Backwards intaglio: making Frank Stella’s ‘Swan Engravings’


With the support of the Tyler Graphics team, Frank Stella was able to create innovative prints that radically reinterpreted the possibilities of printmaking processes and materials. One of our favourite stories about working with Stella is Rodney Konopaki’s recollections of using 17,000 Q-tips to remove ink from the intaglio plates for the Swan engravings series. This project, which developed concurrently with the ground-breaking Circuits series, was radical for the way sculptural cut-offs were assembled onto a board to create a collaged matrix. The series is also remarkable for the way it turned traditional intaglio techniques upside down, as Konopaki explained in a 2013 interview with Emilie Owens:

“Ken was frequently on Frank Stella’s case to make etchings. From what I learned, this was an ongoing necessity, and not just with Frank. He constantly needed to excite artists about the possibility of coming to the studio to work and to try out stuff. I believe he motivated interest with everyone from those artists who knew the shop well and were frequent visitors to others who might be coming for the first time. Pushing ideas for projects to artists was an ongoing task for Ken, as a print publisher.

As much as Ken tried to persuade him, Frank was not convinced that he wanted to make intaglio prints. At one time, we started working with him on small copper plates that were reminiscent of his first lithographs from Gemini GEL, but the project never got off the ground. All the same, Ken was tenacious and he and Frank always enjoyed a back and forth exchange. Ken facilitated a lot of the work that Frank was engaged with outside of TGL. The two of them frequently went to Swan Engraving [a commercial printing company] in Bridgeport, Connecticut to etch magnesium sheets for the skins that were being used on Frank’s constructions and other works – such as his three-dimensional sculptural and relief “painting”. And on one of those visits a light bulb went on and they realized they were making etching plates. I am not sure whether it was Ken or Frank who made the recognition. But they both returned from Bridgeport one afternoon eager to have me get ink on a small sample offcut and to wipe it.

The first plate we printed was a single magnesium sheet about an eighth-of-an-inch thick. It was etched really deeply. At that time, Bob Cross was just starting at the studio and we wiped it and printed it together. Frank was okay with the results but he really wanted most of the heavy black lines that printed to be white lines. Etched lines are supposed to hold ink and now he wanted part of it the other way around. I am sure all of us wondered quietly, how do we do that? But none of us wanted to discourage anything from advancing. Ken suggested wrapping our fingers in rags and running them through the grooves on the plate to clear ink. He even offered to go purchase Q-tips hoping that might work. Bob was surprised that we were proceeding, and I thought it would prove to be so time consuming and difficult to do that Ken would back out somehow. We struggled through printing the second one with these changes and Frank was ecstatic. “This is what I want! This is what I want!” and so it was happening. Bob turned to me and asked incredulously, “Now what?” I gulped, “I guess now we’ve got to print these things.”

So there’s this huge etched magnesium plate that has to be covered with ink, and then that ink has to be wiped off. All the wide and deeply etched lines were filled with ink, and we would have to use Q-tips to take the ink out of them. We would partially wipe the plate down, and then we would remove the ink from some of the selected deeply etched lines using Q-tips – but doing that would push ink back up onto the surface, so we would then have to wipe the surface again, and the ink would collapse back into the lines. It was a back and forth process taking considerable time. And if we wiped the lines too clean Frank wouldn’t like it, so it had to be just right, the lines filled, then mostly wiped clean with just enough ink around the very perimeter of the shapes to print and define just the edges.

We needed a pound-and-a-half of ink for each plate, and it took six hours to wipe it, with both of us working. We got a bit faster, but it was always about five hours to print one – two guys, pound-and-a-half of ink, five hours. To keep ourselves from going crazy and for entertainment, we named every one of the lines on that print by relating each to a map of upstate New York. Each line had a street name or a road name. And I would say, “Bob what are you doing, where are you right now?” And he would say, “Going up 684, and I will be at Route 22 in a minute.” We used 17,000 Q-tips on that project.


Frank Stella, ‘Talladega three I’ 1982 from the ‘Circuits’ series 1982-84.

This print [Talladega Three I] was the precursor of the Swan Engraving series. The difference between this print and the Swan Engravings was that the Swans are made from thinner magnesium plates and multiple shaped pieces were collaged to sheets of plywood. I have often thought that many etchers might not do what we did to get this print. What we were doing was at least “backwards” and large in scale, too. But Talladega Three I is a special print and it is worth thinking about the extent we went to produce something the wrong way around. It may be the hallmark – but there are other print candidates – of the atmosphere at TGL.”

287042Rodney Konopaki worked at Tyler Graphics from 1976–1987 as head of the etching department. More of his memories are shared on our website and in  Workshop: The Kenneth Tyler Collection

Works from the Swan engravings series are on display now in Frank Stella: The Kenneth Tyler Print Collection at the National Gallery of Australia.


  1. Lindsay Green

    Hey this piece by Rodney K. is wonderful to read. All true! I remember those long days of Q tips. BTW I think I took all those black and white photos. Lindsay Green

    • tylercollection

      Hi Lindsay! We’re glad you enjoyed reminiscing about the Q-tip days! Your wonderful photos really help to understand just how exacting the processes were. If you click through the photos you’ll see that we have credited you as the photographer.
      Thanks for getting in touch
      Best wishes

    • Fritzi Huber

      Lindsay Green, I’ve enjoyed your photos so much, and realized that the reason there seem to be no images of you is because you had the camera. A question: you’re a papermaker… are you a part of the Green family of Hayle Mill? Fritzi Huber

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