Printmaking, Wildlife Art

Etching Errol: The Grassland Earless Dragon

  1. Original Pastel Portrait.
  2. Line drawn in bitumen.
  3. After the line etched in acid.
  4. Application of aquatint and tusche, with white areas “blocked out”.
  5. After a series of 4 more acid baths, each blocking out a different shade (light grey, mid grey, dark grey and black).
  6. Final Print.

The Etching Process

The copper etching process is a lot more involved than I ever could have imagined before starting to learn. I have even more respect for the masters of the art! It’s certainly worth the effort, because you cannot achieve the same finely detailed result with any other method of printmaking. Drypoint comes close, but the lines aren’t as crisp and sharp.

This print took days of planning before even preparing a plate (which took half a day itself!). The next step was to draw the lines in bitumen (o similar ground to protect the other areas of the plate from acid) being careful not to scratch the plate itself or you get “fuzzy”lines. The pate was then etched for 35 minutes in acid, hoping that was long enough to get good lines, but not so long that the lines collapsed (imagine the really closely etched lines being eaten-away from underneath).

Next, I had to clean and prepare the plate again for the aquatint. Aquatinting is a process of laying an evenly distributed fine dust of rosin over the copper. It’s done in an enclosed dust box, in an enclosed room and you have to wear a mask to make sure you don’t breathe any in (because it’s dangerous stuff to inhale!). Once you’re happy with the dust layer, you heat the plate evenly over a gas burner until all the rosin melts and the copper looks shiny again. I love the sweet smell of melted rosin!

Next, I applied a greasy, watery ink to the aquatint called “tusche“. This gives a ripply, random variation to the plate when it’s etched. They usually use it in Lithography, but it can be used in etching too. I only wanted it in the background to make it interesting (I hate bland backgrounds), so I made sure it didn’t accumulate on the dragon itself. You’re told not to “play” with the tusche – just drop it on in areas and let it do its thing as it dries – but I played like a toddler because I wanted to see what would happen (and it worked über-well in my opinion). You’re also told to put tusche on and etch BEFORE putting on aquatint, but I think it works best afterwards, like it did with my Golden Sun Moth. It has more “grip” on the tusche so you get stronger ripples.

Then off to etch the plate again in a series of baths. First of all, I had to block-out the areas that were going to stay white in the final print. I did this with bitumen also, using a toothpick because no brush was fine enough for the job. Then I etched the plate for only 2 minutes, so that the aquatint would get enough bite to look light grey when printed. I blocked out all the areas that were supposed to stay light grey, then dunked the plate in acid again for another 4 minutes to get mid-grey. After blocking out the parts to stay mid-grey, he had another bath for 4 minutes to get dark grey. Then I blocked out everything except for the pupil of the eye, which was going to be black. Took took another 10 minutes in the acid.

Next, it was time to file the edges of the copper to a 45 degree angle. This is so it wouldn’t cut into the etching blankets during printing. Etching blankets are expensive and hard to source too apparently, so you do’t want to do that! Filing copper isn’t so great on my old arthritic hands and back, so this was one of the hardest parts of the whole process.

Finally, the printing stage! Choosing the right colour ink and type of paper, then test printing. It didn’t look as good as I’d hoped. There were some lines that weren’t deep enough to hold ink, so I should have etched the lines for 45 minutes instead of 35. The shading didn’t always go up to the lines I had etched, so it looked like some areas weren’t “coloured-in” properly. I was gutted! Everything else looked so nice. So, my friend suggested using my drypoint etching needles to try and correct the mistakes. The lines wouldn’t be as crisp, but I could at least colour-in with extra scratches – it might just be enough to save the plate so I didn’t have to start again.

After a lot of trial and error, I was finally pleased with the outcome. He might not be perfect, but he’s pretty close to the dragon I was hoping for: full of character and charm!

The Grassland Earless Dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla)

Grasslands Earless Dragon Facts:

Grasslands Earless Dragons are listed as Endangered in the ACT and NSW, and Threatened in Victoria. There are 4 distinct species: one endemic to the ACT and others to Cooma, Bathurst and Victoria. In May, 2019 an ecologist from the University of Canberra reported that the dragon has not been seen in Victoria for 50 years, so that species may be extinct and the species in Bathurst has not been seen for 30 years. There’s still some hope, as the dragons in the ACT had not been seen for 30 years prior to 1991. In the ACT populations declined between 2005-9 (possibly due to lack of ground cover caused by a combination of drought, overgrazing).

The natural dragon habitat is tussocky, open temperate grassland of which less than 1% remains in Canberra since European settlement. In the ACT they are known to inhabit the Jerrabomberra and Majura Valleys. They find shelter in the abandoned burrows of Wolf Spiders and Wood Crickets, or under rocks and tussocks.

They are small lizards, which grow to around 5cm long from the tip of its nose to the start of its tail. Dragons are called “earless” because they have no external ear opening or working ear drum. They have beautiful markings which are highly individual, and during breeding season the throats, flanks and sides of their heads can change to a yellow-orange or reddish colour. Unlike other types of lizards, “dragons” (iguanian lizards) cannot regenerate their tails and their teeth are on the outer-rim of their mouth, rather than the inside rim of their jaws.

In captivity, Earless Dragons are known to live up to 5 years and can have at least one “clutch” of lizards per year for 3 years . In the wild this is usually reduced to only one clutch in their lifetime. Offspring hatch in the warmer months, between January and March.

There are many threats to the continued survival of the species: habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss (from agricultural and urban development); overgrazing (livestock and kangaroos); rock removal; weed invasion; predators (less shelter means feral cats, snakes, magpies, birds of prey can find them more easily); fire; herbicides and pesticides; soil erosion; and climate change (droughts and higher ground temperatures).

The ACT Government is genuinely concerned about conserving all of its Dragon populations and managing its habitat to maintain them in the wild. Disappointingly however, they also plan to increase the number of suitable habitats and provide “offset areas” with management plans if urban development requires it.  This is not generally considered by ecologists to be a desirable conservation method. In addition, the Government continues to allow stock to graze in Lizard habitats on leased Territory land “…providing the grazing regime is compatible with maintaining suitable habitat.” Also not ideal.

It’s disheartening to read in the local newspaper, The Canberra Times, that the Grasslands Earless Dragons are still under threat from land development, particularly across the border in NSW, which is almost always avoidable. From what I can tell, rarely do Developers NEED to build on the native habitat of the Dragons (and other native species under threat of extinction), it’s just CHEAPER than doing it elsewhere.

I dream of a time when the human species as a whole prioritised our wildlife, ecology, environment and our own well-being over money.


National Recovery Plan for the Grassland Earless Dragon

Grassland Earless Dragons in Canberra a Unique Species: Scientists

ACT Government Grassland Earless Dragon Fact Sheet

Canberra Times article on our unique species of Dragon

Canberra Times article on using dogs to help conservation

Canberra Times article on the threat of Snowy 2.0

Canberra Times article on the continuing threat of Snowy 2.0

Canberra Times article on the inconsistent ACT and NSW Laws and their threat to the Dragon

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