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The Magic of Etching

Mary N. Balcomb Shares Her Printing Techniques in "The Magic of Etching"


Whether painting, sculpting, drawing, or printing, all methods or media can strengthen one another, and perhaps a respite from one will enrich another-and vice versa.

Two bonuses of etching are that one can make multiples and share prints with others, yet keep a for one's own; and the excitement of pulling the first print of each new subject or edition compares to opening a present. Even though I have worked on a single plate for days or even weeks, and have become very familiar with it, it is always a surprise to see the new image. This surprise is due mostly to the image being in reverse to the drawing made on the plate. If well drawn, the reverse is of no consequence unless direction is important, as in a specific building, the alphabet, or a cellist bowing his instrument.

I always carry a small sketchbook to record interesting subject matter (which is everywhere) and later transfer the image to a copper or zinc plate. I try to keep a supply of prepared plates (just as I keep a few gessoed boards and canvasses ready for oil painting)-these plates have been cut to various sizes, edges beveled, and surfaces covered with a liquid ground (a wax/asphaltum which hardens as it dries). Frequently I take prepared plates on location and draw directly on them, thus eliminating the drawing/transfer step. I rarely work from photos except for occasional references, as I prefer to try to sense the aura, attitudes, or essence of each subject.

"Alaska Cedar," shown in the following steps, is outside my studio window. To ensure similar light and shadows, I worked only from 11 am to noon each day.

Step 1

STEP 1 - Ghost Image
Began with 12" x 9" beveled copper plate covered with hard ground. Drew general outline of tree through ground with etching needle. Immersed plate in dutch mordant acid for 40 min. to produce ghost image. Removed plate from acid, cleaned with mineral spirits and alcohol, inked, wiped, and printed first proof.

Step 2

STEP 2 - "Sugar Lift"
Drew/painted most limbs and foliage with liquid "sugar lift" (sugar & india ink). Some foliage was not treated with sugar lift because it was to remain white. When sugar lift was dry, covered whole plate with hard ground and when dry immersed plate in hot water until sugar dissolved and "lifted," including hard ground covering sugar lift, thus leaving bare metal images of foliage, limbs, and portion of tree trunk. Lightly sprayed entire plate with enamel to produce tone (aquatint) on bare metal areas. Immersed in acid. Cleaned plate. Proofed.

Step 3

STEP 3 - Hard ground and "needling"
Applied new hard ground on whole plate. Did more "needling" on tree trunk, limbs, and cedar "leaves." Immersed in acid. Removed ground. Proofed.

Step 4

STEP 4 - Shading and acid
Added new ground, did more needling and shading. Immersed in acid. Proofed.

Step 5

STEP 5 - Contrast
Repeated Step 4. Added more detail, line work, to ensure good contrasts.

STEP 6 - Complete work

Materials List