Printmaking 101: Direct-Etching Charcoal Drawings onto Solarplates

“Arabesque” by Matina Marki Tillman

While constantly experimenting with different drawing techniques on transparent media for solarplate etchings, Matina Marki Tillman recently re-visited one of her favorites — charcoal. During the ongoing process, she made some observations that she would like to share with others who might be interested in trying this. It looks like the smooth gradation of a charcoal drawing, the richness of values, or even the intensity of a chiaroscuro are possible to be etched directly onto solarplates. An early attempt, “Arabesque,” shows an example of this process.

The first step is to create the original drawing directly onto transparent media, like any other drawing intended for a solarplate. Matina has so far mainly been using vellum, which has some tooth that can hold the charcoal and also tolerates the necessary erasing when this is used as one of the tools together with charcoal sticks and pencils. Keep in mind, though, that vellum is not a heavy weight drawing paper; it can be scratched or folded, so care has to be taken. The drawing needs to be checked at various stages during the process on a light box. As Matina likes to often quote, “what you see is not necessarily what you get,” and that’s a good application. Etching times will have to balance both views of the drawing: what is seen by eye with the drawing placed on an opaque white background, and what is shown through the drawing when it is placed on top of a light box or held up to ambient light.

Now for etching under the sun (or any UV light source), the plate has to be prepared to hold the rich black tones in the drawing, so the usual aquatint screen exposure is done first. After this, a friend, colleague, or assistant may be useful in helping to carefully handle the finished drawing, and to position it on the solarplate to avoid smudging. Unlike other drawings, some of the charcoal powder can be lost each time the drawing contacts the plate. Therefore, it is advisable to limit the number of test exposures typically done in order to find the proper etching time. One (admittedly somewhat time-consuming) solution to this is to do small studies of portions of the drawing on another piece of vellum, which allows for experimentation without using the original. Talc powder (applied to the plate with a soft brush) has also been tried to reduce sticking, so that the artwork releases from the solarplate without losing as much charcoal.

“Unlocker” by Matina Marki Tillman

When proofing or printing, vine black ink is a logical choice to capture the essence of the charcoal drawing. Matina has observed so far that this particular technique creates strong prints. The velvety richness and depth of the darker parts of the print, together with all of the in-between tonality and the often ethereal lighter areas, could ask for other blacks or gray-based mixtures if you’re after the traditional charcoal feeling. Of course, different moods can always be achieved using other colors, for example, seen in one of the variations of “Unlocker,” which was actually printed with an indigo mixture. In any case, this technique so far has been fun and encouraging enough for Matina to share her experiences, and suggest it to others interested in combining elements of both charcoal drawing and printmaking.

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4 responses to “Printmaking 101: Direct-Etching Charcoal Drawings onto Solarplates

  1. Carolyn Pomponio

    Learning about new ways of printmaking, especially when working with solarplate, really lights the fires! Thanks so much for this!

  2. Superb and unique paintings!

  3. Ioanna Papaefstathiou

    Very intresting and particular technique that gives birth to exceptional and really strong drawings! Very particular!! Keep creating Matina!!

  4. Christos Panos

    The feeling that comes out of your work is both heavy and fragile, sensitive and strong at the same time. Keep up your good work and creative spirit !