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Sources: Jason Scuilla, 785-532-6605, jscuilla@k-state.edu;
and Michael McMann, 785-532-6605, mmcmann@k-state.edu
Pronouncer: Scuilla is shoe-la
Website: http://art.ksu.edu/blogs/electroetch/
Images available. Contact media@k-state.edu or 785-532-2535.
News release prepared by: Katie Mayes, 785-532-2535, kmayes@k-state.edu

Thursday, June 10, 2010

ELECTRIFYING RESEARCH IN K-STATE'S ART DEPARTMENT PROVES NONTOXIC WAY TO DO ETCHING

MANHATTAN -- As artists, Kansas State University printmakers Jason Scuilla and Michael McMann are particular about detail. But being so committed to the craft of printmaking has meant meticulously etching copper plates and dunking them into toxic, caustic acid baths -- until now.

"This is one of the most toxic mediums you can use, so we are always looking for different ways to achieve the same results and not compromise on quality," McMann said.

Scuilla and McMann, assistant professors in K-State's department of art, have spent the last few months experimenting with various alternatives and have developed a new way to use a nontoxic method called electro-etching.

In traditional printmaking, artists coat a copper plate with a grounding substance that is resistant to acid. They use a needle to draw their images in the ground and expose the metal of the plate. Then they subject the plate to a corrosive bath that eats away at the metal exposed by the scratched lines. Ink is then placed in the crevices so an image can be printed. Scuilla said this process dates back to the Renaissance.

Both McMann and Scuilla have designated spaces for dealing with the chemicals they use. Proper ventilation is required, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspects the spaces and the chemicals have to be disposed of as hazardous waste. It's also difficult to predict the ongoing strength of the chemical bath and they both worry about how this process could affect their health in the long run.

About six months ago the two of them began researching electro-etching, which is the use of an electrified copper sulphate solution to create images on copper plates. This method is used by only a handful of artists around the globe -- and Scuilla and McMann have now put their mark on it.

The process employs a weak copper sulfate bath, which is then electrified. Manufacturers of items like gold-plated jewelry use a similar process, Scuilla said, only instead of applying metal particles they're taking them away.

"It's basically a take-off of the plating industry. When we put the plate in there and we turn on the juice, it pulls the copper off," he said.

In the midst of learning this method, McMann and Scuilla developed new ways of using the technology.

Scuilla experimented with a handful of grounding substances, which are applied to the copper plate. But some of them couldn't stand up to the electrical process or wouldn't stick to the plate properly. As a result, Scuilla developed what he calls the Shu-la ground.

"The ground I formulated is a two-part ground which solves both of these issues without compromising the level of detail attainable," he said. "First, a very thin ground for adhesion is applied over heat and allowed to cool. Then a second ground for strength is applied. Finally, the ground is torched with a hand torch made up of wicks. The soot bonds to the plate, strengthens the ground and provides an even black drawing surface."

"The Shu-la ground allows for extremely sharp detail and holds up in the electro-etch bath indefinitely, allowing a wide range of line weights to be achieved," Scuilla said. "This ground produces results superior to traditional resists used in electro-etching."

McMann, whose work deals with transferring images onto plates photographically, works with a photographic emulsion resist to etch digital imagery onto the plates.

"To our knowledge this has not been successfully used and tested for electro-etching," McMann said. "After creating imagery on a computer, I output the images to films to be exposed to photopolymer-treated plates. Then I used the commercially available Z*Acryl photopolymer film, which held up well in the electrolytic process. Now there is a more nontoxic pipeline for getting imagery from a digital format to an etched plate, which is something I've been pursuing for some time."

Both variations on electro-etching also allow the artists to predict line quality, an aspect that was important to detailed work of both Scuilla and McMann. They didn't want to substitute an environmentally friendly, safer method that would impact the artistic effects in their detailed images.

"Our goal was to create something that any printmaker who knows traditional and loves the traditional could use," Scuilla said. "This is something that they can substitute out."

The new method requires a power supply, a tray to hold the emulsion, copper sulfate solution, cathode grill -- which looks like a copper grill -- and a copper spatula. Scuilla and McMann say this set up -- parts of which they built by hand -- is more portable and also can be adapted to accommodate larger size plates.

"After several years of using acid baths, it's a nice to know I could set something like this up in my studio," McMann said. "You couldn’t drink this stuff, but it's certainly not a tray of acid."

McMann and Scuilla demonstrated the method in late March at the Southern Graphics Council International Conference, Philadelphia, Pa.