As I enthused in my last blog post, I had discovered the intaglio illustration process of etching and drypoint, aided by a five-evening introductory course at the SpikePrint open studio at Bristol Harbourside. Whereas I have enjoyed trying my hand at the popular linocut and woodcut relief processes, neither really came naturally to me. Etching and drypoint processes allowed me to easily scribe detailed imagery onto a plate, and then created moody shading effects by selectively rubbing the Ink off the plate prior to printing on an etching press. The process of drypoint, in particular appealed to me, with its velvety etching lines and the fact that, unlike etching, no nasty chemicals or plate preparation are required. Drypoint can easily be created even on Perspex sheets as well as zinc or copper plate.
So armed with this new technique, I was keen to employ this process when creating a book, but then the issues started! Letterpress, along with natural partner relief printing techniques such as linocut, woodcut and wood engraving, facilitate easy repetition of the printed work, expecially in the hands of an experienced printer armed with an Arab or similar treadle press. Intaglio processes however, by their very nature are very different, each individual print requiring the time-consuming careful rubbing of the image plate and the dampening of individual paper sheets before the two are united in the etching press. Even using my basic galley press, I can create up to 30 single colour letterpress prints in one hour, but just four good intaglio prints in the same amount of time.
Another issue to contend with, relating specifically to the creation of drypoint prints, is the fact that the useful life of each plate is very short, especially if Perspex sheets are used. This is due to the fact that the characteristic burr, thrown-up by the etching needle, holds much of the ink that makes up the print. This burr is fragile, and after as little as three passes (using Perspex) through the etching press under high pressure, breaks-down, and the image quality noticeably degrades. The use of more resilient copper plate improves matters but only slightly, permitting around ten prints to be taken before breaking-down.
In the end, I decided to add the drypoint images into my latest book ‘A Little Boke of Iford’ by resorting to scanning and inkjet printing the original drypoint prints, and using letterpress for the rest. Whereas this overcame this problem, I could not help but feel that the value and magic of creating a handmade book, had now become somewhat compromised by an unwelcome modern-day printing process, more associated with day-to-day quick prints of documents and family snapshots, than something as special as a handmade book. Despite having now printed a small book that I am generally pleased with, I feel that my next project to include intaglio content, must include original original prints instead, despite the increased time and effort involved (even for a very small edition), either by using drypoint or acid etch processes. After all, had time to create a book been an issue at all (which it is not), then even letterpress would have been the wrong solution, and the whole lot could have been churned out on a laser printer in seconds, a brief but totally soul-less activity!