Using Galvanic Techniques to Enhance the Work of Artist Printmakers
Wrexham Glyndwr University
Braisby is an Artist in Residence at Wrexham Glyndwr University, He has recently completed his doctoral research into ‘Using Galvanic Techniques to Enhance the Work of Artist Printmakers’.
There has been a decline in the teaching of intaglio etching since the 1990s that coincided with growing concerns about the environmental, health and cost implications of using nitric acid in educational institutions. The purpose of this paper is to examine how the development and use of galvanic techniques and electrometallurgy might enhance the work of artist printmakers and act to re-invigorate the teaching and practice of intaglio etching. Electro-etching as a replacement for traditional acid etching in the mid nineteenth century because it was argued that it was too complex. A practice led approach to the research was adopted. This involved the making of artworks that contributed to a deeper understanding of the chemical and electrochemical processes involved. The insights learned from this research were built into a workshop designed to teach the process with the aim of assessing how it might enhance the work of artist printmakers. The success of the first workshop led to requests for more. To date there have been eight workshops and further are planned for 2017. The learning and data generated by the workshops was analysed using the Soft Systems Methodology that identified two potential models for further development. The objective of these models is to establish electro-etching and electrometallurgy into mainstream art education in the U.K. in order to regenerate the practice of intaglio etching.
Electro-etching, Galvanic etching, Intaglio etching, Electrometallurgy, Electrotyping, Printmaking
The evidence from the literature is that since the1990s the teaching of intaglio etching in educational institutions has fallen into decline due to:
- The cost of adapting the print studio environment due to changing health and safety legislation.
- The increasing cost of materials.
- The introduction of digital technology into the printmaking studio.
- The loss of expertise in technical knowledge and artistic concepts of intaglio etching in academia.
This has led to a growing interest and search by independent studios and educational establishments for alternative etching techniques that are easy to teach and are free of toxic gasses. Electro-etching is identified in the paper as a process that can be used in an open studio, a class room or a home studio. The process was discovered and first patented in the early 19 century. It enjoyed an early success with amateur artists but despite its many advantages was rarely used in fine art studios at the time or since. The advantages it has over acid etching and its alternatives is that it does not produce toxic fumes, does not tire over time, and produces a finer line than acid and does not undercut the ground. The major difficulty it has is that the science is difficult to understand although the working process is easy to grasp. The workshops that were run as part of the research has shown the process to be easy to teach and participants found it simple to use.
Etching the Art of Controlling Corrosion.
Daniel Hopfer, an artist and armourer working in the late 15th and early 16th century is credited with the development of etching metals with a mordant that corroded the metal as an alternative to engraving, (Adam & Robertson, 2007). He observed that coating iron artefacts with wax prevented the natural rusting process. However, where the wax was scratched the exposed metal would rust. He exploited this natural process by painting iron with wax and drawing a design through the wax coating. The artefact was then placed in a mixture of boiled vinegar and vitriol (copper sulphate), the areas of metal that had been exposed to the mordant corroded, thereby etching the design into the metal. Etching is the art of controlling corrosion. In Hopfer’s intaglio etching process the artist controls the rate and depth of the corrosion by exposing the metal to or protecting it from the mordant that forms the biting or corroding substance. The wax or any other coating that protects the plate from corrosion is known as the ground.
Why Intaglio Etching?
Before the late 19th.century artists rarely made prints as original works of art, there was an established commercial tradition of making prints of original paintings. The development of intaglio etching was mainly in response to the demand for exactly repeatable pictorial representations. Printmaking was viewed as a mechanical means of reproduction and as such was seen as a parallel and secondary activity to fine art activities such as painting and sculpture. The development of printmaking as a medium for making unique visual statements can be seen in the works of Rembrandt van Rijn 91606-1669) and William Blake (1757-1827). For Blake, there is a reciprocal relationship between the visual syntax and the symbolic process of etching.
