Intaglio Process Overview

Intaglio is a gorgeous and wonderful process, but is not widely known or practiced. In fact, it is a rare treat if a university offers it and my university is one of those rare schools to offer this process outside of the elite arts schools. Not everyone goes to a rare gem like the art department at my university, so here is a brief overview of the steps I use to create intaglio plates and prints so you can get a glimpse of the fun. It is not a comprehensive tutorial, but for those starting out in printmaking it offers a rare overview into this fabulous method and offers a few tips.

Step 1: Prep
Cut your plate and file the edges so that they are beveled and the corners rounded. This will protect your paper from tearing when you print.  Polish your plate with steel wool until it shines and then clean with paint thinner.

File, file, file.

Polish with the 'grain' of the zinc.

Step 2: Hard Ground and Image Transfer
Apply an even coat of hard ground and allow to dry (there are different kinds of ground, but this is a good one for beginners).  Once it is dried, bake the ground on the hot plate until it turns glossy and then allow it to cool again (this is how you harden the ground).  I use white carbon transfer paper to get my image onto the plate.  I slip the transfer paper between the plate and my drawing and secure with tape before tracing.

Applying the hardground.
Baking the hardground (you are finished when
the matte ground turns glossy).
Tracing the design onto the hardground.
Step 3: Create the Design
Once the drawing is traced onto the hard ground, scratch your lines into the hard ground with a blunted, pointed object. I love using old pens as they give me the line width I like. You don't need to scratch through the plate, just the ground.

Removing the hardground with a ballpoint pen.
Unlike drawing, keep some spaces between
your lines--they'll get thicker and fill in during etching.

Step 4: Etch
Dip your plate into an a properly mixed acid bath and let sit in the acid according to your time charts and the line width you desire. For my plate, I etched it in steps of 10 minutes each to create three different line thicknesses (this is called step biting).

Use a feather to regularly stroke away the bubbles that build up in the lines. Hint: if you're getting a lot of bubbles, your bath is probably too acidic.

Step 5 Optional: Aquatint
Aquatint is one of the hardest techniques taught at CSU-Pueblo, but it is worth it. Aquatint is the intaglio equivalent of the halftone--it gives you shades of grey tone, perfect for coloring. Aquatint is created using a resin dust. To apply it, you must rock the box of resin dust to stir it in the air within the box, then set your plate in the box until the right amount of dust settles on your plate (about 50% coverage). Finish the plate by baking it on the hot plate until the aquatint turns glossy, then etch according to your time tables and the depth of grey you desire.

Step 6: Ink and Print
The hardest part about intaglio is not applying the ink, but rather wiping off the right amount. Ideally, you want your negative space to be clean and white, not grey. Achieving this takes practice. Begin by dipping a card into your ink and dragging it along the plate until it is well covered. Then gently wipe away the excess ink with a balled cheesecloth until only the etched lines and aquatint pores are filled with ink. Making test prints will help you learn the right amount of wiping.

Be sure that the ink seeps deep into the lines (as you can see here, the ink isn't quite there in this image)
Printing of the intaglio plate requires a special press and the correct blankets.
That moment when you finally see if the majority of your semester was worth it or if something horrible pulls away from the plate!

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