Photograph of studio table with plate 1 for the Accordion Print Project. Tools seen in the foreground include 1/2″ wide, and 1 1/2″ wide mezzotint rockers, scalpels, burnisher and dental tools. Image areas of the printing plate have been roughened and smoothed with these tools to hold varying amounts of ink when the plate is printed. Earlier impressions from the print project are visible (upper left) as is Book 130, the journal which contains the images that are being adapted. A mirror compensates for the reversal that occurs in the printing process.
New Print Project Part 6
When I am in the midst of a project it sometimes takes time to find my next step. I try to pull back a bit, be patient, and listen to the work.
Returning home in July after producing the printing plates for my Accordion Fold Print project at Center Street Studio, I hung the proofs on my studio walls and watched images out of the corner of my eye. I also kept the plates available on my tabletop for study. As time went on, I realized how much I liked the whiteground technique I had explored while working at the Center Street shop (see online journal entry, A New Print Project: Part 5). Without having much experience in the painting of whiteground, I had used it boldly, and while the effect I had achieved was a bit ragged and a little too loose at times, the overall feel was energetic and not far from the vigorous watercolor sketching that goes on in my journals. Finding a printmaking equivalent for my watercolor journal sketches seems like an intriguing goal.
However, as I kept looking at the trial prints over time, I realized there were several things that were not sitting well with me. First, I would have wanted more detail in the images. I had tried to articulate elements that had not materialized with the painted whiteground. Secondly, I wanted richer grays; the whiteground had tended toward strong contrasts, blacks and whites. The absence of detail and range of grays was due to my inexperience with the technique; the next time I work with whiteground at Jim’s shop I’ll try to stretching my abilities in this direction. But more than anything else, the blacks in the current proofs were not as rich and dark as I wanted. Mezzotint (see online journal entry, Mezzotint: Part 1), the intaglio process with which I have the most experience, can give a deeper, richer black than the black produced with the whiteground. I decided that the solution was to go back into the plates and augment them with mezzotint, working them by hand using a variety of tools, including mezzotint rockers, a scalpel, a burnisher, and small dental tools that works well for smoothing the low metal relief of the surface (see image above). The hand tools allow me to roughen and smooth the metal in selected areas, reworking and enriching surfaces that were previously cut by acid. With these tools I am able to bring out detail, create mid-tones (grays), and make the blacks denser.
The key to reworking is a ½ inch wide mezzotint rocker that I have become fairly adept at using. It allows me to do some very selective roughening of the copper plate. I can pit deep, parallel, serrated lines into the plate’s surface. These lines will hold a lot of velvety printing ink. I think of the areas I’m roughening not so much as fields of darkness, but more like areas of crosshatching. I use the mezzotint rocker to introduce hatching tones that define form; essentially drawing with the mezzotint tool.
I’ve spent more than a month rocking and burnishing (see photo above) and now it’s time to send the plates back to Jim at Center Street to be printed. I’ve been looking at the physical surface of the plate and imagining what will translate, but you never know exactly what is present until it is inked and printed. In printmaking, one gives up control and allows other forces to introduce unpredictable changes. These forces can improve a work in a way that cannot be premeditated; or can turn a work into a disaster. Printmaking always carries risks and I’ve grown to love it for that. (To be continued)