Making a drypoint

An explantion of this fine art printmaking process

Making a drypoint: Still life in Eynsham
8th August 2009 Jane Tomlinson

I’ve just finished making a picture, called Still life in Eynsham, a portrait of the village where I live. I’m calling it Still life in Eynsham because that’s what it is: a series of elements fitted together to produce a pleasing arrangement in exactly the same way you would a still life of fruit, flowers or similar. I like the ambiguity of the title, that despite all damage caused by human activity, the natural world still triumphs. It’s a drypoint hand tinted with watercolour.

People often ask me what is a drypoint? This blog explains.

First of all I need an idea! Once I’ve got that, I simply draw out the composition at the size I want the finally picture to be. Here’s a detail of the drawing:

Then because it’s a print, I need to reverse the image. I do this on the computer by scanning the drawing, reversing it using image editing software, then printing it. You can use old fashioned tracing paper, but this extremely time-consuming. Once you have the image reversed, you can start on the ‘drypoint’ part.

Essentially it’s etching, but without using a bath of acid to cut the lines into a metal ‘plate’. Instead I use a softer, non-metal substrate as a plate, I’ve used perspex in the past, but this is very hard work, so now I use polypropylene sheets which are kinder to work on. I scratch the image into the surface of the polyprop using a sharp steel etching needle:

This takes a long time and you have to be careful: you cannot erase a mistake! Each mark you make will print.

When the drawing is completely scratched into the surface, I’m ready to print from my plate. For this print, I’ve chosen burnt umber etching ink, which I mix with vegetable oil to make it less stiff:

I then completely cover the surface of the plate with ink using a little piece of cardboard, taking care to push the ink into all the scratched grooves:

I then wipe the plate evenly using cotton cloth called scrim, to distribute the ink evenly over the surface, taking out more ink in places where I want the print to be a bit lighter.

Once I’m happy with the ink distribution, I put the plate on my etching press:

… and fetch a piece of paper (I use 300gsm Somerset etching paper) which has been carefully cut to the right size, and has been soaking in the bath for the previous 30 minutes. I blot the paper and put it on top of the plate. The damp paper is soft and easily forced down into the inked grooves of the plate as it passes through the press.

Then comes the moment of truth as you peel back the paper and see your print for the first time!

I usually print an edition of nine pictures. The first one is the ‘artist’s proof’. Each subsequent print has to be inked and wiped and passed through the press in exactly the same way. It is very time-comsuming, but it produces such an nice effect and every print is slightly different. Being quite soft, with each successive pass of the press, the polypropylene plate begins to denude, which makes the lines less sharp, softer and more fuzzy. That’s why people generally use metal etching plates, from which you can get editions of hundreds.

So here’s the final print, straight off the press:

Once the prints are dry, I number them in the order they came off the press, and then hand-tint each of them with watercolour. I experiment with the balance of colours on my artist’s proof until I’m happy. I then repeat the hand-tinting on each print using my proof as my colour guide. Hand-tinting takes a long time, too, but it’s worth the effort to be able to produce eight original and unique works of art.