I fell in love with intaglio before I ever picked up an etcher’s needle. From the first moment that a fellow student showed me a freshly pulled print I knew it was something I just had to do. But technique has never been more than a means to an end for me. I have no compulsion to follow rules, show off my expertise, or do something new for its own sake. By the time I left graduate school I was turning out many one of a kind prints, loosely etched to more easily accept hand coloring. It was a time of exploration with some work bending toward the expressive, others embracing the conceptual, but all imbued with mysterious undercurrents. Asking questions without ever providing answers was an essential element to my work. By the mid 1980’s I began using the landscape to represent an inner state a mind rather than a specific place. Though intrigued by the possibilities this offered, my work was cut short when I lost access to the printshop I was using.
It was not until 1992 that I picked up the needle once more when I began an enterprise of supplying prints of local scenes to local galleries. These pieces were mostly black & white landscapes issued in a limited variety of small sizes and all drawn in line. The earliest scenes were of New England where I had established myself in a string of galleries stretching along the coast from Mystic to Bar Harbor. But after finding a venue for my etchings in New York my focus began shifting back toward the City. While my format has remained fairly consistent the heavily etched lines that marked my early prints have evolved into more subtle softer tones. Having worked with many techniques both new and old I now feel most comfortable creating simple line etchings by a method that has changed little over the past four hundred years. Yet I consider my prints as contemporary and relevant as any work being created today.
The prints are displayed in chronological order. New work will be added to the top of the highest numbered page. All prints were made solely by line etching unless otherwise noted.
HOW AN ETCHING IS MADE
The etching process is an old one; the techniques that I use have changed very little from their inception in the Middle Ages. While digital technology has added a whole new vocabulary for the artist to use, one needs to be vigilant so not to be blinded by market forces that create new products at the expense of quality. There seems to be a mad rush these days to replace the old with the new, but I find that nothing can compare to the visual richness made possible by intaglio techniques.
An etching is a print pulled from a thin but non-flexible sheet of metal. Copper has been the traditional substrate but etchings can also be made on other metals as well, each with its own characteristics in how it can be worked and in the type of line it produces. My etchings are now created exclusively on zinc, a metal I have become thoroughly familiar with. This sheet of metal, referred to as a plate, is first coated with an acid resist called a ground. Etching grounds can be made in many different ways but I use a formula based on that used by Rembrandt consisting of asphaltum for dark color and body, rosin for hardness and durability, and bees wax for pliability. If dried into a ball, grounds can be applied to a heated plate with a hand roller, but I suspend my ground in solvent and apply it with a brush. Once dry a drawing can be placed on a plate by using a pointy metal stylus called an etching needle. In etching the plate is not incised as it is in engraving, the needle only removes the dark ground from the surface exposing the silvery metal underneath. When the drawing is finished the zinc plate is placed in a bath of diluted nitric acid, which dissolves the metal where it has been exposed. This process is called biting the plate. Other types of acids or mordents can be used to bite different metals. The longer the plate remains in the acid the more the metal dissolves, and the deeper the bitten line the more ink it will eventually hold to print darker. When all the lines have been etched into the plate the ground is washed off and it is ready for printing. A tacky ink is then spread over the entire plate, rubbed into the bitten lines, and then the excess is carefully wiped off from the plate’s smooth unetched surface. When run through a ringer type press with a sheet of damp paper laid on top, the high pressure will force the paper into the lines transferring the ink to produce a print. The plate must then be re-inked and wiped for every print made, and since this is a process done by hand each print will contain slight variations.
While the basics to intaglio remain the same, individual artists often use different methods to achieve the wide variety of lines, tones, and textures possible in etching. I take the less conventional approach of drawing only one set of tonal values at a time, dark to light, before placing the plate in an acid bath. It typically takes about fifteen separate baths before my plate is ready for printing. The entire process is a very abstract way of working that few are comfortable with. This medium is not very forgiving of mistakes so I usually have much of the image finished in my mind before the first line is ever drawn. The drawing itself must not only be made in reverse but the silvery lines exposed by the needle will print black while the remaining dark ground will print white. Though etching can be combined with other intaglio techniques I use nothing but line etching to create the wide tonal range found in my prints. Etchers do not actually create prints; they etch pieces of metal that are capable of being printed to produce an image. Pulling a print off of a plate is a little like the magic of a photographer’s darkroom when an entire finished picture suddenly appears before you eyes.
Copyright 2009 Alan Petrulis All Rights Reserved