Peter Milton (text image)

The following notes by Peter Milton originally appeared in “Peter Milton / Complete Etchings 1960-1976,” published by Impressions Workshop, Boston, MA, 1977.


Peter Milton - Photo collage of VICTORIA'S CHILDREN47
Photo collage of VICTORIA'S CHILDREN47


Some Notes on My Use of Photographs

By VICTORIA'S CHILDREN47 in 1967, my usual method of developing imagery was to setup a rough collage of photographic material, and then to draw by hand from this collage directly onto the copper plate, much as a painter might paint from a separate first sketch. The ink was India ink mixed with sugar and would later lift through an acid-resistant ground in the manner normal to lift-ground etching as described in the next section. The photographic material was, at first, always my own, enlarged onto transparent high-contrast film to facilitate the collage manipulations. The collage and photographs were never transferred directly to the plate, but served only as a model.

In THE JOLLY CORNER suite, 1969-71,62-82 I improvised more in the actual drawing and often worked without any initial collage, and my source material from which I produced the drawings was mainly reproductions in documentary books of photography. At this point I began to draw on transparent Mylar instead of directly on the plate. When I had drawn them on the Mylar, I would assemble the different drawings into various collages. I would then contact print the collages directly onto the plate, using a light sensitive** ground, as described in the next section. The greater flexibility of this method led me to transfer directly, for the first time, two photographs as small details in III:378 and III:782 of THE JOLLY CORNER, almost as if to demonstrate pedagogically the possibilities of a new medium.

The PASSAGE series developed as a very large improvised drawing on several sheets of Mylar laid one over the other. PASSAGE I85 and II86 came from the early stages of the improvising. PASSAGE III89 and IV90 were collages of the later stages of improvisation, combined with other drawings. Then in PASSAGE 1V90 I borrowed from JULIA PASSING56 by transferring directly a photograph taken of an impression of it; the photograph was a detail, a building very photographic in quality, but which was in fact a trompe l'oeil drawing. I was so delighted with this reversal, that I made it the issue in COLLECTING WITH RUDI92 and THE FIRST GATE.93

THE FIRST GATE93 is a directly transferred collage of MORNINGS WITH JUDD in two formats. First, the intaglio plate 0f M0RNINGS WITH JUDD61 was rolled with a litho ink and press printed onto a sheet of acetate. This negative impression was then contact printed onto high-contrast film, producing a positive. For the second element of the collage I made a direct high-contrast positive from an 8 by 10 photographic negative of MORNINGS,61 and inserted it as a detail in its larger seif. I then turned to PASSAGE IV90 and borrowed the trompe l'oeil drawing positive I had first borrowed from JULIA PASSING56 and combined that with a direct positive taken of an actual building, hoping that my diabolical obfuscations of fact and effect were complete.

The pièce de résistance of this game in THE FIRST GATE93 is the whispering statuary, center right. I first found this image reproduced in a book of French primitive photographs.* If we follow the full history of the image, it goes something like this: a Roman sculptor, following the Greeks, creates a sculpture on a mythological theme, probably using models. In the 19th century, a sculptural reproduction is made of a reduced copy of the piece, which is then photographed by an early French photographer. He prints a positive of his negative, and this print eventually makes an appearance in a 20th century exhibition of 19th century photographs. A catalogue is prepared from the exhibition and the photograph is itself photographed and printed in the catalogue. A gentleman from New York, whom I haven't met, enjoys my work and sends me the catalogue to enjoy. Some time later, I make a drawing from the reproduction in the catalogue and insert it as a detail in my collage from MORNING WITH JUDD,61 already a reproduction of a reproduction. The collage and its whispering detail are contact printed onto a sheet of copper which is then etched and further engraved. Finally the plate is printed and the Roman lovers take their final form as the cycle is completed on a sheet of Italian Murillo (which is then photographed and photoengraved for this catalogue which is printed, and then discussed by me and read by you and . .

