Printing the Four Corners of the World with Brett de Palma

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

Four different printing techniques make up this print. In the center is a blue circle making up the map of the world (North America and South America are evident). In the left hand corner is wind, the right hand corner the sun. In the bottom left are jellyfish and in the bottom left hand corner is the moon.
Brett de Palma, American, b. 1949. Four Corners of the World. Lithograph, intaglio, linocut, and woodcut, 1988. Gift of Echo Press and the Artist through the support of Dr. Linda McMurray and Dr. Stephen McMurray, 1989.16. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In a past Reality Check, FWMoA Vice President and COO Amanda Shepard discussed what you see when you are looking at a “picture”, and the clues that can help you identify more specifically the “art” words to describe it. Delving deeper into this topic, let’s place the focus on printmaking, as multiple processes can result in a print. More specifically, let’s look at Brett de Palma’s work, Four Corners of the World, as it uses lithography, etching, woodcut, and linocut. This a great example of these four processes because he created one full work using each, allowing us to compare and contrast the different characteristics side by side!

The lithograph section of “Four Corners of the Universe”. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

We will start with the upper left corner: lithography. A lithograph is made by drawing with oil on a stone (usually limestone) or a plate, then etching the image on the surface with chemicals. When you hear the word “plate” think more of a license plate instead of a dinner plate. To print, you need a flat surface. The oil from the drawing materials resist the etching chemicals, leaving the surface raised. Think about how oil and water repel each other: when printing, the ink is only drawn to the areas that are raised and the rest of the surface is wiped with water. This ensures there is nothing for the ink to stick to and it wipes away cleanly without smearing.

Close up of the lithograph. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The typical characteristics of a lithograph are a crayon-like drawing, created from the oil sticks, and an unmistakable wash known by printmakers as a tusche (pronounced “toosh”) wash. Have you ever looked at the bottom of your coffee cup once you have finished and seen that the little bit remaining has dried up? You can tell that it has dried in layers. Tusche wash has a similar appearance. Tusche wash is also distinguishable because it is the only printmaking method where a style similar to watercolor paintings is achieved. You can see how de Palma used both the oil crayon and tusche wash in this section of the image (see image in left corner).

The etched section of “Four Corners of the Universe”. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Moving to the right, we now take a look at the characteristics of an etching. Originating from the Italians, you may also see it described on a label as an intaglio, which is just Italian for etching! To create an etching, the surface of a copper plate is covered in a tar-like substance, called hardground. The hardground is hard enough to resist etching chemicals but soft enough to be scratched away with tools to create an image. A tool called a roulette, that is a small roller with groves in it, can create tiny dots in the hardground for shading, if the artist prefers that look in comparison to cross-hatching. Cross-hatching is when the artist repeatedly makes “X” shaped lines; the closer together they are, the darker the print will turn out, and the further apart, the lighter it will be. You can create a “wash” in etching, though it will be a flat tone and not have the tonal values as compared to what can be accomplished with a lithograph. To accomplish an aquatint, the plate is coated and baked with fine resin particles to get it to stick to the plate. The part of the plate you don’t want the wash to etch is covered with the hardground to resist the chemicals. Once the image is completed, the plate is then dunked in a tank of chemicals for a short time and the part of the plate where the hardground was scratched away gets eaten. Once etched, the plate is cleaned by removing the hardground, and ready to be printed. The lines or aquatint that were etched create a tiny “valley” on the plate, which is filled with ink. The area that remained covered by the hardground is a clean, flat surface that doesn’t have anything for the ink to stick to and gets wiped away. This process can be repeated several times. In fact, most printmakers using the etching process will do several proofs and test prints to know that they are achieving the image they desire. You may see several stages of the same print!

Etching versus roulette. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Etchings have two distinct characteristics: plate lines along the edge of the image from the impression of the plate and an image that is made with fine pencil-like lines. Because this is a bleed print, meaning the image goes all the way to the edge of the paper, we do not see the plate impression. Looking at it zoomed in, de Palma used various etching methods! In the dark cloud, you can see the small dots from where the resin created the aquatint wash, the patterned dots from the roulette, and the fine lines from a line etching.

The woodblock section of “Four Corners of the Universe”. Can you find the artist’s signature? Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Moving to the bottom right corner, we see a woodblock print. Right off the bat, there is one obvious characteristic: the wood grain from the block. De Palma emphasized this even more by carving out the light areas of the grain, but even if he hadn’t, the texture of the wood typically shows through in a print. Sometimes the work takes on a life of its own because the artist is at the mercy of the block—meaning more wood carves out than expected. If you look closely at the carved out areas, you can see the wood at work. The best part about woodblock prints, as well as linocuts, is that they can be made easily at home and don’t need a studio with big presses or chemicals; therefore, they are cost efficient and affordable to make. A woodblock print can be carved anywhere and hand printed with a simple wooden spoon. Sometimes, because an artist works on too big of a woodblock, this is the process used because the press isn’t large enough to run the block through.

The linocut section of “Four Corners of the Universe”. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Last but not least, the linocut. It is created identically to the woodblock, with the exception of the surface being worked on; it is made on a rubber surface, sort of like a stamp. Linocuts are most recognized for their distinct flat qualities. Because it is made with a rubber material, everything on the surface holds ink, except what has been carved out; there is no natural element from a wood grain. Compare the lines being made. Can you see how the woodblock lines are more natural and the linocuts are extremely straight?

Woodblock (left) versus a Linocut (right). Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Stylistically, you can see how vastly different the bottom half of the entire image is from the top half. Lithographs and etchings work additively, as in, you draw to fill in the image; whereas woodblock and linocuts are subtractive, they start with a full block and the image is carved out.

Check out the photo gallery below to see more examples of these types of prints! To see even more prints and find out if you can identify them before looking at the label, stop in to the Print & Drawing Study Center here at FWMoA Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment.

Hung Liu, American, b. 1948. Black Madonna. Color lithograph, 2015. Museum Purchase, 2017.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Lithograph. Sometimes you can even see an outline of the stone it was created on! Notice that the portrait looks like it could be a pencil drawing? This is created with the oil stick lithograph crayons!

Romas Viesulas, American, 1918-1986. Strawberries. Lithograph, 1965. Museum Purchase, 1965.92.14. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Lithograph & Tusche wash. This print was only made using the tusche wash. Do you see where he worked subtractive and scratched away the stone? He also unconventionally put the wash on his hands in the image!

Howard Hitzemann, American, 1952-1990. Untitled. Etching and aquatint. Gift of Betty G. Fishman, 2017.69. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Etching. Do you see the small dots from the resin being etched into an aquatint? Do you see the layers of the etching over the aquatint?

Ramiro Rodriguez, American, b. 1965. La Que Bebe No Vuelve. Color woodblock, 2016. Museum Purchase, 2017.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Woodblock. Do you notice the texture of the wood-grain throughout the image?

Dennis McNett, American, b. 1972. Horned Devil. Linocut, 2005. Gift of Dennis McNett, 2018.331. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Linocut. See how precise you can get lines to cut with a linocut?

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