Andries Loots
9 January 2001

Lithography, etching and engraving, enjoyed a considerable degree of popularity during the previous century and continue to flourish well today. The traditional dual profession of painter-etcher disappeared almost completely as many artists preferred to specialize in either the one or the other.

Buyers recognized its advantages in providing them with original works by international artists, whose paintings were rapidly moving out of reach of the average buyer's budget.

Artists on the other hand were attracted to the newer printing procedures and techniques and a faster way of getting out work to the buyers.

Usually artists do proofs of their graphic works before a series is done and each work is then numbered and signed. The original block is then cancelled . The first known graphic done by a South African artist, is an etching done by Frans Oerder in 1902. Today the graphic medium in S.A. is gaining popularity again as some of our best artists are producing graphics. South Africa's most popular contemporary artist,  William Kentridge is producing new etchings, woodcuts, lithographs, Chine colle, sugar-lift and monotypes. Other artists like Norman Catherine,  Willie Bester,  Sam Nhlengethwa,  Zwelethu Mthethwa,  Robert Hodgins, Penny Siopis and  others  are all doing some form of graphic work. 

An engraver can either create an unique engraved design onto a plate or reproduce an existing work. A metal plate is utilized on which the ink is held in grooves in the surface which are cut or bitten in (etched)  by acid. After covering the plate with the ink and placing a sheet of dampened paper on top of it, it is pushed though a roller or press so that the paper picks up the ink from the lower lying areas.

    A metal plate is polished and usually covered with chalk. The design is transferred into the chalk and then cut into the metal plate with a shaver or engraving tool. Any burr is polished smooth.

    A steel needle is used on a metal plate leaving the burr. The printed lines show a characteristic bleeding effect.
    Wax or a thin layer of resin, resistant to acid is used to cover the surface of the plate. The engraver scribes lines through the wax exposing the metal which is then exposed to the acid bath.

William Kentridge - Etching

    Sometimes also called sugar aquatint or lift-ground etching. The artist draws directly on the plate  with a black watery ink thickened by the addition of dissolved sugar and gum Arabic. The dried drawing is then covered with varnish or etching ground and immersed in water. This penetrates the ground and dissolves the drawing material. The plate is lightly rubbed so that the drawing as well as the varnish on top of it " lift off ",  leaving the bare plate. The protecting vanish will still stick to the plate  were the plate has not previously been treated with the ink and sugar mixture. If the etching is executed on mild steel,  the steel - attacked by the acid, will react  by exposing its irregular crystalline structure and may hold sufficient ink to allow an edition of prints to be made without further treatment of the plate.  With copper and zinc plates the direct action of the acid is not sufficient and is too smooth,  leaving gray tones were the acid has been bitten directly into the plate. To achieve textures like brushstrokes the artist lays down an aquatint ground on the lifted design. This resin ground now covers the bare metal of the open lines or brush stokes lifted from the first ground and provides well defined textures and tones. When preparing the artwork on the plate the artist needs to work spontaneously with the pen or brush. Sugar-lift etchings are often combined with aquatint or colour-roll.

    Mezzotint features tones instead of lines. The surface of the plate is textured with a file like instrument to give it a rough surface which is then polished away to different degrees in order to pick up less ink. Gradation of tone or highlight is thus obtained.

    A porous ground is used to cover the surface of the plate. This allows the acid to bite away a fine grid of small dots into the plate. White areas in the design are masked out first, the plate is then submerged in acid. The next lightest tone is masked and the process is repeated until the last submersion bites away the darkest tone.

    The design is drawn with a greasy chalk on a zinc plate which is then wetted. Ink will only stick to the areas containing chalk and not mix with the water. Artists make use of printing houses like Artists Press, Newtown, Johannesburg for taking care of the technical production.
A fine mesh permeable to ink is masked with the design. Ink is then forced through the mesh onto the paper. The mask can be cut out of paper or a film transferred directly onto the mesh. The design can also be photographically transferred . This process is also known as silk-screen printing.
Norman Catherine - Serigraph
When a small series is printed, the design can be easily carved into Linoleum. With this technique only bold designs are possible.

The negative of the design is carved into a wooden block. The relief left behind transfers the ink onto the paper.

Gregoire Boonzaier - Linocut

The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art & Artists, Herbert Read, ISBN 0-500-20274-5
South African Graphic Art and its Techniques, F. L. Alexander, ISBN 0  7981 0329 9

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