School of Arts

Fine Arts student to showcase innovative non-toxic etching practices

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Mr Eloff Pretorius and one of his artworks titled ‘Intrusion’ which depicts a landscape disrupted by large geometric forms based on satellite images of mine dumps
Mr Eloff Pretorius and one of his artworks titled ‘Intrusion’ which depicts a landscape disrupted by large geometric forms based on satellite images of mine dumps

Masters in Fine Arts student Mr Eloff Pretorius will showcase some of his fascinating etching works at the Jack Heath Gallery in Pietermaritzburg from 26-30 November. This exhibition and walkabout is part of his research work which explored innovations in non-toxic materials for intaglio etching.

‘Non-toxic etching processes use less hazardous means of achieving the etching aesthetic. Printmaking has a well-established aesthetic, the challenge in researching alternative methods lies in finding safer materials that do not alter the visual characteristics of the printed image,’ said Pretorius.

He explained that etching is a technique developed in the 16th century whereby artists use the action of a corrosive acid to etch their drawings into the surface of a metal plate. The etched metal plate is covered in ink and wiped so that the surface is clean, but with the etched grooves still containing ink. The plate is then rolled through an etching press with a sheet of dampened paper. The pressure of the press transfers the ink from the etched grooves onto the paper. This process can be repeated upwards of 50 times before the metal plate starts wearing down, resulting in limited editions of the artwork

His ground-breaking research introduced alternative materials that replaced the strong acid etchants with safer metal salt etchants, also replacing cleaning solvents with vegetable oil, and using acrylic mediums instead of rosin dust and bitumen. Eliminating the long term health risks to artists as well as ensuring environmental sustainability are the main motivations behind the research. Although artists worldwide have been gradually introducing safer methods and materials, many risks persist partly due to the lack of knowledge locally about the real hazards and alternatives that can eliminate these.

‘Not many local studios have taken the steps to totally transform their practices in this way, in fact, none that we know of, and this study will have lasting benefits for us,’ said supervisor Dr Kathy Arbuckle. The principles of safe practice learnt during this study and tested at UKZN’s Centre for Visual Arts (CVA) will be fully implemented in 2019.

Pretorius’s study investigated developments in non-toxic etching at the Academy for Visual arts in Ghent, Belgium. He spent three months in Ghent working with Professor Marnix Everaert to learn about the non-toxic processes that he had developed and implemented at the printmaking school where he teaches. ‘Everaert generously gave of his time and expertise to help me become more mindful of the materials that I work with so that I can create safer working spaces and produce less chemical waste output in my practice,’ he added.

The artworks created in Pretorius’s research explored two primary themes; the notion of the anthropocene and the problem of toxic mining waste sites in the South African landscape.

His art uses non-toxic etching methods to depict environments that have been altered by chemical waste, and unsustainable human activity. The exhibition consists of more than twenty etchings that demonstrate the visual characteristic of non-toxic printmaking methods and introduce a photographic technique called photopolymer intaglio to the CVA.

Next year, Pretorius will begin working with UKZN Honorary Doctoral recipient Professor Malcolm Christian at the Caversham Press in the KZN Midlands, and is likely to be involved with implementing non-toxic methods in the fine art printmaking studio. He hopes to collaborate with a variety of artists and printmakers interested in working with etching and other printmaking mediums.

He advised Arts students to travel, stating, ‘Working in a variety of studio settings and meeting artists from different contexts is very impactful. I was fortunate enough to receive funding from the National Arts Council and the Rita Strong Fund which allowed me to go overseas. I would encourage art students to practice writing good proposals and look for funding calls so that they can access the resources that are available and incorporate travel into their studies.’

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