Ceding control to solvents

Solvents can make you lose control… in a good way. I learned about using them with monoprints during my time at Penland School of Crafts.

One of my biggest complaints about relief printmaking is that it is hard to have an image look painterly. You either have flat ink, some kind of blend roll, or layers of texture made by a rotary tool. Flow is something you rarely get with a relief print.

Solvent creates icy effects
This iceberg was created by dropping mineral spirits onto a rich phthalo blue inked plate.

Solvents are the Wild West

This iceberg image was one of the first ones where I used solvent freely. I liberally dropped mineral spirits on a transparent layer of phthalo blue lithography ink. Using a Q-tip and a paint brush, I drew around the areas with the solvent, and then let the pigment disperse. If you have ever sprinkled salt crystals on wet watercolor, the effect is similar, but much more pronounced.

Solvents are the Wild West on the monoprinting plate. Your inks can bleed into areas you didn’t intend, such as where the iceberg is now peaking out above the surface of the water. While oil-based ink can stay “open” — meaning you can work with it or wait to print for some time, when you put down the solvent, you are on the clock. I found that within 10-15 minutes, areas of my block had little pigment, and the surface appeared dry. When printed, you will see the white of the printing paper. Whether this is what you intended, or not. Delays also mean you lose some of the sharp details that solvents and brushes can create.

Bringing solvent back to the home studio

Despite the challenges of solvents, I was determined to figure out a way to use them in my home studio. I don’t have adequate ventilation to use solvents in my basement, so I purchased a small metal office table at the IU Surplus Store and placed it outside, close to a door that leads to the basement. I can bring the inked plate outside, use Q-tips, brushes and toothbrush bristles to apply the solvent to the plate, and then rush the plate back inside to the press.

Be careful to keep the plate perfectly level on the way to the press. Juicy solvent areas will run. I learned that the hard way.

Gamsol moves relief ink.
Gamsol moved the Gamblin relief ink well, but the ink itself transferred poorly from the plate to dry paper.

The battle between solvents, inks and papers

Even outside, odorless mineral spirits are toxic, so I was hopeful that I could use Gamblin’s Gamsol as a solvent and use my Gamblin relief inks for monotypes. I discovered two things: 1) the Gamsol moved the relief ink quickly on the plate, but 2) the Gamblin relief ink transferred poorly from the polycarbonate plate to dry paper. Gamblin’s website does recommend monoprinting on damp paper, but my studio doesn’t have the capability to soak paper. It would have to be done in our only bathtub up an entire flight of stairs. Plus once you get paper wet, it is difficult to register subsequent layers. So no relief ink…

Luckily I had some Hanco lithography inks, like those I used at Penland.  Unfortunately, the Gamsol didn’t move this ink well at all. So I will need to continue using odorless mineral spirits on my monoprint plates, and reacquaint myself with litho inks.

Gamsol didn't move lithography ink
Gamsol wasn’t strong enough to move the lithography inks in the ways I wanted.

One of the challenges I made for myself is to use new techniques intentionally. I want to ask myself — is there a reason why I am using solvent in this piece — other than the fact that it creates cool organic oozings of color…

This block has a great deal of ink and solvent. Not sure it is going to print well…

Here is a sneak peek at a multi-layered monoprint that I created using solvent and tape. Parts were successful, and parts went, well, squish.

More about the squish and the tape to come…


How do you stretch your artistic brain?

After a tough, non-artistic stretch this summer, I’ve not felt very excited to begin the next linoleum print. If I’m honest, I haven’t felt that excitement for a while.

Last winter, I came across encaustic monotypes by Paula Roland in the book Installations and Experimental Printmaking by Alexia Tala.  Roland used long scrolls of sumi paper and printed them with encaustic paint. Encaustic paint is a mixture of beeswax, damar resin and dry pigment. This paint is melted on a heated surface and paper is put on top to absorb the wax and pigment. It is a fascinating process that I’ll come back to in future posts.

Melted wax and pigment scraped together after a monoprinting session.

In May, I travelled to Santa Fe, NM to take a four day workshop from Roland. I was the only student who had never worked in encaustics, and Roland was kind enough to let me experiment and make lots of “newbie art,” while providing gentle guidance. I was amazed at how exciting and yet tiring it can be to learn something new. As adults, I think we shy away from trying new things, especially if we sense that we will not automatically be good at them.

Back at home, I finally got all of the accoutrement for encaustic printmaking (more about later too.) Now to begin…

Wow! I find I am still very much in the learning phase.  My original intent was to think about ways that this technique might harmonize with what I am already doing. At this point I have no idea if it will…


Experiments from this week.

One of the problems with my studio practice up to this point is that there is very little room for creative exploration. I find reduction printmaking a pretty linear process.

With this problem in mind, I’ve been rereading three favorite books on artistic practice. I realized I need to have time each day to lose myself in the creative process. Stephen Nachmanovitch in Free Play would call this flow. Encaustic monotypes are perfect for this. Yet I’m still making lots of “newbie” art. So I decided I would spend at least one hour each week day just experimenting. I use small pieces of paper, and gather them up at the end of the day to see what worked best, what was surprising, and yes, what was dreadful.


Three great books for all creative types.

I’m giving myself several months to do this. Maybe at some point I’ll have a breakthrough. Or maybe I will become motivated to do new lino prints. I have no idea.

Have you undertaken a new activity, especially one that is scary and unknown?