Printmakers You Should Know: Intaglio to Go!

Last week we opened a new exhibit at the Museum, Intaglio to Go! Drawn from the permanent collection, this show provides an overview of different intaglio techniques while showing off our wonderful works on paper collection. 

Today I'll tell you a little bit about the show, and introduce you to a few printmakers in the process.

First, what is intaglio? Basically the term refers to a group of printmaking techniques that all derive from the same basic process. To make an intaglio, you take a metal or polymer plate, incise into it with a sharp tool, and then cover the plate with ink. You then wipe the plate, with the ink remaining in the incised lines, cover the plate with damp paper, and run it through a press. From this basic process a variety of techniques have developed over the centuries, with each one bearing its own distinct visual qualities.

Willard Midgette, Orangutan, 1960-1963, engraving on paper. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

This is an engraving by Willard Midgette (1937-1978), one of the first Roswell Artists-in-Residence. He's best known for his realist paintings today, but he was also a skilled printmaker, as is evident in this image of an orangutan.

Engraving is one of the most technically demanding intaglio techniques. An artist carves grooves directly into a metal plate, usually made of copper or steel, with a special tool called a graver or burin. Each groove represents a line. Burins can come in different sizes and shapes to provide different line qualities. To make shadows, artists overlap their lines over one another.
Engravings are usually distinguished by their high level of detail and clean lines, as the tools used for this medium require a precise technique. As a printmaking technique it was particularly popular during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in Europe, and remained a common method for printing book illustrations and other reproductive imagery into the nineteenth century. Engraving would eventually be overshadowed by the more flexible process of etching, but it is still practiced today.

Thomas Handforth, Promenade II, 1928, etching on paper. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
Thomas Handforth (1897-1948) was  active during the first half of the twentieth century. He was a widely-traveled artist, spending time in China and northern Africa, for instance. He actually ended up writing and illustrating a children's book about his experiences in China, called Mei Li.
Etching involves acid (you can read about my previous etching adventures here). A metal plate, usually made of copper or zinc, is first covered with a melted, wax-like substance known as ground, which can come in hard and soft forms. Prints made with soft ground often possess a pencil or crayon-like quality, while hard ground etchings have lines that more closely resemble ink drawings.
When the ground hardens, an artist draws into it with a tool known as an etching needle, which exposes the metal underneath. The plate is then submerged in an acid bath for several minutes. The acid bites, or etches, into the drawn lines, but does not affect the areas still covered with ground. When the artist is finished biting to plate, the ground is removed, and the plate is ready to be printed.
Etching can accommodate a variety of techniques, tools, and styles, making it one of the most versatile intaglio methods. Artists can also vary the amount of ink they choose to wipe off their plates, giving their work a more tonal quality. While traditional acid etching is still practiced today, several artists have also developed less toxic techniques such as solar printing, which uses sunlight instead of acid to etch a plate.

Arthur William Heintzelman, Portuguese Fisherman's Daughter No. 2, 1941, drypoint on paper. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
Arthur William Heintzelman (1891-1965) was an artist of many interests, working as a painter, etcher, teacher, and curator.
Drypoint is the intaglio technique I've used the most myself, mostly because it allows me to bypass the acid and because Plexiglas is cheap. Drypoint is similar to etching, but instead of coating a plate with ground, an artist draws directly into a metal or polymer plate with an etching needle. Drypoint does not require the technical training or specialized tools as engraving, nor the use of ground and acid necessary for etching, making it one of the easiest intaglio techniques to learn.

Drypoints are recognized for their distinctive blurred lines. Unlike the burins used for engraving, which produce clean, precise lines, the etching needle scrapes into the metal and creates a raised, roughened edge known as a burr. When printed, these burrs give the lines a soft, blurry quality, but the burr becomes less pronounced with each printing as it is worn down by the pressure of the press. As a result, drypoints cannot be printed in very large editions, making them rare images. 

Arthur B. Davies, Valkyries, 1919, soft-ground etching, aquatint on paper. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
Arhur B. Davies (1863-1928) was an active proponent for modern art. His own work tends to be figurative and leans toward the traditional side, but he advocated for the work of more abstract artists, with his personal collection including the likes of Marsden Hartley, Cezanne, Brancusi, and Joseph Stella.
This print incorporates a variety of techniques, but the most prominent one here is aquatint. While engraving, etching, and drypoint use lines to create form and value, aquatint allows artists to introduce a more tonal quality to their prints.
To create an aquatint, a metal plate is traditionally coated with powdered resin known as rosin. The plate is put inside a box filled with rosin powder and shaken, with the agitated dust drifting down onto the plate. Alternatively, the rosin powder can be placed in a small bag covered with small holes and shaken over the plate. The plate is then put over heat to melt the powder and adhere it to the surface. After the plate has cooled, it is immersed in an acid bath. The longer the plate remains in the acid, the darker the resulting tones will be in the finished print. To create a range of tones, the plate is submerged in the acid several times. Between immersions, the artist will cover the areas he or she wishes to remain lighter in value with stop-out, a material that is similar to ground and protects the areas it covers from the acid.
The tonal shades produced by aquatint have a distinctive speckled quality, showing where the rosin powder had been resting. Many contemporary artists use spray paint as an alternative to rosin powder, eliminating the need for a rosin box. Spray paint is the method I've used, when I took classes at the BCA in Vermont.

Will Shuster, Eve of the Deer Dance, 1952, mezzotint on paper. Image courtesy of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.
Will Shuster (1893-1969) is an icon of the Santa Fe art scene. He moved there after WWI for health reasons, and remained there until his death. He's best known today for creating Zozobra, the giant puppet of Old Man Gloom that is ceremoniously burned every year before the Fiesta, but he was also a painter, printmaker, and all-around craftsman.
Most intaglio techniques are additive in nature, with an artist drawing more lines or adding more texture to create form and value, but mezzotint is subtractive in nature, requiring the removal of texture to create an image. To make a mezzotint, an artist takes a tool called a rocker and moves it repeatedly over a metal plate in a rocking motion, covering it with thousands of minute dots, or pits, capable of holding ink. This process can take several hours to complete. The artist then uses tools known as scrapers and burnishers to scrape out and smooth over the pits. The more an artist scrapes and burnishes an area, the lighter it will appear in the finished print, as it will hold less ink.
Mezzotints have a distinctly rich, tonal quality, and are especially noted for the depth of their shadows. Unlike aquatints, the values in mezzotints do not have a speckled look, but appear more solid. As I mentioned in last week's post, I'm thinking about trying this technique myself this year, as it reminds me of the tonal quality of charcoal.
Intaglio to Go! only provides an overview of the various intaglio techniques. Within the last fifty years in particular, many new techniques and methods have been developed, including silk aquatint, solar printing, and ImageOn. Still, there's plenty to see in the exhibit, so if you're around, you should check it out.