The Art of Intaglio by Hebe Brooks

PicassoLeRepasFrugal  During a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, the most famous art pieces from Pablo Picasso were in front of my eyes, but there was one drawing among many that fascinated me: Le Repas Frugal. I kept going back to that work to study every line and every contrast. It was not a painting, not a pencil drawing, and not a technique I knew well. The technique was Intaglio which I later learned was also known as etching. The explanation in the internet seemed cumbersome; therefore, I was thrilled when an art school suddenly offered an Intaglio class. Little did I know that after several ruined outfits, two rough looking hands, and a permeated smell of inks and strong solvents, my admiration for Picasso’s Intaglio would have grown, but my desire to pursue etching would have waned.

The first day of Intaglio class seemed easy enough. “Draw a minimum of three compositions on paper,” the professor said. “Choose one to transfer to this metal plate,” he added while showing a piece of zinc the size of a standard page. The heads of two wild horses with manes blown by the wind manifested through my pencil. My imagination, as wild as the horses, foresaw a master piece rival only to Le Repas Frugal.

The second class was consumed with the first steps of etching and the origin of my first doubts. The zinc plate had to be beveled with a metal file until all edges were smooth. A coat of Brasso followed to polish the plate. No marks, no fingerprints, and no oils could be left on the zinc. “Polish, clean, and polish some more,” were the directions received until the arm felt exhausted from the motion. Once cleaned, the plate had to be grounded which actually meant covered by tar. After thirty minutes, the drawing of the wild horses was placed face down on top of the tar and rolled through a heavy press to transfer the image.

At this point, plate in hand, I rushed home. The class was over but not the work. Tar becomes brittle with time, so I hurried to draw the image on the plate using tools that resembled dental equipment. The sharp tools exposed the zinc plate surface along the lines of the drawing.

One day later I was back in class wearing gloves, protective glasses and clothes that would not survive the next steps of the process. The plate was placed in an acid bath corrosive enough to mandate special ventilation and a detailed explanation of emergency procedures. The forty five minutes of acid bath was not a resting time. A wave had to be created with a feather on top of the plate to prevent deposits of loose materials, the printing paper had to be cut to set dimensions and submerged in water, and the hot stove had to be turned on. Safety gear on and off, again and again until the clock finally showed that sufficient time had lapsed for the acid to etch the exposed metal in the drawing. Pincers in hand, the plate was removed from the acid and neutralized with baking soda, water, and a wash. Strong solvents were used to remove the tar which somehow managed to find its way to the edges of my long white sleeve shirt.

The next part of the process involved the inks. A portion of an old phone book was placed on the hot stove with the etched plate on top. I grabbed a corner of the zinc with my left hand and folded pages of the phone book as protection from the heat. My right hand spread a thin layer of black ink over the plate using a small rectangular piece of cardboard in a cross-hatching motion. Once the ink was on the plate, the trick was to move the plate from the hot flat stove to the adjacent counter-top without burning my fingers. This trick took a few tries to fathom.

The removal of the ink from the plate was the next step. I formed a tarlatan pad and gently polished the plate with a circular motion. “Don’t be so hard, you’ll remove all the ink from the grooves,” I heard. “All excess ink must be removed from edges and surface to achieve an even tonality,” someone added. I removed ink left and right, but added some black spots to my pants.

Finally, I was ready to print; my hands, however, were covered with ink from the previous step. Ten minutes of scrubbing them with rough soaps and solvent cleaned them enough to pick up the wet paper from the soaking sink. I placed the plate with the right amount of ink on the printing board, the soaked paper and a piece of newsprint on top, covered all the items with the printing mats, and I happily rolled them through the press to achieve mCrazy Maney first etching test.

The first test did not work: the drawing lines were not thick enough. Back to the drawing table, back to the Brasso, back to the tar, the dental tools, and the acid. Back to each step from the beginning to the end. The second test was not much better: the plate moved while going through the press, and the image printed diagonally. I repeated each step so many times that my hands were red from burns, solvents, and washing. The smell of the acid, ink, and thinner permeated my nose and settled in my clothes and car for weeks.

After probably ten times, the entire process was memorized, and five decent etching prints were ready for grading. My wild horses with their crazy manes and dazed stare were not the master piece I had envisioned. Their feral look a testimony to the process I have just learned.

The course is now over, and I am not looking for Intaglio classes. My only consolation is that if I become a famous artist like Picasso, I could do the drawing part, but I could pay someone else to do the printmaking process.

Old Passage - Intaglio

Note: I did not totally give up on the process and a few more intaglios have been produced since that  first  experience such as Old Passage to the left.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Intaglio by Hebe Brooks

  1. Wow, Hebe! I’ve never heard of that process before but I am very intrigued by your experience. You are a very entertaining writer. I am impressed!

  2. Hebe, that seems like an extremely tedious process, but your work always makes it seem effortless. You are so very talented!

    • Thank you, Susan. It is tedious, that’s why I prefer painting but still admire this old technique. There are old books entirely illustrated with Intaglios. Can you imagine the work!

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