To offer this little historical divertissement as particularly significant may seem rather hopeful, but for me it contains curious parallels to the various chains of human cultural history, to the creative transforming process, and to the paths and by-paths of the psychic life itself. I am playing a game, but the game is the point. The multiple links behind the image on the plate not only repeat the multiple nature of the print medium itself, but illustrate the dynamics of recollection, my most essential concern.

By the end of FIRST GATE93 I was enough fascinated by pure photography to throw all hesitation and the Duty to Draw to the winds, and to photo-engrave a collage made entirely of photographs, producing APRIL'S AUGUST.94 But how short-lived this infatuation was. After reintroducing some drawing in the photo-collage stage of CARD HOUSE,95 and a great deal of hand engraving in the last stages, I left optical photography completely with DAYLILIES,96 except to establish the drawing in the center, and to quote wistfully from APRIL'S AUGUST94 in a small detail of sun-drenched children.

The most recent print, A SKY-BLUE LIFE,97 reflects a certain exhaustion with the complex technological demands of the previous pieces, all phases of which I had been doing myself. I felt myself turning inward, as if away from these external preoccupations. Taking the already moderately developed plate of SECOND OPINION,91 itself a variation of PASTORALE58 and FREE FALL,54 and making some fairly extensive preliminary changes, I then proceeded to account for six months' work with no more than the burin and a hand electric engraver.

I have wanted to suggest some of the technical ingredients of my imagery in a broad enough out- line to keep them from being a burden. Since I have something of a metaphorical attitude towards these processes, it seemed worth discussing. One of the prime pleasures available to the printmaker is the complexity of the techniques themselves, for little is more fascinating than to see a process, at first mechanical, suddenly yield an unexpected result. Suffering as I do from a tendency bordering on the puritanical to work at art, I find my reward in the unexpected pleasures of a surprising and mysterious effect, when all the knowns have finally, magically combined, to produce a completely unknown, magical end.

* French Primitive Photography. Philadelphia Museum of Art. 1970.



Notes on My Techniques of Drawing and Plate Making

Aside from the refining, engraving stages, the two procedures with which I have developed my plates are lift-ground etching (1960-70) and light sensitive** ground etching (1970-76). Each is a technique to fix an ink drawing into an acid-resistant plate ground, so that the drawing may be etched into metal and printed. The second method is the more flexible, and can also be used with direct photographs. I want to describe these two procedures simply enough for a layman to grasp, and refer those persons more technically interested to The Complete Printmaker where I have described my version of both approaches in detail.

a JULIA PASSING (First State).52 State proof 1
a     JULIA PASSING (First State).52 State proof 1

b JULIA PASSING (Final State).52
b     JULIA PASSING (Final State).52

lift-ground etching

The lines and textures of an image are drawn directly on a zinc or copper plate. The drawing ink is a mixture of india ink and sugar, and can be drawn with a brush or pen. When the drawing is finished, the plate is brush-coated with a thin coat of wax/asphaltum/rosin dissolved in benzine. This is a very dilute solution of a traditional acid-resistant varnish, similar to Rembrandt's, and is called "the ground." When the ground is dry, the plate is immersed in water. Gradually the ink solution dissolves under the ground, releasing it and exposing the metal where the ink marks were drawn. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath. The acid attacks the metal wherever it is ex- posed, and the acid-etched marks will later catch and hold the printing ink when the plate is inked, wiped, and ultimately printed onto paper.

