This blog is a record of my adventures as a copper plate etcher and printmaker. I'm a self-taught amateur learning from the ground up.
"I will again define etching as an impression set down on a copper plate from nature or life -- not a built up, elaborated composition."
Joseph Pennell

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Putting It All On The Table

In almost every way I was very fortunate when I got my Kelton press. Two bed support rollers were broken one of the handles on the starwheel was missing. I was able to have new rollers machined and the handle replaced. The weight that returns the table to the front position was also missing and a lot of cleaning was required. But in terms of having an operating press, these were small issues and otherwise it seemed complete. It even had the felt blanket operating system attached, something that was not attached to every press to begin with and that is usually missing in any case. It wasn't until I saw a video on Youtube and then later a museum photo that I learned that there had originally been a side table.

While not at all an essential part I did think that such a table would be useful to me because of the limitations on space in my living room shop. There is little room for a work table and I already use my letterpress imposing table for the plate heater and ink slab. Besides, another part of me thought it would be great to have the table and make the press complete. Yeah, right; good luck finding one!

Well, I did find one. A couple months ago I was reading a blog post by a fine arts student who was restoring an identical Kelton press. He did a beautiful job by the way and his press works great. In one of the photos I happened to notice a large, black, rectangular object on the floor in the background. I looked closer, zoomed in, and was pretty certain it was one of the tables. I wrote him and he confirmed that it was. I asked him if he was going to use it and if not would he care to sell it. To make a long story short, it came UPS a week and a half ago and I couldn't be happier or more grateful to him.

As I had seen from the Youtube and museum photo, the table was supported on one side by flat iron bar which was missing. I was able to fabricate a replacement with little trouble and it is visible in the attached photos. Otherwise it is attached by two machine screws to the side of the press. At about 70 pounds it is quite heavy.

I don't yet know if the manufacturer had intended specific uses for the different sections on the table though two are fairly obvious: The lowered tray on the left front is for caulk, the front of the compartment partially cut out for clearance of the hand as it is brushed over the top of the caulk. The flat section on the right front seems to be for use as a jigger while wiping the plate. I don't know exactly what the intention was for the two upper sections but possibly for tarlatan, pieces of blotting or other paper, etc. They may not have any specific purpose, just handy areas for whatever the press operator wanted based on his own working methods. The photo below shows things as they might be in use and as I will likely use them, though one of the rear upper sections will be used for blotting paper to lay over and under prints when pulling prints.

I'll be trying this setup soon as I print an edition for an upcoming print exchange.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Study To Show Thyself Approved

Almost every time I search through the various etching and printmaking forums for new posts of interest there are entries from new artists asking for advice on how to get started, what equipment to buy, basic technique, and how to make adjustments or troubleshoot problems. I can relate to these inquiries because I’m very new to the art myself, having begun my printmaking journey only a little over a year ago.

I haven’t had the opportunity to take a printmaking class though I’ve taken specialty courses from time to time in my own profession of cabinetmaking. Those classes were helpful and in some cases invaluable and I’m glad I participated. The key to those meaningful experiences and the advice I would offer to those etching and printmaking beginners seeking answers to basic or advanced questions, advice I followed and continue to follow myself is just this: read the classics.

Gaining a firm historical, technical, and philosophical understanding of those who have gone before us will immeasurably enhance one's time spent at work in the classroom or in your personal studio. This includes studying the works of acknowledged masters, their techniques, and even their habits and lifestyles to get an idea of their aesthetics and what moved and motivated them. It will help you discover what moves and motivates you and allow you to express to a higher degree what it is you want to say in your medium. While the great etchers of history had natural talent, they also had years of technical training and practice and were highly adept technically in handling their equipment and materials. Much can be learned by trial and error but it would be a foolish waste of time not to inform that practical, hands-on learning process by wringing as much advantage as possible from the many lessons they have left us in their lives and work.

