Techniques - Print Making

Soft Ground (using a Copper Plate)




This is a type of intaglio print (intaglio is when the image is incised into a surface and the incised line/sunken area holds the ink and is therefore the section that will be printed).  This is the opposite to relief print (relief is when the image is raised due to the cutting or etching of a printing surface in such a way so that all that remains of the original surface is the design to be printed and this is the area that holds the ink eg Linocut).  

This method is used to transfer soft ground such as leaves, feathers, materials etc. onto a copper print to be used as a print make.




1.  You will require a copper plate (the plate is cut to size).



2.  File the edges of the copper plate using a file to remove any burrs on the edges of copper 



3.   Place self adhesive plastic or acrylic varnish on the back of the plate if you wish to protect the back of it.



4.  Thoroughly clean the plate to remove traces of grease.  Rinse both the front and back of the plate in water.

Use Chlorine cleanser on an abrasive sponge / wire brush / fine steel wool / wet number 600 emery paper / corundum paper to clean the plate.



5.  Dry thoroughly (eg with a hairdryer, or, paper) ensuring no dust remains on the plate.



6.  Cover plate with an acid resistant coating. A brayer can be used to ensure a thin even layer of ink.

An acid resistant coating is made of asphaltum, rosin and beeswax to varying degrees depending on whether it is of the ball or liquid variety.  For example, you could use enamel paint, water proof ink or wax.



7. Let dry (eg. with a hairdryer).  Unlike in Hard Ground, let the plate remain still relatively wet in order to apply the impression of your soft ground.



8.  You will need to 'bed' the plate for putting it through the press rollers. To do this, place some sheets of paper/newspaper under your etched plate (plate facing up). It is a good idea to mark the top sheet of the bed with the outline measurements of your plate to ensure that it is correctly placed for running through the press rollers. 



9.  Andrew Baldwin notes a tip in his youtube tutorial for soft ground printmaking (see below for link) whereby in order to avoid background contamination, first run the plate through the rolling press with a sheet of very fine scrim mesh covering the plate.  Place newsprint over the top of the mesh, place the blankets on top and roll through press.  Then reapply the ground to the plate with a brayer making a nice even layer on the surface.  Again, place the grounded plate into position on the bed where you have marked out the measurements for it to be placed.  Keep the grounded side faced up again.



10.  Place your feather (or whatever item you are using) onto the ground on top of the plate.  Again cover with the fine muslim mesh and newspaper on top.  Pull the blankets on top of this.



11.  Roll through the press again.



12.  Gently remove the mesh, newspaper and feather to reveal the impression.  



13.  You could now also draw onto the plate if you so wished, for example, by dropping tracing paper on to the top of the plate over the ground and hinge the tracing paper down over the plate.  Using a pencil/your finger to draw onto the plate through the tracing paper.  Remove the tracing paper.



14.  Place the plate into the oven (for about 6mins at 135 degrees Centigrade).



15. To cover any area that may have been removed by mistake/blemishes during the soft ground process you could now block them out with some more ground before placing into the acid.  If you do this, you will then need to again place the plate in the oven in order to dry.



16.  Once it has baked it is essentially a hard ground.  Let dry for about half an hour (hour to mature and ensure it's tough).



17.  With gloves on, use chemical to bite the lines into the plate. Do this by placing the plate into a vertical dip tank with the chemical in the tank. The strength of the acid will affect the length that it takes to etch.

Chemicals:  Ferric chloride may be used for etching copper or zinc plates, whereas nitric acid may be used for etching zinc or steel plates. Typical solutions are 2 parts FeCl3 to 2 parts water and 1 part nitric to 3 parts water.  




18.  You should check on the plate every few minutes to see how the etching is going.  Run water over the top to check on the process and if there is an area that is not etching very well then you could rub over with your finger to assist any stubborn parts to remove sediment.

19.  Wash the plate with water.

Depending on the resistant used you will need the following to remove the resist:

Water to remove water-soluble ink resistant

alcohol for inks insoluble in water

turpentine to remove paint or varnish

acetone if used nail polish

alcohol (methyl hydrate) or steel wool for wax-like grounds.





20.  You will then need a scraper (eg piece of lino or cardboard) to ink your plate.  Ink your plate by spreading the ink on with your scraper.

The ink used is an etching ink and is similar to oil paint. Water based etching inks are available for etching but a lot of people still like to use traditional oil based ink.  Oil or other additives can be added to make ink less stiff & easier to use.




21.  Wipe off the ink (using, for example, a flat pad of scrim/muslim light material cloth or newspaper) so that the ink just remains in the bitten sections.  Use firm but gentle strokes and wipe from all angles to ensure that all angles contain ink fills within the etched lines. Finally, for a bright clean print, use tissue and wipe it on the plate by holding it flat against the plate.  Your plate is now ready to go through the press rollers.



22.  You will now require paper to create your print from the plate.  Good cotton paper is normally used for etching eg fabriano 285gms. Soak the paper in water (eg using a water tray) to ensure that it is soft & viable making it easier to be forced into etched lines during printing.  

23.  After you soak the paper in water you will then need to blot it to make sure that it's not too wet and that any dust or moisture is brushed off.  One option of how to do this would be to place the damp sheet in between two dry sheets and rub over the top to remove the excess water.  When picking up the damp sheet, make sure not to smudge or dirty it with your hand.  A good idea is to use a small piece of cardboard with your hands to ensure your fingers don't touch the page.



24.  You will need to again 'bed' the plate for putting it through the press rollers. To do this, place some sheets of paper/newspaper under your etched plate (plate facing up). It is a good idea to mark the top sheet of the bed with the outline measurements of your plate to ensure that it is correctly placed for running through the press rollers.



25.  Place your blotted paper on top of the etched plate.  Place some tissue paper over this and then the press blanket is finally placed over all of the 'bed'.  It is now ready to go through press rollers.

26.  Run it through press rollers.


27.  Gently pull the paper off.


28.  Leave the print to dry.


See here for a good online tutorial video on this technique.

*See Aquatint Etching to find out about how to add color shading to your above prints.