Don Messec: Making Art Safely, Part 2
24 May, 2011 by
Don Messec: Making Art Safely, Part 2
Jon Cone

My second day of working with Don Messec of Making Art Safely (see Part 1 by clicking here) was intended to be used to determine if Piezography inks can bring anything unique to his photopolymer gravure process. But, it would also include consumption of mass quantities of smoked salmon tacos and meeting some talented and interesting friends and students of Don.

Photopolymer gravure is a rather new printmaking process that combines modern UV actuated polymers with a very old tradition of photo intaglio printmaking. Gravure is a process that has traditionally meant different things to different printmakers.

For example, I was a gravure printmaker for more than a decade. I used Fox Talbot’s dust grain aquatint gravure method to make prints for artists and photographers. If you recall your history of Photography, Fox Talbot is credited as being one of the early inventors of Photography. He also developed a process in which he could fix images on copper using finely ground asphaltum as a method in which biting the plate would produce tone by virtue of the asphaltum preventing the open-bite. Ink needs something rough to cling to.

Perhaps, explaining the gravure process I used to do will give a better understanding of what gravure is or can be – and then I can explain what others have brought to the table – and finally what Don Messec is bringing.

Jon Cone and Eric Great-Rex from the back cover of the 1997 Real Arts exhibition catalogue. Eric and I made photogravures for artists at Cone Editions Press in Portchester from 1984 – 1989. In 1997, we collaborated again on a digital exhibition in NYC with a group of painters and photographers.

In the early 1980s while I was teaching printmaking at SUNY Purchase, NY, I met British printmaker Eric Great-Rex. Eric was a Fulbright Scholarship printmaker who was doing research at SUNY. When Eric came to America, he had been influenced by Jon Goodman (a gravure printmaker), and Eric was working at that time almost exclusively with the Talbot method of aquatint photogravure. I’m half English and Eric and I became immediate best friends for life.

I invited Eric to come work at Cone Editions Press in Port Chester, NY. I wanted to see what we could do with this medium if we applied it to the painters and sculptors that I was publishing at the time. Eric was working with both hand painted mylars and photographic positives. At Cone Editions we would work initially with hand painted and drawn mylars which would serve as replacements for the film positives. Photogravure without the photograph!

The process involves taking carbon tissue and sensitizing it with dichromate which can then be exposed to a film positive to hold a latent image. This exposed tissue is adhered to a sheet of highly polished copper and the paper backing is removed leaving a varying amount of carbon tissue emulsion behind. Because this emulsion is hydroscopic, it can be bitten in various dilutions of ferric chloride to which some water has been added. In this manner, the ferric chloride (a strong alkaline as opposed to a strong acid) can be used to bite tone into the copper plate. Those areas of the copper which have little carbon tissue emulsion adhering to it will receive the most biting and produce the deepest blacks when later inked. Those areas of the copper that have very thick emulsion adhering to them are bitten later in the ferric chloride solutions which have greater concentrations of water.

Because an acid or mordant working directly on copper will bite it down leaving only smooth copper in its wake – some form of intermittent blocking out the bite is required in order to create tone – by leaving crevices behind (which will cling to the ink) rather than smooth copper which will not allow ink to cling to it.

I happened to use aquatint as a method to create crevices. Others use a very fine (but mechanical) half-tone screen which is the more popular method. I prefer aquatint for both historical and more importantly, aesthetic reasons. Eric and I built an enormous aquatint box in which we used a compressor to blow the fine resin dust about in a very high chamber. After the larger particles fell back to the bottom of the box, the copper plate with the dried emulsion could be slipped into the chamber and millions of tiny resin particles would slowly fall covering it in a very fine powder. This powdered resin was later melted onto the copper plate by resting it on a hot plate or using a propane torch under it, in order to produce a ground through which the ferric chloride could bite the copper – producing a fine continuous tone.

After biting the copper plate, the emulsion was removed from the plate – a rough copper image of the positive was left behind which could be inked, wiped and printed in the intaglio etching method through an etching press to transfer the ink to damp printmaking paper.

Aquatint photogravure etching by David Humphey, published by Cone Editions Press in 1987. The mylar positive was hand painted. A spit-bite inset plate in red was used. Two additional silkscreen printings of white are included.

