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Etching at Magnolia

Etching is a far older medium than lithography, but is still utilized extensively today. An etching is created using plates made of copper or other durable materials, into which lines or textures are inscribed. An acid wash is used to etch, or eat away, the drawn areas of the plate, which is then inked and pressed to wet paper, producing a mirror image of the original.

In order to ensure that only the drawn areas of the plate are "bitten" by the acid and thus hold ink, an acid-resistant substance called a "ground" is applied to the plate before the artist begins drawing. Any number of materials can be used as a ground; among the most popular are wax, tar, rosin and asphaltum. The ground is applied to the plate evenly with a brush or roller. If a hard ground is used, the artist’s lines will appear precise in the final image, a fact that allows for more delicate tool work, whereas if the artist uses a soft ground objects such as textured paper can be pressed to the plate to create interesting forms or patterns.

Once the artist has finished drawing into the ground, the plate is submerged in an acid bath that etches the areas of the plate where the ground was scratched away with tools. When the plate has been bitten satisfactorily, a process that may require a period of time ranging from minutes to hours to even days, it is removed from the bath and the ground is washed away. The plate is then ready for inking and printing. Ink of the desired color (usually black) is spread evenly over the plate’s surface and is then wiped away, so that it is left only in the grooves of the etched image. The plate is laid face-up on an etching press bed, a moist sheet of paper is placed over the plate, and the bed is passed under a roller that distributes pressure evenly to the whole surface of the plate. The softened, flexible fibers of the paper are worked into the grooves in the plate and grab the ink, allowing the image to be transferred from the plate to the paper.

A more difficult but extremely important technique associated with etching is aquatint, which, unlike its name suggests, does not directly involve water. Aquatint allows the artist to create an area of apparently even ink tone without necessitating fine crosshatching or other forms of line shading. To create an aquatinted area, the artist applies a rosin powder or a similar particle ground to the desired portion of the plate surface, then heats the plate to harden and temporarily secure the ground. Since the ground is in powder form, it doesn’t completely seal over the desired area, tiny holes will be etched in the acid bath creating an area of minimal but uniform "tooth", a term that denotes the surface’s ability to attract and retain ink. Although aquatinted areas are more challenging because the lack of tooth makes the ink easier to wipe away, they can produce beautifully toned areas on any etching.

Collagraphy at Magnolia

Collagraphy is an intaglio process like etching, in which a printing surface is prepared so that ink will adhere only to recessed areas. The collagraph plate is rarely more than 1/8th of an inch thick, and is more 3-dimensional than an etching plate, lending a noticeable depth to collagraph prints. Prints are created by incising or building up texture and line on the surface of a piece of wood using modeling paste. The image area is masked out and modeling paste is smoothed onto the wood. The artist manipulates this paste into an image, which is allowed to dry and harden. To pull a proof, ink is carded on and wiped off, remaining only in the interstices of the plate texture. The plate can then be re-worked – scraped, sanded, or otherwise modified.  It is often sealed before printing and can usually be used to create 30 to 40 impressions before the surface of the paste starts to wear away.

One of the advantages to the collagraph is its faithful reproduction of the marks made by the artist’s hand. As the artist manipulates the modeling paste, a sort of shallow mold is created from which prints can be ‘cast.’ The depth and texture of the artist’s impressions in the paste are directly responsible for the amount and location of ink that is transferred to the paper. As a result, collagraph is an ideal printing technique for painters: the unique properties of a brushstroke can be reproduced in such detail that the final print appears to be a painting.

Monotypes and monoprints at Magnolia

Monotypes and monoprints are essentially printed paintings, created by printing plates which have been hand painted by the artist such that each print is unique and one-of-a-kind. A monotype is a single print pulled from a unique, unetched image from which a perfect second impression cannot be made; monoprints begin with a repeatable matrix which is then manipulated by the artist before printing, resulting in unique images which include identical, repeatable elements. There are several challenges involved in the monotype/monoprint process: the artist must prepare the plate rapidly or else the paint or ink will dry before printing; if the wrong amount or consistency of paint/ink is applied, the print can appear smeared and distorted; and the layer order of the painting will be reversed when printed, so the artist must bear in mind that his or her first (‘bottom’) marks will actually appear at the surface (‘top’), while subsequent marks will appear in the background.

Monoprints have long been a specialty of Magnolia Editions, where various innovations are used to alleviate the difficulties described above. First, plates are prepared on a light table, enabling the artist to see through to the bottom (when printed, the top) layer with perfect clarity while painting. Chemicals are also added to the paint/ink to prevent drying for days, allowing the artist to manipulate an image at his or her own pace. Artists at Magnolia can also work under a fume hood with a volatile solvent, allowing the ink/paint to behave like a liquid which can flow, drip, or be sprayed by an atomizer. This would normally result in a overly wet image which would then distort (squish) when printed, but Magnolia’s inks are formulated to return to a more stable, print-friendly state shortly after being sprayed or otherwise applied.

