The Printmaking Process

A Historical Overview and Description of the Artist’s Relief Etching Technique

RELIEF PRINTING: Origins and Process

The genesis of everything we now call printing began well before the time of Christ. The earliest artifacts of this craft are seal stamps that were carved from stone, wood, or clay for use in trade and government. Archeologists have turned up evidence of the early use of seal stamps in civilizations as diverse as Egypt, Babylon, Rome, and China.

Seals not only bore the signet of authority on important documents in these ancient cultures, but they also were used to brand cattle with ownership and criminals with descriptions of their offense. These early seal stamps worked on the simple but effective idea that a flat piece of tractable material could be carved into, leaving the desired image remaining on the virgin surface. The image could then be replicated in wax, clay, or other substances. This first invention in a chain of ideas led to the development of printing.

The second link was the Chinese invention of paper around 105 AD by Ts’ai-Lun, a court official during the reign of Emperor Hoti. Ts’ai-Lun experimented for 25 years before he succeeded. He was made a Marquis and then put under house arrest for life in the Imperial Palace to prevent the spread of his remarkable invention. Initially paper provided a more convenient material on which to paint or write; however, it was its eventual use as a substrate for printing that gave this remarkable material its ability to change civilizations.

Some years later, an unknown Chinese genius took the new cellulose fiber substance, dampened it, and laid it on a pre-existing relief wall tile, then lightly brushed the damp paper until it conformed
to the relief image on the tile. When he applied an ink cake to the now-raised paper surface, it picked up the previously carved image. This stone-rubbing sequence could be repeated over and over with similar results, making it the first printing process.

The next development in the craft was to apply ink directly to relief-carved wood blocks with brushes, rollers, or daubers. The Chinese found that it was easier to ink the woodblock surface first, then apply the paper and pressure to complete the image transfer. This refinement of the stone-rubbing idea was not only the origin of relief printing as a specific craft, but it was also the beginning of the very idea of printing that has grown to become, within the intervening two millennia, a fine-art medium as well as a multi-billion-dollar commercial industry.

Buddhism valued both words and pictures for doctrinal teaching in its sacred texts or sutras. This religious application gave the new craft an external impetus for technical improvement. The process of relief woodblock printing proliferated throughout the Oriental world and had a thousand years to develop in the hands of its artisans before it was brought to Europe by traders. A French woodcut dated 1380 is the oldest known example of the process in Western Civilization.

Today we still use this earliest of printing methods in processes such as rubber stamps, in all material forms of block printmaking, wood engraving, flatbed letterpress printing, low-relief rubber-blanket offset press printing, and high-speed, web-fed newspaper printing.

ETCHING: Its Origins and Process

Etching is a printmaking process in which the artist/printmaker draws an image onto a metal plate that has previously been coated with a thin layer of waxy acid-resistant material (ground). The act of drawing (usually with an etcher’s needle) cuts lines through the wax barrier and exposes the metal. When the plate is immersed in an acid bath, the drawn image will be dissolved into the metal surface by the etching action of the acid. Areas still protected by the ground will remain unaffected.

When the ground is removed with solvent, the etched plate will have grooves where the lines were initially drawn through the waxy coating. The printmaker covers the surface of the plate with a stiff paste ink, wipes it clean in stages using the clean-cut edge of a piece of cardboard as a squeegee, then cheese cloth (tarlatan), the palm of the hand, and sometimes paper, so that ink remains only in the etched grooves. The plate is then laid on the bed of a roller-etching press and covered with dampened printmaking paper.

Three different blankets are laid on top of the paper; a thin felt sizing catcher to absorb water from the paper, a woven pusher blanket for stability, and a thick felt cushion blanket to keep the pressure even. This stack is then run between the rollers of an etching press with enough pressure to push the paper into the etched grooves and pick out the ink. When the bed of the press has passed through the rollers and the blankets have been removed, the finished impression can be peeled up from the plate, examined, and dried.

Impressions from processes that transfer ink from grooves or textures beneath the the plate’s virgin surface , are called intaglio prints. There are essentially two categories of intaglio prints. If the image is created in the plate using hand tools, it is generally considered an engraving. If acid is used to create the image in the plate, then the print is generally considered an etching.

Medieval European armorers and goldsmiths developed engraving or the craft of incising metal with various hand tools. The use of acid to do the difficult handwork of incising was an invention that sprang from their craft during the mid 1400's as paper became more available throughout Europe.

It is easy to see how the development of the craft of printing intaglio images could come from a metalsmith’s desire to proof the progress of his work, keep a record of his design for himself, and have something to show his patron before the final metal work was done. It is not known who actually invented the technique. Some guild craftsman probably struck on the brilliant idea of rubbing a mixture of thick oil and charcoal into his metal work, wiping off the excess, laying a piece of paper on the metal, and burnishing the back of the paper to transfer the oil image.

As proofing the craftsman’s work became more common, it would be only a minor step to begin appreciating the paper proof as a sufficient end product, giving rise to etching as a new art medium.

The etching imagery on this website and the book is my particular permutation of both the relief and etching print processes, and the invention of paper.


I gravitated toward the printmaking media in my college studies during the academic years 1968-69. I was captivated by the notion of a democratic art form that could, like a pie, be made with consistent quality and yet be physically shared with many individuals. Maybe the pie notion appealed to me because I knew how much time and passion I was willing to invest in an image if I felt its gestalt warranted the effort. Also, I wasn’t sufficiently convinced that I could get even minimum wages out of my labor if I had to recoup all my investment from the sale of a single work. This conflict was no doubt caused by an early apprehension on my part about the fickle and prodigal nature of art market politics.

I had been a self-directed art student even before the facilities for learning such skills became available to me. When they finally did, I dove into the various print media for three years, assessing what I liked and disliked about each medium. In that time I more or less settled on etching and lithography as prime media, although neither of these processes scratched the exact spot in my visual aesthetics where I itched the most.

I loved the delicious tonal/textural drawing surface of a properly surfaced German limestone; however, the larger one wishes to make an image, the more prohibitive the weight of the drawing surface becomes. Also, it is risky to do fine work on a stone without knowing how it will react chemically. This means that you either have to own the stone you are working on long enough to learn its chemical idiosyncrasies, or be limited by a school or commercial atelier facility where the stones you want to work on are located.

I finally ended up owning five different lithostones. It must be some kind of testament to my dedication that I nearly gave myself a hernia carrying them back and forth between my home studio, where I did the drawing, and the school’s printing facility.

Etching and the intaglio media had exciting visual features. I especially liked the rich, velvet tones of aquatint and the gamesmanship of linear drawing notation, which to me had the risk and bravado of high-stakes watercolor painting. I was also drawn to the pronounced embossing left by the plate in sumptuous cotton-rag paper. But again, there was a distinct size limitation. This time it wasn’t a weight problem but a problem of skin. One of the steps in inking an etching plate requires the printmaker to hand wipe the image just before printing--sort of a final tune-up. In my senior year, I worked on an edition from a 24” x 36” inch plate only to find my hands had lost their palm skin down to the ouch layer. Although the range of achievable effects in the relief woodblock and linoleum print processes were somewhat limiting, I knew that roller inking in the relief media had a solid advantage over losing so much hand skin.

By the summer of 1970, I was wondering if there wasn’t some way to combine what I liked about all of the processes into one new printmaking method. I started experimenting with industrial materials and asking questions of people in the commercial printing trades.

I tried various ways of printing metal and paper offset plates. I experimented with direct drawing on silk screen, making and printing polymer photoplastic relief plates, and finally relief photo etching. By that time, I had drawn on a wide range of surfaces and concluded that no traditional printmaking surface could effectively provide the kind of textural imagery I was looking for. I had seen drawings of sports figures in the newspaper that had been done on a likely surface, so I explored this new potential. The texture in the newspaper drawings came from a thick, embossed paper called coquille board. In the winter of 1971, I experimented on a sheet of it. After trying various drawing tools, I settled on wax pencils because they yielded a clean, high contrast drawing. Also, because they were wax, there was less chance of the drawing becoming smeared. For my purposes, Berol or Eagle Prismacolor pencils turned out to be the kings of coquille drawing. They gave me the rich drawing texture I had been searching for, and I knew that I had one piece of my new printmaking process in hand.

I found that I had to spray coat each drawing done with these wax pencils, as soon as possible after completion, with a good quality plastic spray like Grumbacher Tuffilm because the wax had a tendency to oxidize and lose some of the contrast it needed to make a good negative.

My next objective was to transfer a finished image to a printable surface. Early in the spring of 1972, I completed a 22” x 30” coquille drawing of a ‘48 Plymouth (page 115) that I had seen on one of my desert rambles. I took my completed drawing to a friend who operated a copy camera and worked at a printing company. We made several exposures and proofed them until he was sure he couldn’t get any closer to the center of my tonal range.

I took the best-looking negative of the group, laid it on a light table, continued removing unwanted dots with opaquing paint and adding detail by scratching off emulsion with an x-acto knife in areas where I felt I could improve on the camera’s limitations. I corrected and proofed my negative until I was satisfied it would give me the image I wanted on a plate. It occurred to me later that these efforts to alter and perfect the negative were an exact parallel to the traditional process of correcting and proofing an etching plate, with the exception that this new method was allowing corrections that were both very precise and much easier.

I had had a chance to experiment with photo-lacquer-coated magnesium plates the previous summer during a stay in Boulder, Colorado, which led me to favor it as printer matrix. I took my freshly preened negative to the plate technician and asked him what he thought. He said that together we could probably get something usable from it. He laid my negative, emulsion side down, over an unexposed photo-etching plate in a glass-fronted vacuum exposure case, closed the lid, and turned on the vacuum.

The vacuum pump sucked the air out of the space between the glass, the negative, and the plate, causing the necessary tight contact that would yield a sharp image. He exposed the light-sensitive lacquer coating on the plate through the negative with an intense arc lamp for about three minutes. He then immersed the exposed plate in a tank of developer solution. The developer chemically softened the photo lacquer that had not received light because it was shielded by the remaining opaque areas of the negative. He told me that wherever light passed through the clear parts of the negative, it set the lacquer so that the developer would not soften it.

He pulled the developed plate out of the tank in about four minutes, set it on a special wooden rack in a large sink, and sprayed it down with water. The blue lacquer seemed to bleed away, revealing my drawn image in acid resist on a background of silvery magnesium. The plate was ready to be etched.

An etching machine looks like a large square stainless steel suitcase on a heavy metal stand. On the inside of the lid is a slow-turning, motor-powered clamp. The lower part looks like a tank with foos-ball paddles immersed in acid. The technician clamped my plate face down to the rotor, closed the lid, and turned on the machine. As the plate slowly turned horizontally in the machine, the paddles would flip a nitric acid compound solution up against the plate, causing a very controlled dissolving of the metal from the now upside-down image surface.
It took about twenty minutes to etch the image to a depth of a 32nd of an inch in the 16-gauge metal. After the plate was removed, neutralized and trimmed, I filed a traditional etching plate bevel around the perimeter so that the plate would not cut the paper when it went through the press. I knew that I would have to do a little additional hand engraving on the etched plate to get it to print exactly what I wanted, but that was to be expected.

Later that afternoon I surface rolled the plate with litho-ink and a rubber roller that looks like a large rolling pin. I set the plate on the bed of an etching press, laid the dampened paper and blankets down just as I would have for a normal intaglio etching, ran the stack through the press, and created my first relief etching.

When I pulled off the blankets, I noticed that the paper had become molded to the plate. I wondered how that first Chinese relief print, nineteen hundred years before, appeared to the eyes of its inventor. When I peeled the paper away from the plate and held the new print up in oblique light, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the embossing that I had seen from the other side worked within the image area.

I had never before witnessed such an intricately embossed effect within a printed image. It was as though I had just been ushered into a unique marriage of paper and ink. Needless to say, I was delighted. I felt as if I finally had a process that could give me both visual power and delicacy. My new relief etching process turned out to be a quantum leap for the kind of images I wanted to do.

Since that spring afternoon in 1972, I have hand-printed the thirty editioned images in this book. All of them in varying degrees have this same embossed effect. It is the signature fingerprint of this new relief etching process and my particular contribution to the world of fine printmaking.

COQUILLE DU NOIR AND COQUILLE DU BLANC Permutations from the New Print Process

The coquille paperboard that I used to create twenty-six of the images in this collection was difficult to correct without destroying the very texture that made the unique drawings possible. While a light cleaning with a soft white eraser wouldn’t affect the embossed surface, trying to remove parts of a wax Prismacolor rendering could erode the coquille texture and threaten the consistent re-draw ability in the corrected area.