I’ve listed below the books I’ve collected over the last year or so and described them briefly with some words as to how they may be helpful. Most can be found used at places like Ebay or Alibris, some are Google books that can be downloaded for free. This is not an exhaustive list by any means but these have been the most helpful for me. I’ve listed them in an order that I think might be the best if one has the option of having them all at once and the luxury of reading them in a particular order. I did not acquire them or read them that way however so starting with the one that sounds most interesting may be the way to go.

Practical Guide to Etching and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques by Manly Banister, 1969. – This is not by one of the “old masters” but is a good, basic book written in a modern way and can be used as a studio handbook very easily. Some of the older books can be a little slow going in their writing style for more modern tastes so this may be the place to get a working overview of the equipment and processes. I personally value the older works more since extremely talented artists wrote them during the great etching revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As such they have much to offer but Banister is a talented, knowledgeable artist and this helpful book will get you going and whet your appetite for more.

Etching and Etchers by Phillip Gilbert Hamerton, 1868. – This is the oldest book on the list and not necessarily the best. Its information is sound and was in many ways the bible of the etching revival and is often referenced by other writers of the period. It is a valuable reference and a great preparation for those planning to read the works that followed.

Etchers and Etching by Joseph Pennell, 1919. – This is perhaps my favorite. Joseph Pennell and his wife authored many books. Pennell especially had strong views on etching, etchers, and artists and the art world in general. He was also a master at illustration, etching, lithography, and pen and ink. This book is in my opinion essential reading for every etcher. People seem to ask around $50 for this book but if you are persistent you can get it for much less. I got a nice, oversize first edition hardcover for $12 on Alibris. Buy and read this book!

Pennell’s New York Etchings: 90 Prints by Joseph Pennell; Text by Edward Bryant, 1990. – This would be a good time to focus on the art itself and though Pennell in his book discusses many examples, his own are not only magnificent but illustrate what he was trying to get across in his book. There’s also a brief but excellent introduction that gives Pennell’s biography with details on his technique, etc. My goal is to one day own one of his etchings!

The Art of Etching by E. S. Lumsden, 1924. – After the justifiably opinionated but invaluable Pennell, take a break with this book. He gives a very thorough discussion of materials and technique as well as some insights into other etchers and their work. An easy read with great nuggets of information scattered throughout. Among other things you will learn how to mix all different kinds of mordants for every kind of work or experiment like the “old timers” did it. You’ll be surprised how you can affect the biting in different ways.

The Printing of Etchings and Engravings by David Strang, 1930. – This is a somewhat uncommon book but has some particularly valuable explanations on paper, press setup, and of course printing. It has a somewhat less valuable, in my opinion, section on wiping the plate by his own scientific method that may put you to sleep faster than Sominex. But it is worth having and reading for all that.

How To Make Etchings by John J. Barry, 1929. – Written by one of the offspring of those who began the etching revival in the 19th century. How sad that at the time this book was written, etching was already starting to fade slightly as an artistic medium in the “art world”. This is a short but nice little handbook on basic process. Not essential but a good read. It also helps that I have an original, signed etching from the author in the original frame with an exhibition tag from 1937! The price at the time was $8.00.

Palaces in the Night: Whistler in Venice by Margaret F. McDonald, 2001. – Whistler is the Master. Some say he is better than Rembrandt; virtually no one rates him less. He brought impressionism to etching and changed everything. His work in other mediums is well known. His biography by Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell is well worth reading. This is a great newer book about his time in Venice when he was under commission to do etchings for the Fine Arts society of London. He worked in other mediums during that period as well and the author describes and illustrates them all with special emphasis on his etchings. She describes his technique, methods of work, and includes letters and other references. It is an invaluable and insightful book from which a surprising amount of helpful technical knowledge can be learned.

