Etching

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It’s been a while since I’ve etched. After spending years making chunky, splodgy lino cuts at home – Christmas cards, birthday cards – it was the intricacy and delicacy of etched lines that lured me to the printmaking studio. A weekend course back in 2008 got me utterly hooked on the process of metal etching. I loved it even more than I expected. Beginning with a blank piece of shining metal, passing it through a series of messy steps; sponging, wiping, smearing, scraping, heating, polishing, dunking, drying, dipping.

The most satisfying part comes with the slow turn of the ancient, enormous iron press. I feel connected to all those printers before me who for hundreds of years have turned this same handle, rotated the well-oiled gears and cogs, and watched as the print bed slowly glides through the mangle (is it called a mangle? I’m not even sure, but that’s what it looks like to me). It’s a moment to stop and contemplate; a moment to hold your breath and imagine that all you’ve done will come good and the print will be all you hope for it.

Then follows the most exciting part. I pull back the blankets and peel back my paper to reveal the picture for the first time. It never fails to amaze me how the process works. That the press produces so much force it squeezes the soft, soaked paper into the tiny, thin lines that the acid has bitten into my plate. You don’t only see etches, you can feel them. The lines are raised bumps where paper and ink have been brought briefly together in the metal recesses.

And so, after too long away from the mess and volatile aromas of the studio, I have come back to etching. My inspiration was a short story and the decision to make a series of prints to give as wedding presents to some of my dearest friends who all got married the same year.

The Distance of the Moon is by Itallo Calvino, one of his Cosmicomics short stories. The stories rest lightly on some aspect of the real world, of science and discovery, but they all set off in far more peculiar directions. This one is a slightly silly story, some say, about people who climb up ladders to visit the moon, which hangs close to earth and is covered in a cheesy, milky substance. With spoons, they scoop this stuff and fling it back to earth.

The passage that instantly captured my imagination involved one character, a young girl, getting stuck in the space between earth and moon, too light to be caught by the gravity of either. With her come all sorts of creatures sucked from earth’s ocean, they flow around her, cling to her skin and cover her dress. Calvino’s description of all these animals cried out to me to be drawn.

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For me the fish were the easiest. Most of them I drew from memory, calling on my many hours underwater as a marine biologist and diver. The hardest part was my human character – I am far less practised at drawing people and wanted to get her expression and mood just right. I hope I have. I wanted her to be dreamy and content, happy to be surrounded by all the fishy life as I think Calvino intended.

Helen Scales
Helen is a writer and broadcaster who is drawn to the life aquatic. She loves sewing dresses, growing veg, and those surprising things you only find by looking carefully. She delights in scene-setting and storytelling.

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