of acid. This is the method that's referred to as "engraving." Engraving differs from drypoint in that the metal is actually removed from the plate, rather than displaced.
Rembrandt also used engraving in his prints. In fact, he was the master experimenter, mixing all previously used distinct techniques together on a plate. Another practice that Rembrandt used was to drastically rework the surface of the plate between states, even erasing entire portions of an image. These were not corrections so much as creative inventions and other ways of thinking through an idea.
To do this, I use a tool called a "scraper," a multi-edged knife-sharp tool to scrape away etched lines from earlier states. A little plate oil reduces the friction of the tool against the plate.
Rubbing steel wool and charcoal over the surface reduces the scratch marks made by the tools. This produces a neutral surface, which can be left rough or burnished smooth with another tool, called a "burnisher." Unlike the scraper, the burnisher leaves a surface that is smooth and holds less surface ink. Through these methods, the plate can be reground and re-etched endlessly to add or erase imagery.
Through the experimental ways of Rembrandt, the intaglio process grew beyond its use purely as a medium of reproduction. His skills as a printmaker were not surpassed for many years, and his methods remain the foundation for today's master printing vocabulary, exemplified in the finest intaglio prints.
It wasn't until Goya's investigation of process about 100 years later that the next major form of etching, aquatint, was developed. In these contemporary examples from the Crown Point Press archives, you will see new techniques built on the fundamental processes of Rembrandt and Goya-- sugar lift, soap ground, spit bite, water bite.
After over 500 years of experimentation, the most basic methods in etching still offer unmatched expressive possibilities for the contemporary artist. And to us as artists and printmakers, that's nothing less than magical.
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This room celebrates the etchings of Rembrandt van Rijn, the great seventeenth-century Dutch painter, draftsman, and printmaker. His etchings, over 200 of them, have an extraordinary range of subject, from beggars and rat catchers to portraits of distinguished politicians and businessmen, from the Old and New Testaments to mythology and genre subjects, as well as many self-portraits and portraits of his family. The room also includes a demonstration of the making of an etching.
This video is part 9 of 9 in the Rembrandt's Etchings series.