Non Toxic Photopolymer Printing – setting up your own workspace

If you are an advanced printmaker and are brave enough to set up your own studio – read on, this is for you. I review the mistakes I made in setting up my studio, and outline how much, or little, you can expect to pay to have your own working studio

“Just calibrate your studio,” they said…

Is it just I, or do you sense there are potentially problems ahead when you hear the word “just”?

I have always worked in managed studios, such as ELP, and GE Grave. There was always someone to work out the exposure times, mix the developer etc. Yes of course, some days were better than others, due to my own artwork, inclination and imagination. But the studios generally worked ok, even if I was left with a feeling that is was all alchemy. I loved the results but I didn’t know how it worked. Not really.

But this year I setup my own space. This was in a bid to understand it better, to be able to work in my studio myself, and to offer courses.

Now it is completed, it is wonderful. But in doing so I learned so much about what can go wrong too. That is shorthand for saying I tore my hair out for 2 months.

I developed a deep appreciation for all those who have gone before me. I owe a lot to Henrik Boerg, and was lucky enough to visit his studio in Spain. I came home to set up my own studio. The following notes are about my own experience in doing this, in the hope that I can save you a few of the rookie traps I fell into.

In your enthusiasm, there is so much that can go wrong at each step of the way; when you first set up. If you are looking set this up yourself, and yet do not have a master printmaker to hand, my mistakes and learning points will hopefully help you avoid some of the rabbit holes I fell into.

My conclusion is that Photopolymer printing is as straight forward as you would hope, but unless you are really lucky, you will need to need to go through some pain in the name of “calibration” when you first set up without a studio expert to guide you. Precisely because you are introducing three or four variables simultaneously in a new studio, you have no way of knowing which part of the process is the one that is causing you the problem. Patience is required. However, the calibration will become a gift that gives you a foolproof environment to work in. Once done, you are free to be your creative self again.

The following assumes knowledge of the overall method, and is not meant as a full guide. Get that straight from the horse mouth in Henrik’s book.

 

Things that can go wrong or Scientist’s Mind: if you don’t have one, borrow one.

Calibration. You must calibrate your studio so that you have an easy process that will work every time. This means you have to get the

  1. Correct printed output of your digital image
  2. Correct method of plate lamination
  3. Correct exposure time for an aquatint screen
  4. Correct exposure time for a photographic image (continuous tone)
  5. Correct developing for the exposed image

Calibration comes with a health warning.

Of course, once you have set this up, it is easy to know what to change or to tweak, should you ever use a new a type of film, exposure unit or even soda manufacturer.

But when you are trying to calibrate 4 items at once for the first time, you cannot avoid periods of trial an error.

(And frustration).

And yes, it is really boring, not very artistic, and undoubtedly very nerdy.

Top Tip: If you don’t have a ‘Scientist’s Mind’, borrow one now. 

Printing film positive – correct printed output of your digital image

Q: Are you getting real black and white printing from your black and white printer?

As you will know, this process works from black and white. But there are evil forces in some parts of the home digital printing industry that actively sabotage your attempts to print in only black and white.

(Don’t get me started on this – it is an active attempt to sell more colour cartridges from an industry that markets printer ink at a high price per mil than Channel no 5 perfume)

So be aware of this: there are many points along the way where you will need to be vigilant and obsessive about black and white. And not fake black and white.

Firstly Photoshop will do all it can do add colour; a simple act like resizing a document can do this. Always make sure your final image you send to the printer is in grey scale. Check the preview, whatever the drop-down menu says.

Then many printers will do all they can to add colour, even ones bought for the specific task of printing in black and white.

What happens is the printer uses various different colours to simulate black. All the nozzles work to create tiny individual dots, made up of all the inks in the printer. To the naked, or untrained eye, you are printing an image in black and white. But when it comes to exposing under UV light, the process will not work, or only partially work, as red, yellow, cyan etc. do not block uv light at all, or not enough.

After a long discussion with the manufacturer of my printer, and their help desks (who did not understand why I would want my version of real black rather than their simulated blacks) I finally learned that despite everything the drop down menus say, only when I selected ‘fine paper’ would it print in real grey scale. Every other paper option offered, including transparency, would produce these dots of multiple colours.

Even if the file was saved in grey scale.

I have an Epson 1500, which is excellent for the purposes once you know this little secret. HP produces other printers that will print in real black and white. A quick Google on black and white printing for HP and Epson will highlight the problem that artists, and people who would like to print in black and white face.

Takeaway: do not believe what the manufacturer says about black and white printing. You will have to dig deeper to be sure that you are printing actual black. Photoshop will also trick you too. If you are buying a printer specially for this do test in the shop beforehand.

 

Calibrate midtones output for your set up

There’s that word again. You will need to calibrate the digital printed output of the photograph’s midtones to be between 1.05- 1.5. This will vary depending on your exposure unit…but if you haven’t yet calibrated your exposure unit exposure times, be prepared for a lot of back and forth. It is awful all this testing and testing, but the result is worth it, I promise.

Do not make the mistake that I did, and assume that a printed film from another studio and printer would work in my studio. You need to fiddle with both at the same time. I actually found that I should set midtones at 1.05 not 1.25 for best results. But I hung onto the wrong midtones range for too long; in turn, this stopped me getting the right exposure time.

Takeaway: you have to fiddle with both at the same time, if as is likely, your exposure unit is different from a previous studio. Prepare for this to be time consuming.

Keep your printed film away from dust and water

Exposure to either really damages the film.

Takeaway: always keep the film in a protective plastic envelope and away from water.

