Research Report 2014

Research Report 2014

Abstract

This report sets out to summarise the research so far undertaken by this researcher to answer the following question:

“Are there etching techniques that can be used safely by artist’s in their homes, studios and places of education?”

The research recommends a process known as electro-etching that since the 1840s has been a simple, safe, inexpensive alternative to traditional acid etching. Despite this, its use for artistic mark making and expression has remained relatively unexplored.

There were three strands to the scoping research,

  1. Action Research: To form a reflective framework to bring together and examine the data and results of the scientific enquiry and practice as research.
  2. Scientific Experimental Enquiry: To identify and test techniques that can be used in artist’s home studios and places of education.
  3. Practice as Research: Making artwork to explore the mark making potential of the methods identified by the experimental enquiry.

The research explored the use of other alternative mordants such as saline sulphate and ferrous sulphate prior to identifying electro-etching as worthy of deeper investigation.

The proper functioning of Action Research relies on developing a Community of Practice. The original design relied on the provision of workshops to assist the development of such a community. Post workshop conversations revealed that the lack of access to electro etching units prevented many of the participants from exploring the process further. This showed up a weakness in the original research design.

The Regional Print Centre in Wrexham has since announced that as part of its 2015 programme it plans to support research into electro-etching, thus resolving this issue by providing easy to access to electro-etching units, along with workshops for members, technical support and studio time at the Regional Print Centre.

Continuing research

Build a community of practice:

  • It is aticipated that work at the centre will develop a community of practice for electro-etching with members sharing information, experiences and learning together.

Collect, analyse, convert into lay language the currently dispersed literature on electro-etching and electrotype:

  • The aim is to demystify the electrolytic process and make it accessible to artists and to provide a comprehensive source of information for electro-etching.

Further research into the electro etching of aluminium:

  • Aluminium is one of the cheapest and most available metals but is proving to be the most difficult to electro-etch.

Continue research into the art, practice and science of electro etching.

The researcher intends to develop a portfolio of work over the next twelve months that will explore the techniques and the mark making potential of electro-etching and electrotyping.

The aim of the research is to bring electro-etching into the mainstream of artistic practice.

Rationale for the proposed research

Intaglio etching remains popular today with artists who enjoy the creativity of its line, tonal range and gravitas of expression. Though its roots lie in the fifteenth century, it has adapted to modern mark making techniques such as photography and digital media (Smith, A. 2004 p.9). Many of the great artists of the past and present have made intaglio prints a significant part of their output – these include; Goya, Hogarth, Blake, Picasso, Chagall, Motherwell, Hockney, Oldenburg, Hodgkin.

For the last one hundred and fifty years, nitric acid has been used as a mordant to bite etching plates. Today the traditional acid based printmaking studio is considered to be a hazardous work environment. The fumes from nitric acid are toxic, impacting on both individual health and environmental safety. The toxic nature of the chemicals, solvents and acids used in traditional printmaking requires fume cupboards and special ventilation equipment that are beyond the reach of most artists.

Since the early 1990s a growing awareness of the potential health and environmental hazards of traditional etching techniques has led to a real interest in exploring safer and less toxic methods of etching and printmaking (Adam, R and Robertson C. 2007). Another response has shown that a number of colleges and art schools have taken etching out of their curricula. (Keith Howard 1993 p. 20) suggests that the lack of exposure to etch as an art form during secondary education and the potential health and environmental hazards of traditional etching will alienate potential students from the art form. He argues that the vitality of etching depends on young people being offered the opportunity to become familiar with and practice the art.

This researcher attended an Etching Summer School at the Slade College of Art in 2014, of the twenty in attendance; seven were young people seeking to add etching work to their portfolios for ‘A’ level in art.

The danger is that in today’s economic climate, it will be expedient for educational establishments to exclude etching from their curriculum because of the major health and safety issues it has, than to explore safer and potentially more creative ways of keeping it in.

Summary

The teaching of etching in educational institutions is in decline due to:

  • The increasing cost of materials,
  • The cost of adapting the environment due to changing health and safety legislation will make it prohibitive,
  • The lack of an effective, safe and inexpensive alternative to acid etching.

The costs of ventilation systems required are beyond the means of most artists in their home studios. There are a small number (about a dozen in the U.K.) of open studios available to people whom wish to practice the art of etching, but these too have constraints in their ability to undertake the required changes to make the studio safe for traditional etching. None is known to be practicing electro-etching.

Research Question

“Are there etching techniques that can be used safely by artist’s in their homes, studios and places of education?”

