I was wiping a trial proof of a deeply etched plate the other day and got to thinking about the art of wiping. Much of the process of wiping is mechanical, so my mind often has time to wander. In this particular case, I was contemplating the difference between an ‘artistic’ wipe and a clean one.

Historically some printmakers (Whistler comes to mind) made extensive use of the wipe to further the artistic content of the image. They might polish some areas fully clean and leave films of plate tone (or more than plate tone) in others, all in service to the image. This is difficult to impossible to do completely consistently, so there would be some variation of the images within the edition. But the images were beautiful.

Other practitioners believe that if it isn’t in the plate, then it isn’t in the image and strive for a perfectly clean and consistent wipe. This was certainly the starting point at least when I was in school, and it is a position espoused by many professional printers.

As an artist/printer I have a good deal of flexibility in this area. For most images I strive for a clean wipe. If I want a mark, I put it there. If I want tone, then I aquatint, spit bite or out comes the roulette. But there have been times in my relief work where I have gotten a little creative about how I roll and what I remove. There really isn’t anything that keeps me from doing the same with an intaglio plate, other than that notion of consistency. The question for me keeps coming back to the image. What works? What am I happy with?

I guess that the important thing for me is that any variation that shows up in the wipe be intentional. In my mind ‘artistic license’ is no substitute for poor technique.

The remaining question then is one of terminology. When does a print stop being an artistically wiped part of an edition and when does it become a monoprint? Only the artist knows for sure, but it is important to be clear with a collector.