The Etching Process

“The Tower” an etching by Mark Roland

Etchings are fine art prints, produced by a process first developed about 1500. While many items are referred to as prints— such as posters, offset lithographs and all ink jet products (including so-called giclees)—they are in fact reproductions. Fine art prints begin with a matrix created by the artist, that is used to produce images individually by hand.

The etching process begins with a metal plate, usually zinc or copper, that is covered with a ground composed of wax and asphaltum. The artist uses a tool to draw through the ground and expose the metal underneath. When satisfied with the drawing, the plate is submerged in a solution that dissolves the metal areas unprotected by the ground. When the lines etched into the plate are the desired depth, the plate is removed and cleaned.

Now that the plate can hold ink in the etched, or bitten areas, the printing process can begin. A sheet of high quality rag paper is soaked in a tray of water to make it flexible. A coating of ink is spread over the entire plate, forced into the etching lines and then wiped off the surface by hand with a specially textured fabric. At this point, the printing process can become part of the art’s final appearance. The ink is always left in the lines of the plate, and by leaving a thin film of ink on the surface of the plate as well, tonal effects can be created. This technique also gives each impression a unique individual quality, impossible to produce in a reproduction.

When the inking is complete, the sheet of paper is blotted. The inked plate is placed face up on the press bed and the damp paper is positioned on top. Using a wheel or crank, the bed is slowly moved between rollers and felt blankets and subjected to great pressure. The paper is flexible enough to be pushed into the recessed lines holding the ink, and lifts out that ink as well as any on the surface left by the artist. All of this work has produced a single print, and all the stages— soaking paper, inking the plate and running both through the press—must be repeated for every impression.

There are other techniques that can be used in etching, such as aquatint. This is a rosin that is melted onto the plate in tiny specks and then bitten in stages to produce areas of tonality. Using this technique an artist can obtain light , midrange and dark areas consistently, by wiping the plate cleanly and not leaving any ink on the surface. The tonal areas are bitten into the metal, like the lines are, but are delicate and produce fewer prints than the etched lines before they wear away. Generally, using aquatint limits the number of prints in the edition.

The size of the edition is determined by two factors. One is the wearing of the plate. After a certain number of times through the press the plate looses it’s precise lines or the aquatinted areas break down. At this point, the printing should stop, to maintain the quality of the prints produced. More often, however, the edition is limited by the choice of the artist, who decides only a certain number of a particular design will be made, and no more. Those prints are numbered, titled and signed. If there are ten prints in an edition, you will see the prints numbered one of ten, two of ten and so forth until ten of ten. Except for a very limited number of artist’s proofs, no more impressions are allowed and the plate destroyed after printing is complete
Because etching is such an old process, there have been a number of innovations since its origin, such as aquatint, multi-color printing, drypoint, mezzoprint and even photo etching. Engraving is a very old technique, and is often confused with etching. The difference is that engraving uses no solutions to eat away the metal. The engraver directly cuts into the metal with special tools to incise the lines holding the ink. Engravings are printed by the same process as etchings and are similar in appearance.

Many of the conventions originally established by the fine art printmaker, have been adopted by commercial reproductions, such as numbering prints. It should be noted that fine art prints are significantly more labor intensive to produce, use high-quality, time tested materials, have a direct connection to the artist’s hand, and are generally much more limed in number. Commercial reproductions are mass produced, identical to each other and are machine made. The newer technologies have not actually demonstrated their longevity despite promises from their manufacturers , whereas etchings have already lasted for centuries if properly cared for. These factors are things to consider when comparing the price of an etching, or another fine art print, to a photo print, ink-jet or offset reproduction.

Mark Roland has been producing etchings since 1981. The majority of his works are line etchings, printed using the plate tone technique described above. He has also used other techniques such as, soft ground, aquatint, multi-color and embossing. On some occasions he will hand color sections of his prints to enhance a particular effect. His principal series’ have been The Enchanted Forest suite, and his interpretations of Homer’s Odyssey, along with numerous related works.

—Mark Roland

Eugene, Oregon

The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

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If you love words as I do, you probably love history. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years writing historical fiction. In performing research for the novels, I’ve leaned about the origins of certain English words and phrases I’ve used in both written and spoken language throughout my life, but didn’t completely understand. Although many expressions that came into existence long ago are still in use and their meanings as idioms are clear to us, the original meanings of the phrases may be lost without a search in history.

Because the gun played such a large role in events over the last few centuries, many idioms are related to firearms of the past. Here are a few that are still widely used, but the context of their origination not widely known.

Lock stock and barrel is an expression we use to mean “all of it.” I used to think it meant the whole store, like a mercantile of some kind. It means the whole rifle or musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the barrel is, well… self-explanatory, and the stock is the part that helps you hold onto the firearm.

Bite the bullet means expose yourself to possible pain and danger to get a job done. Many people believe it originally meant to bite down on a lead bullet to endure pain, perhaps while having a surgical experience without an anesthetic, but it comes from a time when to prepare a rifle for firing you had to bite the end off a paper-wrapped cartridge before placing its contents in the barrel of your firearm. Doing this while under fire took brave resolve.

