Relief Printmaking – Drypoint

Introduction

Drypoint is more of an intaglio technique where the ink is held within the marks rather than on the surface of the block (as with relief printmaking).

In addition intaglio printing also includes etching, engraving, mezzotint and aquatint and generally involves the use of a metal (e.g. copper, aluminium or steel) plate that is cut into in some way using various tools and/or chemicals (such as ferric chloride or saline copper sulphate), is then inked up and printed from (traditionally using a printing press!)

Drypoint however is the simplest intaglio method and involves scratching directly into a plate using a strong, sharp metal point. There are no chemicals or complex processes involved and no real need for a press, making it the only form of intaglio that can be attempted from home rather than a studio. It was the only intaglio process that covered in the “Introduction to Printmaking” course.

The drypoint that was described in this module involved using a perspex plate and oil-based inks. Perspex allows for the tracing of a design from an image placed underneath the plate.

The perspex plates do have a limited life and will usually only produce around five good, crisp images before the plate begins to wear and the plate needs to be either re-scratched or simply abandoned.

Oil-based inks are used with damp printing paper to pick up the often very fine detail that is scratched into the plate (dry paper and water-based inks do not work). The damp paper will be soft enough to work itself into the scratched areas of the plate that are filled with the oil-based ink when burnished firmly from the back. The printing paper should be of high enough quality that it will not disintegrate when soaked in water (so cartridge paper is not suitable).

Tools and Materials

  • Perspex printing plate (3 to 5mm thick, clear plastic)
  • Oil based printing ink (intaglio / etching ink)
  • Off-cut of mount board or rubber squeegee
  • Drypoint tool / etching needle
  • Burnisher / scraper
  • Scrim (cheesecloth / muslin)
  • Printing paper (high-quality, thick printing paper)
  • Blotting paper / cartridge paper
  • Wooden spoon, end of wooden etching needle or lino cutting handle for printing (alternatively, an etching press is suitable)
  • Pencil to draw the image
  • Metal ruler, permanent marker and sharp knife with which to cut the perspex
  • Sandpaper to remove any rough edges on the plate
  • Masking tape to keep the plate and original drawing together when scraping the plate
  • Vegetable oil for cleaning up

Process

If using clear perspex for the plate, the drawing can be either placed under the plate and etched over or simply placed to one side. Remember that this is a mirror image and the drawing will need to be reversed before the plate is etched. This is crucial when text is involved.

Etching (or scratching) the plate creates small raised pieces of perspex; these are known as ‘burrs’. It is in these burrs that the ink will also collect when you apply the ink to the plate and the reason why after several prints the plate wears down. The burrs are flattened by the pressure of the printing process so that after several prints the ink cannot collect in them any more, losing some of the crispness of the plate.

The plate is inked-up using oil-based intaglio or etching inks and the ink is sparingly spread over the plate and worked into the scratches using a off-cut piece of mount-board or thin rubber squeegee.

Ink that remains on the surface of the plate is removed by gently dabbing the plate using scrim, taking care not to remove ink from the scratches. It is worth leaving a small amount of ink on the plate surface in order to print a light or smoky coloured tone to the image.

The inked-up plate is placed ink side up and a sheet of dampened paper place centrally on top. The paper is burnished using, for example, a wooden spoon or other suitable burnishing tool. As I have an etching press, I ran the plate/paper combination through the press.

Conclusion and comments

Having worked with intaglio before, I found drypoint to be straightforward method to master. As with the other intaglio methods and using oil-based inks, the working environment can get quite messy. It is a good idea to wear latex gloves for the inking and scrim stages of the process and use paper off-cuts as protection when handling the print paper. The plate and any tools should be cleaned by first applying vegetable oil to remove as much oil as possible before the final cleaning with soap and water or other appropriate cleaning products.

Recommended Reading

Barratt, Mychael (2008). “Printmaking Handbook – Intaglio Printmaking” (Chapter 3).
Published by A & C Black [ISBN: 978-0-7136-7388-3]