“first the notion that man has body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. ” (Blake, cited in (Lister, 1975))
The dividing point in the relationship between the development of print as a commercial medium for reportage and as a medium for artistic expression is difficult to identify. For Ivins, the difference is:
“it has become obvious that what the medium artistically important is not any quality of the medium itself but the qualities of mind and hand that its users bring to it”. (Ivins, 1973)
Ivins goes on to suggest that the introduction of photography had two impacts on print it freed:
“… the artist from the confines of journalistic reproductions and freeing the scientist from the unavoidable imprecision of the artists prints.” (Ivins, 1973)
For the artist, the intaglio process has a unique and unmistakable identity that has led to intaglio prints being one of the elite forms of graphic art, (Saff & Sacilotto, 1978). The clean nature of the engraved or etched line, the tactile richness of the printed surface and the way the medium can amplify the intentions of the artist are the qualities that have attracted artists over the last five centuries to work in the medium. Many of the great artists of the past and present have made intaglio prints a significant part of their output – these include: Rembrandt, Picasso, Dine, Kapoor, Cage, and Hockney. Gillian Saunders and Rosie Miles in their 2006 survey of contemporary print art identify that, ‘Print is now a central part of many artists’ activity, the equal of their output in any other media, conceived as integral or complementary to it.’ (Saunders & Miles, 2006).
Decline in the Teaching of Intaglio Etching
There has been a decline in the teaching of intaglio etching since the 1990s that coincided with growing concerns about the environmental, health and cost implications of using nitric acid in educational institutions. For the last two hundred years nitric acid has been the mordant of choice for printmakers. It is a strong, colourless liquid that attacks both metal and organic matter with devastating effects. It is never used in pure form but is always diluted with water. The fumes from nitric acid are highly corrosive and should not be inhaled. Etching metal with nitric acid is an exothermic reaction; as the acid bites into the metal, it gets hot. The warmer the acid the faster the etching time and the more toxic gas is given off. The health consequences of using nitric acid as a mordant were known and commented on in the early 19th. century. The danger is inherent in the gas that evaporates from nitric acid. Nitrogen dioxide is highly toxic when inhaled in large quantities. The symptoms of poisoning include fever, chills shortness of breath, headache, vomiting, and rapid heartbeat. Long repeated exposure can cause impotence, pulmonary dysfunction and emphysema.
Electrolysis a Solution in Search of a Problem
Electrometallurgy owes its beginning to the discovery by Davy and others that the current from a battery could, by chemical deposition release metal from their compounds. Many experiments and observations were recorded on both the decomposition of water and transfer of elements of a decomposed compound from one electrode to the other. The simple apparatus for doing this was well known and written about by George Singer in his Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry 1814. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) formulated the laws of electrolysis in 1833 that laid the foundation for the science of electrodeposition. The laws state:
- The weight of metal deposited is proportional to the quantity of current and time consumed.
- For the same quantity of current, the weight of metal deposited is proportional to its chemical equivalent (the weight of an element which will replace or combine with eight parts by weight of oxygen in a reaction).
But it was not until the invention of the Daniell constant battery in 1836 that it occurred to anyone to put these findings to practical use. The fact that the cathode in a Daniell constant battery was plated in copper that showed in relief even the finest markings on the electrode must have been observed many times before its significance was recognised. Electrolysis appears to have initially been a solution in search of a problem. The “Cyclopedia of Useful Arts” published in 1868 records that as early as 1801 it had been observed by a Mr. Wollaston that ‘silver connected to the negative pole of a voltaic cell in a solution of copper will be coated over with copper that will withstand burnishing’ (Tomlinson, 1868). It goes on to report that similar observations had been made and published by many eminent chemists for more than a quarter of a century and ‘yet they bore no fruit to the industrial arts’.
The majority of the advantages and safety of electro-etching had been identified by Smee, (1841 p.141) who describes the process as being suitable for ladies to practice in their drawing rooms, as etching is “as easy to execute as common drawing”.
“The objection to this hitherto, has been the disagreeable properties of the acid, as it is likely to spoil their clothes or injure the furniture; but now these objections are removed, I trust that numbers will enter into this amusing and useful branch of art”.
He lists the advantages of galvanism for etching as being;
“The absence of poisonous nitrous fumes, greater uniformity of action, ability to regulate the biting, depth and sharpness of the lines, there are no bubbles to cause unequal action or damage the ground.” (Smee, 1841 p.139).
Smee eulogises extensively on the ease and potential of the electro-etching process within the fine arts. He describes the fidelity of line and the extraordinary shades of light into dark that can be achieved with electro-etching. He says its greatest achievement is the removal of the disagreeable consequences of the use of nitric acid, and made the hope that this would encourage more to participate in the art of etching. In the 1840s electrometallurgy became a popular pastime and Charles Walker’s “Electrotype Manipulation” ran to nearly thirty editions.
