October 2008

Monthly Archive

Alt-Photo with Plates and Etching Press

Posted by on 02 Oct 2008 | Tagged as: Photo Etching

Workshops in Printmaking


In contemporary art we now can use photographic images as a part of old printmaking techniques, for example copper plate etching methods like Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) did a long time ago. Rembrandt worked by drawing and etching with very good and professional practice as we know. He worked his plates in various ways and his etchings are still full of delicate light. One of his methods was to sit at the end of a narrow dark alley and, in a flash of light, he took “photos” with his skillful and fast iron pen, drawing by hand on little copper plates. In his way, a long time before any photo apparatus was invented, he made real handmade documentation.


Photo etching is a possible method to use copper plates in Rembrandt style. We can use photo images, simple texts and line art from magazines and ready made old photos from newspapers as parts of prints. We can then continue working a plate with traditional intaglio methods like etching, soft ground and aquatint methods. And we can use Adobe Photoshop and its plugins and filters (e.g. screening tools from Andromeda Software). It is always possible to transform the image your way.

Creating a positive or negative transparent film

We used Epson 1800 inkjet printer to make black and white transparencies. On the copper it means, that if we choose a positive film (like texts or line art) the print tones will be negative – the lines will be white in the print. If we want positive tones, we need a negative transparency. Usually it is easy to invert the image to negative in Photoshop.

Photoshop’s screens are also possible to use, converting the image to bitmap mode, or using for example Photoshop’s mezzotint filter. It is great fun to make different kind of screens or etched looking lines with a computer. Photo etching is a very black and white sharp line method!

Onega Lake, Rock Engraving, Peri VI, 2005.
A photograph made with a digital camera, and a negative transparency from the image.

Positiv Resist Spray

There are some polymer materials developed for etching electric circuits. They can be sprayed on copper plates, in dimmed lighting, to sensitize them. Plates are then let dry, and exposed in Ultra Violet light in contact with the transparency. A vacuum frame and an efficient UV exposure unit are very useful, the exposure times then may be around one minute or so. The sunlight is possible too, but it may take twice the time.

Copper plates are developed in lye; 6-7 g Sodium Hydroxide to 1 l water, with soft brush, stopping the development with water when the picture can be seen formed.

Etching the plate

Cover the back side of the plate with lacquer shellac or plastic tape. Etch the plate with ferric chloride strongly like in usual methods of intaglio, sometimes even for hours. The positive resist can be removed by dissolving to acetone.

Chart with different etching times.

Photo etching, no screen, print on Hahnemuhle paper.

Printing with etching press

Now we can apply all other methods of intaglio. The point is that we can continue with the plate and pull different prints using other color plates and choose our printing colors and different papers. Photo etchings will last long, we can still see Rembrandts etchings, they haven’t faded, as easily happens to poorly processed old photos, which is sad.

Pirkko Holm: The Long Boat, photo etching, the key plate.
(This is a neolithic petroglyph on the lake Onega, usually under the water.)

Usually good quality papers should be used, such as soft Hahnemuhle paper, 100, 240, 300 g, or Guarro and Fabriano, and all acid free printing papers. Printing colors are usually Charbonnell or Graphic Chemical Ink Co. I like most Gutenberg printing color, specially black, because it is very easy to use fast without warming the plate and easy to handle! Good for polymer Toyobo plates too.


1. “The Long Boat”, using two same size (25 x 16 cm) copper plates after the ready made key plate.
2. Putting a little printing color onto the key plate.
3. Wiping the colour mostly away from plate.
4. Pulling a print and changing another clean copper plate under the printed paper. Getting a new copper plate through press. The printed lines move to the clean plate.
5. The clean copper plate. The key plate has been taken away from the press bed.
6. It is possible to see some lines on the new plate.
7. After ready made color lines aquatint rosin powder has been warmed on the new plate.
8. The aquatint process in acid ferric chlorid. Working with plate with verniss using different etching times.
9. Starting to print with two color plates.
10. Printing the new yellow color plate first.
11. Letting the paper stay under the press roller in the end.
12. Taking the key plate and moving it to the same place where the yellow colored plate was. Pulling the print.

In polymer photogravure we use Toyobo plates or ImagOn polymer. Solarplate is also a brand of polymer plates used by Dan Welden, an American printmaker, who was among the first users and inventors of the polymer technique in art context and contemporary art.

Hanne and Hanna discussing their prints at the Photo Etching Studio in Kankaanpää, Finland.

Taneli Eskola and Kari Holopainen are important pioneers in Finland, they have made a publication: Polymer Photogravure: A New Method for Photographers and Graphic Artists. (ISBN 9515580013, 9789515580016)

In literature also: Keith Howard: Non Toxic Intaglio Printmaking. (ISBN 0-968 3541-0-6)