With Whistler In Venice by Otto H. Bacher, 1909. – Last but by no means least is this book by a man who worked with and was friends with Whistler during the latter’s stay in Venice. Bacher was also an etcher and had his own press that Whistler used to make proofs of the work be was doing. His book is a great read and has all sorts of interesting antidotes, and tidbits about there life in Venice, Whistler’s methods and work habits, etc. Not a journal but very personal in its descriptions and content. The book is available as a reprint through Alibris and is worth the purchase.

Selected Etchings of James A. McN. Whistler, Selected and Illustrated by Maria Naylor, 1975. – Obviously no look at Whistler can be complete without looking at his etchings. Examples abound in the other books above but these represent a wide selection and many inspirational, beautiful examples, most printed full-sized.

I left the Whistler books to last only because the focus of them is more specialized on a single individual as opposed to etching in general. But they are no less valuable for filling out the historical picture and giving the work we do today some context. They also contain plenty of meat and food for thought that can be directly applied to our work today that may in the end usher in a whole new etching revival.

These are not the only books out there, but frankly I find in general the older works much more informative than the newer. In some ways they are more basic while at the same time being more complete and thorough. In any case, I hope you will take advantage of them as I have and that they will help you as they have helped me.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Poetry In Motion

Auguste Delatre, 1822 - 1907

Know ye what etching is? It is to ramble

On copper; in a summer twilight’s hour

To let sweet Fancy fiddle tunefully.

It is the whispering from Nature’s heart,

Heard when we wander on the moor, or gaze

On the sea, on fleecy clouds of heaven, or at

The rushy lake when playful ducks are splashing:

It is the down of doves, the eagle’s claw;

‘Tis Homer in a nutshell, ten commandments

Writ on a penny’s surface; ‘tis a wish,

A sigh, comprised in finely-chiseled odes,

A little image in its bird’s-flight caught.

It is to paint on the soft gold-hued copper

With sting of wasp and velvet of the wings

Of butterfly, by sparkling sunbeams glowed.

Even so the etcher’s needle, on its point,

Doth catch what in the artist-poet’s mind

Reality and fancy did create.

Carel Vosmakr

1826 – 1888

Dutch poet and art critic.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Look Ma! No Hands!

When I wrote previously about describing the restoration of my Kelton copperplate press I mentioned that it was often known as a banknote press. The reason for this is easy to understand: it is specially designed for production printing and was used extensively by banknote and stock certificate manufacturers such as the American Bank Note Company.

U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing

The main production feature is the ability of the press bed to return rapidly to its starting position at the front of the press. To do this a D or half-cylinder is provided on top and the bed is set at a forward slant. The action is further helped by a weight attached to the rear of the bed through a pulley arrangement that pulls the bed back to its starting position. The press is also equipped with an adjustable pneumatic piston and rubber bumper that allow the bed to be gently stopped once the return motion is complete. The pneumatic piston consists of a leather cup washer in a sleeve, very much like the fuel pump on a Coleman stove though much larger.

There is an adjustable pawl on the right side of the upper D cylinder that engages with a corresponding adjustable pawl on the side of the bed. The pawls are adjusted so that when the star wheel is turned, thereby turning the upper cylinder, the bed is moved to the rear as the round part of the cylinder starts to come into contact with it. The pusher blanket is attached around the round part of the cylinder and with the plate on the bed and the other blankets positioned to their ends are caught between the cylinder and the bed as the wheel is turned, the whole is squeezed through the press as with any other intaglio press.

As soon as the D cylinder is turned round far enough that the plate has passed through and the round half of the cylinder leaves contact with the bed, the bed is free to roll back to its original position. In other words, the pressure of the round half of the cylinder pressing on the bed pushes the bed with the plate and blankets through the two rollers. With the flat half of the cylinder facing down, there is a gap and no pressure so the weighted bed returns back towards the printer. Ouila!

Ah, but there’s more!

