How American artist Emma Amos pushed etching to its limits—and brought American Girl to life.
The first thing to know about Emma Amos’s remarkable print American Girl (shown above) is that things are not what they seem. In this apparently straightforward image of a reclining figure gazing out toward the viewer, Amos and the printers at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop pushed the medium of etching to its limit. Above all, Amos’s American Girl defies the flatness that we typically associate with works on paper: it relies on a number of intricate techniques at different stages of the production process that give the final print various, multidimensional layers.
One of the emphases of the exhibition Emma Amos: Color Odyssey on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through January 17, 2022) is the artist’s career-long practice of experimental printmaking. Amos began making etchings in the late 1950s as a young student in London and continued to make prints for the next six decades. Color Odyssey includes examples of her prints from across these years and explores the ways she used print as a medium for her investigations into the representation of the female figure.
One of our galleries in Philadelphia is devoted to the prints Amos made in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was immersed in the activity and community of the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, a vital space for printmaking during this period. There, she worked with professional printers, collaborating on the production of her printed images. In this context, Amos produced American Girl for a portfolio of black-and-white prints by seven artists titled Impressions: Our World, Volume I, published by Blackburn. This print entered the museum’s collection in 2018, and in this post, we take a deep dive into the making of this fascinating and materially complex work.
In the images above, you can see how Amos and her printer used a process known as “lift-ground aquatint” to create the background’s uneven stripes and textures. In lift-ground, also known as “sugar lift,” the artist paints an image onto the printing plate using a solution of sugar, India ink, and soap. After a series of steps—including immersing the plate in warm water, adding powdery rosin to it, and heating—the surface of the plate is left bare in the areas where the image was painted with the sugary liquid, and coated with a protective ground everywhere else. When the plate is immersed in acid—part of the process of etching—the uncoated metal is “bitten” away, thereby creating irregular surfaces that will hold the printing ink. With this technique, Amos gives variation and alternating textures to the background, which sets off the rich, dark tones composing the figure’s skin, hair, and body.
Although this female figure occupies the lower register of the print and appears in the foreground, Amos blurs the contours of her body, which are hard to make out in the swaths of rich tone. Etching a plate often requires repeated immersions in acid baths in order to achieve sufficiently deep recesses that will eventually hold ink. The longer the plate is exposed to acid, the deeper the metal will be etched, and the more layers of dark, heavy ink will be printed on the paper. The ink on American Girl appears in a range of thicknesses and contains a variety of patterns, indicating that Amos worked to carefully modify the depth and texture of the plate during etching. The girl’s face stands out in the fuzziness of the dark tone, as if giving off its own light, while the dense halo of her hair has its own texture.
Amos contrasts these subtle layers of texture and tone with a striking white line that runs like a fault around the woman’s figure and cleaves the composition’s lower half from the upper half. This line was produced from the gap between two etching plates, or rather, between two halves of the same plate. That is, Amos further enhanced the topography of the print by doing something rarely seen in the history of print: cutting the plate in two, thereby separating the figure in the foreground from the background.
During printing, she and her printer positioned the two sections of the original plate with a slight gap between them, running them through the press together and printing them on a dampened sheet of paper. Because the sheet was wet and the paper fibers malleable, a soft ridge of the white paper was forced up between the sections, creating a wide line, both visual and physical. In this way, Amos made, unmade, and remade the plate before printing it, creating a composite image that incorporates this fracture as its defining feature.
The effect of this procedure on paper is startling. The line swells and recedes around the figure in ways both delicate and jarring. It looks like a visible cut, but it also gives the figure added dimension, setting her off from the flatness of the page. The rift between the two plates is raised in relation to the impressed image, palpably dividing the two halves.
With this line, Amos leaves a glaring material trace of the printmaking process in the composition of the final image. That trace helps alert us to the range of other, more subtle printerly techniques that make up this “American girl.” Amos emphasizes the material process involved in producing her subject, drawing attention to the creativity, inventiveness, and skill required to represent a Black female figure outside the history of its frequent objectification in the white, male-dominated canons of Western art.
Laurel Garber is the Park Family Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings. She is also the curator of Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, an exhibition organized by Shawnya L. Harris, PhD, the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art at the Georgia Museum of Art.
Thomas Primeau is the museum’s paper conservator. His areas of research include the history and technology of hand-colored Renaissance prints, the engraving techniques of Martin Schongauer and his followers, and the drawing and printmaking practices of Henri Matisse.