My first printmaking class was in London in October 1995. It was in the studio of a great German printmaker called Thomas Gosebruch, which was on the second floor of a warehouse building next to King’s Cross railway station. There was no heating in the building, but thanks to England’s mild climate it never got too cold in there. It was an eight week introductory course to intaglio etching, covering the following techniques: drypoint, hard ground, soft ground, traditional and non-toxic aquatint, and photoetching. There were three other people in the class: an artist who had a studio in the same building; and a couple who came from south London and just did the course out of interest. I seem to remember they got into an argument with Thomas about money after about five weeks, and they dropped out.
The studio was in a room about 12 feet wide and 24 feet long, with windows on one side that looked straight across to another wall of warehouse windows. I can still remember exactly how the space was set up. Starting from the west end of the room: two big metal sinks, one with a wooden box above it for use as an acrylic-resist aquatint box; a cabinet next to the entry door containing little round cartons of hard ground and soft ground; and then lining the walls all the way back round to the sinks were glass-topped work tables, and filing cabinets with lots of drawers in them, topped by a variety of print drying racks, and with shelves beneath them all stacked with all the tools and supplies needed for a printmaking studio. The centre part of one half of the room also had a work-table on it, with stools along its sides where we could work on our plates. But taking pride of place in the other half of the room was the printing press: an iron behemoth, made in Germany in the early twentieth century, with a five foot long bed and giant rollers operated by a heavy, iron, hand-cranked wheel.
I think that the first plate I worked on was a hardground etching on a steel plate. I misunderstood Thomas’ instructions about drawing into the ground, and I pressed so hard that it was effectively a drypoint before I even put the plate into the acid. When I pulled a print from the plate, it looked more like a cross between an engraving and an open-bite etching. This gave rise to a moment that has become part of my stable of anecdotes: Thomas looked at the print, and said to me in his German accent: “You haf compleedly misunderstood the entire prozess.” One of the other people in the class also had something to learn. To etch the steel plates, we had to slide them gently into a tray containing hydrochloric acid (!), which instantly began attacking the surface of the plates and releasing highly toxic bubbles. Part of the process involved wearing heavy duty rubber gloves and masks while we stood over the tray and brushed the bubbles away from the surface of the plate with a feather. Well, one student forgot the instruction about “gently placing” the plate in the acid, and he dropped it straight in there, causing us all to leap back in shock as these giant waves of acid sailed through the air towards our clothes and skin. As you can imagine, you did not want this stuff to hit either your clothes or your skin.
After I finished the eight-week course, I signed up straight away for another one. By the middle of 1996 I was taking private lessons with Thomas, and within two years I was using his studio as my own printmaking studio. Now I’m in my seventeenth year of making prints, teaching some forms of printmaking, and recently I was invited to take part in one of the biggest print exhibitions in the world. And it all began on a rainy Thursday night in London, in a chilly studio overlooking the junkies and the prostitutes who haunted the streets around King’s Cross station.