Converse series: Techniques

The following is text I wrote for the Rugby Art Gallery and Museum exhibition Journeys to Home which included four of my prints from the Converse series (part of the Identity project)…


Each print in the Converse series consists of two images, printed side by side.

The images are developed from photographs I took several years ago of people wandering around Loughborough market. I chose pairs of people who were together as couples, relatives, friends etc. Each face was then extracted from the photograph and digitally manipulated in Photoshop to bring out the features and tones I wanted to develop. I then made drawings of the faces using pencils and graphite to get a feel for the types of marks that would work for the image I had in mind. I then made overlay drawings in Photoshop using separate layers for marks of different darkness.

The plate for each image is 20 x 20 cm steel. The plates are cleaned and degreased, allowed to dry and then placed on a hotplate. There, a waxy substance called a ‘ground’ is melted onto and rolled smooth across each plate. The plates are allowed to cool so that the ground sets hard, ready for use. I then transfer the darkest Photoshop overlay drawing to the ground by tracing it through yellow Tracedown paper.

I work into the ground, using the overlay drawing as a rough guide. There are many tools that etchers use to remove ground but, in this work, I am mainly using wire brushes of different sizes and types. I discovered a while ago that these tools produce lovely expressive marks which can only ever be partly controlled. The brush removes the ground exposing the metal beneath while the ground continues to protect the rest of the plate.

The two plates for a print are worked on together. In this way I can develop complementary and contrasting marks to draw out relationships (or, rather, the relationships that I have invented) between the two faces. (This process can become quite engrossing, almost as if I am listening in on a private conversation between the two images. Several times I found myself making marks I’d not intended, as if the images were insisting on their own identities.)

The plates are immersed in a nitric acid solution for about five minutes then lifted out, washed with water and dried. The acid will eat into the areas exposed by the wire brush and leave alone those still covered by the ground. I then transfer the overlay drawings for the next darkest layer, remove more ground and, again, immerse the plates in the acid. This means that the first set of marks have now had ten minutes in the acid and the second set, five minutes. I repeat this process twice more so that the sets of marks are etched at 5, 10, 15 and 20 minutes respectively.

The ground is then removed from each plate and the plate inked up for printing. Ink is wiped across the plate, pushed into the etched lines then the surface of the plate wiped off. This is where the steel plate comes into its own: it never wipes back cleanly (as is the case with copper or zinc plates), leaving a ‘plate tone’ that gives a nicely textured background to an image.

To get an organic, lifelike feel to the images, I print onto Somerset 300gsm Rough Textured Cream paper and, to give the marks some extra depth, use a mix of black and ultramarine ink. I use a large sheet of acetate with lines drawn on the back so that I can place the plates and paper in the exact same place each time. The plates are put face up on this ‘registration sheet’ and a dampened piece of the paper over the top. This is all covered in tissue paper and rolled through the press which have blankets between the roller and artwork so that the damp paper is pushed well into the inky etched lines. The paper is then removed to a drying area where a weight on top of the prints ensures they dry flat, ready for framing.

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