FOULBITTEN — the art of galvanic etching

The Process

Etching copper is an art form that dates back to the Renaissance.  In its hey day, the resulting plates were used to pull prints for a variety of texts, and it is these images we know as etchings.

The Image

All of the images are taken from the public domain.   They’re selected from a wide variety of sources, but the themes all tend to point towards Memento Mori.  Death, decay, obsolescence all contain their own strange beauty. There’s a digital element to the prepped image, including clean up, mirroring, and color inversion, all to meet the needs of the next step.

The Resist

Once the image is prepared, it’s laser-printed on a high temperature transparency film, the kind used on old overhead projectors.  Using nothing more than an iron and an electric skillet purchased at the local thrift store, I transfer the image to the copper plate.  This step seems to be aided by several as-yet-to-be-determined factors, such as humidity, phase of the moon, and which foot I’m standing on when I do it.  It’s tricky, and I’m a perfectionist, so the plate isn’t deemed ready for the etch until I’m happy with it, which can take two or three tries.

The Etch

Once the resist has been examined closely and deemed worthy, the rest of the plate is covered in duct tape, and the wire lead is attached to the back.  All areas of the plate not to be etched are covered and any gaps are sealed.

My process is not as toxic or dangerous as the original Renaissance techniques.  I use a saturated solution of distilled water and pure sea salt in a simple plastic tank.   The solution is reusable multiple times, and it’s only necessary to change it once every few months.  The plate is suspended just a few centimeters from another copper plate, and the battery leads are attached.  The plate with the resist becomes the cathode, and the blank plate is the anode.  The electrical current travels through the salt water solution from the cathode to the anode, taking copper ions with it as it goes.  Science!

The Finishing Touches

Once the plate has been in the etch for long enough, the leads are detached and the resist is removed.  The etch bath is rinsed away and the plate is cleaned with acetone.  The etched image is then painted over and re-polished to bring out the amazing details.  Each piece is oxidized or patinated, and then sealed with a museum grade wax to prevent further corrosion.  Sometimes, the plate is left unprotected with the sole purpose of letting the copper decide what its final form will be.

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