Sometimes as a manufacturer’s option and sometimes as a factory-made attachment, a device for making the action of the blankets automatic would be attached to the press. This allowed the plate and paper to be laid on the bed, the wheel turned, the press run through its cycle with the bed returning automatically as described. The blankets would completely out of the way, would feed through the press and return with the bed and be completely out of the way again. The printer merely needed to stand on one side of the press, lay the plate and paper on the bed, pull the press through one cycle, and remove the paper and plate. Eat your heart out, Henry Ford.

This type of blanket return pre-dated these kinds of late 19th century presses and examples from the first half of that century are known. There were different kinds, most having no D cylinder and requiring the bed be returned to the front by pulling the proof back through the press.

Perkins-Bacon Press

The basic method of operation can be discerned from my description and the photos I’ve posted here of my setup. In order to save on blankets I made a blanket extension piece from cotton duct that attaches to the rear of the bed and to the blankets. The woven pusher felt on my cylinder is a very old piece I scavenged until I could get a new one and I’ve subsequently done that. I made the wooden bar at the front and bought a round leather belt as the pulley was for that kind. The weight was a hunk of brass I had laying around that seems the correct weight and that I tapped for an eyebolt.

My Kelton Press

Rear Of Bed

Hand-Sewn Connection Of Felt And Cotton Duck

Attachment At Rear Of Bed. Piece Of Old Yardstick In Sewn Sleeve To Stiffen

Underside of Blankets And Front Clamp With Round Leather Belt

Side View Of Front Blanket Clamp

The system works perfectly and though I do not print on a production line or anything approaching it, I find it to be extremely convenient not to have to manipulate the blankets constantly or worry about them pinching under the rollers, etc. I was fortunate to get the bracket, etc. with the press but it could easily be made.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Landscapes Like Luncheon Trays

My hiatus from printing and printmaking seems to be at end and I’ve recently entered an intaglio exchange in order to insure that I have a specific goal in mind to bring me fully back into the swing of things. I work full-time and, being single, must take care of the many household and other tasks myself. I found the need to focus my limited spare time on my health, specifically with regard to physical exercise. Not being interested in sports, I turned to bicycle riding knowing that this would eventually tie in with printmaking as I could ride where I could not walk or drive to get subjects for the copper plate. I now have a restored bicycle and have started regular riding. At this time of the year my riding has been greatly curtailed but the way has been paved and the journey begun so now it’s back to the acid bath and the press.

I did manage to keep up my personal studies during this time, reading that I’ve found not only interesting in general but helpful in understanding the art that I’m attempting. This is especially true in the case of Whistler who I perhaps idealize more than I should but who, along with his contemporaries, is nonetheless a constant inspiration. Some of my most interesting reads have been Whistler’s letters. He is humorous, nonchalant, and deadly serious about his work all at the same time. He also has definite opinions on everything, especially etching. As an acknowledged master in several genres, that’s hardly surprising.

One of my favorite letters was that to Marcus Bourne Huish, an art dealer and member of the Fine Arts Society in London, concerning accusations that while in Venice in 1879/80 to carry out a paid commission from the Society he was instead rumored to have purchased large plates for work intended for others.

Below is part of his long but entertaining letter to reassure those concerned through his correspondent. Note how he refers to himself in the third person, an affectation not uncommon at that time in certain quarters. Whistler’s unofficial agent was Charles Augustus Howell who had heard the rumors about Whistler’s “large plates” and through concerned inquiries had thus spread them around. Huish heard the rumors and wrote to Whistler about them and this letter was Whistler’s response.

My dear Mr Huish -

I am shocked out of all my usual impassiveness by the suggestion I have this instant read with horror in your letter, that I could be neglecting the work, for which I had exiled myself, in order to trifle with plates, whose exaggerated size, not only partook of the character so generally accorded to all Howellian assertion, but would have been proof enough in itself - were any needed - of the unlikelihood of the story!

