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On the end of a long era in printmaking

Niall Ferguson, writing in Newsweek, has this to say about the global supply of copper:

"[T]he key to the copper story is soaring Asian demand. Asians want modern houses with Western-style wiring and plumbing. They want cars. They want electronic gadgetry. So they want copper. In 2005 China accounted for 22 percent of global copper consumption. In 2009 the figure was 39 percent. Try as they may, the copper miners can’t keep pace. And the supply of copper in the world isn’t limitless. Indeed, if the rest of the world were to consume at just half the American per capita rate (1,386 pounds a year), we’d exhaust all known copper reserves within just 38 years."

What does this have to do with art? In printmaking, experienced practitioners know that a copper plate is the most luxurious metal for working with. It's a soft metal, so it's easier to work with than steel or zinc, yet it's much tougher than aluminium, which is cheap in most senses of the word. Plus, you can get a wider variety of plate tone from a copper plate, including the brightest whites. Rembrandt worked on copper plates:
So did Picasso:


And so did I when I first learned printmaking. In fact, it was my love for the etchings of these past masters that led me to printmaking in the first place. Here's one of my 'Circe' prints, which uses the same series of techniques as the Picasso print -- aquatint, scraping, hard ground etching, and drypoint:

So when the global supply of copper disappears, one casualty will be a traditional printmaking material that has been used for more than four centuries. Artists will always find other means to express themselves, of course, but I know that I, for one, will miss holding the copper plate out on the flat of my palm, breathing in the oily smell of the ink, slowly wiping the excess ink from the plate with a cloth held in my other hand, and gradually watching as the etched image slowly emerges from a black cloud, like a photographic image rising out of the developing fluid (another process that has virtually died out!).


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