Spongotype: making a plate by electrotyping a monoprint

Yesterday evening I ran a workshop at the Regional Print Centre on monoprinting as serendipity, would have it, as part of my PhD. research into electro-etching I had come across this series of lectures given by Hubert von Herkomer. In one of the lectures he describes the process of making an electrotype copy of a monoprint plate. The illustrated examples are very striking and look more like drawings than etched plates.

Excerpt From: Hubert von Herkomer. “Etching and Mezzotint Engraving: Lectures Delivered at Oxford (1892).”

“You take a polished copper plate, and cover it with printer’s ink—cover it completely with the dabber, as if there were something to print Now, with brushes, hard and soft, and with rags, or your finger, or all combined, you wipe out the forms you require from the black ground. You will soon find that you can get the most delicate tones; the most artistic manipulation with your brushes is possible, and brilliant high light can be got out with a bit of wood pointed at the end. Here is a toy for a painter,—for it is painting pure and simple, the only difference being that the lights are taken away and the blacks are left. When your painting on the plate is done you put it through the press like an ordinary engraving; nearly all the ink will come off the plate, and you will find on the paper a splendid proof of your work. I know no method of drawing in pencil or colour that can approach the beauty of these printed blacks. The artistic mystery that can be given, the finesse, the depth of tone and the variety of texture, make this manner an almost intoxicating delight to the painter.

The Spongotype

Now it seemed a pity that such rapid artistic work should be limited to one print only, and I started with my assistant, Mr. H. T. Cox, to invent a method for multiplying impressions from the work done on the plate, and he completed the invention.

I have patented the process, merely in order to prevent anyone else from securing a monopoly of its use, but give it freely for all to use and improve upon.

Mix in equal parts graphite with German printing black and oil, and cover the copper plate with this by means of a lithographic roller. Then do your wiping away of the forms as before described.

Take equal parts of bath-stone scraped to powder, bronze powder, and asphaltum (also in powder): soak the two first in turpentine, and when quite dry mix them with the asphaltum, and place the whole in a little bag of fine muslin.

When your drawing is done, dust it over with this mixture through the bag, until the plate is covered. Then brush it off very carefully and gently with a soft camel-hair brush, and you will see your work again, but filled in different degrees with the powder Let this dry for three days, and then send it to an ordinary electrotyper, and tell him to deposit copper upon that surface, but with the strict injunction not to touch the face of the work; for the plate is perfectly ready for him to commence his depositing, the plate having been made into a proper matrix.

When you receive the deposited copper, which will be of the thickness of an ordinary plate for etching or engraving, you will see the reverse of what you did. You lowered the lights by wiping away the ink, and left the ink standing up for the blacks. Here you will see the lights high and the tones lower, in a sort of granulated surface.

This process, which is eminently suited for original work, opens up endless possibilities to the painter, who, in using it,

is hampered with none of the technical difficulties of an engraving process. He can get his result without having in any way departed from the mitier with which he is naturally familiar. And it is conceivable that by working on the electro-typed plate with dry-point and scraper results may be arrived at which will surpass in artistic quality anything that can be obtained by methods of reproduction hitherto practised.”


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