Art – The Technique Of Other Vehicles Of Expression

A BRIEF description of some of the other vehicles of expression will make this summary of technical processes sufficiently complete for our purpose.

Distemper is the material used nowadays in what is commonly and erroneously called fresco painting—the tinting of plaster walls and ceilings. Dry powdered color is mixed for use with glue water as a binder. It is the medium in which the scene painter works. It is very ready and rapid, and vast surfaces are quickly covered; a good scene painter will knock off a back-drop thirty or forty feet square in three or four days.

For water-color painting the colors come either in little tubes or china pans. Water is used to dissolve them to such a consistency that they may be used in a brush. The pigments are of different weights and degrees of fineness in grinding, some being made of mineral, others of vegetable, substances, and still others of chemical derivatives, and the particles of powder deposit themselves on the paper in ways peculiar to each. While the colored powder is fresh and wet it looks much darker and more brilliant than when dry, and the painter must, therefore, allow at all times for this change and know the characteristics of his pigments so well that he may make them do his will. There are two general methods of painting in water-color, transparent and opaque; in the one, the color is used as a transparent wash on white paper which supplies the white necessary for dilution; in the other, an opaque white pigment made of zinc—Chinese White—renders the mixture opaque, the white pigment supplying that required, as in oil-painting. The brushes used are usually round, of sable or of camel’s hair; flat bristle or hair brushes are preferred by some painters, and give a distinctive character to the work done with them.

Miniatures are very small paintings in oil or water-color upon wood, parchment, ivory, or other surfaces. Modern miniatures and indeed the best of the older ones are painted upon ivory in water-color. A true miniature is never more than three or four inches square at the utmost; when larger it ceases to have that precious and jewel-like quality which is one of its greatest charms. While it requires exquisite skill of hand and eye to paint at so small a scale, a miniature must not be confused in kind with those mere miracles of patience exemplified by the cherry-stone carved with one hundred and forty distinguishable heads. Though small in scale and compass they are susceptible of great breadth of treatment as well as great delicacy.

A monotype is, as the name implies, a single impression, on a piece of paper, of a painting done in oil-color on a sheet of glass or metal. When well done it is very interesting and distinctive in character. The painting is made in very thin pigment to avoid spreading when printed, and the brush strokes and handling are made to play an important part in the final effect. A piece of paper is dampened and laid over the painting and a roller passed over the back of the paper. The pressure transfers the paint to the paper and the dampness prevents the oil in the paint from spreading and staining the margins. It is a fascinating process and a pleasant relaxation from more serious work, because there are so many accidents, some happy, some the reverse. Sometimes the most carefully made monotype is a complete failure and the one dashed off with no especial care is a great success. Some painters touch up their impressions afterward, but this is not true monotype technique.

Pastels are colored powders made up into sticks with a binder of glue or gum-water, in varying degrees of softness and hardness. The painter draws with them upon paper, cardboard, or canvas, and upon surfaces specially prepared with fine sand or felt. The most exquisite things have been done in them. They are dainty and delicate and demand a dainty and delicate technique. Chardin’s paintings in pastel are famous and have all the solidity and strength of oils. Whistler, on the other hand, made pastels of the most fragile and tenuous nature. Pastel paintings are perishable, not because they fade, for they are remarkably durable in that sense, but because the powder may be so easily shaken or jarred off the surface to which it is applied. They must be carefully kept under glass, and gently handled. When fixatif is applied, in the effort to keep the powder fast, the freshness which is one of the beauties of the medium disappears, and the drawing takes on the dull and flat quality of a painting in distemper.

An etching is an impression of a drawing either scratched in a plate of copper or zinc with a strong steel needle, or bitten in with acid; thick ink is then rubbed into the incised lines; the plate is wiped off, put in a special press; and printed on dampened paper under great pressure. When the lines are bitten in with acid, the impression is called an etching. When they are scratched into the metal with a tool, and no acid used, the print is called a dry-point.

To make a dry-point, the drawing, or the principal lines of it, is made either directly upon the copper, or upon paper and transferred. Some artists darken the plate so that they may readily see the scratched-in lines. The cutting tool, known under the generic name of needle, raises a burr along every line which takes the ink and gives a certain blur and richness to the line when printed. The skilful etcher makes this burr play an important part in his technique.

To make an etching, the copper is coated with a kind of varnish, very thin, but impermeable by the acid, and blackened by passing a smoky wax taper across the face. The drawing is then made with the etching-needle which scratches through the coating of varnish and leaves the surface of the copperplate exposed. When the drawing is complete, the plate is coated on the back and edges with the grounding varnish and is immersed in a shallow tray of dilute nitric acid which eats into the copper. When the lines which are to be the lightest and finest in the print are bitten deep enough, the plate is removed from the acid bath, washed thoroughly in clean water, and these lightest lines painted over with a brush dipped in stopping-out varnish. Then the plate is put back in the bath to be bitten again for the lines that are to be the next darkest; washed; that series of lines stopped out; and this process continued until the darkest lines have been, by a series of immersions in the acid, bitten quite deep. If a line is wrong, or if an imperfection in the coating has perimitted the acid to attack the plate, the copper is scraped away with the offending line or spot in it, the plate turned over on a soft pad, the back of it struck so as to restore the level of the surface on the right side, and the place repolished, made perfect again, and that portion of the plate re-etched. When all the lines are etched to a point where the etcher’s experience tells him they are about right, he cleans off the coating, polishes the plate with whiting, and it is ready to ink and print.

