The reason I started to move my printmaking studio over to Acrylic Resist Etching (A.R.E.) methods is because of the nasty fumes and harmful effects of the traditional chemicals used in printmaking – harmful not just to one’s body, but to the environment (how many gallons of toxic crap I must have poured down the sink into the London water supply when I was first learning to make prints!). ARE materials contain some mildly toxic components, but there’s a huge difference, which I hope shows in the following table that I created:
You can find a really detailed exploration of the relative toxicity levels of all these things at the following page: http://www.nontoxicprint.com/thetoxicityofsolvents.htm
So how have I been using all these findings in creating an actual etching? Here’s a detail of my most recent etching on copper (there's a full size photo of it in the prevoious blog post:
Preparing the plate
I beveled and smoothed the edges of the plate using a file, a scraper, and steel wool.
I scrubbed the surface using 600 grit wet-dry sandpaper. This does two things: creates a fine ‘tooth’ all over the plate to make the acrylic materials bond better with the surface; removes several layers of grease.
I completed the degreasing of the plate by pouring soy sauce over it and rubbing that in with a lint-free cloth (felt or clean sponge also works). Then sprinkled bon ami and distilled vinegar to make a paste (like the trad. ammonia+whiting), and rubbed that over the whole surface. Usually need to do this two or three times to remove all the grease so that water flows over the surface without beading.
I dried the plate in my home-made hot box:
Applying a resist: Hard Ground
Holding the plate upright and at a slight angle in a plastic tray, I poured Pledge acrylic floor wax over the whole surface. Some experts recommend adding some black airbrush medium to the Pledge before pouring, to make your incised lines easier to see, but I don’t mind drawing into a clear ground.
Note: I have also tried Lascaux hard ground, and it is an excellent resist, but unfortunately I have never been able to remove the resist from the plate after etching (and I resent having to pay lots of money for their proprietary resist-remover, so …).
Step-dry the plate upright on some paper, moving the plate to avoid a ridge of resist building up along the bottom edge.
Air dry the plate for 15-20 minutes.
Note: a lot of the information I have read on drying the acrylic hard ground recommends longer air drying, followed by heat-drying in a hot box. Personally, I have found that this hardens the ground too much and makes it prone to chipping when you draw into it. I started drawing into the ground after about 20 minutes, when the ground was dry but still had that waxy feeling that you get with traditional hard ground. I experimented with the timing on a number of small plates until I discovered what worked best, as every printmaker does when they try something new.
Applying a resist: aquatint
I made up a small mixture of ARE spray using a version of the Zea Mays recipe: 3 tsp pledge floor polish; 0.3 tsp of GAC 100; 1 tsp india ink; 1 drop airbrush medium; 1 drop of acrylic flow release. Wearing a mask and goggles, I used my airbrush (with compressor set at 30 psi) to spray a dot pattern onto the plate, aiming for about a 60% coverage.
Air-dried the plate, horizontally, for 10 minutes.
Heat-dried the plate in the hot box for 15 minutes.
Applying a resist: lift ground
Lift ground recipe: 3 tsp of watercolour masking fluid; 0.3 tsp of gouache; 0.5 tsp of warm water (known as Edinburgh lift). I painted thin and thick lines onto the plate using this lift ground.
Air dried the lift for 40 minutes.
Dried in the hot box for another ten minutes.
Flow coated the acrylic hard ground (see above) onto the plate.
When that was dry, I submerged the plate in a tray of warm water. Used a small-tipped brush to begin rubbing gently at the lift ground marks, which lifted off fairly easily.
After drying, I aquatinted the plate (see above).
Etching the plate
I coated the back with overlapping packing tape. I made a ‘suspension strip’ of packing tape so that I could dip the plate into the etching tank, leaving a strip of tape hanging over the top of the box.
The mordant is ferric chloride. I raised the plate out of the tank to check the etch after ten minutes. Hard ground lines: about 30 minutes to get deep black bite. Aquatint: 5 minutes for a light grey, 10 minutes for a deep grey, 15 minutes for a black, 20-30 minutes for a very deep black.
The ARE aquatint also holds up very well for spit bite.
Cleaning the plate
In a tray, add 4 tsps of soda ash to half a litre of warm water. Dissolve the soda ash completely. Submerge the plate in the tray. You can start gently scrubbing the resists off the plate within a few minutes, using a nail scrubber.
Et voila! I inked the plate using Akua soy-based intaglio inks, though I have also used Charbonnel oil-based etching inks too. The advantage of Akua is that they are easier to apply to and remove from the plate, and they are easier on the skin than trad. Inks. The disadvantage is that it takes a while to get used to them, particularly as it is really easy to over-wipe a plate inked with Akuas.
The trickiest thing with the ARE products is getting the recipes just right, and timing how long one should allow them to dry/harden on the plate. After you experiment with that in your own studio (which may have different humidity/temperature/climate conditions which affect the processes), you’ll notice that making prints this way does not take significantly more time than the traditional way, and produces excellent prints, in a way that is better for your body and better for Planet Earth.
This is my studio blog. I also have another blog, Praeterita, which contains more general art-related posts.