Virtue was born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1947. He trained at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1965 to 1969. In 1971 he moved to Green Haworth, near Oswaldtwistle, painting landscapes for two years before abandoning painting in favour of pen and ink drawings comprising dense networks of lines akin to the work of Samuel Palmer.
From 1978 he worked as a postman, giving this up in 1985 to work as a full-time artist. He lived in Devon from 1988–2004.
Maintaining a studio in Exeter, he produced works around the Exe estuary, before being offered the post of Associate Artist at the National Gallery. This scheme engages contemporary artists to produce work that “connects to the National Gallery Collection” and demonstrates “the continuing inspiration of the Old Master tradition”.
Virtue uses only black and white on his work as he sees colour as “unnecessary distraction”. He uses shellac black ink and white paint.
He is well known for his “London Paintings” which were displayed in The National Gallery and focused on the London skyline, using easily distinguishable landmarks from the capital such as the Gherkin, the NatWest Tower and St. Paul’s Cathedral, to familiarise his audience with the otherwise hazy, smoggy and ambiguous drawings.
Virtue’s awards include: first prize in the Sunday Mirror painting competition (1964), Walter Neurath prize for painting awarded by Thames & Hudson Publishers (1966), Arts Council Major Award (1981), Joint First prize-winner in the 4th Tolly Cobbold Exhibition (1983), and Best Visual Artist in the South Bank Awards (2006).
His work during his National Gallery tenure was exhibited in 2005 at the National Gallery and Courtauld Institute, and his final, large-scale, London works were exhibited at the University of Plymouth in 2007.He moved to Italy to work and returned in 2009 to live in North Norfolk. where he has continued to produce work, for example, ‘The Sea’ exhibitions[
From these I did a first series of prints using mostly foamboard. I found that when I tried to combine foamboard and softfoam it was difficult to register the image because softfoam changes size quite dramatically when it goes under the press. It is also difficult to draw on first because it is so soft so the slightest mark will show. The main technique that is possible is to start with softfoam and then do a print onto the foamboard. Then work with the foamboard making marks where needed from the impression. Then clean the ink off before re-inking. But it still only works if you do hand printing, if you want to use the softfoam again. It also only really works with water-based inks that dry quickly and rather unpredictably.
I also found using too many colours made things very messy – as this was a colour project, I decided to simplify things and use only softfoam. I found that when I cropped the prints below, some of them made more effective images – inspiration for further prints later. It would have been difficult to predict the effect through thumbnails because so much depended on the precise effects of the ink. It is very difficult to see where the ink is drying more quickly and so what prints and what does not – part of the joy but also frustration of the medium. These were the prints I sent to my tutor. But I was not very happy with them – more a work in progress to continue later than anything finished.
So I started again with a different set of sketches, again based on a photo. I used only foamboard and a limited palette, building up the tonal colours. I continued to use Caligo water-based ink but I chose to work with thin Hosho paper to increase the misty effect and also to make sensitive hand-printing easier.
Because this was a series and I was using only one plate, I chose my colours and sequencing very carefully – starting with yellow ochre and brown, then going to blue. I was also able to alter my wiping out and some of the details as I progressed. But how much the ink was drying and where as I worked remained a bit upredictable.
I first used it for the Japanese landscape series ‘Stepping Stones’ in Printmaking 1. I really like the hazy effects.I used one softfoam plate inking several sheets with the same layer, but re-inking with different shades of a similar colour – starting with yellows then going to browns and then blues to produce a range of different prints. Although using softfoam in this way limits the amount of colour contrast that is possible, it does build up beautiful subtle tone and colour variation.
The focus of the assignment was on contrasting markmaking – I combined wiping out for the stones, scratching out with a screwdriver for the bamboos. I also used a drypoint tool on its side and with its point to get a range of different marks. A key issue though was how to make the stones recede into the background through making the outlines and contrast reduce in sharpness towards the back. I managed to achieve a range of dramatic contrasts in the marks from soft edged stones to very fine lines and bold sweeping lines.
2015. Softfoam and Schminke water soluble ink on thin Japanese paper.
2015. Softfoam and Schminke water soluble ink on thin Japanese paper.
2015. Softfoam and Schminke water soluble ink on thin Japanese paper.
2015 Drypoint on Zinc. Gives much more detail control.
2015. Drypoint on card. Much easier to incise, Gives more cartoo-type style with less variation of line and tone. Unless combined with cutting out parts of the plate.
