How I etch

Each image begins away from my studio - on the beach where I collect coloured string, driftwood and seaweed, in the woods where I find skeleton leaves and seed cases. Sometimes I take plates out and begin work on them in the open. I sketch and take photographs and make notes which will remind me of patterns, colours and shapes when I get back to my studio.

Next I make a more complete sketch and decide which tools and techniques I will use to create the textures and marks I need. I may decide to build up the image on one plate or I may use two or three to create layers, printed one on top of another. The image on the plate is a mirror image of the finished paper print and so the sketch needs to be reversed if I wish to produce a likeness of a particular place. I use steel and copper; steel for it's grainy surface, for the unexpected marks it creates and copper for its more even bite and its smooth surface which can be wiped of ink to reveal the background paper colour.

Steel is bitten with nitric acid and copper with ferric chloride. Each technique I use involves the same basic intaglio process; parts of the metal plate are protected from the acid and parts are exposed. The exposed areas become roughened or are bitten away and so they hold the ink which is applied to the warmed plate and pushed into the bitten areas. When the ink is wiped the protected parts of the plate are clean in the case of copper or relatively so in the case of steel. The inked plate is then placed on the bed of the press, damp paper is placed on top, followed by special blankets or felts. The bed of the press is then moved across between heavy rollers. With my star-wheel press this is achieved by pulling down the long wooden 'spokes' to turn the wheel. The pressure makes the ink transfer to the paper.

There are many ways to produce marks and to protect the plate from the acid. My images are built up using a combination of the following:


Hard ground

 Here a roller is used to coat the plate with an opaque, sticky, ground which dries hard. The plate is then held over the smoke from tapers to darken and harden the ground. A pointed metal tool is used to scratch through the ground, exposing lines which the acid will bite, creating grooves that will hold the ink. The marks can be made with any tool - I sometimes use a lemon zester or grater.

Soft ground  

This time a different ground is used which stays soft and lifts off when pressure is applied. A pencil over layout paper works well. Leaves or any soft material can be placed on the ground, with wax paper on top, and rolled through the press under the blankets. The pressure lifts the ground and exposes metal areas which the acid will bite. This is one of my favourite techniques.

Open bite 

Here a litho or wax crayon is used to draw on the plate. The marks made will resist the acid so, again, I have to remember that the areas which will print are the areas I haven't marked. My marks will be the colour of the paper I am printing on or, if I'm layering two or three plates, will, in the final image show the colour printed from one of the other plates. It's very important to keep taking proofs to check progress as you work.


There is a large box in my studio with a paddle inside, attached to a crank handle on the outside. Aquatint resin is put in the box and when it is tightly closed, the handle is turned and the paddle revolves creating a cloud of powder. The hatch is then opened, the plate is put inside and left for a few minutes. When it is carefully removed it has a fine coating of resin powder. Next it is heated underneath and the resin fuses to the plate becoming transparent. When the plate is put in the acid bath the bite creates an area of tone. Sometimes I take the plate in and out as many as eight or nine times, covering more and more of the plate with an acid resist varnish. The areas left uncovered longest print the darkest, those covered from the beginning remain unbitten and so don't print, revealing the background paper colour. This way I create as great a range of tone as I wish, with the gradation dependant upon how long I leave the plate in the acid at each stage.A coarser effect can be achieved by shaking the powder onto the plate. The clumps are unevenly spread and create a more mottled, random, effect. Aquatint contributes to most of my images and a few were created through aquatint alone.

Sugar lift

This entails painting sugar-solution marks on to a plate which has often already been coated with aquatint. A liquid ground which resists acid is brushed or poured over the dried sugar solution. When the plate is covered with hot water the sugar under the varnish melts and lifts the varnish, exposing areas of the plate which the acid will bite. I love the bubbly effects this  produces.


 A roller is used in this method. First I bite the plate using any combination of the previous methods, making sure the acid has bitten deeply in some areas and lines so they will hold the ink below the surface. After the plate is inked with my usual intaglio inks the surface is wiped. I then roll a blend of two or more litho inks over the plate. This layer is not wiped before printing and the printed image reveals both the intaglio-inked marks as well as the blended, rolled ink. I like the depth and richness of colour I can achieve this way.


It's possible to create a marbled effect on a plate rather like marbled paper. Dilute stop out varnish is swirled and feathered into a pattern on the surface of warm water and an aquatint coated plate is carefully lowered, face down, on to the pattern. As usual the acid bites the areas not covered by the varnish. I sometimes use this when I'm depicting water.

It's fun to play with these different techniques and particularly, to pull the first proof of the finished image.  Usually there are surprises at each proof stage. I believe the secret is to go with the flow, to welcome the unexpected alongside the planned; sometimes to be guide by the unintended marks and to let them suggest new ways to develop the image. That way I feel I am working in a partnership with my materials and that the finished image, though originally my vision, becomes something separate, with its own life and energy.

Inks and Paper

Only one print can be pulled from the inked plate so in an edition the plate or set of plates is inked up and rolled through the press separately for each print. This means there may be very slight variations between prints and each one is truly original. Often I use several colours and in a three plate etching as many as fifteen different colours are pushed into separate areas of the plates, wiped with scrim, then tissue, then by hand. I use good quality Charbonnel inks which have high light fastness ratings.

I print on Somerset and Zercall paper. Both are good quality and strong with a weight between 250 and 350 gsm. Usually the colour of the paper is soft white but occasionally, depending in the colours and tone of the print, I choose cream or grey.

Finally each print is signed - i/20 to 20/20 for an edition of 20 with two artist's prints signed A/P.  Then I'm ready to get outside and start the whole process again.