What Cone Editions brought to this process was using mylars rather than photo positives. I gave mylars to many of the painters and sculptors that I worked with in the 1980s and they painted and drew on these. I essentially started off making etchings with these artists by producing an aquatint photogravure plate – which they could then further work with spit bite, hard ground, white ground, dry point, whatever….. The artists which I worked with at the time and who made prints with me using this method include Lester Johnson, Wolf Kahn, Willy Heeks, David Humphrey and Emily Cheng. With Carole Seberovski, we produced a series of aquatint photogravures from tissue which she had worked with charcoal and eraser – rather than film positives that had been painted or drawn.

Later in the 1990s, I would work with photographers and this method. I had to steel plate all of these fine gravure copper plates in order to extend their life past a few impressions. The copper was too soft to take the enormous pressure required to extend the dynamic range of tone. I set up an amazing electroplating system using a huge sheet of pure steel that I had imported from Sweden (and now forms the ramp to my motorcycle studio at the back of my house).

1987 digital aquatint photogravure by David Humphey, published by Cone Editions Press in an edition of only 10.

One of the early digital prints I made in 1987 with David Humphrey, was from a linotron film output of a Superpaint drawing from a Macintosh computer. However, after making photogravure plates here in Vermont and teaching the process in workshops from 1990 – 1992, I simply became too ill to continue using solvents in printmaking.

Incidentally, I met Paul Taylor (another gravure printmaker) only a few years ago when he agreed to come and pick up 15 gallons of blue label ferric chloride that I had kept in my basement since 1992. Paul uses Piezography inks to make his fine film positives for his copper aquatint photogravures.

In Photopolymer gravure – copper plates are no longer used. Ferric chloride is no longer used. Instead a UV sensitive polymer is adhered to sheet metal. These can be made by hand, or purchased pre-made. This polymer can be exposed by a strong UV source through a film positive and “developed” in water to leave polymer material behind that can catch ink and  be printed. However, the same problem of open biting is present… A fine (but mechanical) half-tone screen can be used to initially expose the plate to prevent open biting…or the film positive itself can contain a screening of the image.

What Don Messec is bringing to the table is a one exposure method so that a film positive already contains the necessary screening – and he is doing this with the simple method of allowing the Epson black ink only dither to print a digital image on clear film. The dithering at his settings is fine enough to appear non-mechanical and very much instead as a fine aquatint. And he does so in a 100% non-toxic process which I find necessary (from a health perspective) and appealing (from a I sit on my own water and septic system).

So, we wanted to see what Piezography inks and the QTR various dithering patterns might bring to the table. I sent ahead an Epson 2880 printer and five sets of my refillable cartridges. If you read my blog, you should know by now that the Epson 2880 is my development platform and that it shares it’s QTR curve structure with a range of Epson Pro printers – making it ideal to work with in a fluid and fast manner during development. I sent the new opaque WN Black shade 1 and Selenium shades 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 4.5, 5 & 6.

Using the QTR Calibration Mode, we printed 21 step density strips to determine at which density and at which ink dilution, Piezography inks might be useful for Don’s process. We found that a few of the dilutions – namely shades 1, 2, 2.5, & 3 are of interest when the dpi and dithering correspond to produce a good bite. And we also noted by finding this out, that Don and my collaboration together can only have just possibly started. I will need to make QTR curves – and Don will need to conduct experiments on his end – and the discoveries we may make – or the new ink formulations we may decide to produce together – are going to be a long process – and hopefully a long friendship.

Peter Ellzey used to make Don Messec’s digital film outputs for many years. Now he’s working with Grant Kalvoda at Peter came to lunch and to see how Don and I were working with the Piezography inks and the photopolymer gravure.

Don almost exclusively works in natural light. There is electricity in the studio of course. But Don chooses not to consume more energy than necessary. The Santa Fe sun and a window make an excellent light table to examine the differences in Piezography inks and QTR dithering patterns and do sizes.

This photopolymer plate was produced from a particularly good looking Piezography QTR film. We can already see the open bite in many of the patches.

Inking with 50% carbon black and 50% transparency will reveal much. I can already see many of the patches are displaying open bite through the ink.