By another process the plate is immersed so that a shallow film of very weak acid covers it. Those lines and portions which are to be darkest in the print are drawn first and then the lighter ones in their proper succession. The acid begins to act at once so that the first lines drawn are quite deeply bitten by the time the last and lightest are begun. This, as may be imagined, requires great powers of visualization and immense skill.

The process of printing is the same for dry-points and etchings. The ink, a thick ink of brownish black tone as a rule, is spread on a slab and with a pad like a ball is transferred to the plate and worked thoroughly into the etched or scratched lines. Some etchers use the ball of the thumb for this, as a more sensitive implement. Then the plate is wiped—one of the most delicate steps in the process, for a great deal of the effect of the impression depends upon it. Some men like a cleanly wiped plate and depend solely upon the lines for effect. Others leave a film of ink over most of the plate, frequently heavier at the corners. Resort is had also to retroussage: the plate being warmed and the thus softened ink lifted out of the grooves of the lines a little with a piece of soft gauze, the effect is to soften the lines and blur them a trifle. In dry-points the plate is so inked that the burr is made a great deal of.

The plate inked, it is then put on the bed of the press, the dampened paper laid over it and covered with two or three heavy felt or woollen blankets. The etcher seizes one of the long arms which radiate from the hub of the roller and, pulling it over, the bed of the press is caused to pass under the rollers–which may be adjusted to any degree of pressure—the blankets turned back, the paper removed. The pressure is enormous, and has forced the damp paper into the etched grooves and the ink in them has been transferred to the paper. The etcher examines the impression with critical care, and then begins a series of rebitings, of lightening or darkening portions or single lines, with trial proofs taken until he feels he can do no more to improve it. In exhibitions of etchings the student may often see impressions catalogued as “first state,” “second state,” and so on. These are some of the trial proofs of which we speak, and are of absorbing interest to those who love etchings.

Steel engravings and copperplate engravings are made on steel or copper plates, with a tool called a burin, which cuts a clean groove in the metal. The steel plates are then hardened; and prints are made somewhat as etchings are printed, except that the plate is wiped clean.

In mezzotint engraving a toothed rocker of steel is passed over a copper plate in all directions in such a manner as to roughen it all over equally and create a burr. The grain so made is cut and burnished away. The engraver works from dark to light by removing the grain to a greater or lesser degree, the untouched grain giving approximately black; pure white is secured by scraping the grain entirely away. Line is dispensed with, and only masses, with gradations of light and shade, are aimed at.

The wood engraver cuts away those portions of the surface which he does not want to receive the ink, leaving the lines which are to be printed in relief. Boxwood, a very hard substance, is the usual surface. The subject is drawn or photographed on the wood first and then patiently engraved. The cut is inked with a roller as type is inked. When a great many impressions are required, metal electrotypes are made of the block, and these are used to print from instead of the precious wood block. The Japanese print is a woodcut, separate blocks made for the lines of the drawing, and for each color. The Japanese use the face grain of a board very often in these color blocks for the sake of the texture the grain gives. In the boxwood blocks referred to above, the end grain of the wood is used.

Akin to woodcuts in principle are linoleum block prints. The linoleum, plain linoleum like that on kitchen floors, is fastened to a board, the drawing made upon it or transferred to it, and the linoleum cut away with small gouges such as wood-carvers use. It is inked with a roller, with printer’s ink or oil paint, and printed by passing a printer’s hand roller over the back of the dampened paper. Separate blocks are used for the drawing and for each color as in Japanese prints.

A lithograph is a print, in a greasy lithographic ink, from a drawing made with ink or crayon, upon a fine-grained lime-stone having a peculiar affinity for grease. This property of the stone was discovered by accident in 1719 by a man named Senefelder who thereupon invented and developed the processes still in use. These processes are many and complicated—far too complex to attempt to describe here with any degree of clarity. It must suffice to say that a drawing is made either upon the stone, or upon a specially prepared paper and transferred to the stone, with greasy lithographic ink or crayon, and after etching the stone with acid, and treating it with gum-water, the stone may be inked with a roller. Those parts of the stone which have received the grease of the drawing will take the ink and the rest of the wet surface refuse it. The impression is made in a special press. It is a cheap and rapid method of reproducing very complicated designs in black and white or colors, from labels on cans to theatrical posters of great size, and has perhaps fallen into disrepute with artists on that account.

But it is an art which combines great power with the extreme of delicacy, rich velvety blacks and exquisite silvery greys; and in every generation men have been found who produced beautiful things in it—Isabey, Bonington, Roberts, Gavarni, Ropps, Whistler.