Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making a Copper Engraving

     I have a friend named Adrian van Suchtelen who is a retired art professor.  Traditionally he has put together a print exchange for Christmas, though he hasn't done it for a few years.  So this year he and I got together to set one up.  A print exchange is where each artist pulls enough prints in an edition for every artist involved to get a copy.  My print for this exchange is a copper engraving, and I documented the process of creating it, in order to share it here:

     First I worked up my idea (a still life based on the short story "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry), and then did a fairly tight rendering in graphite.

     Next I transfered the drawing to a copper plate and lightly scribed the lines with a Whistler's needle.

     In most cases I will reverse the drawing, because the plate prints in reverse.  However, in this case I determined that the reversal would not significantly alter the composition.  Next I began the engraving.  Using a very sharp steel shank set in a wooden handle, called a burin, I carve each line into the copper. For areas of shading I use a jeweler's loupe and carve delicate lines very close together, building up layers of cross-hatching.

     Then I began the printing process.  I don't have a studio of my own at the moment, so Adrian let me print at his home.  The first step is to rub ink into the lines, and then wipe the excess off of the surface.

     Using the ball of the palm of my hand, I wipe over the surface for a final cleaning, and to smooth out a thin layer of ink called plate-tone.

     Then the edges need to be meticulously cleaned; first with a rag, then with my fingers.

     When the plate is wiped, I place it on the press bed.

     Then I carefully lay a sheet of printing paper on top of the plate.  The paper has been soaking overnight so that it will be soft enough to be molded into all the contours of the plate, picking up the ink.  I like to use a somewhat unusual paper; a thin paper called Gutenburg Laid, which is meant to emulate the paper used by Gutenburg in his 42 line bible.

     On top of the paper I lay three felt blankets to cushion the print, drive the paper into the lines of the engraving, and give the rollers of the press something to grip.

     Then the press bed is forced between the steel rollers, pressing down on the plate with about 3,000 pounds per square inch.

     Finally I remove the blankets, and pull the print off of the plate, and repeat the process until I have completed the entire edition.  Here Adrian and I are looking at the first proof I pulled, and deciding what changes need to be made before proceeding.

     Jill took a video of the printing process: HERE