From sketch to print

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by printmaking. I have been in awe of beautiful steel printing presses since I first saw one. There is something about the semi-industrial nature of the art form, the possibilities in repetition, and the beautiful thick textured paper that is usually used, that just draws me in. I want to put my images on that paper using those beautiful machines and centuries old methods.

Since I started drawing again regularly (thanks to an internal determination and sketchbookskool), now just over two years ago, I began imagining how some of my sketches would turn out as prints. I have filled my sketchbooks driven by a love of drawing and determination to get better, but always at the back of my mind, was a vision and hope that maybe one day I would be able to see a similar or inspired picture coming out of a press.

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My modest row of sketchbooks – all full except one – and some of the ink and paint that I’ve used to fill them!

The greatest difficulty of beginning in printmaking is the same thing that for me makes it so magical – access to a beautiful press – and, in the case of etching, a whole host of other specialist materials. And, of course, some knowledge.

Whilst in Nepal and Mongolia I had to be patient, as access to these things seemed impossible. But since returning to Australia, finding access to a print press and some teachers, became a key goal, and very fortuitously has proven not too difficult. Our much loved, but little-lived-in home, is in Castlemaine, in the goldfields of central Victoria, a small town that not only has incredible coffee and an old wool mill filled with treasure (including a brewery, a coffee roastery, and a winery – oh, and I can see all this from my house!), also happens to have perhaps the densest population of printmakers in Australia. The ironbark, the unique golden light, and the wondrous old (and relatively affordable) architecture, have all come together to pull artists from everywhere. Now, it is probably because of such a dense artistic population that more arrive, every year.

Amazingly, my first piece of luck came through the wonderful of instagram (I’m @abottlefullofrain on there), and somebody I had followed for a long time, even whilst living thousands of kms away, posted a small advert for an etching workshop he was holding in his studio. I skipped passed it the first time, imagining as I had done for a long time, that I would be far from such a thing, but I remembered that I was sure his feed had eucalypts in it, so maybe he was in Aus. I checked, and  his place was just a 30 minute drive from mine. I booked in – the best thing I have done all year.

Kevin Foley is a master printmaker and an amazing teacher, and lives on a gorgeous  property complete with a flock of most personable black-faced sheep. It was supposed to be a 10-4 workshop, but we were still there at 6, focused and completely unaware (well I was) that it had got dark and we were hours behind schedule.

I knew the first print I wanted to make was going to involve tea. I chose a sketch done whilst sitting on the front porch of the Doveton Corner Store.

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I then embarked on the absolute magic and chemistry of the intaglio printmaking process by covering a piece of zinc with bitumen, drawing a simple line drawing into it with a tool like a pin, and then putting it in acid. When it comes out you basically have a flat piece of metal with an engraving in it – everywhere I drew meant there was no bitumen and the acid ate away at the zinc. To add tone, you start a process called aquatint, involving stirred up (and thus quite dangerous) very fine rosin dust, hot plates, bitumen, a paint brush, and wallah, an image with tone emerges!

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The polished zinc plate after the line etching and aquatinting

This complicated and ancient process felt like magic to me, even though it is based on probably pretty simple logic and chemistry. The next step is to rub ink all over the metal so that it soaks into all the engraved lines and textures, then wipe it off the shiny bits and pop it through the press. And, wallah, I have hardly ever been more excited (truly – it is so very amazing watching the image emerge), there on the print bed was my first sketch made into a print.

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I must admit I was incredibly happy with the way it turned out. I loved the tones, the textured paper, the lovely depth of the aquatint – and also the fact that now I have a plate, I can print as many of these as I like!

I have only made one other etching, also started in this workshop and finished in another visit to Kevin and his wonderful studio.

This one began with this sketch, done in the wonderful atmosphere of Das Kaffeehaus (Castlemaine’s little piece of Austria), a sketch that also featured in my previous blog.

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Using the same methods as above, plus a moment where we put a softer style bitumen on the zinc plate and pushed some fabric into it, I made this:

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and then tried a quick experiment with a little bit of colour…

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One of my followers on instagram made the comment they liked these etchings, but miss my pop of brighter colour. I agree… so the next goal, and my next etching, will be an experiment into using multiple zinc plates to add to the same images so I can play a lot more with colour!

Tomorrow, I will make the drive over the magnificent mountain that provided us with snow a few months ago, through the avenues of ancient red gum trees that line the roads and end up at Kevin’s studio, where I will embark on turning the sketch below into a multi-plated, more colourful print. And, perhaps the most exciting thing at all is I have absolutely no idea at all how it will go!

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