Making Prints: Prep and the Voice of Doubt

Adventures in Printmaking: Prep

First of all, let me make it clear, that I have not had any formal training in printmaking other than a session during art class in high school where I learned to make linoleum block prints. I made Christmas cards as a fundraiser for high school band. So, there is no one to blame for my lack of experience or skill, or for the mistakes I make, except me. Feel free to comment if you feel I’ve made a specific mistake that your teacher warned you about…

Second, I have a number of books, all of which are well thumbed. And stained with a bit of ink at this stage. I will provide a list. What you should know, however, is that the most detailed book I’ve obtained so far is “Practical Guide to Etching and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques” by Manly Banister. I will refer to Manly many times. I’m sure he would be irritated with me, considering my screw ups, but he’s my mentor for this run through. I have already been pointed towards “The Complete Printmaker” book, and I will pick it up soon.

I had a very difficult time getting over the internal voice that said I couldn’t do this. I bought a lot of the equipment five years ago, and poked at it again during the Derrybawn Project. And still I didn’t do much with it. I may be a little less than fussy right now, when it comes to the results, but I needed to jump in before the voice talked me out of it again.

In 2007, I purchased a small 906 etching press, an extended phenolic bed plate and high quality wool press blankets giving me 12×36 space to print. I ordered Stonehenge printing papers and a large package of golden, artist linoleum sheets. I also purchased a small hand press, capable of making 8×10 prints, linoleum cutting tools and a selection of ‘easy cut‘ rubber plates of different brands. Somewhere in there, while reveling in a sale, I also mistakenly picked up a very nice selection of engraving burins instead of the wood carving tools I thought I bought. Instead of returning them, I bought a book on wood engraving and I bought a few small wood engraving blocks. Since I was quitting my day job that year, I stocked up while I still had the paychecks.

What I did manage to do that year was to create four block plates. Three were smaller: a Scythian stag, an abstracted bird, and a Celtic cross. The larger was a very nice piece called ’Raven Sun and Serpent Moon’ usually shorted to ’Raven sun and moon’. I ran a number of prints from each block on my hand press, as the rubber plates were too soft to handle the pressure of the bigger press without distorting.

Raven Sun and Serpent Moon

But then I stopped. The prints did not sell well, and I ended up without the room to make prints as our house was renovated after the kitchen flooded. My studio became a catchall for kitchen stuff, and it was hard to work. I had room to make drawings on a board in my lap on the couch.

During the Derrybawn Project in 2010, I promised myself I would start in on printmaking again. I purchased a diamond tip scriber and two zinc plates. Money was tighter, so I didn’t go crazy. I also bought two acrylic plates. The Project took a different turn when I was asked to create plates for digital reproductions. Other than two linoleum plates of birds and two more small easy-cut plates, I didn’t produce anything for hand-pulling prints. The digital printing fell through and I was left with a large selection of black and white art, no money and a deep funk.

Shield Raven

I took up a part-time job in 2011, and I pulled myself out of the funk with some experimentation in gelatin printmaking. Less intense and more free-flowing, I splashed a lot of color around and got some really good results. I also started plotting out some large landscape pieces, though I did not have the money for the supplies I wanted. By the end of 2011, I was promising myself to use only supplies on hand to do artwork, so the landscapes were put on hold, and I began experimenting with collage using only materials in my studio. It came around to the printmaking again, as I realized that I needed to use the equipment or sell it.

Finding that three of my original four plates were cracked, including my favorite Raven, I gave up on the easy-carve plates. I was having some health problems that affected my joints, so making linoleum blocks was a bit problematic with only old, dull linoleum cutting tools. I had to throw out the remaining golden linoleum sheets as they were water damaged and hard as a rock. I still had two linoleum plates that I had never printed, a small selection of zinc, wood and acrylic plates, the engraving tools, and the diamond scriber.

I had all the makings for dry point plates and engravings. I even had paper. But the negative voice kept at me, and it wasn’t until March of 2012 that I managed to get past it. It kept telling me how difficult it was to get good results, how I had never taken classes, how much more money I would have to invest, etc. etc.

All I needed was the fiddly, little bits. Manly listed everything I needed. Chalk, blotting paper, a bin to soak the printing paper, rags, a drying rack and … oh yes, etching ink. I had block printing ink, but dry point is an intaglio process, requiring a different ink.

