In the Depths
Corroded Copper 21 x 38 cm
Electrolytic action on copper
An old lump of concrete that looks like it has spent many years in the sea was found on Abergele beach. Its colours and texture make it a natural fit with this electroformed pear.
Although the starting place for the research was focused on electro-etching for printmaking the use of electrolysis in making sculptural 3D objects is becoming an area of interest for me, especially after the visit to the Castle Fine Art Forge.
The research journey has been an interesting one. For me there has been a fusion of the research and the making of objects each process informing the other. In my artist statement I describe the idea of the two journeys, the inner and outer that I believe happen in the making of art objects. This could be mistaken as meaning that my work is process driven, that is the creative journey is more important than the product. In the production of this object the narratives of all three are important and are fused into it. The narratives of the two journeys, and the two objects that are now one, encompass constant change. As an art object it is a still life and as such is a reminder of death in life.
This zinc plate has been allowed to corrode all the way through in places. The original batteries made to produce electricity in the 1830s were made by hanging a plate of copper and one of zinc in a solution of copper sulphate. Thomas Spencer observed that copper was deposited on the copper plate (the cathode, negative pole) and that the zinc (anode, positive pole) was etched.He and John Wilson patented this process in 1840.
This plate was made by shorting out such a battery.
The copper plates that these prints were taken from have been both electro-etched and plated. The top of the plate for the first print was roughly plated with steel around the etched copper circle. By combining etching and plating processes the plates are sculpted and are more like collagraphs than traditional etched plates. The initial focus of my research into electro-etching was based on it being safer than traditional acid etching and it undoubtably is but the real attraction is the wider range of the mark making potential of electro-etch.
It is well known that each metal responds colouring media in different ways but probably less well known that the each metal has its own signature response to electrolysis. The next phase of the research is to explore this through the making process.
Electro-etching has been around since 1840 when Spencer and Wilson were granted a patent for it. Gottfried Wilson Osann recommended the process to his fellow scientists to illustrate their own books claiming that it was so easy done on their own desks. Despite the ease of use, the lack of toxic fumes and that the process bites fine precise lines it has not so far been widely accepted within the printmaking community.
My research into electro-etching is based on the following testable assumptions that:
- Intaglio etching remains popular today with artists because of the creativity of its line, tonal range and gravitas of expression.
- Traditional acid based printmaking studio is considered to be an unhealthy and hazardous work environment.
- In response, to the increased cost of providing the required safety equipment, many universities art departments have removed intaglio etching from the curriculum.
- The lack of exposure to intaglio etching during secondary education and the potential health and environmental hazards of traditional etching will alienate students from the art form (Howard).
- The vitality of etching depends on young people being offered the opportunity to become familiar with, and practice intaglio etching.
- Electro-etching in the form of “same metal and metal salt etching” is the safest, most economic alternative to other methods of fine art etching.
The objectives are to:
- Fully explore the use of electrolysis as an artistic medium;
- Provide a portfolio of work using electrolysis as an artistic medium
- Carry out a programme of participant observer research, in collaboration with the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham into the uses of electrolysis in printmaking; (To continue the collaborative research relationship with the Leinster Print Centre in the Irish Republic)
- Identify the effects of the operating variables relating to voltage, and current of the power supply; the size of plates and types and concentrations of electrolytes;
- To establish practical guidelines for the practice of electro-etching.
The aim is to:
- Bring together the dispersed scientific and technical information on electrolysis, electro-etching, electroforming and electrotyping to make it available in an accessible form for artists and educators.
- To showcase the process through developing a portfolio of work, running workshops, publications and an active online blog.
In earlier scoping research for this project research saline sulphate was identified as a possible alternative mordant to nitric acid for etching. It is widely used and recommended as a safe mordant for etching zinc and aluminium (Wray). Ferric chloride was also considered, but rejected in the early part of the programme, owing to the difficulty of using it in a domestic environment. The benchmark that had been set for assessing an alternative mordent was that it should be inexpensive, safe and convenient for use in a home-based studio.
The conclusion of the research project was that saline sulphate could be considered as an alternative to, but not necessarily a replacement for acid etching or ferric chloride etching.
The major advantage saline sulphate has over nitric acid is that it does not require as many safety precautions. It does however share some of the disadvantages of both nitric acid and ferric chloride:
- It tires over time requiring bite times to be constantly readjusted.
- It is unstable; it re-acts to changes in temperature.
- There are problems of disposal in a domestic environment.
- The need to refresh the bath fairly frequently makes it expensive.
- It is not particularly good for fine line work.
In 1991, Nik Semenoff at a conference, at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, both described and encouraged artists to use electro-etching as a safe process to etch intaglio plates. It is a matter of surprise, that despite the fact that Nik made this claim twenty-five years ago, and the work of Marion and Omri Behr, Cedric Green, Alfonso Crujera, Bob Perkin and others have shown that his claims are valid, electro-etching is not in mainstream practice.
Current writing on electro-etching
Marion and Omri Behr (1993) published their research into the etching and tone creation in copper and zinc by means of a low voltage electrolytic process using the salts of the same metal as the electrolyte.
Cedric Green, working in France on an electrolytic process for etching copper and zinc he published his paper on galvanic etching in 1998, he has an active web site on which he publishes his and others artwork and researches into electro-etching and electrotyping. Cedric has recently added papers to his web site describing his concerns about the use of sodium chloride as an electrolyte because of its potential to release chlorine gas.
Alfonso Crujera an internationally respected Spanish painter, sculptor and printmaker began electro-etching in 2001 and opened the first electro-etching workshop in Spain in 2002. He published his ‘Electro-Etching Handbook’ in Spanish that has now been translated and published in English. Alfonso has an active website and runs residential workshops. He also has an easy to read, accessible paper on electro-etching on the non-toxic print website. Most recently Alfonso, in collaboration with Bob Perkin a U.K. based scientist, has been writing of their research into the science of electro-etching.
In 2010 Francisco Hernandez-Chevarria and Alberto Murillo published their paper “Metal Sacrifice: The use of saline (sodium chloride or table salt) to etch aluminium, steel and iron/mild steel.
Where am I at with this Project?
I guess the flip answer to that question is I wish I knew. I’ve probably learned more about myself than I have about the subject matter so far.
I am surrounded by a load of data; notes on experiments and ideas to explore further, but at a time in the PhD. Programme where I need to start pulling it all together into a coherent form and making some work. The making of work has been somewhat on hold over the past two years, so that is beginning to look like a priority. Using the making of art as a research tool.
 Howard, K. (1993). ‘Safe Etching and Photo Etching: The next generation’. Print Making Today, Vol. 2 No 3. pp. 19-21
 Same metal same metal salt describes the use of the same metal for both the anode electrode and cathode and the electrolyte being an aqueous solution of the metal salt i.e. an electrolyte of copper sulphate for copper electrodes and zinc sulphate for zinc electrodes.
 Wray, P. (2007) ‘Etching Made Easy’, Printmaking Today Vol 16, No 1 Spring, pp 25-25
 Semenoff, N and Christos, C. (1991) Using Dry Copier Toners and Electro-Etching on Intaglio Plates Leonardo, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1991), pp. 389-394.
 Electro-etching handbook: Alfonso Crujera: 9788493510091
 Printmaking Revolution – Amazon.com