Drypoint is an intaglio technique in which an image is incised into a plate (or “matrix”) with a hard-pointed “needle” of sharp metal or diamond point. In principle the method is practically identical to engraving. The difference is in the use of tools, and that the raised ridge along the furrow is not scraped or filed away as in engraving. It enables combination of dynamic lines, including very fine lines, with tonal and textural effects.
Traditionally the plate was copper, but now acetate, zinc, or plexiglas are also commonly used. Drypoint technique of using the needle is like using a pencil.
Any sharp object can theoretically be used to make a drypoint, as long as it can be used to carve lines into metal. Dentistry tools, nails, and metal files can all be used to produce drypoints. However, certain types of needles are created specifically for drypoints:
Diamond-tipped needles carve easily through any metal and never need sharpening, but they are expensive.
Carbide-tipped steel needles can also be used to great effect, and are cheaper than diamond-tipped needles, but they need frequent sharpening to maintain a sharp point. Steel needles were traditionally used.
The lines produced by printing a drypoint are formed by the burr thrown up at the edge of the incised lines, in addition to the depressions formed in the surface of the plate. A larger burr, formed by a steep angle of the tool, will hold a lot of ink, producing a characteristically soft, dense line that differentiates drypoint from other intaglio methods such as etching or engraving which produce a smooth, hard-edged line.
The size or characteristics of the burr usually depend not on how much pressure is applied, but on the angle of the needle.
A perpendicular angle will leave little to no burr, while the smaller the angle gets to either side, the larger the burr pileup.
The deepest drypoint lines leave enough burr on either side of them that they prevent the paper from pushing down into the center of the stroke, creating a feathery black line with a fine, white center.
A lighter line may have no burr at all, creating a very fine line in the final print by holding very little ink.
Printing is essentially the same as for the other intaglio techniques, but extra care is taken to preserve the burr.
Applying the ink: After the image is finished, or at least ready to proof, the artist applies ink to the plate with a dauber. Too much pressure will flatten the burrs and ruin the image.
Wiping the ink: Drypoint wiping techniques vary slightly from other intaglio techniques. Less pressure is applied to achieve desirable lines, because the burrs forming the image are more fragile than etched or engraved lines, but also because the ink rests on the plate surface, instead of pressed down into indentations. Also, because of the characteristics of the way the burrs catch ink, the direction of the wiping matters. Ink tends to pile up in the lee of the burr during the application of the ink and wiping with the tarlatan, so if the printer wipes in the direction of the lines with their hand, they may remove most of the ink, leaving a light gray line. However, if they wipe perpendicularly to the line, they can actually increase the pile of ink on the other side of the line, darkening the printed line.
Once the plate is completely covered with a thin layer, a tarlatan cloth is used to wipe away excess ink, and paper (typically pages from old phone books) may be used for a final wipe of the lightest areas of the image. Some printmakers will use their bare hand instead to wipe these areas.
Once the desired amount of ink is removed, the plate is run through an etching press along with a piece of dampened paper to produce a print. Because the pressure of printing quickly destroys the burr, drypoint is useful only for comparatively small editions; as few as ten or twenty impressions with burr can be made, and after the burr has gone, the comparatively shallow lines will wear out relatively quickly.
Very simple step by step overviews.
2) On plastic. Talks more about ink and ink removal. Using dirty tarlatan removes more ink because oil attracts oil. Don’t press too hard because you are trying to get the ink to bounce off. Make sure to wipe off the edge. Use damp paper. Uses marked Plexiglass for registration. There should be a ridge around the plate if pressure is right.
3) On copper. Discusses different tools and the mark-making process. With examples of different artists. Tones made through stippling, roulettes, mezzotint rocker. Roulettes with a fine tooth create subtle tones. Roulettes with coarse tooth create darker tones. Sandpaper can be used. Steel wool to create subtle tone. Try metal bristle brush.
Etching is done on metal plates that differ both in durability and ease/speed of etching. The type of metal used for the plate impacts the number of prints the plate will produce. The firm pressure of the printing press slowly rubs out the finer details of the image with every pass-through.
Copper is a traditional metal, and is still preferred, for etching, as it bites evenly, holds texture well, and does not distort the color of the ink when wiped. It can produce a few hundred printings of a strongly etched imaged before the degradation is considered too great by the artist. At that point, the artist can manually restore the plate by re-etching it, essentially putting ground back on and retracing their lines; alternatively, plates can be electro-plated before printing with a harder metal to preserve the surface.
Zinc is cheaper. As a softer metal, etching times are shorter, but it does not bite as cleanly as copper does, and it alters some colours of ink. Softness also leads to faster degradation of the image in the press.
Steel is growing in popularity as an etching substrate. Increases in the prices of copper and zinc have steered steel to an acceptable alternative. The line quality of steel is less fine than copper, but finer than zinc. Steel has a natural and rich aquatint.