A storage bin became a soaking bin. I put screws into the walls in the corner of my studio and strung up some clothesline. I bought clothespins. I found carpenter’s chalk and a box of rags at the Home Depot. Newsprint pads were on clearance at the local craft store. Etching ink was the most expensive thing I had to get. There were six pricing levels at the store, so I dug through the colors until I found two of the cheapest; a soft black and red ochre. Budget would drive my choices, but it was a guideline, not a hammer. Staying with the inexpensive series allowed me to pick two.

No voice of doubt could stop me now…..



Gelatin Prints

It has been a while, but as I work on the larger pieces of the Horizon Project, I took some time to add some colors to my portfolio.

Gelatin Monoprinting is a way I use to get a break from the intense detail and technical challenge in the drawings and Celtic Design I love. The printing process is loose, and the results are easy to manipulate, but impossible to control. And the colors are beautiful.

Monoprinting means just one version of a print. Why do it for just one print? Try it and see. Each one is amazingly unique. Monoprinting can be done on many surfaces, with glass plates a popular choice. Gelatin Monoprinting uses a soft, gelatin plate which eventually deteriorates. I haven’t tried glass yet, but I’ll note the differences when I try it.

To start with the Gelatin process, pick up the unflavored gelatin at a store. Knox brand is the most prevalent in US stores, with packets in the box measured to 1/4 ounce each. If you are using another brand or buying in bulk, it takes an ounce of gelatin in 4 US cups of water to make a decent small plate. I use a 9×9 Pyrex baking pan for small prints, and it produces a nice, thick chunk of gel which is easily removed from the smooth surface.

I have also used 4 cups of gelatin mix poured in a large cookie sheet, leaving the gel in the pan and using it right off the surface for medium sized prints. My plates are limited by the size I can fit in my refrigerator.

To start:
STEP ONE: Place four packets or 1 ounce of gelatin powder into one cup of cold water to set for a minute.
TWO: Add 3 cups of boiling water and stir gently until the gelatin melts to a liquid state.
THREE: Pour into the mold you have chosen and let set in the refrigerator for 5-6 hours.

Yes, this is the exact instruction on the Knox brand box for making gel blocks with fruit juice. Except without the juice. It produces a large, rubbery block of gelatin. Pouring gelatin quickly results in bubbles. If you end up with unwanted amounts of bubbles on the surface of the gel, take the straight edge of a paper towel and draw it over the surface from one side to the other. It should draw up most of the bubbles and leave a smooth surface.

FOUR: As suggested by Betty Crocker, set the bottom of the mold in a bath of hot water for a few seconds, then unmold your gelatin creation onto a flat surface. I cover a drawing board with freezer paper or waxed paper and anticipate getting a bit messy. When I’m done, I pull up the paper, roll up the gel and paper, and ditch the whole mess in the garbage.

Onto the messy part….

When I first read about the process, from three or four other sources, I found the suggestion of using water-based printing ink. Good enough. Give it a try. Printing inks are mostly opaque, and produce a specific result. Transparent drawing inks create another. I have found that watercolor paper works very well. I have also used Bristol and some printing papers, though thinner papers don’t work as well for me. I also have had some very nice results from using textured Aquabord panels from Ampersand. I also use acrylic gessoed canvas, though the gesso can resist some of the thinner inks. My favorite surface to date is the absorbent panel gesso created by Art Boards over a wooden panel. That gets expensive, so start out with a selection of papers. Oil from your fingers can also cause some thinner inks to be resisted, so if you are going to work on a paper or canvas surface before printing, be sure to stay aware of how you touch the surface.

You can use cut out paper or stencils to create designs, blocking the ink from the surface of the plate, or blocking the ink from reaching the paper. Leaves, string and sponges can create textures. Roll the ink with a brayer, or just smear the ink around with your fingers. Cut the plate with a knife for lines which gather up more ink. Use a dull tool to make ragged lines. Wipe off ink. Use layers of opaque and transparent. The gelatin can be marked with something as simple as a stiff bristled paintbrush, though I’ve used forks and quilting templates as well.

Cut the plate into pieces and try using them to print. Then, after all that, throw away the mess and make another plate. I like to make two to begin the day. Draw something on the finished print, using the color as a background. Use acrylic gels, crayons and drawing inks to prepare a paper or canvas before printing.