After wiping the plate, clearly many of the inks print with too much density to produce any tone (because of open bite). Dithering is essential. But of course – in the right amounts!

The first test printed! While it does not look like much is happening – a world of information is just printed that will allow me to begin curve making! There actually is a lot there to work with. It just needs to be distributed correctly.

If Don were not smiling, I would be worried…those few patches that held ink – held it beautifully.

The film output at the bottom, a print taken from the plate made from the film output in the middle. At the top is the printing plate.

Now on to food. As many of you know, I consider myself a much better cook than I do a developer of monochromatic ink technologies or digital printmaking. I divide my time between working in the studio and cooking. I print to eat. How I stay fit and trim undoubtedly gives proof to the existence of miracles. New Mexico of course is a land of miracles and chile. Chile is of course, an addictive and pleasurable material that humans have been consuming for 1000s of years.

New Mexico chile is of course – one of the world’s most tastiest. If you measure your chile by taste rather than heat – New Mexico can win 9 times out of 10. We visited El Santuario de Chimayó, which is a Catholic church in the small village of Chimayó, known for its miracle dirt. The chamber in which the dirt is housed was filled with hundreds of discarded crutches and walkers that were no longer needed by the recipients of miracles. They had walked 150 miles to the church on an annual pilgrimage which has been occurring for more than a century. The lands surrounding this church is where the famous Chimayó chile is grown.

I happened to buy a huge supply of air dried chile – the best way of drying chile. What I will do with this chile remains to be seen. Although I have already marinated chicken for grilling in powdered red chile, lemon, lime and orange (yum!) and have made several breakfast concoctions with powdered green chile! Those who intimately know my pork shoulder can expect something amazing soon!

But, while working with Don, I got to eat the #3 burger on the New York Times 10 best hamburgers list: a Bobcat Bite Green Chili burger – all 10 oz of it, smothered in fresh New Mexico green chile. And just outside of Chimayó, I ate a lunch of tender flank fajitas with red Chimayó chile. The entire visit to New Mexico was me and chile: carne adovada (pork drowning in buckets of red chile) as medicinal as it is addictive; breakfast burritos smothered in green or red chile; breakfast quesadillas with homemade chorizo (made with NM chile); soft corn tacos; hmmmmmmm.

The Bobcat Bite green chile hamburger.

The Bobcat Bite green chile hamburger – stacked and ready to go. The burger comes on a bed of light potato chips which catch all the drippings.

The Bobcat Bite green chile hamburger – for me…cooked to perfection. They have seven temperatures at which you can order. Mine was not nearly at the bottom of coolness. Apparently they will just kiss the grill with it if you ask.

The highlight however, was the amazing smoked salmon lunch that Don cooked up at his studio. This is the lox and bagels of New Mexico cuisine. Fresh smoked salmon on warm corn tortillas with lemons as sweet as sugar, cilantro, cucumbers and tomatoes, and a liberal splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. No chile! So refreshing. So good. So addictive. And finished off with buckets of chocolate. How else would one want to spend the afternoon in a perfect Santa Fe spring day?

Marica, a student of Don, starts off the cookout by heating very good, local soft corn tortillas.

Don gets into the tortilla thing as guests begin consuming more and more smoked salmon tacos.

Don has a rule…only make tacos when the tortillas are warm. It’s a good and proper rule!

Don shows how it’s done. By the way, those wine bottles contain balsamic vinegar and olive oil. A thumb to seal, a shake, and then a splash…

Grant Kalvoda shows up! Grant assisted me in an insane demonstration of color management at PMA 2005 in Orlando, Fla where he and I got 500 people to simultaneously calibrate their displays. Grant works out of in Santa Fe, supplying all the Pro needs of the area. He has a lot of knowledge and experience.

My taco – a good student, I learn to stack it properly…but these lemons! sweetest I ever had – and not Meyers…

Steve Zeifman’s taco – a work of art! Steve owns and operates Rush Creek Editions in Santa Fe. He produced the amazing print exhibition by photographer Jamey Stillings which was on exhibit at PhotoEye in Santa Fe. 
Don Messec: Making Art Safely, Part 2
Jon Cone
24 May, 2011
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