The plate needs first to be cleaned to be clear from marks and finger prints. With Whiting.
Preparing the plate
The plate is covered with a waxy ground that is resistant to acid. The nature of the ground affects the type of line, possibilities for tonal additions and inking. There are a number of distinct methods.
This gives a sharp and defined line with tone achieved either through different types of cross-hatching and/or differential wiping of the plate.
2017. Hard ground etching with Hawthorne inks on cartridge paper.
2017. Hard ground etching with Hawthorne inks on cartridge paper.
Hard ground can be applied in two ways.
Solid hard ground comes in a hard waxy block. To apply hard ground of this variety, the plate to be etched is placed upon a hot-plate (set at 70 degrees C), a kind of metal worktop that is heated up. The plate heats up and the ground is applied by hand, melting onto the plate as it is applied. The ground is spread over the plate as evenly as possible using a roller. Once applied the etching plate is removed from the hot-plate and allowed to cool which hardens the ground.
Liquid hard ground comes in a can and is applied with a brush upon the plate to be etched. Exposed to air the hard ground will harden. Some printmakers use oil/tar based as hard ground, although often bitumen is used to protect steel plates from rust and copper plates from ageing.
The design is then drawn (in reverse) with an etching-needle or échoppe where want a line to appear in the finished piece, so exposing the bare metal. The échoppe, a tool with a slanted oval section, is also used for “swelling” lines. An “echoppe” point can be made from an ordinary tempered steel etching needle, by grinding the point back on a carborundum stone, at a 45–60 degree angle. The “echoppe” works on the same principle that makes a fountain pen’s line more attractive than a ballpoint’s: The slight swelling variation caused by the natural movement of the hand “warms up” the line, and although hardly noticeable in any individual line, has a very attractive overall effect on the finished plate. It can be drawn with in the same way as an ordinary needle.
The work on the plate can also be added to by repeating the whole process; this creates an etching which exists in more than one state.
Gives a softer line with more variation in thickness, where tone can also be achieved through cross-hatching and shading as in ink drawing, and differential inking.
2017 sketch for soft ground etching.
2017. Drawing trace from plate for soft ground etching.
Hard ground etch.Hard ground etch with Hawthorne ink on cartridge paper. Prussion Blue. pass 2.
Hard ground etch
Hard ground etch.Hard ground etch with Hawthorne ink on cartridge paper. Van Dyke Brown pass 2.
2017.Soft ground etch with Hawthorne ink on cartridge paper. Van Dyke Brown pass 1.
This uses a special softer ground. The artist places a piece of paper (or cloth etc. in modern uses) over the ground and draws on it. The print resembles a drawing.
Soft ground also comes in liquid form and is allowed to dry but it does not dry hard like hard ground and is impressionable. After the soft ground has dried the printmaker may apply materials such as leaves, objects, hand prints and so on which will penetrate the soft ground and expose the plate underneath.
After the ground has hardened the artist “smokes” the plate, classically with 3 beeswax tapers, applying the flame to the plate to darken the ground and make it easier to see what parts of the plate are exposed. Smoking not only darkens the plate but adds a small amount of wax. Afterwards the artist uses a sharp tool to scratch into the ground, exposing the metal.
Aquatint uses acid-resistant resin to achieve tonal effects.
Particulate resin is evenly distributed on the plate using a special box. Resin is hazardous to health and it is important not to inhale.
The plate is then heated to form a screen ground of uniform, but less than perfect, density.
After etching, any exposed surface will result in a roughened (i.e., darkened) surface. Areas that are to be light in the final print are protected by varnishing between acid baths. Successive turns of varnishing and placing the plate in acid create areas of tone difficult or impossible to achieve by drawing through a wax ground.
This gives a more painterly line.
2017. Sugar lift plate with stopping out.
2017 sugar lift etching.
soft ground etch
sugar lift with varied inking of green.
sugar lift with varied inking of green.
sugar lift with varied inking of green.
2017. Sugar lift. Hawthorne inks with varied inking of green.
Designs in a syrupy solution of sugar or Camp Coffee are painted onto the metal surface prior to it being coated in a liquid etching ground or ‘stop out’ varnish. When later the plate is placed in hot water the sugar dissolves and lifts off leaving the image. The plate can then be etched.
Relief etching was invented by William Blake in about 1788, and he has been almost the only artist to use it in its original form. However, from 1880–1950 a photo-mechanical (“line-block”) variant was the dominant form of commercial printing for images. A similar process to etching, but printed as a relief print, so it is the “white” background areas which are exposed to the acid, and the areas to print “black” which are covered with ground. Blake’s exact technique remains controversial. He used the technique to print texts and images together, writing the text and drawing lines with an acid-resistant medium.