To move from one color to another, especially when moving between contrasting colors, blot the first colors with absorbent paper or paper towels. Color blends add depth, but too much orange and green can get muddy. It is hard to actually wipe the gel surface, so blot instead. Lay a piece of paper on the plate and peel it off.

As the gelatin plate is used, it will add a bit of gelatin to the ink or paint you use, creating some different looks as you go. The plate will begin to fall apart, depending on how much damage you do to it in creating texture, and bits of gel can end up on your print. My suggestion is to wait until the paint is dry to remove bits of gel. A deteriorating plate can produce great effects with lines and gouges picking up colors differently.

Scrapbooking stores sell allllll sorts of inks, powders and papers to play with. They also sell stencils and adhesives. You can create papers to cut and past with this technique, and I first learned how to do it from some scrapbooking sources. Quilters will use this technique for coloring fabrics as well, utilizing fabric paints.

This isn’t a very technical explanation, so for those of you who want more info, I’ve included some links to some great sites. I prefer a loose and haphazard approach to this technique in order to indulge in pushing the color around.

Gelatin Monoprint with Acrylic Gel

Gelatin Monoprint with Acrylic Gel

Gelatin Monoprint with grey crayon

Gelatin Monoprint with grey crayon

Gelatin monoprint on Bristol

Gelatin monoprint on Bristol

Gelatin Monoprint with India Ink

Gelatin Monoprint with India Ink


No, really sketching every day

Seriously, sketching is like working out. Get your hand used to moving a certain way, get your eyes used to analyzing a scene or catching a sleeve crease, and make these things part of your daily life. And now, I walk the walk and talk the talk, showing off my daily sketches in the hopes that you too will work every day on those things which are close to your heart.

A bit of color. I use ‘Ink-tense’ pencils to color my quick sketches. They are Derwent brand pencils with a watercolor-pencil like consistency. But when you add water washes to make them into paint, they actually become permanent, making them less likely to smear or bleed in high humidity in my abused little sketch pads. I sometimes use a brush with an internal compartment for water when I travel, so I don’t have to carry too much. I also freely use water offered to me at restaurants, blotting my little 0 watercolor brush on paper napkins. I don’t use a lot of color as I go, but sometimes I find it helps.

shy holly dragon

shy holly dragon

And a few sketches showing how the sketch-a-day progress is improving my work in Celtic art. The first is a quick layout for a chariot, the second a quick layout for a piece on Bellanos.

two horse chariot

two horse chariot



So, the sketching is definitely paying off, giving me a better feel for putting down ideas in quick formats and keeping them dated and organized. I feel more confident in putting layouts together without as much fussing, and saving the critique for later.




Lighting up (Ps)

The work progresses on other pieces, but today is the day to work with the Pookah.

I have worked up an intricate border of spirals for this piece. I wasn’t sure how detailed I was going to be, as I didn’t have a clear view of this piece yet.

I’ve finally decided to work the Pookah in a crisper and darker fashion than originally intended. Rather than work with loose and light glazes of colors to create a more mystical look, I’ve decided to work with ink and crowquill nibs to render some rich details and spirals. Especially in the border.

I’ll add watercolors in oranges, reds and golds, and work in some highlights of gouche in copper to bring up my feeling of autumn. The central image of the Pookah will be a bit less stylized than the border, but maintaining a clarity of detail.

The first step is to transfer the design, laid out on a masonite board, to a heavy sheet of cold press 140 lb. watercolor paper. I usually use D’Arches blocks because I have a very limited storage space for paper, and I have three cats who get into things. Blocks store upright without warping any papers.

I would usually use hot press paper, to get in my details, but in this case, I wanted the cold press texture to come out in the central design.

I don’t own a light table, and wouldn’t have much room to install one big enough for most of my watercolors, so I use a vertical surface. After tracing the design from the board, I tape it to the large window next to my easel, and then tape the watercolor paper over it. It works well for large pieces, though it can cause some stress in the lower back if you work at it too long.

I use an H or 2H to lightly trace the design. Any harder and the pencil will dig into the paper and lines will bleed with paint. Any softer and the lines are too dark and smear too easily. I don’t always follow the lines exactly, so I don’t want them dark or deep enough to alter the flow of ink or paint.

After lightly tracing the lines, I will soak the paper lightly and tack it to my board with staples or tape. I may lose some lines in the soaking, but they are more of a suggestion, anyway. I’ll have enough to work with.



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