Stephanie Martin’s hand-colored intaglio prints are inspired by the botanical and avian worlds
Rich inks heighten the fragile nests, the intricate wings, the ripening fruit. Each color has been applied—painstakingly—by hand, before the elaborate process of wiping, printing, and then pulling through a press. The results are poetic and pleasing. They are the work of Santa Cruz printmaker Stephanie Martin, whose etchings were recently exhibited at Stripe and at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
A master of the aquatint—a tricky technique for creating areas of uniform velvety tone—Martin is known for her skillful and delicately hand-colored intaglio etchings. Birds are primary subjects, but nature in general grabs her artistic attention, including California poppies, ethereal maidenhair ferns and striped kestrels.
For the past 10 years the former grade school teacher and passionate naturalist has created a huge portfolio of etchings, some now housed in the Library of Congress.
The Craftsman bungalow she shares with her husband, master gardener Orin Martin, is a sunny showcase for many of her colorful pieces. “Whenever we go anywhere I try to go to natural history museums and draw from their collections,” she says. “I fill notebooks and notebooks with sketches, and then it’s a winnowing process.” Some of the sketches will become finished drawings, etched onto copper plates, which in turn are inked and pulled through a press to transfer colored lines and shapes into damp paper.
“I tried to do native wildflowers,” she says, pulling out prints of poppies and fairy lanterns, “but they just didn’t have enough volume.” She favors large areas of aquatint. And birds. “I tried to create depth of color with linework—I try to challenge myself—but in the end I came back to aquatint.”
A former painter addicted to outdoor settings, Martin always wanted a life involved with teaching, art, and science. “I never considered being an art major,” she confesses. “I thought you had to be so good.” But when her children were in high school she ventured into an art class. Next came an evening intaglio course at Cabrillo. Then she discovered the resources of the UCSC print studio, where she serves as a print studio monitor.
Renowned for her expert hand application of colored inks onto the copper plate, Martin does it the hard way, using only a single plate rather than multiple plates inked in separate colors. “I cut matboard into thick strips and apply small areas of color,” so the inks don’t bleed. She recently discovered using tiny finger-sized pieces of fabric to apply color. “The plate tone is the hardest thing. I want a veil of tone surrounding the entire image,” she demonstrates holding an etching of a pomegranate. “Yellow ink really sticks to the plate,” she says.
Gold leaf covers another print, which she explains actually minimizes an error. The background color on the original pomegranate etching bled and muddied, so she applied gold leaf over the background, making an elegant visual backdrop for the crimson fruit. “I persist,” she says shaking her head. “There are many failures. I put the piece away, sometimes for a year. Then look at it again and think how I can salvage it.”
Open Studios is a big showcase for Martin, who also sells work through on Etsy. “People from all over the world have found my work,” she says. “Recently a man who lives in Japan ordered two of my seabird prints. I love that technology connects me with people.”
The announcement card for her show of botanical prints—Etchings of Eden—currently at the Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park, shows a wild ginger plant, its blood red flowers and broad, heart-shaped emerald leaves. It is a perfect example of her aquatint expertise, her sensuous application of color, and her obvious love for her wild subjects. “The list of ideas I have is so long,” she complains, with a satisfied smile.
For more information visit stephaniemartinart.com PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER