Technical Detail for BINKY LEE PRESERVE
13 x 20 inches
The idea for this etching is based on this photograph:
I took this photograph at the Binky Lee Preserve in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, in February 2008. I like the scene on several levels. It’ s an interlocking of horizontal brown and white strips: the downward slope of the near field from right to left is counter-balanced by the white barn roof, the flow of the bare trees and the distant hill, which all sweep in the opposite direction. It’s like the crest and trough of an ocean wave.
The image is even more complex. The snow has settled between the near rows of field, leaving jagged verticals that move into the distance and to the furthermost tree on the right. The intricate pattern of the tree line flows to the same far tree, guiding me over the hill and beyond. As I look at the picture, I bounce between the far tree and the barn roof. I finally settle at the barn roof, a place that ultimately anchors the picture. This image is safe in content but complex to construct.
- Frosted Mylar
- #2 pencil
- Masking tape
- 13 x 20 inch 16 gauge zinc plate with acid resist backing
- Stop-out (or liquid asphaltum) and paint brush
- Flat black Krylon spray paint for aquatinting
- Lithographic crayon
- Moderate strength nitric acid
- Very fine steel wool
- Turpentine and alcohol
- white BFK Rives paper
- Charbonnel inks — black and burnt umber
- large quantities of paper towels and old newspapers!
For those who are unfamiliar with etching techniques, please refer first to the Etching Process and Essays sections of this website for an overview of the process. The Technical Detail that follows is meant to give specific examples of how the techniques are used.
THE FIRST STATE
For years I have wanted to do a dramatic sky in an etching, and I decide to do it with this plate. In the original photo, the sky is gray and neutral — it needs something additional. If I construct the sky, it has to be done now, as the other elements of the picture will have to be etched on top of it.
My inspiration for the sky technique is simple and is part of the basic drudgery of etching. Every time I clean the stop-out off a plate, I wipe the plate off with paper towels and I use turpentine or kerosene as the cleaning solvent. The process can take several minutes, as the stop-out becomes fluid and has to be worked off depending on how thickly it has been applied. When cleaning, you can get some amazing random patterns of stop-out that can look like many different things such as clouds. Once an interesting pattern has emerged, I can selectively wipe off additional stop-out and bring the pattern into focus. A variation of this is to stop-out a plate, spray an aquatint over the stop-out and wipe off. The aquatint provides additional patterning and resistance when wiped. This variation is what I used below:
By selectively wiping the stop-out/aquatint across the top of the plate with turpentine (less smell and dries quicker than kerosene), I have formed what looks like cloud cover. Remember the plate image above is a negative image — what will be the white clouds are black with stop-out and the exposed silver of the plate will be the gray of the sky. The image is also in reverse.
The initial wiping of stop-out/aquatint leaves a very promising but raw image that needs to be refined before etching. The remaining stop-out on the plate is left to dry overnight.
Refining after the initial wiping:
The dried stop-out/aquatint is very thin and can easily be removed with fine steel wool. The top of the plate is shown below. By selectively leaving some residue of stop-out/aquatint, I can suggest light wisps of clouds. Edges can be softened by rubbing with the steel wool in a soft, circular motion.
Top of the Plate – Before:
Top of the Plate – After using steel wool:
By rubbing with steel wool, the areas of the plate that are to be etched are thoroughly cleaned of stop-out and will produce a smooth aquatint. Areas of the clouds that have been accidentally rubbed open are stopped-out so they are not etched.
After the clouds are fully formed, I stop-out the horizon and below, because this area will not be etched until the second state.
Etching the sky:
I spray the plate with a light aquatint and etch for about a minute. I clean and print the plate, giving the image below:
First Proof — Etching the Sky
It looks very promising. The sky near the horizon should be lighter, so I use steel wool to rub over the lower sky. This smoothes out the aquatint and will print lighter.
Overall the aquatint has come out a little darker than I would have preferred. I could further lighten it by burnishing or rubbing with steel wool, but I decide to move to the next step. This could be a bad decision because now is the only time the sky can be effectively lightened. If I wait till further in the process, it’s impossible to lighten the sky because the many tree branches would make rubbing with steel wool or burnishing extremely difficult without also lightening the tree branches — not a good situation.
I move to the next step. I completely stop-out the plate and let it dry overnight.
THE SECOND STATE
When I do a drawing for an etching, I’m not trying to do a finished, ready-to-exhibit drawing. I’m instead looking for the overall light and dark contrasts because this gives the structure to what the etching will look like. I use pencil to completely fill in the small dark areas, such as the stubble of the near fields. For the larger blocks of dark areas, I only draw the outline because I know that area will be dark when I work on the plate. For example, in the drawing below, I do not fill in the distant hill, as I know the hill and the trees will blend together. However, the snow on the branches will stand out from the dark hill, so I draw them in. Remember, the sky is already in place from the first state, so it is not in the drawing.
The completed drawing is traced on Mylar with a #2 graphite pencil so that it can be transferred to the plate.
Mylar drawing transferred to the plate:
The plate (which was completely coated with stop-out after the first state) is put on the press bed. I place the Mylar drawing image-side down on the plate and tape in place. The drawing and plate are run through the press. The drawing is transferred to the coated plate. The image on the plate is in reverse of how it will look printed.
The transferred image on the plate shows the areas in graphite that are to be etched in acid. Using the tip of my burnisher, I scrape off the graphite areas. These are the areas of the plate that will be exposed for etching in acid and will be the grays and blacks of the picture. With this technique, I am able to achieve a fine level of intricate design which forms the structure of the etching. Scraping is the most tedious part of my etching process and, depending on the size and complexity of the plate, can take many hours.
Once the scraping is done, I use very fine steel wool to rub off any excess stop-out. Some areas may have been scrapped accidentally; I stop-out these areas so that they are not etched.
The plate below shows the completed scraping. The silver areas are the areas that will be etched. The black, stopped-out areas will not be etched because stop-out is an acid resist. Keep in mind that the plate is in reverse and is a negative image.
I aquatint the plate and etch in nitric acid for 2 minutes. This is a short etch and the open area will print as a light gray.
I remove the plate from the acid and stop-out the areas that I want to remain light gray. I paint in more branches against the distant hill and stop-out some of the outer branches that extend into the sky, because I want them lighter and more delicate than the larger branches below. On the distant hill, I stop out the upper edge to give the hill a rounded, receding look.
I etch the plate for 1 minute. The open areas will be etched deeper than the first etch, and will print as gray.
I remove the plate from the acid and stop-out the areas that I want to remain gray. I put in more details on the branches against the distant hill and stop-out more of the delicate branches and field areas. This should give the illusion of shape when printed.
I etch the plate for 1 minute. The open areas will be etched deeper than the second etch and will print as dark gray.
I remove the plate from the acid and stop-out the areas that I want to remain dark gray, which is all of the remaining detail on the upper half of the plate. What remains is the lower half, or the near field. I stop-out some of the near field and go over the open areas with a litho pencil, an acid resist that catches the edge of the stop-out and gives more texture to the stubble. By etching the near field further, it will be very dark when printed.
At this point, the second state etching is done. I want to see what progress has been made, and how the second state looks with the sky from the first state. After removing the plate from the acid, I clean the plate and prepare to print.
I print the second proof using black ink on white paper:
I am very satisfied with the second proof. The values throughout the proof are good — nothing is too dark or too light. Everything is there that should be there and everything flows as it should. Most importantly, the sky from the first state and the land elements from the second state are well matched. My initial concern that the sky was too dark is unfounded.
I am not far from being finished. To improve the print, both the near field and the middle field need to be further developed and enriched, and the distant hill is a bit dark and over-dominates the image. Both issues are easy to deal with.
Lightening the background:
The distant hill is dark and dominates the second proof. It needs to be lightened to give the image a better visual flow.
I accomplish this by stopping-out the areas around the distant hill. This forms the boundary of the area to be lightened. Inside the boundary, I stop-out the branches that I do not want lightened.
After the stop-out dries, I use very fine steel wool and rub the area in a circular motion, making sure not to go outside the boundary. This smoothes out the aquatint which, when inked, will hold less ink than before, giving a lighter tone when printed. When I rub over the stopped-out branches, the stop-out forms a barrier that keeps the steel wool from lightening the covered area. This gives more definition to the branches. I further rub the very upper end of the hill, which lightens the top of the hill and gives it rounded depth.
I remove the stop-out and clean the plate in preparation for the next step.
Developing the fields:
The fields need to be developed and fleshed out more. I stop-out all the areas around the near field, leaving open the areas that are to be worked on.
I want to give the field shape, texture and contrast. With a litho crayon, I highlight the lighter areas of the field because they will remain highlights and I do not want to etch them. By etching around the lighter areas, the field will have rougher, fuller texture. I etch the plate for 1 minute.
Second Etch (picture not shown):
The lower part of the field (visually, the field closest to the viewer), is sparse. As the rows recede into the distance, they appear more dense. I use litho crayon to go over the field, putting more crayon on the lower field to keep the sparseness and opening the upper field for deeper etching, which will print darker than the nearer field. I etch for 1 minute.
Third Etch (picture not shown): I completely clean the plate and repeat the process above for the middle field. My etching intuition says I may be done. I clean the plate and proof.
I print with Charbonnel black ink on BFK Rives paper and then decide to print a second proof with a mixture of 2/3 brown (Charbonnel burnt umber) and 1/3 black ink. The brown and black ink turns out to be perfect for the feel of the picture and it is what I will print the edition with.
The proof looks good. It has a rough, unfinished look which fits the image perfectly. I could try to soften several areas but I decide to let it go. Often, working on finishing touches does not improve the overall image and can make things worse — etching is not a delicate medium.
I like the rows and how they flow into the picture, but it’s textured, jagged flow. The experiment with the sky has come out well and I can definitely use this technique in future efforts. I have done all I set out to do.