Loving my latest printing project although all is not going to plan. But isn’t that the beauty of printing? The serendipity of result when peeling back the printed sheet from the print plate? The unexpected joy or frustration at seeing something unique – be it good or bad – on paper.
As I’m not achieving my goals I think a review of techniques and materials is in order. Good for me to reconsider how I’m working and, hopefully, a benefit to anyone else learning or wanting to revisit the basics. So here are my 4 ‘P’s of printing:
P1: Print plate
The print plate or substrate is the base used as the ink carrier and transfer substructure. In my current project I’ve created a collagraph; a mountboard base which has items adhered to the surface and also cut away sections.
Above left is the set of collagraph plates I’ve used and shown on my blog so far. They were sealed with satin varnish. On the right is my new set, sealed with shellac. I’ve done away with most of the modelling medium which creates rough print areas and instead used a gel medium and pressed tarlatan (like stiffened muslin) into it to form a grid-like pattern. Sorry, impossible to see from the plates, wait for the prints.
Reflection: Happy with my plates so far.
P2: Pigments/Printing inks
I’m using oil based printing inks, good quality and consistency. They allow me time to position colours and rub back sections without drying out.
Above, close-up of latest print with good ink pick-up, great definition (white line) between my ‘jigsaw’ of plates. I’ve abandoned the yellows of my previous trials and have moved to cadmium red dark + a touch of black.
Reflection: Even though I’m not the greatest printer on earth, I know how to mix and apply inks correctly. No problems here.
I’m using a large etching press with 2 blankets and a 10cm deep foam on top of the plate. This should ensure that the paper is pushed into all the crevices and so picks up ink in both relief and intaglio.
Reflection: Press pressure is good, foam seems to do its job and ink transfer is fine, except….
Oh, the minefield of paper decisions: heavy or lightweight; dry, damp or spritzed; cotton rag or other; handmade or commercial; smooth or rough surface. Need I go on? I feel my problem lies here, and here is my explanation.
My mountboard plates have both positive and negative print areas. As can be seen from the photos below, I have adhered some textural paper to the plate surface, bringing additional height in some areas. In other areas I have cut away the mountboard surface creating depressions or cavities.
There are several ways of carving into mountboard. Using a craft knife, scalpel or Stanley knife precise shapes can be cut and removed as shown. Using the same blades, simple cut strokes can be made. However, as nothing is removed, this method creates a ‘burr’ either side of the split in the surface – and this will attract and hold ink. Usually you can also cause minor depressions in the board surface without cutting at all – hammering lightly, punches and the like achieve great results.
If you apply ink using a piece of cardboard across the surface, you should get good coverage across the whole plate and you should find that the ink (if you have the correct consistency) slips into, and pools, in the cutouts and the higher regions.
Follow this with a rub over with some tarlatan and you can create highlights by removing selected areas of ink (see close-up of print left).
If you roll ink over the surface instead of the cardboard method then it’s likely that the ink will not sink into the cutouts, particularly very narrow cuts where no board was removed. Instead, it will catch in the burrs as per the diagram above left and your cut strokes will not print.
I used the cardboard method, had ink in every cut away section, rubbed away selected areas and still it didn’t work correctly. So we turn to the paper.
Generally, dry paper has no flexibility so will sit over cut areas and not pick up ink (diagram A). This applies particularly to the most popular heavier weight printing papers. Keep in mind that the ink sinks into the depression and may not be level with the surface due to rubbing away the excess with tarlatan.
Lightweight dry paper can sometimes stretch slightly and dip into crevasses but often won’t pick up ink at the edges of a cut area (diagram B). Lightly spritzed Kozo, Iwaki, Hosho and other Japanese print papers may fare better. Spritzing these isn’t always advised though.
Cotton rag paper, designed specifically to be soaked then blotted before printing, will have a decent degree of stretch and can mould itself well into peaks and troughs. By making cut out areas shallower and using a well soaked and blotted print paper such as BFK Reeves, Hahnemuhle, some Fabriano papers and the like you should get good ink pick-up (diagram C).
Reflection: My cutouts are too deep and wide for the paper. I’m printing on dry lightweight (maybe 50-60gsm) Chinese cotton and, whilst it has some give in it, it isn’t flexible enough to stretch into every nook and cranny. Why don’t I dampen it? It’s simply too fragile.
Solution is to move to damp BFK Reeves when using this plate and make a new, more suitable, plate for the remaining prints I require on the Chinese cotton.
BONUS P5: Perseverance
Never give up. The beauty of printmaking is that you never, never stop learning. What works today might not be so successful next week, but you just need to keep going.
When it works, when you finally achieve something spectacular (whether anyone else thinks it is or not!), the feeling of satisfaction is worth every second of that labour-intensive struggle.