Literature review

Introduction

Articles about innovative research into alternative and possibly safer methods for artists to etch metal plates, including electro-etching began to appear in the late twentieth century. This was in response to increasing concerns and new legislation around issues of health and safety. It should be said that it is likely that none of the papers published have been peer reviewed.

Intaglio Etching

Daniel Hopfer an artist and armourer working in the late15th.c and early 16th.c is credited with the development of etching metals with a mordant that corroded the metal as an alternative to engraving, (Adam, and Robertson. 2007 p.15).

Etching can be described as controlled 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.

  1. A metal plate is covered with a wax ground that is resistant to the mordant.
  2. An etching needle is used to draw on the plate exposing bare areas of metal where the ground has been removed by the drawing.
  3. The plate is placed in the mordant that etches into the metal exposed by the drawing process.
  4. The remaining ground is cleaned off the plate and ink is worked into the etched lines.
  5. The surface ink is then carefully wiped off the plate leaving only the ink in the etched lines.
  6. The plate is then run through a high-pressure press with dampened paper that picks up the ink from the etched lines.

For the last one hundred and fifty year’s acid has been the mordant of choice for printmakers. However, in the later part of the 20th Century wider concerns about the environment and health and safety issues initiated the search for alternative and less toxic replacements for the acid mordants, solvents and resins traditionally used in printmaking (Chalis, T. 1987). The need for safer and more environmentally friendly mordants has encouraged the re-examination and re-introduction of some of the earlier mordants such as ferric chloride for etching zinc and copper and the development of new ones based on old recipes using metal salts and sulphates. Throughout the nineties and early part of the twenty-first century a number of printmakers have been working on developing and promoting safer alternative mordants and other innovative methods for safer etching. Prominent amongst them are:

Friedhard Kiekeben, who working in Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop as an artist researcher published an article about Edinburgh Etch, a mordant based on ferric chloride and citric acid. Because a precipitate can build up in the etched lines it is suggested that the mordant should be agitated by a flow of air bubbles in a vertical tank. In addition to this the mordant tires and needs replenishment over time making it less practical for home use.

Cedric Green, working in France on an electrolytic process for etching copper and zinc published his paper on galv-etch (Green, C. 1998). Later went on to propose the use of Bordeaux mix (a concentrated solution of copper sulphate used in that region of France to prevent mildew on grapes) as a mordant to etch zinc, aluminium and iron. Green published an extensive website that is regularly updated and can be downloaded as a free pdf document.

In 1991, Nik Semenoff at a conference at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada described and encouraged artists to use electro etching as a safe process to etch intaglio plates. He also introduced his discovery that a mixture of sodium chloride, copper sulphate and sodium bisulphate could be used as a safer etching mordant for aluminium and zinc. He described how by adding more sodium chloride to the recipe the mixture became more corrosive. Semenoff describes how the spent mordant can be recycled for a limited number of times. When the time comes for disposal (because of the toxic nature of the metals remaining in the solution) it requires treatment prior to disposal, (Semenoff and Bader 1998).

Marion and Omri Behr. In 1993 published their research into the etching and tone creation in copper and zinc by means of low voltage electrolytic process using the salts of the same metal as the electrolyte.

Self published the only book, so far, to focus entirely on the processes of electro or galvanic etching (Alfonso Crujera 2013). Along with his own innovative contributions it brings together the research and practices of the major contributors in the field. The handbook has a spiral binder and this, combined with the design of the layout and content, underscores its function as a practical workshop manual.

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”. Their process is based on the work of Sir Humphrey Davy who discovered that the corrosion of the copper hulls of ships could be retarded by lumps of zinc being attached to the copper. The difference in the electrical potential between the two metals drives the electrical current through the electrolyte (salty sea water). The current results in the corrosion of only one of the metals (the anode). The copper becomes the cathode and is protected; the zinc sacrifices itself to the more noble metal. In a corrosive environment mild steel, aluminium, and zinc will sacrifice themselves to copper. This form of corrosion is known as dissimilar metal, galvanic, or more poetically sacrificial metal corrosion (Engineering Edge. 2012). In 2011 this researcher was independently experimenting with sodium chloride as an electrolyte for etching aluminium, when he shared his experiences during an interview with Alfonso Crujera in his studio in Gran Canaria 2014 Alfonso informed him of the experiments that Chavarria and Marillo had been carrying out at the University of Costa Rica over the previous seven years using sodium chloride as a universal mordant.

In 2012 Dwight Pogue, who published his book “Printmaking Revolution” in which he describes how he has been using saline as a universal electrolyte for over four years. An earlier reference to the use of “common salt” as an electrolyte can be found in Walker, (C.V. 1850. p. 62) where he refers to the patenting of sodium chloride as an electrolyte for etching steel plate.