What is a Lithograph?

Lithography is a planographic printing process, meaning that the matrix for the print (the printing plate) is flat-- both image and non-image areas of the plate lie on the same plane. In this respect, lithography differs considerably from relief and intaglio printing techniques, in which an artist cuts or inscribes images and designs into a block. The lithographic printing technique was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798, when he realized that he was able to print reproductions of a laundry list he had written on a stone. Lithography, or "stone-writing" subsequently became the "first fundamentally new printing technology" since the development of relief printing in the fifteenth century. Goya, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, and Toulouse-Lautrec were among the artists who first began to explore the possibilities of the new lithographic process. Lithography’s popularity stems in large part from the fact that lithography makes possible the creation of numerous original works from a series of drawings while preserving the integrity of the artist’s hand. Lithography also provides the artist with more facility in shading than either etching or woodcut, which require crosshatching to develop tones.

How does lithography work?

The mechanics of lithography are based on the mutual repellence of oil and water. To produce a lithograph, an artist begins by drawing or painting an image on a specially prepared limestone or metal plate. The pencils or "touche" (a fluid ink which used to apply washes or other painterly effects) that the artist draws with are made of oil-based materials. After chemical treatment, the plate is washed with water, which adheres to the unmarked areas on the plate, which contain no oil. When oil-based ink is subsequently applied, the water repels it, so that the ink sticks only to the drawn, oily elements of the plate. The lithograph is made when a sheet of paper is pressed onto the inked plate.

Lithography at Magnolia (1981 - 2006)

Many variations on traditional lithography have developed since its inception. While recognizing the important innovations that have emerged since the birth of the process, Magnolia is committed to the print quality that results from the original lithographic method. We therefore employ photomechanical technology that facilitates the printing and registration of a print, while preserving every mark of the artist’s hand.

An artist producing a lithograph at Magnolia begins by drawing images on sheets of textured Mylar. Once the drawing is completed, the image is contact-printed onto a lacquered, light-sensitive plate. The artist’s every mark is thus directly transferred onto this plate, without passing through the filter of a camera, or other digital apparati. The plate is then washed with a developing solution that removes the lacquer from the areas of the plate that the artist has left unmarked, leaving lacquer in the image area. The lacquered parts of the plate attract ink, while the unlacquered areas, if kept properly moist with water, repel it. The inked plate is run through a lithography press, which transfers the drawing onto a sheet of paper. Each print is made in this manner: moistening, inking, and then printing the plate. In order to create a colored image, several drawings are required. The artist must make a series of separate drawings, each representing one color. When printed on top of each other, these drawings will form one colored image.

Although Magnolia uses photomechanical techniques, the lithographs we produce are in fact more closely related to the original lithographic technique than to recent "reprographic" technologies, such as photo-lithography, which is used for mass-producing posters. A photo-lithograph is created by photographing or digitally scanning an artist’s work and then separating the image into red, yellow, blue, and black layers of regimented dot pattern that are printed one on top of another to create a single image. The dot pattern seen in posters and other mass-produced printing (the full color Sunday Comics, for example) is characteristic of the photo-lithographic process. In this process numerous variables, such as ambient light and the distance between the lens and the original image, hinder an accurate transfer of the image the image to the plate. Additionally, the artist’s hand has no role in this process, as the artwork is color separated and printed by machine.

The dignity and inherent value of traditional lithography lies in the artist’s intimate involvement in the entire printing process. Every visible (and sometimes invisible!) mark contained in a fine art lithograph is the direct result of the artist’s hand. At Magnolia, we use all of the resources at our disposal to maintain the presence of the artist’s hand, while providing our artists with the greatest measure of flexibility and facility in producing the images they envision.

Digital Printing at Magnolia

Magnolia has provided artists the opportunity to incorporate digital techniques into their work since the days when “digital” was considered a taboo word in printmaking.  As the available technology has flourished and digital printing has become more widely accepted as a legitimate form of art production, artists are increasingly drawn to the manifold possibilities of Magnolia’s digital facilities.  Our commitment to using pigment-based inks instead of dyes ensures a durable, archival quality print.  The use of computers and digital printers can also be combined with a traditional process so as to preserve the integrity of the artist’s vision while allowing for boundless experimentation.  For example, images printed with pigment-based inks on thermal or piezo printers can then be combined with lithographs or monoprints, and vector-based digital images can be reproduced on paper by a pencil plotter, combining the ‘organic,’ malleable qualities of a pencil drawing with the precision of digital imaging.  The Tapestry Project is another instance where digital technology has been integrated into a traditional process – in this case, weaving – to produce a sort of hybrid.  For more specific details on the mechanics of digital printmaking, please follow this link: thermal or Piezo technology inkjet printer.