It is important to differentiate between signed machine prints and individually (hand) made etchings. In view of a previous piece I wrote posing the question whether Kentridge is mass producing works of art, I am specifically devoting some space to the process involved in the making of limited edition etchings, such as the Nose series.
At the launch of the Nose series, Kentridge explained in some detail the principles of etching and I will attempt to summarise the process. Kentridge described how a flexible sheet of copper is ‘damaged’ in a number of ways and ‘inked up’ to reveal all that has been ‘inflicted’ upon the plate, making a physical record of a drawing. Drypoint marks are softened by sugarlift aquatint and punctuated, in several of the plates in this series, with red. Condensed milk was mixed with Indian ink and applied with a brush or pen to ‘tell’ the acid where to go so that a drawing could be imprinted on to the copper plate. Each plate is engraved with a number indicating its place in the series. It can take between 10 and 40 minutes per plate to produce a single etching.
When the sugar-and-ink mixture is dry, a thin coating of acid resistant varnish is painted over the plate, covering the drawing. Once dry the plate is placed in warm water that penetrates the sugar, causing it to expand and bursts through the thin varnish layer, lifting it off the plate. The water dissolves the sugar-and- ink mix and then reveals the plate.
After being placed in a box of finely ground resin, the resin is agitated to sift down on the plate, which is heated until the resin melts. The plate is then placed in a bath of acid that ‘bites’ into the areas that hold the sugar-and- ink mix. The colour tones will depend on the time the plate is submerged in the acid bath. To attain a grey tone the surface is usually disturbed with sandpaper, the coarseness or the grip on the paper determining the depth of the grey tone.
The nose prints were made by ‘cold inking’, soaked paper and tissue wipe. As Kentridge elaborates, the degree of plate tone, the fineness of aquatint, the rich leavings of the aquatint, do not simple give a jizz to the prints but also suggest directions and limits to the images themselves.’
I am only beginning to come to grips with the making of an etching – and my grasp of print making may well be flawed. But, in my view, some understanding of the process not only enhances the viewing experience of the etchings, but also adds to the enjoyment and appreciation of each print in the series.
 Law-Viljoen,B (2010) Nose: Thirty Etchings