Summary of Literature Review

The literature review identifies variants of two alternative mordants, copper sulphate, and ferrous sulphate and a process based on electrolysis as being safer alternatives to acid etching.

The use of electrolysis for etching was rediscovered rather than invented by these writers, (Walker,C.V. 1850). Electrolysis was used extensively in the nineteenth century both for etching and plating one metal with another ‘electroplating’. There is also a process known as electrotyping (or galvanoplasty) that uses electrolysis to reproduce three-dimensional objects such as letterpress type, (Partridge, C. S. 1908).

The take up of electro-etching by the artistic community has been very limited. This could be due to:

  • The main focus of the of the scientific and technical literature is on the prevention of corrosion.
  • The information is widely dispersed.
  • The technical and scientific language used to describe the process is difficult to understand.
  • Many people are technophobic.
  • The electrochemistry of electrolysis is complex.
  • Artists being institutionalised into using methods that work for them.

The learning from the workshops is that once people have been introduced to and experience the process, they appreciate its simplicity and the mark making potential of the system (see workshop feedback).

There is a need to bring together the scientific and technical information available on electrolysis into a language that artists can understand and makes the process accessible.

A review of research work and tasks carried out

The researcher is a member of the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham that has a close working relationship with the Leinster Print Centre in the Republic of Ireland. The initial research question came from conversations with the members and staff of the two centres while he was researching saline sulphate as a mordant for part of his M.A. research.

“Are there etching techniques that can be used safely by artist’s in their homes, studios and places of education?”

There were three strands to the research process,

  1. Action Research: To form a reflective framework to bring together and examine the data and results of the scientific enquiry and practice as research.
  2. Scientific Experimental Enquiry: To identify and test techniques that can be used in artist’s home studios and places of education.
  3. Practice as Research: Making artwork to explore the mark making potential of the methods identified by the experimental enquiry.

Action Research

The researcher wished to involve the members of the centres in the research process, to facilitate ownership and to get feedback on the process in real time. Action Research is an empirical process that provides a framework for research where real world situations are the focus of interest, (McNiff and Whitehead 2010 p.10). It is a reflective problem solving process usually undertaken by a work group or team to research an issue or problem and make recommendations for best practice. Participants are actively engaged in both the research and in decision making as full participants and co-designers.

Participation in the research was facilitated through workshops, informal discussion, a website (www.donbraisby.me) and the use of e-mail to exchange ideas and information.

The advantages of the Action Research model are:

  • The expertise and insights that members bring to the group, for example, several of the members had scientific backgrounds and were able to provide technical input to this mainly arts focused project.
  • Adjustments and experiments can be carried out on the spot in real life situation.
  • Participants are more likely to take ownership and engage with the process.
  • It creates a community of practice.
  • The concept of Reflective Practice provides a link between action research and practice-based research, (Schon,D. 1983).

Three workshops were organised by the researcher through the year, two in Wrexham; May 30th – 31st. 2013 and May 29th. – 30th. 2014. And one in Leinster October 14th. – 15th. 2014. There were a total of 36 participants. The workshops all followed the same format; the morning of day one was spent introducing the equipment, the processes, and the safety issues. The afternoon and day two were spent making and proofing plates. Time was built into the workshop to allow for both group and individual concerns and insights to be discussed.

Initially 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, P. 2007 p.25). 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 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.

Electro-Etching using sodium chloride as an electrolyte

These concerns led to further explorations for alternate solutions.

Electro-etching using sodium chloride (common salt) as an electrolyte was explored. Early experiments were encouraging; creating some interesting open bite etching that produced a range of tonal effects similar to aquatint (for more information see appendix1).

Some concerns were raised by Cedric Green, an eminent electro-etcher, about the potential of chlorine gas being released by the electrolysis of sodium chloride. In response a review was undertaken by some members of the group into the safety aspects of using sodium chloride as an electrolyte. The researcher setup an experimental trial configuration using “salt bridges” to better understand the situation.

The review and experimental work proved more complex and time consuming than expected. A range of conditions was investigated. The findings were that the concerns appeared largely unfounded. As some doubts remain about the suitability of sodium chloride as an electrolyte for home use by inexperienced etchers.

Through experimentation sodium carbonate was identified as a potential alternative electrolyte for etching aluminium, but further appraisal and experimentation is required before it can be identified it as a process that would meet the conditions required for it to be used safely by artists in a home studio and places of education.