Watt (1860) reported that electrolysis had become a fashionable amusement and that the hobbyist not only had the satisfaction of learning the process and the science behind it, but also could create objects that would ‘astonish family and friends’. He went on to write “everyone had his set of electrotyping apparatus and his bath of sulphate of copper. Even among the fair sex would be found many a skilful manipulator”.
Twenty-three years later Chattock describes
“The fumes arising from both the nitric and the nitrous mordants are irritating to the throat and lungs, and it is desirable to have the mouth protected when watching the biting process.” (Chattock, 1883).
In his appraisal of electro-etching, he notes that it has:
“the advantages of being free from the exhalation of noxious gasses and creates a cleaner line than nitric acid, but the process requires a battery and a spare copper plate that makes it cumbersome and complicated.” And concludes that “It does not appear to have been adopted for artistic work to any considerable extent.”
There is little in the literature until a hundred and fifty years since the process was first patented that at a conference on ‘Safe Etching’ artist were advised that electro-etching is the safest way to etch intaglio plates (Semenoff, 1991). From reviewing the literature that only two universities in the world teach intaglio-etching using electrolysis. To date electro-etching is barely mentioned in any of the books promoting safe printmaking techniques (Adam & Robertson, 2007). Where it is mentioned there is either a brief description of the process, as in (Graver, 2011)p.85) or it is dismissed as being too complicated, (Gale & Fishpond, 2012). The complexity referred to is understood to be the complexity of the electrochemical science rather than the operational functioning of the electrolytic cell.
In the research undertaken by the author a practice led approach was adopted. This involved the making of artworks and an examination of the electrochemical processes involved. The insights learned from this research were built into a workshop designed to teach the process with the aim of assessing how it might enhance the work of artist printmakers. The success of the first workshop led to requests for more. To date there have been eight workshops and further are planned for 2017. The learning and data generated by the workshops was analysed using the Soft Systems Methodology that identified two potential models for further development:
A grant-aided college based ‘Community of Practice’ system based at the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham with the aim of establishing a centre of excellence for electro-etching.
A university-owned research project aimed at establishing and promoting the development of electrometallurgy and electro-etching as a process to be taught and used in the arts.
The objective of these models is to establish electro-etching and electrometallurgy into mainstream art education in the U.K. in order to regenerate the practice of intaglio etching.
The Exhibition Piece
The piece on show at this exhibition was chosen because it displays the creative flexibility that is one of the characteristics of electrometallurgy.
It has been made by a process known as ‘electrotyping’. Electrotyping is an electrochemical process that reproduces an exact copy of a model. As with metal casting a mould is made of the model to be reproduced, in this case the mould was made of latex. The inside of the mould is made electrically conductive by coating it with a very thin layer of graphite powder. The conductive surface is attached to a wire that is connected to the negative terminal of a battery and mould is suspended in an electrolyte. The positive terminal is connected to a copper electrode that is suspended parallel to the face of the mould. Through the process of electrolysis, the face of the mould becomes plated with copper. The display consists of the original plate, the electrotyped copy, and the final print.
Adam, R. & Robertson, C., 2007. Intaglio: the complete safety-first system for creative printmaking. London: Thames & Hudson.
Chattock, R., 1883. Practical Notes on Etching. 2nd Edition ed. London: Sampson, Lo, Marston, Searle & Rivington.
Gale, C. & Fishpond, M., 2012. Printmaker’s Bible. London: Bloombury.
Graver, G., 2011. Non-Toxic Printmaking. London: A&C Black Publishing Limited.
Ivins, W., 1973. Prints and Visual Communication. London: MIT Press.
Lister, 1975. Infernal Methods: a study of William Blake’s art techniques. London: Camelot Press.
Saff, D. & Sacilotto, D., 1978. Printmaking: History and Process. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson.
Saunders, G. & Miles, R., 2006. Prints Now Directions and Definitions. London: V & A Publishing.
Semenoff, N., 1991. Using Dry Copier Toners and Electro-Etching on Intaglio Plates. Leonardo, 24(4), pp. 389-394.
Smee, A., 1841. Electro-Metallurgy, The art of working in metals by galvanic fluid. London: E. Palmer.