By Sue Caulfield
Continuing with the theme of explaining the printing process, this chapter examines a process I have only recently rediscovered – intaglio printing. Intaglio (in-TAL-ee-oh) is a printmaking technique where the image is etched into a surface, and the etched area holds the ink. It is the direct opposite of a relief print, which I will cover in a subsequent chapter.
I rediscovered this technique in a course I recently took at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. That course, a collaboration of Mary Whalen and Vicki VanAmeyden, led the class through a series of practices designed to help us “make marks” that would impact an image. For example, we did blind contour drawings using Sharpie markers and transparencies. We then overlaid these transparencies to create a “negative,” which when used in the darkroom, created some very interesting images. Toward the end of this six-week course, we worked with intaglio, and used the etched images both in the darkroom and on the etching press.
I write that I rediscovered intaglio, because when I was first introduced to it a couple of years ago, I created a simple design, but did not believe myself capable of creating the required detail of a more complex design. Indeed, even this time around, my first plate was a very simple design. Others in the class had etched more complicated designs, so I thought it might be worthwhile to put more effort into this form of printmaking.
There are many forms of intaglio printing. Historically, intaglio was done with copper or zinc plates and required the use of acid to etch the image onto the plate. There are other versions of intaglio,using substrates such as aluminum, magnesium, coated paper and plastics. I use Plexiglas. This first image shows a blank 4” x 6” piece of Plexiglas.
I am working with a form of intaglio called drypoint. The drypoint technique requires a sharp needle-like tool, called a scribe, to scratch a design directly into the plate surface. This next image shows three such tools, two shaped like pens (with different diameters on the points), while the other has etching points on both ends.
To create the image I want to print, I need to first etch it into the plate of Plexiglas. With the project I am showing in this article, I used a photograph to create the design. I taped the photograph to the back of the Plexiglas plate and etched the lines that I wanted represented in my print. The photo I began with is this one:
The next photo shows the etched Plexiglas plate. You can see the lines in the plate because I have already printed from this plate. Even though I cleaned the plate with mineral spirits, some residue of the oil-based ink remains in the etched parts of the plate.
Given I usually screen print my images, I neglected to remember that with intaglio, one needs to reverse the image they want to print. Forgetting to do that means that when I printed from this plate, the image is reversed from the original photograph. Thankfully, this image does not contain any components that are uni-directional, such as words.
Intaglio is a process to print on paper. To print on paper, you begin with printmaking paper and tear it into a size larger than the print. The paper must then be soaked for 60-90 minutes. While the paper is soaking, you prepares the plate with ink. Ink is placed across the plate, usually both vertically and horizontally, to be sure that all the etched parts receive ink. You then use tarlatan cloth (lint-free and will not mar the plate) to remove most of the excess ink off the plate. This is followed by the use of either newsprint or satin cloth to remove any remaining ink from the plate (if one does not want ink tones in addition to the etched design).
After removing the paper from the water, it must be blotted so that it is nearly dry before being printed. Then one goes to the etching press, where the print will be made from the plate. I work with an etching press similar to the one pictured here:
The etched plate is laid on the metal bed of the press on top of a piece of newsprint. The blotted, but still damp piece of printing paper is placed facedown on the etched plate, and covered with another piece of newsprint. The blankets of the press are then placed on top of the plate and everything is moved by cranking the wheel that runs the press. When going through the press the damp paper will be squeezed into the plate’s ink-filled etched grooves.
Once the paper and plate have gone through the two rollers, you lift the blanket and reveal the print. It is not unusual for the first print to be a test run, as it takes a couple of inking processes before the plate is at its best. Some times, one can run a second print from the plate and this is called a ghost print, as the amount of ink is reduced and leaves only a residual print. Printing with drypoint means that one has to ink the plate every time they want to print. Finished prints must be placed under a heavy board to keep them flat while they dry over the next day or so.