Stick to your guns means remain true to principles or goals. The expression has less to do with guns per se and more to do with maintaining a particular post during battle, especially if you’re told to hold a position without retreating. Well, of course you will need that gun, won’t you?

Flash in the pan is an idiom we use to mean a great start but little or no follow up. It’s a great metaphor for a one hit wonder in the music industry who puts out a single very popular tune, yet never does any better afterward and soon falls out of favor. To do justice to this one takes some explaining, so bear with me.

The original meaning comes from a time when pistols, muskets, and rifles had flint lock firing mechanisms. To load a flintlock firearm, gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by a lead ball, called “shot,” wrapped in a bit of rag to make it fit snugly and hold everything in place. A small pan beside a hole in the side of the barrel was primed with a little gunpowder and then protected from spillage by a hinged iron part called a frizzin (see the illustration above). When the trigger of the flintlock was pulled, the hammer, which held a piece of flint did two things: it struck sparks off the iron frizzin and knocked that hinged part off the pan. With the frizzin out of the way, the sparks could reach the powder in the pan and ignite it. The hot expanding gas of the lit powder was meant to travel down the small hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder behind the lead shot. If this last step didn’t occur, there was merely a flash in the pan and the gun didn’t actually fire.

Understanding the metaphor of this idiom creates a mental picture that enhances the meaning of the expression. A flash in the pan is an exciting event, with a hiss, a flash, and billowing smoke, but the results are disappointing if that isn’t followed by the loud crack of the shot flying from the barrel and striking a target. Without the mental picture some of the power of the expression’s metaphor is lost.

The original meanings of many single words are unknown to most of us today. I’m thinking of several having to do with the production of linen. A lining, like what you might have in the inside surface of your coat, means something made from line flax. Line flax is the fibers of the flax plant that don’t break off when run through a device that looks like a small bed of nails called a hackle (aka heckle). The fibers that survive going through a hackle and remain long are spun together to make fine linen thread (note the word “line” in “linen”). So a lining is something made of linen. The lining of my stomach or my water heater is not made of linen, though. When my dog gets upset, wants to look bigger and more threatening, he gets his hackles up, but that doesn’t mean he has metal spikes sticking up out of his back. In the past, the flax fibers that broke off short in a hackle were called tow flax. They weren’t good enough to make fine thread and were spun into a rough cord to make tow sacks, which are much like the burlap sacks of today. Tow fibers are very blonde, but a tow-headed child doesn’t have tow flax for hair even if the tyke is referred to as flaxen-haired. The act of drawing flax fibers through a hackle is known as heckling. The purpose was to worry, to tease (in the old sense, meaning to comb), and straighten the fibers to determine which would stand up to stress and were worth using for linen production. When a stand-up comedian is heckled, that doesn’t mean he’s drawn through a small bed of nails to straighten his fibers and break off his weak parts. Okay, so maybe it does mean he’s being teased, but still, you get my point.

Here’s an expression I like a lot: flotsam and Jetsam. It’s not the most commonly known phrase, but it’s still a fun one using curious words, and I want to use it in the last paragraph of this post. We use it now to mean odds and ends. For example, somebody might say, “The project is finished except for the flotsam and jetsam of small problems I discovered along the way.” Flotsam and jetsam are separate nautical terms, but frequently appear together, both as words and in the context in which the words have meaning. Flotsam is the remnants of a shipwreck that floats on the sea after a vessel has gone down. Jetsam is what is jettisoned from a ship going down to lighten its load and help it stay afloat longer or even save it from going down.

In the time in which the idiom, flash in the pan, came into existence, the context from which it emerged was well-known to most individuals. An expression like that becomes popular perhaps because it’s frequently used in conversation as a metaphor in lieu of lengthier descriptions. If an idiom becomes useful enough that it’s overused and becomes cliché, it will be so universally understood that the significance of its original context can be discarded. It can far outlive the simple context of its birth. The idiom still performs a meaningful function although many who hear it and repeat it may not understand where it came from. Although the expression, flash in the pan is very much alive, having outlived the technology of the flintlock by more than a century, the metaphor it presents can be considered broken since most people today don’t understand how the firing mechanism works. I’ve heard and used many idioms for years in partial ignorance. As I became more interested in history, the original meaning of some idioms came clear. Finding the discovery satisfying, I became much more curious about the origins of words and phrases, and my interest in history intensified.

My latest historical fiction novel is The Prostitute’s Price. It is part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Because the stories take place in Victorian times or earlier among English speaking people, British or American, they employ characters that use the language a little bit differently than we do today. The trick is to provide scenes in which the context makes clear the meaning of what is being said. The characters are involved with simpler, humbler domestic and labor situations and technologies often in early development or infancy.

I like to think of idioms with broken metaphors as flotsam of history. The ship has long since gone under, taking its passengers with it. Phrases remain, floating above the wreckage on the surface like lost luggage, filled with words that once had specific meaning, and, in combination, still have an idiomatic meaning. The specific sense of the words might have been lost, but the phrases still have value. We all claim salvage rights from time to time, but often don’t ask the simple questions: Who owned these expressions and why did they find them valuable? If we seek answers to the questions, we can learn something about those who left them behind and perhaps find out why the phrases float so well even today.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon