One of the best things about studying in New York City is the myriad of education resources available to us. A case in point: as part of our segment on printing techniques in our Technology and Structure class, we visited the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, a cooperative facility that works with artists and printmakers alike, striving to make the medium accessible to all.
At the workshop, we were welcomed by the workshop manager, Chris Dunnett, and the manager and master printer, Phil Sanders who explained the histories of various printing techniques—woodblock printing, engraving, etching, and lithography—which were then demonstrated to us. We were also able to see the an artist’s etchings being printed for inclusion on a book, and this was a great demonstration of the complexities of making a good printed impression. Most of us had never been inside a contemporary printing studio, and it was interesting to be afforded a glimpse into the production process of an artist’s printed book and into the collaboration between artist and printer.
Our assigned course readings could not have given us the same understanding of the printmaking process as this hands-on field trip did, as we got the opportunity to actually make some prints!
We began by looking at intaglio techniques, where designs are either scratched or etched into copper plates. Each of us had the opportunity to scratch into a plate, creating a dry-point etching. This experience was very eye-opening for me personally – it really helped me to understand the reasons dry-point lines look the way they do! This will help me to identify the technique when I encounter it in the future. We also scratched a design into a copper plate covered with an asphaltum ground, which was then placed in ferric chloride to incise the inking lines.
While we waited for the acid to eat away at our copper plate, we stepped over to the lithography press. Lithography is quite a complex process involving a number of steps that are not necessarily intuitive. Even having read about the process, I didn’t yet understand how it worked. So being able to create a lithograph from start to finish was very an invaluable learning experience! Rather than give a explanation of exactly how lithography works, which is difficult to understand from text, I thought I’d refer you to this video instead, which shows a similar process to the one that was demonstrated for us.
The only difference is that we used tannic acid instead of nitric acid to fix the image, as nitric acid can react with the iron present in the limestone (to produce iron nitrate salt, water, and nitrogen oxides) and with the limestone itself (resulting in the dissolution of CaCO3 to give aqueous ions which are flushed away).
We each had a chance to draw on the stone and each inked and printed the image that the class had drawn. At the end, we had a wonderful example lithograph to keep as a reference!
As the semester ramps up and we get busier and busier, it’s nice to have classes like this that function almost as small ‘breaks,’ allowing those of us new to the city to see and explore new spaces even as we learn about the technologies of art-making. Next week, we’re due to learn about photographic processes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I can’t wait!
~ Saira Haqqi
See the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop deliver a brief printmaking history review and technical demos. Created by Print Studio, an educational program of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
A fantastic interactive flash demo of staple printing techniques : woodcut, etching, lithography, and screenprint. . The site also includes images of more than forty prints from the MOMA’s collection in order to demonstrate the range of effects that are associated with each technique.
Printmaking videos from the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, Produced in conjunction with the exhibition German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.
This website has curated 14 prints exemplary of as many techniques. They give you the hints of what to look for; you can zoom in to your heart’s content!