(Chuck Close/Courtesy Pace Gallery)

Imagine taking a piece of paper that’s been covered in charcoal and erasing it a little bit at a time, until a detailed image emerges. That’s essentially the task painter and photographer Chuck Close set for himself in 1972, during his first visit to the Crown Point Press, a San Francisco printmaking studio.

How did that work out for him? Find out at the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press,” which displays multiple iterations of prints made by Close and two dozen other artists.

“When people go into a museum, they often only see the end product,” co-curator Judith Brodie says. “To see the struggle along the way is a very eye-opening experience.”

That struggle was especially evident in the work of Close, who chose an outmoded process called mezzotint for his first Crown Point project. The centuries-old technique uses plates of engraved copper or steel. Rough parts of the plate collect ink, left behind when the plate is pressed onto paper. Smooth bits print lighter.

Before he began engraving a roughened copper plate by smoothing areas by hand, Close drew a grid on the photo he wanted to copy, then etched a corresponding grid onto the plate as a guide.

“His thought was that … the grid would fall back visually into the background as he filled in more of the image, until you couldn’t see it anymore,” Brodie says.

The opposite happened. Every time Close made a test print — about 50 times over eight weeks — the press slightly flattened the roughed-up copper. The areas Close engraved first — notably the center of his subject’s face — printed lighter and lighter, and the grid became more obvious with each proof.

It was a potentially tragic error. But Close began to love the grid, which gave viewers insight into the printmaking process.

“That was a real milestone,” Brodie says. “The grid became a very visible part of his imagemaking from that point after.”

It was, she says, a resounding “yes!”

A Work in Progress

1. “Study for Keith,” left: Chuck Close drew a grid onto a photo of his friend, sculptor Keith Hollingworth, and lightly etched a corresponding grid onto a copper plate. He then copied the image by hand, square by square, onto the plate.

2. “Keith (working proof),” center: Every time Close pulled a proof to see how his engraving was going, the pressure of the press lightened the portrait’s background, causing the grid to become more and more visible. The lightest squares at the center are the ones Close finished first. The black sections are ones he hadn’t started yet.

3. “Keith,” right: Close considered trying to get rid of the grid. He decided to keep it in the final product as testament to the laborious printmaking process. He never made another mezzotint, but grids played a prominent role in his subsequent work, created with fingerprints and in other unconventional ways. S.d.

National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through Jan. 5, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)