About Etchings

By Henry H. Mitchell.


H.H. Mitchell, Etcher

The article's author with his etching “Quarter Business” (New Orleans).

My article “Etchings and New Orleans” tells something of the who, what, when, and where I became involved with etchings. For the sake of thorough journalism, following is a consideration of the why and how.

Familiar Space

As explained in the above-mentioned article, my wife Patricia and I owned and operated a shop in New Orleans' French Quarter during the early 1970s. It was in the ground floor of a slave quarter on a Royal Street courtyard. It was rustic, with bare brick walls and a low, open-beamed ceiling. With a few antique tables and cabinets as furniture, and mostly table lamps for light, it was similar in scale and atmosphere to a residence, in contrast to typical large, brightly-lit, high-ceilinged commercial spaces.

Customers told us that our shop felt “like home,” or it made them feel “at home.” And in that mode of thinking, they were drawn not as often to the colorful oils, watercolors, and acrylics on our walls, as to the monochrome etchings hanging in their subtle mats and frames, or the matted etchings we displayed in bins. They could easily and comfortably imagine them in their own homes. I was amazed at how quickly the etchings sold.

Filling and Feeling

An interesting psychological effect occurs when color and detail are missing from an image: the viewer fills in the gaps from personal memory. (Some cinematographers consciously amp up the emotional impact of a film by reducing or eliminating color.) In looking at such an image, we mentally add color and detail from our own experiences, and thus increase our sense of ownership and connection.

I saw the effect on buyers, and I felt it myself. So then my question became, how would I make etchings that especially appeal to me? And, if I brought them into existence, would others find them interesting?

Narrowing the Preferences

We also noticed (with all art media) that customers more often purchased a vertical format than a horizontal one. And the most popular size was whatever could be matted to fit a 16x20-inch standard frame. That suggests a 9x12 etching plate, so that's mostly what I eventually used. (One might guess that these choices were related to such determinants as the size of typical rooms and furniture in the 1970s – and suitcases, for that matter.)

Copper plates maintain their engraved image longer, for larger editions of prints, in comparison to zinc, so I chose copper. For a nicely-textured paper, I picked Arches Cover. For impact, I decided on black ink.

After buying a press (small, because I did not intend to press large plates) and supplies, my etching efforts began.

I decided to use two basic etching techniques, with variations. First I scratched a drawing in the waxy acid-resistant ground, and then allowed the acid to etch the plate, successively using stop-out varnish on the areas that I wanted to be lighter, leaving the areas uncovered longer that I wanted darker. Second, I went back and applied an enamel mist on the areas that I wanted to have shading (“aquatint”) rather than mere lines, again varying the length of time in the acid with stop-out varnish to make areas lighter or darker.

Artist Not Completely In Control!

There are many variables in that process, and the results are somewhat unpredictable. As always, experience is the best teacher.

And the uncertainty repeats itself when prints are pressed. The artist may want to vary the inking densities and distribution from print to print, or maybe instead try to achieve consistency. But variations in spreading the ink, the moisture content and texture of the paper, the speed of the press, and the pressure of the press – all make each print a new creation.

You could say the etching processes are a little like birthing a child. Knowing the parents, you can safely assume the general genetic makeup of the child, but you don't know the baby's specific characteristics until after arrival. There is always excited anticipation.

Or like jazz, every performance is an improvisation.

Therefore, it is instructive about life in general.

Choice of Subjects

Since my primary objective was for my own enjoyment, I chose subjects that already emotionally impacted me. Then I attempted compositions that give our scanning eyes a satisfying pathway. There are traditional patterns for that (emphasizing intersection points on a tic-tac-toe grid is one), but such recipes have to be adjusted a little when dealing with real and familiar places.

Further Thoughts

From very early, I was involved with my mother's art and my father's photography. I spent many hours with assignments in my mother's studio and father's darkroom, almost always wishing I was playing baseball instead. (“You won't play baseball through the rest of your life, but art and photography and music . . . .” They were correct.) So both the etching image and its process seemed not so foreign to me. The etching process was a precursor to photography, many centuries earlier. When I decided it was time to etch, the acid tray fittingly sat in my own darkroom, on the kitchen table of my childhood.

My eventually pausing my etching project took place at the same time that our telephone moved to my pocket. And shortly afterward we bought our first desktop computer. And then a digital camera, which cued the end of my darkroom. And then came the internet. Almost everything seems to have moved from analog to digital in form, and multitasking is the rule rather than the exception.

Where does that leave etching and etchings? The process is not one that lends itself to multitasking, and that is an understatement. Outcome and safety depend on deliberate care and concentration. So I do not know the answer to that question, except that involving oneself in the etching process now probably requires a “going apart,” escaping the madcap rush of life, and avoiding random distractions. Hmm, that sounds attractive – and it would cost less than a therapist or a mindfulness retreat!