Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Intaglio Etching Workshop

It was a very hot day, and after an unbearably hot night of little sleep, I made my way to the Norman Lindsay Gallery & Museum to take part in an etching workshop run by the artist, Liz Perfect. As it was to be held in the etching studio, where the great Lindsay himself created most of his etching plates, I was looking forward to a day of creativity and coolness in an air-conditioned building. Alas, the air-conditioning was not working, so it was an uncomfortable, sweaty day. And yet, I finished with three good prints from my plate. Hurrah!

Two weeks before the workshop, I had caused myself much stress and anxiety (in my silly way) by trying to come up with a drawing to use on the day. I wanted to do something mythic and strange, somewhat different from my usual work. For some reason I thought that I could draw something amazing, because this was to be an etching, not a drawing, despite the fact that good drawing skills are the very basis of the etching process. In the end I decided I was being too ambitious, and should focus on my usual subject: trees—and, above all, keep it simple. This was a one-day workshop, after all. Time was limited.

I chose to create a drawing based on a photograph I took last year, which I call Old Man Tree (not just because it seemed a venerable old being, but also because, moments after I took the photo, I met an old man, and we chatted briefly before walking on, in different directions). I reversed the image—so that the resulting print would be the right way round—and applied a noir filter, which increased the shadows and definition.

I did a simple line drawing of the tree in preparation for the workshop, to the correct dimensions (15 x 20 cm), and used carbon paper to trace this onto my plate, which had been degreased and covered with the bitumen ground. Unfortunately, the carbon did not transfer well, so all I had were some very faint lines to work with. Yet this was enough for me to draw the basic form, and I improvised the rest.
The etched plate
My drawing on the plate

The drawing itself was difficult. The pointed tool would slip easily over some areas, and catch on others, so it was very easy for my line to go awry. It was also quite difficult to see my marks, perhaps due to the light being directly overhead. I frequently had to look at my plate from an angle to make out what I had done. (Smoking the plate over a candle to make it black would have helped in this instance, increasing the contrast.) The easiest, and most enjoyable part, was doing the rough bark on the tree, for there I could scribble freely. 

By lunchtime, feeling a little trembly from all the concentration and physical tension of drawing small details, my plate was complete. After lunch I put it into the ferric chloride solution for fifteen minutes, for the etching itself to take place, and after it was washed and the ground was cleaned off, I was ready to print.

I should have made a proof to begin with, but as time was running out, I took a risk and went straight to the ‘good’ paper. It was quite a privilege to use the press that Rose, Lindsay’s wife, used to print all of his etchings. Being so large, four plates at a time could be rolled through.

Of the three prints I made, I think the first is my favourite. It is the darkest, the moodiest, but unfortunately, there is a slight smudge in the centre. The second print is not bad, though the lines in the top left are a little too pale (perhaps I removed too much ink when I cleaned the plate). So my last print, on the extra special paper, is my best, the cleanest and clearest (though I was evidently no good at cleaning the ink off the edges for any of them). Of course, I still have the copper plate, so if I had access to a press and materials, I could make more.

Though I had done an etching once before, at school many years ago, doing this workshop has given me a greater insight into the work that Norman Lindsay did, and even more appreciation for his etchings. I knew the process was difficult, but now I know just how difficult. His etchings are immaculate, and I am in awe of how he achieved such detail and depth in consummate drawings with absolutely nothing out of place (in contrast to my wobbly lines). I also appreciate the work that Rose did. Printing a plate is a time-consuming business, and one that requires great skill and care. As you can see, all three of my prints are visibly different, yet Rose managed to print all of Norman’s etchings to an incredible standard of perfection. She developed a level of mastery, I, for one, could never achieve.

Overall, though the day was hot, and hectic, and exhausting, I am pleased with what I have created. Pleased I chose to do a rendition of Old Man Tree, and to keep it simple. I would certainly be keen to do it again, for there is something about prints, particularly etchings, that attracts me, more so than ordinary drawings. Something about the fineness of the lines, the blackness of the ink, the indentation in the paper caused by the plate; a kind of tactile, graphic quality that I love. And now that I am more familiar with the process, I am sure I could improve on what I did.

This is my first proper piece of art so far this year. I hope it is the first of many.


  1. Dear Therese, I just love, love love your tree etching.
    And all your trees for that matter!

    1. Thanks Corina. I'm really happy with it too. And to think that I spent days stressing out about what I was going to do, when all I needed was a tree! I've added it to my RedBubble portfolio, which you can get to by clicking on the picture of The Pear Tree on the left.

  2. Your tree etching is beautiful, like a poem, I think.

    I tried etching years ago. I took part in a weekend class (it was a graduation present from my mother) and I remember it was very interesting to see and try out the process, it was quite difficult but I loved it. I´d really like to try it again one day.

    I loved seeing the very exotic looking birds in your last post. So beautiful with their bright coloured feathers. (And Dead Can Dance! There was a time I listened to them non-stop.)

    1. Thank you! I love it too, and will try to get it framed.

      It is a very difficult and time-consuming process, but the results can be so beautiful, and have a certain quality you can't seem to get any other way. I'd love to try it again too, though it is such an expensive way of making art. Presses cost a fortune! I'll have to look for more workshops, I think. It would be nice to have more than one day to work on something so that it wouldn't be so rushed.

      I'm glad you liked the birds. Australia is full of them! And I love Dead Can Dance. I saw them live a few years ago and was simply astonished by the beauty of Lisa Gerrard's voice.

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