This procedure can be refined in several ways. First, a line or shape which is wide but not deeply etched will hold printing ink better and differently if it has been etched with an aquatint. An aquatint, Goya's great contribution, is pulverized rosin particles melted onto the plate, and etched. The rosin is acid-resistant, and provides a controllable texture to the acid's action. Traditionally, lift-ground etching calls for the rosin particles to be applied before the brush drawing, but I have rarely done this, preferring to spray a rosin/alcohol mist on at a later stage, and only as a minor structural support for the already-etched line.* A second refinement varies the degree to which different marks are allowed to etch down into the metal. By coating a mark or area with rosin dissolved in alcohol, the acid-biting can be stopped there, while allowed to continue in other areas. This is called "stopping-out." I depend on six to ten stages of stopping-out to establish the full range from delicate textural nuance to final black; this can account typically for three weeks' work. The third refinement to these procedures has become increasingly important to me. After the plate has been etched, by whatever means, it can be: 1) re-grounded, scratched into, and etched again (traditional etching) or: 2) worked directly into with engraving tools in order to develop further, and refine, the etched imagery. This engraving stage now accounts for about half of my total work on a plate. The importance of the engraving work was already established by 1967 with JULIA PASSING,52 and can be seen by comparing the first stage of JULIA, which shows the lift-ground stage, with an impression of the first edition in its final form.a,b The difference is entirely one of engraving.

light sensitive** ground etching

Like the lift-ground, the light sensitive** ground receives an impression of a drawing and exposes the metal of the plate to the acid along the marks of the drawing. Unlike the lift-ground, it is possible to use this method with any visual material which is high in contrast and on a transparent base. A drawing is prepared on transparent Mylar, or a collage is prepared of high-contrast photographs, or both drawing and photographs are used. A copper plate is coated with Kodak Photo-Resist which, when dry, becomes sensitive to ultraviolet, hardening wherever it is exposed. The Mylar drawing or collage is placed in contact with the sensitized plate, and exposed to the ultraviolet source. The plate is then immersed in a special bath, which softens the ground wherever it was protected from the light by a mark. So the metal under the marks of the drawing or the collage is exposed to the acid. The etching and refinement stages can now proceed as described under the lift-ground technique.

* An occasional tendency by critics to identify my prints as aquatints is due to misinterpretation of both my earlier sugar-ink textures, and my later Mylar drawing textures.

c A SKY-BLUE LIFE.97 Detail
c     A SKY-BLUE LIFE.97 Detail

d     TWO FROM CHARLIE.48 Detail

drawing methods

My first sugar-ink drawings for the lift-ground were simple brush drawing. By BRUEGHELSCAPE #134 my drawing was entirely done by steel point pen. My more textural effects began with FEBRUARY I24 and were achieved by manipulating sugar-ink-dampened tissue paper on the plate.

For the light sensitive** process, the drawing is made on transparent Mylar (or acetate) with sugar ink or other modifications of india ink. I have two methods of drawing on Mylar. One is with the pen, conventionally linear or cross-hatched.̊ The second is tonal, and was developed out of my lift-ground method of suggesting rocky or organic landscape forms. In the lift-ground landscapes, I would often begin by dropping or touching a sugar-ink-filled tissue on a plate and, using the random shapes this produced, improvise a suggested landscape.d In later prints this method became increasingly refined,e until, by THE JOLLY CORNER I was making ink textures on Mylar as minute as the enlarged grains of a photographic emulsion.f The means of drawing with this tonal texture consists of flaking off the loosely-adhering ink particles to make the lights, and to add pen and ink spots for the darks, using the texture itself as a middle grey. The particular fine graininess of this textural field, together with my natural proclivities for the meticulous, lend such a photographic quality to my drawing that I am consistently classified as a pure photoengraver. Of course, even back in my lift-ground days, I was thought to use direct photographs when I didn't even have the technical means to do so. Obviously I love the photograph, suggesting as it does the mnemonic, and I cultivate its likeness. When it became technically possible for me to transfer photo positives directly, I happily did so for a time, as the procedures invited it. But my natural enjoyment of drawing makes my more usual use of the photograph that of guide or model, and its periodic appearance as a direct detail as often mocks reality as provides it.

** original text read “photosensitive.” Changed to “light sensitive” per P.M.

Note: Numbers in superscript indicate the print catalog number. Lower case superscript letters refer to the plates.

e PASTORALE.98 Detail
e     PASTORALE.98 Detail

f     THE JOLLY CORNER III:7.82 Detail

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