An education

March 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

A little over a year ago, I had to teach a class on printmaking techniques to a group of conservation students, and, if you’ve been reading my blog this long, you might remember I ended up eating a large slice of humble pie: the class went fine, but in preparing for it, I realised just how much I didn’t know about the tools and techniques. I resolved to do something about it.

And so I’ve just recently finished a printmaking course. Over the course of ten weeks, I learned the basics of linocut, etching, aquatint and drypoint.

My one hesitation when I signed up for the course: I’m quite possibly the world’s worst draughtswoman. I can’t even draw a proper stick figure. I often joke that I became an art historian because I love art yet am incapable of producing it. Luckily, the tutor was extremely accommodating when I explained my background and my reason for taking the course and didn’t bat an eye at my (cowardly, but expedient) decision to use tracings rather than original drawings as the designs for my prints.

I also hesitated a bit about posting the fruits of my labours here. But then I realised that if you’re reading this, either you already know me and therefore I have nothing to hide, or you don’t know me and are fairly unlikely ever to meet me. So here goes:

practice lino block

The first technique we covered was linocut. I think it should be clear from my practice block (above) how flummoxed I was by the various v-cutters and gouges, by the texture and hardness of the lino itself. (Most of my classmates had done linocuts at school but I can’t recall ever having done so – the only printmaking experience I had before the first class was making potato prints.) It doesn’t help that linocut is one of the most unforgiving techniques: once you cut away a bit of the block, it’s gone for good.

The next week I showed up armed with my model: an image of a 1920s Japanese woodblock print by Ohara Koson. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found cutting the block based on a tracing, rather than freehand, a much less daunting prospect. After carefully carving out the outlines of the goldfish with a fine v-tool, I started cutting the background with a gouge and found myself falling into a soothing rhythm. I loved finding ways to produce texture and tone, rendering the rippling water with short and long strokes.

goldfish lino block

Experimenting with different ways of inking the block also proved unexpectedly enjoyable. One thing this part of the course taught me about myself: I’m useless with line, but a little better with texture and tone. In that well-worn comparison between the art of Florence (line) and Venice (colour) now I know where I’d fall.

goldfish linocut 1

goldfish linocut 2

Next came etching, and I used Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine as my model (he’s probably still turning in his grave). No matter how many times I’d read about the many steps in the etching process, I’d never truly appreciated how long and laborious it is until I made one myself. The plate has to be polished, then bevelled on all sides so it doesn’t cut the paper or the blankets when it’s run through the press. Then it has to be degreased with whiting. Then heated so that the ground can be applied, and that has to cool. Then, and only then, can you draw the design on the plate. (That took up an entire three-hour session.) Then the magic of slipping the plate into the acid bath and watching the liquid bite away the exposed lines, all the while carefully brushing away the rising bubbles with a feather (I didn’t understand how the feather could be unaffected by acid strong enough to eat into zinc – answers on a postcard please?), then into a water bath, then the ground is cleaned off. Then, and only then, is it ready to print.

etching plate

Inking and wiping the plate turns out to be unbelievably messy. Despite wearing latex gloves, my hands still end up blotched with oily, viscous ink and by the end of each session I feel like Lady Macbeth desperately scrubbing it away. As for the wiping – well, I’d read many times about how certain master printers’ reputations were based on their wiping skills, and now I understand why. I took a good seventeen impressions of my etching (both before and after adding aquatint – which was another reminder of how little the process has changed, as we used the same type of box that the likes of Paul Sandby would have used in the 18th century) and no two were the same. Granted, I experimented with different colours of ink and degrees of wiping, but if nothing else, I now have a healthy appreciation of how much effort it takes to pull identical impressions of a print.

etching 1

etching 2

At the end of the ten weeks, I could not, with any justice, call myself a good or experienced printmaker. But something had changed. Before I set foot in that studio, my understanding of printmaking had been purely intellectual. Now it was intuitive, settled in my muscles and nerves as much as in my brain.

etching 3

Oh, and that class for the conservation students? I taught it for the second time toward the end of my own course. This time, I actually felt as if I had an innate understanding of what I was explaining. And for that, any amount of humbling was more than worthwhile.

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