Monday, November 14, 2011

Learning to Print

first print from plex plate
Two weeks ago, I went to the first session of a two-part class in drypoint at Pyramid Atlantic. The knowledgeable, patient, good-humored instructor showed us five students how to make marks on plates using gravers, roulettes, and drypoint needles; how to bevel the edges with a file so to protect both our hands and the paper from being sliced by sharp corners; and how to ink a plate, wet the paper, and run them through the etching press. Sending us home with a small plexiglas plate, a larger one of copper, and a wood-handled drypoint needle, he told us to come back the following week ready to print.

second print from plex plate after reworking
Since then, I've spent hours scratching lines into both plates, trying to figure out how to adapt my hard-won understanding of color and paint into a new language of value and line. I started by working on the plex, which is both softer and more brittle than copper. It also has the virtue of being transparent, so placing it over a white piece of paper allows me to see a shadow of the image as it emerges at the end of the needle. Still, since I have never worked in this way before, I don't really know how deeply I need to cut into the plate, or how much cross-hatching is really needed to make some areas as dark as I hope they will be.

first print from copper plate
The copper is both easier and more difficult than the plex. I love its warm glow and the solid feel it has in my hands. As I draw, the copper sometimes seems to part, allowing the needle to move smoothly in the direction I intend. But at other moments, some irregularity in the metal catches the point, and a line I see in my mind as a smooth, elegant curve becomes in reality a crooked, harsh barb that cannot be erased. Like sin, which can be forgiven but still changes the course of one's life, these ugly lines will never disappear, but can be incorporated with grace into the final image.

print from reworked copper plate 
The shiny surface makes it impossible to see the entire image all at once. I move the plate around, but at every angle some of the lines reflect the light brightly while others sink invisibly into the surface. I keep on working, alternating between frustration and delight, allowing the rhythm of repetitive, short strokes to take me into a meditative state.

Last week, the results of these experiments were be revealed by the pressure of the press, forcing the soft, wet paper into the ink-filled lines of the plate. I was surprised by the range of tones, by the reversal that I had failed to take account of, and by the appearance of lines in the print that I had not seen on the plate. Having done this much, I can see just the faintest outlines of how much more there is to do. It feels like a good start to a very long journey. The question is, is it a journey that I really want to take?

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