TAMPA — To Tampa naturalist John Costin, the bird is the word. Especially Florida birds.
For decades, Costin has been making etchings of birds using one of the oldest and most complex printing processes in the world. His work hangs in the galleries of the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa, The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg and, fittingly, The Audubon Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina.
Now through Oct. 15, his works and other related ephemera are on display in “Etched Feathers: A History of the Printed Bird” at the Tampa Bay History Center.
We visited Costin at the history center and then went to his Ybor City studio to see how the etchings are made.
Brad Massey, the Saunders Foundation curator of public history, said that Costin had contributed to exhibits at the Tampa Bay History Center in the past, so they wanted to do a show with him. However, because the center isn’t an art gallery, they decided to include some of Costin’s collection of manuscripts on ornithology (the study of birds). Those feature etchings of birds that employ similar printmaking techniques that Costin uses.
Examples that stretch back centuries are on display, including an 1808 edition by Alexander Wilson, who is considered the father of American ornithology. It has a hand-painted etching of the Carolina parakeet, a bird that is now extinct but once was common in Florida.
Naturally, the work of John James Audubon is an influence, but Costin has secured his spot in the lineage of the artistic tradition of documenting birds. He even has his own book, “Large Florida Birds,” that will likely serve as an educational and inspirational tool for generations to come.
During a tour of the show, Costin described the many details of each bird’s life — like the rare snail kite, which only eats snails — and shared cool anecdotes about seeing them in the wild. It’s safe to call him an expert on Florida’s birds.
The history of printmaking processes is detailed in a display, and a small press that belongs to Costin and a selection of tools he uses in his process are on view.
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His lifelong inspiration
Costin has been interested in birds since childhood. When he moved to Florida in 1970, he was fascinated with the large-scale birds he saw everywhere, prompting him to research them. He likes to say that they’re contemporary dinosaurs.
He begins his artistic process by bird-watching out in the field and taking photographs. He doesn’t work directly from the photos — he never wants his portraits to look like photographs — but uses them for reference of poses and for details like scale patterns and coloration. He sometimes goes to bird rehabilitation centers and has even used taxidermy birds of extinct species for reference.
He starts with a small drawing in graphite and adds watercolor, to help decide the composition and colors. They will become enlarged true to size by the time they are printed. He usually only does one bird, but because sandhill cranes mate for life, he decided to do a pair.
That piece is on display in the exhibition and is the one he showed us the process of making at his studio.
Costin said he is also inspired by the simplicity of Japanese prints, which he has studied. Their influence is reflected in the landscape aspects of the prints.
Costin’s Ybor City studio is in a building from 1904 that had been a dry-goods store. He bought it in 1989, and it was a mess, having been through a fire. The two-story, red brick building is packed to the rafters with tools, pigments, large rolls of paper and more than 50 sets of flat files that he stores artwork in. There is so much work in those files that he created a digital database so he can locate particular pieces.
In a front office, a wall full of ribbons shows how many awards he’s won over the years. Notes from his creative process are taped to the walls and a cuckoo clock periodically goes berserk in the room where his custom-made printing press lives.
His custom-designed printing press
The press Costin was working on kept breaking down and was costly to repair, so the machinist who worked on it offered to build one for him. Costin, who has a background as an electrician, designed it himself.
A struggling artist at the time, Costin needed to cut corners. So he dug through the pile of scrap metal at the Port of Tampa and found two pipes covered in rust. It was old city of Tampa sewer line. The machinist friend had to remove the rust with a metal lathe, breaking tools and cursing Costin along the way.
The press is motorized and Costin made sure to place the motor in a spot that wouldn’t interfere with his printing. It has automatic stops in 1-inch increments, perfect for Costin’s printing process (but more on that later).
He said he’s never had any press problems since.
His elaborate process
Costin starts with a small watercolor — a crucial step because he has to plot out exactly how he wants it to look given that the plates take so much time to render the final work. Then he blows up the scale and redraws it on vellum — a thin parchment paper — and uses that to transfer the drawing directly to the plate.
He applies soft ground, a kind of high-quality asphalt that is sensitive to pressure, to the copper plate. Then he attaches the vellum to the plate and draws on top of that, using a bridge to keep his hand from touching it, as it could even pick up a fingerprint. He also draws directly onto the plate with a variety of tools, like the ones that are on display in the exhibition.
The plate then goes into an acid bath that etches the drawing where the copper has been exposed.
For each image, he repeats the process on two to five copper plates, which are then each hand-wiped with a different color. (Costin likens the process to controlled finger painting.) They are then printed on top of each other. This is where the aforementioned automatic stops on the press make the difference.
“I print wet on wet,” he said. “I’ll have one plate, send it through the press with one color. I’ll leave the paper trapped underneath the roller so it won’t move. I pull the paper up and replace it with another plate and send it back through. It’s real important that I calculate the stretch (of the paper) and it stops at the same precise location each pass through the press.”
He said that he has to use engineering skills to get the registration right, for the images to match up. The paper stretches and expands as it goes through the press under 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. To compensate for the stretch, the plates get gradually larger with each pass.
He must always use the same type of paper for consistency. There are also variables to contend with. For example, if it’s raining outside, Costin said the change in the humidity will affect the paper stretch and change the registration.
“It’s like a scientific experiment where every variable is constant to get predictable results,” he said.
For durability, Costin faces the plates with a thin layer of steel, which is harder than copper. This enables him to do multiple editions from the plates without losing quality. It also makes the colors more vibrant because of the greenish hue oxidized copper creates. He treats the plates with WD40 to keep them from rusting.
Costin then hand-paints the pieces with transparent paint. While some editions may contain as many as 250 prints, no two pieces are ever the same.
Because the process is so complicated, Costin said he tries to print a lot of the edition ahead of time and then paint them as needed.
He also engineered a method for drying the paper using corrugated cardboard so that airflow will help the etchings dry flat and come out unwrinkled, or “crispy.”
Costin uses an in-house framer to archivally frame the prints, using museum glass to reduce glare while protecting the work from fading.
The process is time-consuming from start to finish. When we visited his studio, Costin had been working on the sandhill cranes piece “Verdant Landscape” for about eight months. He recently showed it at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver, where he won an award of merit.
‘Large Florida Birds’
Costin’s book, “Large Florida Birds,” is a tome of 20 years worth of handmade works, featuring 20 plates along with hundreds of pages of text about the life histories of the birds. He said it took about four months just to create the plates for each piece and then seven hours to finish the printing and hand-painting.
Of the initial run, only a few books remain.
The foreword was written by Jack E. Davis, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.”
Davis writes that Costin “has been in pursuit of beauty for most of his life, as a birder and artist, as someone who fell in love with Florida’s wild heart early on. He took that love and a keen eye, to say nothing of talent and dedication, and turned it into a life’s passion, the fruits of which, are in part, this book. His paintings reflect the abiding inspiration of some of the oldest species on the planet and a sturdy association between art and natural Florida.”
To learn more about Costin, visit costingraphics.com.
What to know before you go to ‘Etched Feathers’
“Etched Feathers: The History of the Printed Bird” is on view through Oct. 15. $12.95-$16.95. Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Water St., Tampa. tampabayhistorycenter.org.