No matter how well one plans a labor-intensive image in advance, corrections are inevitable. The very fact that an artist grows visually between the beginning and end of a lengthy work ensures this. The drawings were taking between 80 and 250 hours to finish and could be destroyed by one inopportune mistake. I eased through these difficult passages as carefully as I could. After completing 14 drawings, however, I was feeling like a freestyle rock climber who was seriously pushing his luck.

I began working and testing tougher surfaces on which to draw. After a few months of looking, painting, spraying, drawing, and scratching on a range of papers and boards, I toughened the existing coquille surface in two ways. I decided to proceed with an idea that had been hanging around on the backporch of my thoughts for a couple of years. I wanted to draw in pure white on a rich black surface. In my experiments, I came across a naphtha-based, carbon-black stencil ink, manufactured by Marsh-Tennessee. I layer sprayed this ink on the coquille board, and it strengthened the surface and added a nice tooth to the embossed texture.

When I drew on this new surface with a 938 white Prismacolor or a 164T Berol white china marker, the effect was a pure white on a rich dense black. Not only did the drawing effect look very promising, but this combination was just what the film in the copy camera was designed for. Negatives from these drawings required fewer corrections, and my new medium had the additional advantage of being more tractable. I could not erase the white wax once it had been drawn or it would have smudged into the texture of the carbon ink coating. The only way to make corrections was to place cellophane tape over the image, then redraw what needed to be deleted with a small ball-end stylus. The tape would stick to the unwanted wax, and if I carefully lifted the tape, the wax would come up without seriously affecting the carbon ink surface.

There were a limited number of times I could do this without pulling the carbon ink off, but the new process gave me a comfortable margin of error. In extreme cases small portions of the board could be re-sprayed with the stencil ink. The Berol china-marker could be corrected, but since the wax was much softer, corrections were difficult. I used these pencils only in the finishing stages of the drawing to maximize highlights. I named this new drawing medium COQUILLE DU NOIR (coquille from black). Back To Nature (page 43) was the first image I completed using this process. It was finished in the early fall of 1985, and the first prints were done in March of 1986.

If I wanted to draw a black image on a white background, I would spray the coquille board with a medium coat of high quality, gloss-white enamel, being very careful to coat the surface but not fill in the coquille texture. I would allow the enamel to harden for two days before beginning to draw. Because there was so little tooth to the enamel, a deep black was difficult to achieve. However, this surface proved to be very tough and worked well with the 935 Prismacolor black. The cellophane tape could correct any errors with remarkable precision and cleanliness.

I named this second medium Coquille dU Blanc (coquille from white). Negatives from Coquille du Blanc drawings were as problem-free as those drawn on Coquille dU Noir. The first drawing I did in this new medium was First Lessons In Conversational Truck (page 99). It was finished in the late winter of 1985, and the first prints were pulled in July of 1986.

ETCHING IN THE DIGITAL AGE Giving Ancient Crafts a High Tech Edge

As I continued to grow technically, my coquille drawings became ever more subtle and detailed. In the autumn of 1988, I ran into an unforeseen wall with the The Ides of Gratification (page 107). The fine textures in this COQUILLE DU NOIR process rendering had become too detailed for standard copy camera technology. Even when I enlarged the image on the negative to the maximum size that would fit on a 22” x 30” Arches Cover sheet, neither the negative nor plate emulsions could capture the texture. I had completed an otherwise good drawing that my existing technology was unable to transfer to a plate.

This realization was very troubling because, at the time, I was under a production schedule to finish as many drawings as possible during that calendar year. The solution to my dilemma came when I decided to have a continuous-tone negative made from my drawing. The negative image was then digitized on a drum scanner.

Putting my image into the digital realm and manipulating the contrast in a computer was the only way to preserve the extended range of highlight and shadow detail that the COQUILLE DU NOIR medium was capable of producing. The Ides Of Gratification may be the world’s first hand-printed digitally mastered etching.

The best things in civilization are arrived at by the same methodical layers of adaptation and discovery. To me there are few things in life as fascinating as quests like these. Once you are involved in a successful discovery, it is hard to think as small as you did before it happened.

Malcolm Graeme Childers 1998