Sunday, December 14, 2008

Venice Etching

Bird Woman of Venice - Etching & Aquatint 24cm x 24cm
limited edition prints for sale

This is my first attempt at a copper plate etching with aquatint.

The picture is based on my own photograph of a woman shooing birds from her balcony, high above a Venetian canal. At first I thought how sweet, she's feeding the pigeons but when I enlarged the photograph I realised I'd probably witnessed a daily battle between this woman and the birds who squat on her tiny balcony. What struck me about the picture was how much the old lady's arm was beginning to resemble the wing bone of a bird - almost as though she was going through a metamorphosis that would one day see her too fly away.

Here's how I went about making the print.

Burning lamp black on to the varnished copper plate

I believe you can simply use a dark tinted varnish for this first stage of etching but loved learning the traditional smoking technique demonstrated here by my printmaker teacher, Rick Woodbury. Once the thick layer of lamp black is wiped away the copper plate has a hard dark ground into which I scratched my drawing.

Copper Plate before etching in an acid bath

The bird in front of the old lady's arm got in the way of the focal point of the drawing so Rick showed me how to use block out varnish to stop that area being etched by the acid.

The process of inking the plate is time consuming and pretty messy so I was covered in ink by the time I finished and I wasn't able to take photographs. Currently each print I make takes me about half an hour of inking and wiping the hot plate.

First Proof

In order to bring some darker values into the plate, and after using more block out varnish to preserve the highlights, Rick showed me how to dust it with powdered Gum Arabic. The plate was then heated to melt the Gum Arabic on to the copper and then it was back into the acid bath. I got quite a shock when we fished it out to see what a dramatic change I had in the second proof.

Second Proof after Aquatint

Now the hard work started, as I had to scrape or burnish back the aquatint pitted areas to make softer transitions between light and dark values.

Third Proof

That's more what I was aiming for and I can't tell you the thrill of pulling back the paper after the plate had passed through the press. I had no idea what it was going to look like. I don't think I will ever get over that excitement no matter how many prints I may make in future. I scraped and burnished a few more refinements and then pulled the final print that you see at the top of this post.

The print is too large for my scanner, so I've had to photograph it for this post. When I get some more sunlight I will replace this with a clearer photograph which I will have signed and numbered correctly.

I've never offered any of my art for sale before but since my plan for 2008 was to finally sell something here's your opportunity to acquire a rare piece of art! You are welcome to email me for further details.

Awarded to this post by The Colorist - Many thanks Casey.


Joan Sandford-Cook said...

Oh Rhonda what an incredible post full of great technique and images. Its a wonderful subject - great photo and story behind it - and no one realises how much work goes into printing. So glad I was the first to comment.

Casey Klahn said...


This is a smashing success in countless ways. The composition, subject, just everything. Fantastic stuff.

And to no small degree the way you blog about your first experience pulls me in. I've never done this medium either, but you have me following right along. Great blog.

Joan said...

Robyn - This is such a great treat to see the steps that went into this piece. When people look at prints they rarely have any concept of the work that went into them. This came out beautiful! I can imagine how excited you must have been when you saw it emerge!!

vivien said...

Robyn this is great!!!

I love etching and aquatinting but haven't done any for ages - this made me really want to do some again :>)

I love that skinny arm and the slightly menacing quality - almost gothic?

Lindsay said...

Robyn not only is your image hauntingly beautiful but thanks for posting and discussing the process. It' s really amazing what you can do with this process. I love the use of lamp black too. Must make you really feel connected to the history of the process,

Mary said...

Robyn this has been a very interesting post and the work of each of your steps is impeccable. Printmaking in so many of it different ways is something I would love to take up again, someday.

Jeanette Jobson said...

Robyn, this is amazing! I love that you've shared the process which is timeless in itself. How interesting to watch each proof unfold.

You should be proud indeed of this, its wonderful.

Unknown said...

I am in awe Robyn. Oh how I wish I was taking this class with you.

The piece is breath taking. I can see you are really going to love this printmaking. So I am looking forward to what you create next.

Anita said...

Now I am really envious - you are doing these wonderfully exciting things with your prints. I want to know more details - how do transfer the image onto the copper plate, how is it etched into the plate?
Apart from the technical stuff..... great print - and I think you are right, it must be a battle between the lady and the pigeons.

Susan's Scribbles said...

Love this post. I always enjoy your paintings but this post was a real education for me. Thanks so much for sharing it. And you should let us know how much the prints cost and their size. I'll have to see how much money I have in my piggy bank . . .

Joan Sandford-Cook said...

My second comment to send my apologies - I was skipping through so many of my favourite blogs and commenting as I went and afraid got some names mixed up!!!!! Am I forgiven - anyway a chnace to say how I loved the copper coloured image stage of this complex process.

Robyn Sinclair said...

Such wonderful encouraging comments. Thank you so much, everybody.

Joan - My daughter calls her old Honda, Ronda. So I took it as an endearment ;)

Susan - Please don't break open your piggy bank, I'm more than happy that you like the print. As for cost - well, I've already bartered one for 5 litres of newly pressed, top quality, Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Priceless ;)

Anita - After I was happy with the composition of the drawing, I scanned it and then flipped it to a mirror image and then traced it on to the prepared plate with tracing paper.

I used a tool Rick makes for his students by filing a screwdriver to a fine point. I used this to lightly scratch the image through the prepared surface. When it goes into the bath of acid and water, wherever the surface is scratched, the acid etches a mark into the plate. These marks hold the ink for printing.

Laura Frankstone said...

You never stop amazing me! I could not have predicted that you would take to etching and aquatint---probably because it's a medium I found way too protracted and laborious to suit my own impatient nature. But YOU'RE doing beautifully with it--and obviously having a glorious time, too! Fantastic work!

caseytoussaint said...

This is so good! You are accomplishing such amazing things. This is strong and dramatic - and I love the story in the image.

Robyn Sinclair said...

Laura - Thank you! If you recall my obsession with highly detailed graphite drawings way back it is easier to see why I enjoyed this process. Linocuts though satisify my need for instant gratification.

Casey - Many, many thanks. I'm still trying to get started on your still life challenge.

Anonymous said...

This is a lovely etching (and a first-timer, at that!) and you have written so well of the process. Well done, Robyn!

Sherrie York said...

(sigh) I miss etching. But I never learned how to do it without nitric acid baths, and landlords always tended to frown on such things.

In return for such vicarious thrills, I have tagged you with the "Arte y Pico" Award. Details at


Africantapestry and Myfrenchkitchen said...

This is beautiful Robyn!! I love the image you chose and it is hard to believe this is your first attempt at copper plate're doing it as if you were born for it. Waiting for more now...

Making A Mark said...

I thought I'd already commented on this but obviously not - I'm blaming the fevered brow!

This doesn't surprise me after our trip around the exhibitions back in June and I'm so glad seeing you doing something that is so obviously 'in your blood'.

I think it's a fabulous drawing and a wonderful post - thanks for sharing on both counts.

Robyn Sinclair said...

Diana - Thank you and Happy Christmas if I don't get to visit before then!

Sherrie - That's lovely! I've said thank you on your blog.

Ronell - Thank you:) I should say if you are waiting for more, don't hold your breath. These take me quite a while!

Katherine - Thank you too! Our visit to the RA Summer Exhibition was the highlight of my year. More stimulating than any known chemical!
I do hope your winter ills are now packing their bags and leaving you in good health for the festive season.

Anonymous said...

the change after the aquatint stage is dramatic. beautiful piece and composition. reading about you mentioning the ink on your hand reminded me of all the ink under my nails that used to refuse to come out! of course i wasnt smart enough to use the gloves that i'd carried :P

Robyn Sinclair said...

Ujwala - Thank you for dropping in and your kind comment.

I too, really should wear gloves when I'm inking the plate, but I haven't yet worked out what kind will work as well as a bare hand for that last buffing of the plate. I'm sure, even with gloves. I will still end up with ink all over my face because without thinking I keep pushing my hair out of the way.

Anonymous said...

we used a kind of netted cloth bunched up in the shape of a barren to wipe the plate initally. after that wiped it with small squares of newsprint (hand sized) in a light, circular motion. most of that ink that came under my nails was when we were putting ink on the plate :P that's the bit i like least in the whole process!

wishing you a happy, healthy and creative 2009!

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