by Helen Barker

On Friday I took a group of students to Barnsley college for an etching workshop. They weren’t the only ones who came away with new found knowledge of the printmaking technique. I had lots of fun trying out my own stuff. I’d never done it before, and it wasn’t quite as easy as the tutor made out….

First of all we had to make our plate, which we did by scratching into the surface of a square of zinc with a needle. Because the image would be printed in reverse, we had to make sure we drew our picture the wrong way round. Drawing a face back to front was pretty tricky….even though I chose a wrinkly subject with lots of appealing lines, I still couldn’t quite get his scrunched up eyes right.

The reflection has made this a bit of a nightmare to photograph, but you can see the size and get the general idea…

Next we put the plate into a bath of acid to bite, so that the lines we had scratched would form grooves and eventually hold the ink. When the plate had been in long enough (a process that seemed to be measured by some form of secret inner power, bestowed only upon those worthy of being a Master Printmaker), it was taken out and polished up.

Then the inking began! The first couple were a little bit rough, as you can see I didn’t quite get the ink into the grooves firmly enough, so the image is a bit soft…

But then I printed a couple more and found that, depending on where you leave the ink and how much you wipe off, you can get some lovely variations in tone, shade and light….

Finally, the printmaking tutor demonstrated how to use several colours at once by turning my old man into a bit of a Van Gogh rainbow!

All in all I like the etching process. If you enjoy lines, which I do, and the way they can wander about forming shape, tone and image – then etching is for you. In some ways it’s a bit like writing, or calligraphy. The ink flows over the page and settles in a new way every time. It may be machine-orientated in terms of process, but there’s nothing formulaic about it. Etching is a wondrous marriage between the artist’s hand and the printing press!