Invented in 2006 and yields an image like that of a charcoal drawing:
The plate is then completely submerged in a bath of acid technically called the mordant (French for “biting”) or etchant, or has acid washed over it. Ferric chloride may be used for etching copper or zinc plates, whereas nitric acid may be used for etching zinc or steel plates.
The acid “bites” into the metal (it dissolves part of the metal) where it is exposed, leaving behind lines sunk into the plate. The waxy resist prevents the acid from biting the parts of the plate which have been covered.
The strength of the acid determines the speed of the etching process. Typical solutions are 1 part FeCl3 to 1 part water and 1 part nitric to 3 parts water.
The longer the plate remains in the acid the deeper the “bites” become.
During the etching process the printmaker uses a bird feather or similar item to wave away bubbles and detritus produced by the dissolving process, from the surface of the plate, or the plate may be periodically lifted from the acid bath. If a bubble is allowed to remain on the plate then it will stop the acid biting into the plate where the bubble touches it. Zinc produces more bubbles much more rapidly than copper and steel and some artists use this to produce interesting round bubble-like circles within their prints for a Milky Way effect.
The detritus is powdery dissolved metal that fills the etched grooves and can also block the acid from biting evenly into the exposed plate surfaces. Another way to remove detritus from a plate is to place the plate to be etched face down within the acid upon plasticine balls or marbles, although the drawback of this technique is the exposure to bubbles and the inability to remove them readily.
For aquatinting a printmaker will often use a test strip of metal about a centimetre to three centimetres wide. The strip will be dipped into the acid for a specific number of minutes or seconds. The metal strip will then be removed and the acid washed off with water. Part of the strip will be covered in ground and then the strip is redipped into the acid and the process repeated. The ground will then be removed from the strip and the strip inked up and printed. This will show the printmaker the different degrees or depths of the etch, and therefore the strength of the ink color, based upon how long the plate is left in the acid.
A mixture of nitric acid and/or gum arabic and/or rosin and/or water (or almost never – saliva) is applied to certain areas of the plate with a brush, dripped, spattered or painted onto a metal surface giving interesting results. The plate may be aquatinted for this purpose or exposed directly to the acid.
Cleaning the plate
The plate is removed from the acid and washed over with water to remove the acid. The remaining ground is removed with a solvent such as turpentine. Turpentine is often removed from the plate using methylated spirits since turpentine is greasy and can affect the application of ink and the printing of the plate.
Foul-bite or “over-biting” is common in etching, and is the effect of minuscule amounts of acid leaking through the ground to create minor pitting and burning on the surface. This incidental roughening may be removed by smoothing and polishing the surface, but artists often leave faux-bite, or deliberately court it by handling the plate roughly, because it is viewed as a desirable mark of the process.
The remaining ground is then cleaned off the plate. The plate is inked all over, and then the ink wiped off the surface, leaving only the ink in the etched lines.
A piece of matte board, a plastic “card”, or a wad of cloth is often used to push the ink into the incised lines.
Oil based etching inks
Akua inks – don’t find these too good.
The surface is wiped clean with a piece of stiff fabric known as tarlatan and then wiped with newsprint paper; some printmakers prefer to use the blade part of their hand or palm at the base of their thumb. You may also use a folded piece of organza silk to do the final wipe.
If copper or zinc plates are used, then the plate surface is left very clean and therefore white in the print. If steel plate is used, then the plate’s natural tooth gives the print a grey background similar to the effects of aquatinting. As a result, steel plates do not need aquatinting as gradual exposure of the plate via successive dips into acid will produce the same result.
Differential inking eg Rembrandt
The plate is then put through a high-pressure printing press together with a sheet of paper (often moistened to soften it).
The paper picks up the ink from the etched lines, making a print. The process can be repeated many times; typically several hundred impressions (copies) could be printed before the plate shows much sign of wear.
Printing the plate is done by covering the surface with printing ink, then rubbing the ink off the surface with tarlatan cloth or newsprint, leaving ink in the roughened areas and lines. Damp paper is placed on the plate, and both are run through a printing press; the pressure forces the paper into contact with the ink, transferring the image (c.f., chine-collé).
