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Some Non-Toxic Printmaking Results

I've been experimenting with non-toxic printmaking for a few years, and have even started teaching printmaking classes in the summer using these principles. What does "non-toxic" mean? It means that you try to replace all the chemicals used in the traditional printmaking processes -- many of which are now known to damage your health, as well as causing damage to the environment -- with agents that are safe to the user and can disperse harmlessly in the local water supply.

As I've converted my own processes, I've discovered that nothing is really completely non-toxic. There always seems to be a residual pollution, but compared to the acids and tars that were formerly used, the difference is huge. In terms of what the new materials can give you in terms of mark-making, I have also found that certain things are easier to replace than others. The Akua range of soy-based printmaking inks, for example: I found it a little difficult at first to judge the correct amount of ink to use for relief blocks and etching plates, but I soon got used to them. I still use oil-based inks for the paper-litho transfer technique, but I always use vegetable oil to clean up now, instead of the solvents and spirits I used in the past.

"Coal", paper-litho transfers, accordion binding

But for several years, I have tried to follow the non-toxic path to reproduce the etching techniques that are still my favourite form of printmaking -- such as hard ground etching, soft ground etching, and aquatint. The old grounds were produced with a lung-choking chemical mixture of tar-based resist, and rosin dust that is a known carcinogen. In an attempt to reduce the use of chemicals even further, I have been experimenting with ways of using carborundum and acrylic resist to make collagraphs that reproduce the appearance of an aquatint and hard-ground etching. I have had very little success, but last week I finally made a few prints that come close:

The lighter areas are in fact a dried layer of Lascaux acrylic resist, poured onto 5" x 7" aluminium plates (the thin, cheap variety that you can get from hardware stores for about $20 per 100). I then drew lines into the surface, which when I inked them up caught the ink like a hard-ground drawing. The thicker, darker areas are produced by pouring a mixture of resist and carborundum onto the plate. When that dries, the combination of grit particles and the tiny spaces in between each particle holds a lot of ink. You can vary the tones in those dark areas by adding more of the resist and making it more liquid.

For good measure, I added some chine colle when I printed these plates, though the contrast between the two kinds of paper wasn't strong enough to show. Another test that worked, though, was to clean one of the plates (using vegetable oil), then inking it up and printing it again, to see if it produced more than one print. I'm glad to say that it did. The ink, by the way, is Charbonell Etching Ink, Madder plus a little Black.

These were only test plates, but I had the imagery of coal, circles of coal, and mountains of coal in my mind that I have been playing with and returning to for the last few years, so I am of a mind to keep these and add them to the developing work.


  1. Phillip

    if you have questions on this kind of thing do feel free to email me. Its quite likely that I will have done something that is relevant. Good outcome I think. best wishes



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