Little Mr Brown could have told you how Mr Whistler holds in contempt & derision the "big plate" - the advertisement of the ignorant - the inevitable pitfall of the amateur -

I am even astonished that Howell himself - in his desire to make statements - should have missed this tip - as he has often heard me scoff at the vulgarity of the pretence - and point out the gross condition of brain that could tolerate the offensive disproportion between the delicate needle of the etcher and the monster plate to be covered! - Perceive how inartistic is the undertaking - based as it is on the dulness which distinguishes not between mastery of manner, and "muchness" of matter! - From this pente ridicule the painter's science saves him - he knows that the dimensions of work must be always in relation to the means used - and reaching the limit, unerringly lays aside the needle for the brush, that he may not find himself worming his weary way across a waste of copper - all quality lost - all joy of execution gone - nothing remaining but the doleful task for the dreary industry of the foolish - the virtue of the duffer!. - Behold now the hardy though unconscious Amateur! - He hesitates not! - and so we have heads the size of soup plates - and landscapes like luncheon trays - while lines are bitten furiously until in the impression they stand out like the knotted veins on his own unthinking brow –

Poor meek Rembrant! - with his mild miniatures - beside such colossal deeds how dwarfed he becomes! how uninteresting his puny portraits of diminutive BurgomasterSiegmund Clement de Young - how weak his little windmill - - - - - - Ah well! nous avons changé tout celà (we have changed all that).

Without taking sides, I can at least say that as usual, there’s nothing new under the sun and things seem to have come full circle once again. I admit to being astonished at the size of some of the plates I’ve seen though in those cases the use of the needle seems to have bee replaced almost entirely for wider tools that sometimes seem to amount to spatulas. Needling the plate hardly seems a proper description. I offer no criticism one-way or the other. I’m a mere amateur myself and not a particularly skilled one.

But I do find it interesting from an historical, technical, and stylistic perspective. Some styles change and some remain but there does seem to be a constant, common thread that weaves its way through all of them. In one way or another I think we each develop our own personal method of expression, for better or worse. Studying these subjects has helped me focus better on what I’m trying to achieve. Hopefully it will have the same affect on you.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Etching Of The Week

What, you ask? How can this be the etching of the week when it's Friday? Because the week's not over until tomorrow I answer, thereby leaving you astounded at my logic. Hmmm. In any case, it's better late than never.

The etching above is another I really like and was etched and printed by Otto Henry Bacher (1856-1909). It is a view of the Royal Garden at Schleisheim. Bacher was an American artist from Cleveland, Ohio who had studied in Germany and done some etchings. He happened to be in Venice in 1879 at the time James McN. Whistler was there. Whistler was supposed to be working on twelve plates for the Fine Art Society back in England but while working on these also produced many pastels and oils. It was in Venice that the two were introduced and became good friends. Bacher had an old wooden plate press like the one in the photo below and Whistler came often to his lodgings to print proofs of his ongoing work.

For his part Bacher was an eager pupil and Whistler wanted to teach. Bacher was a good observer and just as interested in the technical aspects of etching as Whistler. After Whistler's death Bacher published With Whistler In Venice in 1909. I highly recommend anyone interested in etching or art in general read this book as it describes in great detail Whistler's method of etching as well as the life of young artists living abroad in the latter half of the 19th century.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Etching Of The Week

The above etching with drypoint is a beautiful work by Whistler called Tilbury that he did in 1887. On his later etchings he would cut the border off down to the plate mark except for the tab where his signature, usually a stylized butterfly, appeared. Tilbury is on the north bank of the Thames east of London with Gravesend opposite on the south bank. Whistler lived on or near the Thames for much of his time in London, though in different residences. He plied the river constantly for daily scenes of everyday activity. I love how he manages to convey so much with so few carefully chosen lines.

I'm currently reading his biography by Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell. Though almost a generation younger, both were intimates of his for many years. J. Pennell, himself an illustrator, became a great etcher in his own right; more on him in a future posting. These characters and many more were all part of the etching revival of the 19th century. The ripples of that revival are still felt today and the history and fruit of which remain constant streams of inspiration.