Growing concerns about the health effects of acids and solvents led to the development of less toxic etching methods in the late 20th century. An early innovation was the use of floor wax as a hard ground for coating the plate. Others, such as printmakers Mark Zaffron and Keith Howard, developed systems using acrylic polymers as a ground and ferric chloride for etching. The polymers are removed with sodium carbonate (washing soda) solution, rather than solvents. When used for etching, ferric chloride does not produce a corrosive gas, as acids do, thus eliminating another danger of traditional etching.
The traditional aquatint, which uses either powdered rosin or enamel spray paint, is replaced with an airbrush application of the acrylic polymer hard ground. Again, no solvents are needed beyond the soda ash solution, though a ventilation hood is needed due to acrylic particulates from the air brush spray.
The traditional soft ground, requiring solvents for removal from the plate, is replaced with water-based relief printing ink. The ink receives impressions like traditional soft ground, resists the ferric chloride etchant, yet can be cleaned up with warm water and either soda ash solution or ammonia.
Anodic etching has been used in industrial processes for over a century. The etching power is a source of direct current. The item to be etched (anode) is connected to its positive pole. A receiver plate (cathode) is connected to its negative pole. Both, spaced slightly apart, are immersed in a suitable aqueous solution of a suitable electrolyte. The current pushes the metal out from the anode into solution and deposits it as metal on the cathode. Shortly before 1990, two groups working independently developed different ways of applying it to creating intaglio printing plates.
In the patented Electroetch system, invented by Marion and Omri Behr, in contrast to certain nontoxic etching methods, an etched plate can be reworked as often as the artist desires.The system uses voltages below 2 volts which exposes the uneven metal crystals in the etched areas resulting in superior ink retention and printed image appearance of quality equivalent to traditional acid methods. With polarity reversed the low voltage provides a simpler method of making mezzotint plates as well as the “steel facing”copper plates.
Some of the earliest printmaking workshops experimenting with, developing and promoting nontoxic techniques include Grafisk Eksperimentarium, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Edinburgh Printmakers, in Scotland, and New Grounds Print Workshop, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Light sensitive polymer plates allow for photorealistic etchings. A photo-sensitive coating is applied to the plate by either the plate supplier or the artist. Light is projected onto the plate as a negative image to expose it. Photopolymer plates are either washed in hot water or under other chemicals according to the plate manufacturers’ instructions. Areas of the photo-etch image may be stopped-out before etching to exclude them from the final image on the plate, or removed or lightened by scraping and burnishing once the plate has been etched. Once the photo-etching process is complete, the plate can be worked further as a normal intaglio plate, using drypoint, further etching, engraving, etc. The final result is an intaglio plate which is printed like any other.
Origin and printmakers
Etching by goldsmiths and other metal-workers in order to decorate metal items such as guns, armour, cups and plates has been known in Europe since the Middle Ages at least, and may go back to antiquity.
The process as applied to printmaking is believed to have been invented by Daniel Hopfer (circa 1470–1536) of Augsburg, Germany.
The switch to copper plates was probably made in Italy, and thereafter etching soon came to challenge engraving as the most popular medium for artists in printmaking. Its great advantage was that, unlike engraving where the difficult technique for using the burin requires special skill in metalworking, the basic technique for creating the image on the plate in etching is relatively easy to learn for an artist trained in drawing. On the other hand, the handling of the ground and acid need skill and experience, and are not without health and safety risks, as well as the risk of a ruined plate.
Jacques Callot (1592–1635) from Nancy in Lorraine (now part of France) made important technical advances in etching technique. He developed the échoppe, a type of etching-needle with a slanting oval section at the end, which enabled etchers to create a swelling line, as engravers were able to do.
Callot also appears to have been responsible for an improved, harder, recipe for the etching ground, using lute-makers’ varnish rather than a wax-based formula. This enabled lines to be more deeply bitten, prolonging the life of the plate in printing, and also greatly reducing the risk of “foul-biting”, where acid gets through the ground to the plate where it is not intended to, producing spots or blotches on the image. Previously the risk of foul-biting had always been at the back of an etcher’s mind, preventing too much time on a single plate that risked being ruined in the biting process. Now etchers could do the highly detailed work that was previously the monopoly of engravers, and Callot made full use of the new possibilities.
Callot also made more extensive and sophisticated use of multiple “stoppings-out” than previous etchers had done. This is the technique of letting the acid bite lightly over the whole plate, then stopping-out those parts of the work which the artist wishes to keep light in tone by covering them with ground before bathing the plate in acid again. He achieved unprecedented subtlety in effects of distance and light and shade by careful control of this process. Most of his prints were relatively small—up to about six inches or 15 cm on their longest dimension, but packed with detail.
One of his followers, the Parisian Abraham Bosse, spread Callot’s innovations all over Europe with the first published manual of etching, which was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English.