Same Metal Electro-Etching

When comparing same metal electro-etching to acid etch in 1883 Richard S. Chattock noted, “Electro-etching has the advantage of being free from the exhalation of any deleterious gas” (for more information see appendix 2).

The advantages for same metal electrolysis have been identified as

  • No toxic gasses are produced; this eliminates the need for expensive ventilation systems.
  • The system is self-sustaining so the electrolyte only requires topping up owing to of evaporation.
  • The stability of the system means that biting times can be estimated accurately, unlike when using acid, ferric chloride, saline sulphate or Bordeaux etch which tire over time requiring etch times to be adjusted for an ever weakening mordant.
  • Produces a better-drawn line than other mordants.

The problems that relate to the disposal of toxic chemicals are almost eliminated, because as long as the electrolyte is filtered occasionally, it will have an infinite life, Semenoff (1998).

A critical review of the literature and research work carried out.

The learning from the workshops undertaken as part of the previous research was that participants found the process easy to use and were excited by the mark making potential of electro-etching. Concerns about how “technical” the process initially looked were overcome very quickly once participants understood how it worked and saw the results they achieved (see workshops feedback).

Post workshop conversations revealed that the lack of access to an electro etching unit prevented many of the participants from exploring the process further. This showed up a weakness in the original research design. The proper functioning of Action Research relies on developing a Community of Practice. The lack of facilities meant that participants were not able to practice electro-etching. Only two of the participants were able to acquire and regularly use the electro-etching systems. As part of its programme for 2015 the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham announced,

“In 2015 the Centre will be supporting the academic research into the electro-etching process. This will involve workshops with members, technical support and studio time. This practical research will be used to develop electro-etching at the Regional Print Centre”.

This will provide

  • Easy to access electro-etching units, along with workshops for members, technical support and studio time at the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham, should resolve this issue.
  • It is envisaged that the centre could develop as a community of practice where a group of members share information, experiences and learn together.
  • This provision has the potential to provide a showcase and focus for the development electro-etching in the U.K.

Taking Keith Howards (1993) point that the vitality of etching is reliant on giving young people the opportunity to learn the art. From the literature and the research carried out so far it is clear that same metal and same metal salt etching is safe, effective, economical and can be used in a classroom situation.

  • As identified in the literature review there is a need to gather together the dispersed scientific and technical information on electrolysis and put it into a form and language that will make it understandable and useful for artists. There is a clear need to demystify the electrolytic process and make it accessible.

The same salt same metal etching that has been around for over a hundred years works well for etching copper, zinc, and mild steel, but does not work with aluminium.

  • Early trials using sodium carbonate as an electrolyte are looking hopeful, but further experimentation and research are required.

Artists are primarily concerned with practical issues: how to use the process and what it can offer in terms of making art. For new techniques to be attractive to them, beyond ease of access and use, it needs to expand the range of artistic expression beyond those possible with traditional methods. The range of effects, and mark making techniques that can be achieved with electro-etching and the potential of electrotyping is yet to be to be fully explored. Currently there is no published information on the mark making potential of using the electrolytic process with aluminium. The range of effects, and mark making techniques that can be achieved with electro-etching and the potential of electrotyping remains to be fully explored.

  • The researcher plans to develop a portfolio of work over the next twelve months that explores the techniques and the mark making potential of electro-etching and electrotyping.

Mark making information that currently exists focuses on the electro-etching of copper. It consists of prints of test plates and finished prints, but there is very little comparative correlation between the tests and the finished plates.

Currently there is no published information on the mark making potential of using the electrolytic process with aluminium.

  • There will be a focus over the next twelve months on the electro-etching of aluminium.

Details of anticipated original contribution to knowledge

It is expected that the development of a centre of excellence for electro-etching, combined with a comprehensive easy to understand source of information about the subject, could address the decline in the teaching and use of etching in art schools in home based studios.

Research Plan for next year

These realigned objectives are based on the researchers learning from the previous research and are identified in the critical review of literature and research.

The overall aim is to explore and further develop the potential of electro-etching and electrolysis as an artistic medium.

The project objectives:

Build a community of practice:

  • It is envisaged that the centre will develop into a community of practice for electro-etching with members sharing information, experiences and learning together.
  • Easy to access electro-etching units, along with workshops for members, technical support and studio time at the Regional Print Centre in Wrexham should facilitate this.
  • This provision has the potential to provide a showcase and focus for the development of electro-etching in the U.K.

Collect analyse, interpret into lay language the currently dispersed literature on electro-etching and electrotype:

  • As identified in the literature review there is a need to gather together the dispersed scientific and technical information on electrolysis and put it into a form and language that will make it understandable and useful for artists. There is a clear need to demystify the electrolytic process and make it accessible. The purpose is to provide a comprehensive source of information for electro-etching.

Continue research into the electro etching of aluminium:

Produce a portfolio of work that explores the unique mark making potential of electro-etch, focusing particularly on the etching of aluminium.

  • The researcher plans to develop a portfolio of work over the next twelve months that explores the techniques and the mark making potential of electro-etching and electrotyping.

Continue research into the art, practice and science of electro etching.

References

Adam, R. and Robertson, C. (2007) Intaglio: the complete safety-first system for creative printmaking, London: Thames and Hudson.

Behr, O. and Behr, M. (1993) ‘Etching and Tone Creation Using Low-Voltage Anodic Electrolysis’, Leonardo, Vol.26, No.1, pp 51-55.

Behr, O. and Behr, M. (1997). ‘An Improved Method for Steel-Facing Copper

Etching Plates’, Leonardo, Vol. 30, No1 pp.47-48

Behr, M. (1994). ‘Electroetch’, Printmaking Today, Vol. 3 No. 1, Spring 1994 pp.18-19.

Behr, M. (1995). ‘Electroetch II’. Printmaking Today, Vol. 4 No 4. Winter 1995.

Chalis, T. ( 1987). Print Safe, Estampe, London

Craig, P. and Rosenberg, P (http://www.nontoxicprint.com/artmeetsscience.htm) accessed 25/07/2014

Chattock,R.S. (1883) Practical Notes On Etching, 2nd. Ed, London: Sampson, Lo, Marston, Searle & Rivington

Crujera, A. (2010) Electro-Etching Made Easy [online], Available: http://www.nontoxicprint.com/electroetching.htm [24 May 2014]

Crujera, A. (2013) Electro-Etching Handbook: a safe non-toxic approach, Las Palmas: Hamagama.

Crujera, A & Perkin,B.(2013). Electro Etching Basics [online], Available:

http://www.nontoxicprint.com/electroetchingbasics.htm [24 May 2014]

Crujera, A. (2014). Interview with researcher in Gran Canaria.

Engineers Edge, (2012). Galvanic Compatibility Table of Contents Dissimilar Metal Corrosion [online],Available: http://www.engineersedge.com/galvanic_capability.htm [12 July 2014]

Gale, C. (2006) Etching and Photopolymer Intaglio Techniques, London: A&C Black Publishing Limited.

Graver, G. (2011) Non-Toxic Printmaking, London: A&C Black Publishing Limited.

Green, C. (1998) ‘Intaglio without tears’, Printmaking Today, Vol.7 No.1, Spring 1998, pp. Farrand Press, London

Green, C (1999) ‘Galvanography Revisited’, Printmaking Today, Vol. 8 No.1, Spring, pp. Farrand Press, London.

Green, C. (2013) Green Print: Non toxic alternative print methods [online] Available: http://www.greenart.info/ [11 July 2014]

Green, C. E-mail correspondence with this researcher.

Hernandez-Chavarria, F. and Carvavajal, J. (2014). ‘Etching with E-waste.’ Print Making Today, Vol. 23 No 2. P. 28.

Howard, Keith. (1993). ‘Safe Etching and Photo Etching: The next generation’. Print Making Today, Vol. 2 No 3. pp. 19-21

Kiekeben, F. (1997) ‘The Edinburgh Etch: a breakthrough in non-toxic mordants’, Printmaking Today, Vol. 6 No 3 pp 26-27.

McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J. (2010) You and Your Action Research Project. 3rd.ed, London: Routledge.

Pogue, D. (2012) Printmaking Revolution: new advancements in technology, safety, and sustainability, New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Schon, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, London: Basic Books.

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.

Semenoff, N. (2009) ‘ Safe Etching – Latest Research’, Printmaking Today, Vol. 18 No2, pp. 24-25. Farrand Press, London

Semenoff, N. (1998)

Smith, A. (2004) Etching: a guide to traditional etching techniques, Ramsbury, Marlborough Wiltshire: The Crowood Press.

Wernick, S., Pinner, R and Sheasby, P (1987) The Surface Treatment and Finishing of Aluminium and its Alloys, 5th edition, Teddington: Finishing Publications Ltd.

Walker, C.V. (1852) Electrotype Manipulation: The theory and plain instruction in the art of working in metals, by precipitating from their solutions, through the agency of Galvanic or voltaic electricity. Philadelphia, 2nd. Ed.

Wray, P. (2007) ‘Etching Made Easy’, Printmaking Today Vol 16, No 1 Spring, pp 25-25

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