Thoughts on Copper Plate Photogravure

Jon Goodman looking on as Nik etches a plateBack in California, jet-lagged as usual, watching the Criterion Collection Blu-ray version of the Monterey Pop Festival late at night. My son and I flew to our respective destinations Tuesday morning after a five day workshop with Jon Goodman studying copper plate photogravure.

I remarked to Jon during the first couple days of the workshop that at least his approach to photogravure was simple. I think I need to describe a bit what that means.

The Anchor Photo ManglerWe had no failures of gelatin development, or etching. His two bath method of etching was straightforward. Attaching the gelatin resist to the polished plate with a photo mangle was straightforward. We inked the plates and printed the images on his American French Tool Co. etching press.

Stepping back from my comment that it was simpler than I expected, let’s summarize the steps.

First, you generate a digital positive that is your fully prepped image for exposing the gelatin resist. Jon uses a method related to Ron Reeder’s approach I believe, printing the positive with his custom profile for Quad Tone RIP to achieve the density range needed for the process. It seemed straightforward.

Inking SpatulasSecond, you basically make a carbon print using a Potassium Dichromate sensitized pigmented gelatin sheet, in this case Autotype G35 (now discontinued). Potassium Dichromate is the most dangerous chemical encountered in the process and bears a great deal of respect. Sandwiched with the digital positive (positive emulsion to sensitized gelatin with a 1 mil Mylar sheet protecting the gelatin from the ink jet pigments), the assemblage is placed in a vacuum frame and exposed with a UV light.  The positive is masked to block non-image areas from exposure. Jon has developed a “dry laydown” method to affix the exposed gelatin to a highly polished and degreased copper plate pressing the gelatin to the plate running it through a “photo mangler”. The carbon print is developed in water, gently. Dry it completely.

At this point I want to pause and observe that while I said the process is simpler than I expected, you essentially by this point must be skilled at producing full range digital positives (same approach as digital negatives), and you must be a skilled carbon printer. The art of the photogravure process is still to come as you transition now into traditional etching and printmaking.

Third, you apply an aquatint to the plate with rosin in a dustbox. I think there is a qualitative visual difference  of a print made from a dust-grain aquatint and one made from a screened plate. The dust grains are non-uniform and settle in a random pattern. While stochastic screens overcome the problems with anything like a halftone screen, the dust-grain aquatint method probably yields a more random screening effect. Why someone, given the time it takes to do this process and the beauty of the classic dust grain approach, would use a film screen for copper plate is beyond me. It seems odd to cut corners at this point. Note carefully that Jon dusts the plate after the gelatin resist is on the plate. I’m under the impression this is controversial. Such a rebel. Melt the resist (Jon uses a temperature controlled oven, you can blow torch the underside of the plate also).

Fourth, a quick etching resist with asphaltum is done on the non-image areas of the plate.

Fifth, you take the plate, with aquatint and the adhered gelatin resist and etch it in Ferric Chloride. Glove up, and wear an apron or an old shirt. Jon has settled on a two bath method, with Ferric Chloride and different densities. The lower Baumé solution is introduced periodically to accelerate the etching. Etching during the workshop took 28 – 42 minutes. I etched four plates, my son two, and the other student two. No foul bite, I had a small scratch on one resist that came into the plate. Can be later retouched. Once the plate is etched, clean with mineral spirits and water to remove the asphaltum and the gelatin.

inkedplateThe final step is inking and printing the plate. And now we have transitioned completely from photography into the pure printmaking world. Paper is dampened a few hours before printing and placed in a plastic bag. Jon’s method for wetting the paper is simple: draw a hot bath of water in a tray and slide the paper through front to back and place on an inclined plastic sheet to drain off excess water. This is best done the night before. Crown Point Press books describe dampening paper for etching also. The plates themselves are trimmed to a 5mm border all around, and the edges smoothed with a file to have a easily cleaned smooth surface and to protect tearing the paper or worse the felts on the press. Inking is done with a rubber or polyurethane brayer, on a heated plate, warm but not hot to touch. Jon cleans excess ink off the plate with a cheesecloth – not a tarlatan (European methods being gentler). Hand wiping is the final step, light broad, quick strokes with the heel of your hand towards you to take off ink. Jon reinforces the dark areas holding the plate in

My son, Nikolai, printed an image of mine (an underwater figure study) with the a la poupée technique to produce a multicolored print. He also etched a positive of a painting he had done – no photograph involved here – to make a fine etching. I think it was the most beautiful print we made in the workshop.

You can find another write-up on Jon Goodman’s workshop from Clay Harmon, on Jon’s website.

So, I glossed over the inking and printing of the plate. Why? Because to tell you the truth, at the end this is wear the rubber definitely hits the road. I inked and printed one of my plates three times. Nik tried a couple prints on his plates. Jon then took the time to demonstrate inking and printing with our plates and the difference in the final prints was astounding. So, while I thought “This is simpler than I expected.” I came to a more visceral understanding of the depth of this process and its capabilities watching Jon demonstrate making a print. If one pursues this process, you can open up a lifetime of exploration, and keep yourself happily distracted as you learn more about each step.

I’m going to avoid more details of the workshop for a couple reasons. One, Jon gives these workshops and shares his experience and methods during them. I highly recommend talking to Jon about a forthcoming workshop. Two, additional details would suggest that this process is a matter of a couple bottles of mordant at the right Baumé, etch for some time, ink and print. There is a tremendous capability for personal expression at several points in this process, and therein lies the lifelong challenge.

Jon Goodman is a master of his craft. It was great to study with him and see him in action. He brings an intensity to bear on his art that is inspiring.

Did I mention he makes his own inks? Let me leave you with that.

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  1. […] an understanding of the aesthetic of gravure.” A simple statement that Jon Goodman touched on during the workshop I took with my son. Kolb also notes “The process is involved and unforgiving.” You have […]

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