Processes – a work in progress

i’ve begun a printmaking course. I was inspired by a series of Alan Mitelman prints on my last trip to Melbourne -he’s one of my art heros – and so I thought I would find a printmaking studio in Sydney and start on a series of etchings. I had an idea in mind that I had sketched out and knew how I wanted it to look but was unsure of the process. What eventuated was a double plate image with chine colle (a process whereby you place very fine paper directly into the plate so that it adheres to the paper you’re printing on). One plate was to be a dark drypoint – essentially a heavily cross-hatched plate which would absorb a lot of ink and produce (hopefully) a deep rich velvety colour; the other plate would be an etching of fluid lines. I etched this plate three times so that there were three levels of bite with some of the lines very fine and others much deeper etched and therefore darker.

Printmaking is a slow process. Its a discipline that doesn’t allow shortcuts. First you make marks on your plate – wether drypoint or etched into ground and then dipped into an acid bath – then you print. In order to print you have to do the following: create a registration sheet so you know where to put your plate and paper; soak the paper in water; prepare the ink, ink the plate, rub the plate back (so that the excess ink is removed and you only have ink in the etched surface), then place the registration sheet on the press bed, place the plate in the designated spot, dry the wet paper and place it over the plate and then finally, roll the plate through the press. Only at this stage can you see the results of your effort. And now begins the real work: figuring out where it needs more/less. Oh, and the printed image is the mirror image of the plate which makes for some difficulty in working out where you need to further scratch in or burnish back (particularly when the image isn’t an ‘image’ but abstract lines).

And so you begin again – soak paper, work on plate, ink up, print. And hope that the results are getting you closer to what you had in mind. I was pleased in my second session to have achieved a print that was going in the right direction and thought that week 3 would see me with 3 prints: one with a Prussian blue background and black surface lines, another one the same but with more marks on the background and the final one with chine colle (I was going to use a fine textured bamboo paper to add both colour and texture).

Sadly my printing didn’t go to plan. I couldn’t get my background dark enough (one of the problems of drypoint is that the more times you run it through the press the flatter the marks become and so the ink doesn’t absorb as well) and my first sheet of paper was too wet (adding to the difficulty of absorption) and to top that off, my registration was out.

Printing with two plates imposes another level of difficulty for the novice: you have to be very careful to place the second plate in exactly the same position as the first so that it looks as though it was just one plate. This is something I struggle with – not one of my prints have been spot on in terms of registration. I suspect that this will come with pracitse.

Printmaking can be very frustrating – it takes so long to see how the printed image looks – but its just part of the process. And its something that I really enjoy. Methodical. No shortcuts, just go through the process carefully and meticulously. So very different from the immediacy of painting.

Despite not having achieved my goal (3 prints) I came away from this session feeling OK. I had two bad prints but I knew where I was heading and I knew what I had to do next.

At the start of this course I suspected that it would take me to the end of the year before I had the print I wanted. Along the way I’d try various things – different colours, different papers, different techniques. It is a work in progress. A long steady, meditative process. Its like yoga: some days you can do a pose, other days not. There is no end point. Its just the doing. As they say: sometimes you’re the dog and sometimes you’re the tree.