Process talk: Aluminum etching

Palmystery – Photo-litho etching and relief monoprint; variable edition, 2022; Akua intaglio on Rives BFK; 12″x12″

Many people have used the term “etching” as a joke, as in “come up to my place to see my etchings.” We all know what that means, but most people may not know what etching means to printmaking.

Etching is an intaglio process — a design inscribed into a surface, or “plate”, ink is applied to the incisions and transferred to paper. It’s a technical process involving acid that bites into the raw metal to create the incisions. Acid-activated etching is done on metal. Drypoint is another intaglio process that doesn’t require acid, and which can be done on plastic, metal or even milk cartons.

This year I’ve been learning acid-based etching. I started with a relatively safe process involving copper-sulfate acid on aluminum, and fell in love with the grungy effects I can get.

Here’s how it works:

  • I start with a photo or scanned drawing and create a high-contrast image in photo-editing software. That image is converted to negative and printed to a polyester lithography plate (aka “Pronto plate”) via my laser printer.
  • Next, I transfer the image to an aluminum plate to create a resist for the acid bath. This resist is called a “ground”, which protects the areas that will not be etched in the acid bath. Here’s how:
    1. I transfer the laser-printed image using a lithography process in which Baldwin Intaglio Ground (or “BIG”, a non-toxic substance) is used instead of oil ink.
    2. I then place the inked pronto plate on a clean, degreased aluminum plate and run it through my etching press, Patsy.
    3. The ink is hardened in my homemade “oven” consisting of a cardboard box and a blow-dryer for about 25 minutes.
  • Once the ink — or ground — is thus transferred to the aluminum, the aluminum plate is placed in a relatively low-toxicity copper-sulfate bath for about 16 minutes. I love to watch the bits burble up from that lovely flat, shiny piece of metal:
click to view video

Save the mangroves, save our coastlines

“Coastal Living” was inspired by Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss (@extraction_art), a global art intervention which seeks to provoke societal change by addressing hazards, both global and local, that are the result of our misuse of the planet. It will be exhibited as part of “KARST Grounds: Quatro Sunistra” at Tempus Projects in Tampa when their new space opens.

Living in Florida, I’m surrounded by mangrove forests, and am drawn to their tangled web. They are shadowy yet uplifting, stolid yet floating, tree-dancers that build shorelines. They nurse marine life, protect our shore against major storms, and defend against climate change. But these defenders are under siege.

Coastal Living – drypoint, monoprint, 2021; Akua intaglio ink on recycled food containers and yard signs; 26.5” x 21.5”

“Coastal Living” is my visual prayer for mangrove preservation, realized as an altar with three predellas (narrative scenes at the base of an altar). Tranquil scenes of mangrove forest life are torn apart by urbanization. But the pictures of coastal development surfacing from these ruptures appear degraded, suggesting that the future of our own communities is in jeopardy. We sow seeds of our own destruction as we abuse the very defenses that protect our coastal communities. 

Global awareness, conservation and restoration are needed to preserve these venerated trees. My hope for these is shown in the center predella with a mangrove propagule, the birth of a new tree. 

To create this drypoint monoprint, I re-purposed printing plates and printed them onto used fast food containers. The frame is contrived from polypropylene signboards recycled from a golf fundraiser. There were definite challenges involved with repurposing these materials, providing me an object lesson in the difficulties of recycling.

Vital to the planet

At .01% of global landmass, mangrove forests are one of the most resilient, productive, and biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Bridging ocean and land, these salt-tolerant trees support a diverse food web for marine- and wildlife. Their dense root systems form a natural infrastructure more efficient than man-made breakwaters at mitigating tropical storm surge damage to our coastal communities. And they are planet protectors: The mucky soil that accretes among their roots serves as a highly efficient carbon sink, sequestering 3 – 5 times more climate-warming carbon dioxide gas than tropical rainforests.

But mangrove forests are severely threatened by urbanization, conversion to agriculture and aquaculture, and accelerating sea level rise. From 1996 to 2016, the Global Mangrove Watch calculates global mangrove loss at nearly 11%, approximately 367 km a year.

Since 2016, deforestation has slowed to 4.3%, thanks to increased regulatory protection, environmental replanting and restoration programs as well as natural expansion in some areas, including the US (ironically due to climate change). But, these changes aren’t enough on their own to prevent further destruction: Widespread recognition of the value of mangroves to our coastal communities is needed to curb further development and industrialization.

See “The State of the World’s Mangroves 2021,” published by the Global Mangrove Alliance, for more information.