In the late 80s Antonia had a eureka moment! Her mother opened a little restaurant in Old Street, London and Antonia designed and hand silkscreen printed 100 menus for her. These were so popular with the customers that they took them home to put them on their walls. “It was really encouraging,” she says, “and it gave me a flavour of what it would be like to produce a limited edition of my work.”
Supported by her family she studied illustration at Brighton School of Art and tried all sorts of things – including watercolour, silkscreen printing and book binding. Printmaking was her real passion but when she started out as a commercial illustrator in the mid 80s watercolour illustration was what everyone wanted. So began a career as a freelance illustrator, working to tight briefs and often having to turn around an illustration in a day. Wine labels, magazine illustrations, book covers – you name it, she did them.
For a long time it was exciting, but gradually the magic faded. By this time she was married with three children and had moved out of London to Kent. “I started to dread the phone ringing with work,” she says. “There comes a time when you want to create art for your own sake.”
Her journey with drawing and printing began again when she discovered Seal Chart Etchers (sealchartetchingstudio.art) which teaches etching and offers workshop space. “I really love it there and there’s been no looking back. I started one day a week and have been with them for over ten years.”
Many of her pictures begin with a story. Her picture `Girls talk’, for example, features the chair her late father always used to sit in. Above the chair are two portraits that Antonia inherited from him that seem to be in conversation. “I love the idea of remembering how he would sit in his chair watching telly,” she says. “And as soon as we girls would arrive in the room and start chatting animatedly he would get up and leave. It was very familiar to me, seeing an empty chair with people chatting around it. I don’t think an empty chair is ever really empty, I just imagine the life that chair has lived and seen.”
Once she has chosen and drawn an image then the etching process can begin. She starts by rolling a wax resist onto a prepared zinc or copper plate in order to create a hard or soft `ground’.
With a hard ground the wax is smoked and hardened and she then draws into it with a sharp pointed implement. The plate then goes into an acid bath for varying amounts of time, say a couple of minutes, and this bites the lines into the plate. She then paints over or `stops out’ the lines she doesn’t want to etch any further and they will be the very lightest lines. The longer the lines are exposed the darker they will be in the final print. She then inks the plate, cleans it with a scrim – leaving the ink sitting in the etched lines - and pulls the plate through a printing press so that the ink is pressed onto the paper.
With a soft ground the wax remains unhardened. Often Antonia draws on it, rather than into it, by placing a piece of paper onto the wax and drawing onto that. The paper lifts the wax off the plate where it has been drawn upon. “That’s a lovely process because it is so sensitive, it can even pick up a fingerprint and it replicates the soft line of a pencil or crayon. That then goes into the acid for just one hit, and you wash it off, and then repeat again and again, increasing the depth of the lines until your image is as you want it.”
It's a painstaking, technical process. “You need tremendous patience, to really focus to get it right”, she says. “I really enjoy the development, the pushing forward you get with it. It takes you out of your comfort zone, you’re in the lap of the gods in some ways. It’s intriguing, it’s tremendously rewarding, and you never quite know what you are going to get before you pull it from the press. I think it’s a lovely process.”
“It’s always been my therapy, my art. I love the feeling of getting completely lost in the process. And you’re just constantly learning about how you are seeing things and how you are interpreting life.”