I recently got back into the etching studio for the first time in over two years. Brighton is blessed to have a lovely print studio (https://bip-art.co.uk/) near the Marina, in a secluded mews terrace which once housed the stable blocks for nearby Sussex square. Artists can book open access sessions, or enrol in tutored beginners’ classes.
My experience with etching a few years ago marked the start of my gradual transition from full-time illustrator towards portrait painting, so I couldn’t wait to get back there and start producing some new limited edition prints.
It all starts with a metal plate (usually copper, steel or zinc – steel for this example). The plate is prepared in advance with a formulation of bitumen and beeswax, which is applied with a roller and hardened under a flame.
The design can then be scratched out of the black tar, using a sharp etching tool. It’s quite a disconcerting process, as the design must be drawn back to front and, effectively, in reverse (silver lines on black).
The plate is then placed in a bath of nitric acid. Part of the fun (and terrifying jeopardy) of etching involves working out how long to leave the plate in. It can depend on many factors, including how fine the design is, how new the acid is, and even what the humidity of the atmosphere is like on the day.
After a sufficient period in the acid, the bitumen can be wiped away with white spirit. The acid has reached the metal only in the places where the dark ground was scratched away – thus making grooves in the plate, which will take ink. This is the first time you get to see your design, so it’s always an exciting moment.
Stiff oil-based ink is smeared over the plate and pushed down into the grooves. Excess surface ink is then wiped away, first with muslin, then with tissue paper. Finally the inked plate can be put through the press, with a sheet of pre-soaked paper which will take the ink. At last, it is time for the big reveal of the final print!