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The visceral print – from soft ground etching to a collagraph made from tile cement and glue.

Due the limitations of time and cost I sometimes feel restricted by scale in the context of the etching process so I have rediscovered the collagraph as a way of working more quickly, and on a larger scale.  I’ve pared down the process to the simple use of tile cement and carborundum grit mixed with PVA glue, which I smear onto plywood and as the surface dries, I score, furrow and scrape in the same manner as with my etchings.

Here’s a quick run through of what led up to one of my latest collagraphs – the starting point was a walk near Postbridge on Dartmoor.  It was a few days after Christmas (2012 I think), and the sun shone for the first time in weeks, if not months.  Everyone we met was smiling!  I took a few snap shots with my phone.  The golden light transformed everything.  Funny though, how the underlying feeling which had built up over months of really awful winter weather had compounded with the general gloom about the future of our planet, and eventually manifested in my final piece despite the light hearted mood in the air that day!

Postbridge walk2013-07-02 15.18.58

Nearly a year later I made a preparatory drawing on tracing paper (which I have now lost or I would have included it in my visuals here) and transferred it to a sheet of primed paper.  I then developed it into an oil painting (40 x 30 cms), which sold almost immediately. The tiny etching (11 x 8 cms) came into existence after the painting.

1. Starting points

2. variations on an exploratory etching

2013-10-15 12.18.44 

I wasn’t happy though!  There was something missing and I had to put this right.  These days, the cost of metal is so inhibiting that I rarely work on large plates.  I used to love the feel of working with a big copper or zinc plate – loved the freedom of swinging your whole arm, sweeping it across the plate.  Working large makes it much easier to get totally immersed in the simple pleasure of mark making . So – after working with Peter Wrey a couple of years ago I discovered the potential of tile cement, carborundum and PVA glue in collagraph making.  Scoring into tile cement feels similar to the scoring, scraping, moulding and shaping that I do on my metal etching plates and it’s even more visceral.

003 Scaled up scan transfer

Using my digital skills, I scaled up a copy of my tiny etching to enable me to make an initial transfer onto a large piece of thin ply wood (60 x 85 cms) which I’d plastered with an even layer of tile cement using a builders’ paint scraper and a large palette knife.  From here on I had to think quickly (not one of my strengths!) in order to make sure it didn’t dry too much before I’d finished working on it.  My first thought was to protect my transfer paper from the wet cement and so I covered the surface with strips of cling film.  I then laid the scaled up image on top and, with the principle of the soft ground etching in the back of my mind, I drew onto the paper with the end of a paint brush with enough pressure to make an impression on the cement to establish the key points in the composition. 

004 Drawing into tile cement with etching tool

Then I peeled everything away and discovered to my excitement that the cling film had made some very useful textures to add to the quality of the surface.  I started working directly into the surface with my etching tools and my fingers until I felt I could do no more.  It’s very hard to see exactly what’s going on as you’re working on the plate, and thus equally hard to imagine the outcome.  It’s like working blind, groping in the dark (analogous to the final image in this case, in fact), working almost entirely by feel and not by eye, working from the gut. 

Once it was dry there were some more adjustments to be made – I mixed some PVA and water and gradually built up layer after layer on the parts of the picture that I needed to be light, or lighter.  The more layers of glue, the more they fill the natural texture of the surface and the lighter it makes it when you print (for the novices amongst you!). 

To make a collagraph print I rub ink into the surface with a tooth brush and wipe away the excess with a rag.  The ink stays in the rough textures and is removed from the smooth ones.  I place a damp piece of paper over the inky plate and after running the whole thing through an etching press,  I peel the paper from the plate to reveal the print.  (Click on both the following images for better clarity.)

007 NIght descending

005 Printing the collagraph

Sometimes this is an absolute thrill, sometimes it’s a terrible disappointment.  But whatever the result, it is nearly always a big surprise.  This time – it worked first time.  A rare experience for me.  Printmaking is compulsive  – it’s a life-long obsession!

You can see some of these collagraphs in “Signpost 3 12+21G” – a collaboration between the 21 Group of Artists and Devonport High for Girls. The original idea was conceived by the artist and teacher, Richard Sunderland, and this is the third year of a series of exhibitions which aim to develop partnerships between the sixth formers and contemporary local artists. “An exciting collaboration between 21G and ‘A’level students at Devonport Girls’ High School. Curated by the students, the show will counterpoint their work with members of the group, revealing the many ways that they look, think and create.” Cube 3 Gallery, Portland Building, University of Plymouth, 7th July – 8th August, Monday to Friday 10 – 5. http://www.21group.org.uk/