Waiting for the Elan


I spent this week in the print studio at the Woodstock School of Art. I finally freed up a significant block of time and a partner to print a lithograph that had been sitting on a stone for about 6 months. Sometimes you have to wait longer than you think for the right time to finally arrive. A traditional lithograph is an image drawn with greasy crayons and tusche on a block of Solnhofen limestone found primarily in Bavaria. The stone itself, when properly etched, relies upon the mutual repulsion of grease and water allowing it to be perfectly suited to printing. In the twentieth century, metal plates were introduced but for anyone who has worked on the stone there is no comparison. Not to say that the stone is any easier to work with, in fact, because each stone has its own peculiar characteristics it is much more unpredictable. Yet, to draw on a finely grained stone is wonderful and challenging.

There is this moment when you are about to etch a piece that you wish you could just keep the drawing permanently on the stone without going through the difficult process of etching and printing and the possibility of failure. It is more intense the more satisfied you are with the image. One needs an adventurous spirit. There are two etches that need to be executed. One directly on the drawing materials and one on the inked image. The most difficult is the first etch. Too much acid and you will erase the drawing and too little acid the image will become filled in and dark. Finding the right balance only comes through experience. Each artist draws a specific way and each stone has its own character.  Merging the two, through experience and a lot of luck, is paramount. My only consolation is that I have taken rigorous notes over the years and I compare previous images with the one I am working on presently.

prints drying
prints drying

Once the stone has been etched properly it is time to print. Achieving the bon a tier, that is the best print on which all subsequent prints will be compared, is the most satisfying part of the process. As you remove each print from the stone you wait for that elan, that “yes” this is the one- this says what I desired from the beginning. The elan is where you recognize for the first time the power of the image and its ability to speak. And you know it when you see it. The next challenge is trying to get the subsequent prints to reflect it as close as possible.

rolling ink on the stone
rolling ink on the stone

As I said every image and every stone is different so applying the ink can vary from let us say 6 passes to 12 passes. My images tend to take more rolls than any one would like to perform. So I was much surprised on the first day of printing that I only had to do 9 rolls. Amazing! I was able to get my bon a tier in three prints and subsequently, five more good prints. But as the temperature rose in the studio, so did my frustration. The heat and humidity of the day started to affect the stone. Slowly the image started to loose its sharpness and refuse to take ink. I stopped and decided to yet etch it for a third time to sharpen it and stabilize it in the hope that I did not loose it altogether. The unpredictability of the printing process is hard to accept. There is much that is out of your control.

image on the wet stone

Approaching the stone on the second day, I was not certain I would have any satisfactory results. When I began the inking with 9 rolls, I knew I would need more but I was surprised that the final count would be 20 rolls! I’m glad I had breakfast because once you begin it is too difficult to stop when the printing is going well. It took from10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to print the last 10 prints. The image “Reverie” is a 15 print series. That’s about all my arms could take. But the anticipation felt in the process and that deep feeling of elan are indescribable and make the process well worth it.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

0 thoughts on “Waiting for the Elan”

  1. Beautiful print, the background shapes and their rhythms with the pose are very evocative of reverie to me. Great description of the printing processes sounds exciting and nerve wracking.

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