Quality of film is key

Film for overhead projectors is rough but cheap and still surprisingly easily available. Although this will be ok for some images, it is not good enough for a real high- quality photographic result. For this you will need a film prepared with a special emulsion that is definitely not cheap. (A list of suppliers and products follows at the end).

Takeaway: different film qualities will impact your images.

Exposing to UV light

 No beating about the bush, this is just picky, and time consuming. You will need to do a standard photographic exposure strip test, to find out what the best exposure time. The tricky thing is, you will also be working on the film mid-tones adjustment at the same time. Expect some to-ing and fro-ing here!

I found that once I got a decent exposure time, it was still the mid-tones that were suffering. (This is what finally alerted me to the idea that I needed to adjust those too, and working with a pre-printed film that I had used successfully in another studio was not going to be the answer). If this happens to you, test for exposure times for lights and darks first and ignore the mid-tones (unless they happen to be perfect in which case yay, lucky you!)

Once you have a passable image, then go back and tweak the mid-tones, knowing the rough exposure time.

Exposure time starting point

Some exposure units need 19 seconds; others will burn out and overexpose the image after only 3 or 4. It can be very daunting to know what range you should start with.

My exposure unit was on the quick end, so once I found a rough value, I fine tuned it with tracing paper, which seems to block out about 25% of the light, ‘buying more time’ to make small adjustments. This is a useful hack if, like me your studio or working space has to be multi purpose. You can use a screen-printing unit for photopolymer, and make it more subtle and nuanced with tracing paper to block out some light.

Exposure unit vacuum: you will get no image without this!

Aquatint: make sure it is the right way around! Again it will not work if not. Look carefully at the surface and it becomes clear which way it is. Mark it to save constant re-examining.

Keep it safe, like the films when not in use. It can become damaged, marked or scratched

Light contamination on photopolymer film

A lot of people worry about this. I alluded to the dark rooms of old, and this certainly influences people. But actually, the danger of light contamination is not as you would expect. Yes, you must work out of direct sunlight (uv) light, or in reduced light. But you do not have to fumble around in the dark – although at times the calibration will feel that way!

And there is a bonus – halogen light is ok.

Hack: If this is all making you nervous, put some film on the wall or on a table near where you work, and partially cover it with tape. You will see instantly if there is too much light. If you have no light contamination it won’t change for days, if at all. Switch on the tungsten light, and it will change quickly. Once exposed to light it is a much darker blue – and you can compare this to the concealed area under the tape.

Admittedly, it still feels safer to work in reduced light, out of direct sunlight, and always make sure to store the photopolymer film in its light sensitive tube.

Takeaway: the strip-test will take longer as you need to factor in the mid-tones output of the digital image, and how much, if at all, it needs to be altered for your exposure unit.

Plate lamination

There are some very good videos (made by Henrik) online that discuss this, and it is in his book. Ensure that your plate is properly degreased. Working too quickly in your excitement can mean you do not allow the plate to dry properly (the film does not adhere properly).

Top Tip: Take your time and make this your artistic meditation moment when working.

 

Top Tip: There is nothing wrong with wet laminating, and then running the plates through the press too.

 If you find the edges get caught by knife when trimming – ensure you are only cutting after exposure, and that the knife is really sharp. I found (from another experiment with a poor man’s tracing paper) that vegetable oil softens the surface well – it is less brittle it cuts cleanly.

Developing Times

 

It is so difficult to get your head around that there is no actual correct “time”. What you would think of as a measurable event becomes very much part of the art of the process.

Given that you have already spent days tying yourself up in knots over exposure times, digital film outputs and whether the print is truly in black and white, as if you were working at Nasa, suddenly you are an artist again.

Does it feel ok? Then it is ok. Om.

I didn’t believe this, and have tried over the years to test for the perfect time etc., but honestly, in a small studio rather than in an industrial set up, this part is as sensitive as making bread. It is different every time.

The strength and age of the solution, evaporation, humidity, heat etc. can change everything from day to day.

Of course the reason for this is in the film positive calibration, together with the exposure calibration: if you have done this properly and understood it, once you see a coppery colour (if you are using copper plates) then it is done, for all the range of tones in the image.

You cannot develop further than this moment of copperiness’.

This is why they were right to insist on calibration of the studio.

Once you get something that works, you will be able to expose and develop easily.

Very Zen.

It was all worth it.

So how much does it cost to set up?

Suppliers – In Europe I get my supplies from Polymetaal in Holland and Henrik Bøegh in Denmark, and Amazon. 

The equipment you will need

Camera or smartphone

Pc with Photoshop

Printer that prints B+W

Exposure Unit (Amazon, Polymetaal)

Henrik sells one, which I have used and produces great results.

My studio is small, and I need an exposure unit that can also double up for screen-printing. I bought one from amazon that could do both jobs. I have recently seen that Polymetaal also stock this if you would prefer more user support.

Aquatint Screen (Henrik and polymetaal)

Copper Plates: I am convinced copper is best, due to how it behaves in developing, and helpful hints it gives you that your exposure and development is perfect. (Henrik and polymetaal)

Printing Press

After much searching and price comparison, I am very happy with my Major George press. In a home studio it does the job, does not take up much space at all and is portable – (if you have help)

2 deep plastic trays for developing and cleaning plates

3 silicone spatulas

1 hairdryer (for drying drawer/cupboard)

1 plate rack

The consumables you will need:

Paper something like Somerset satin soft white 300 gr works very well (polymetaal)           

Ink Akua. These are literally beautiful inks to use and easy to clean. (Henrik, polymetaal, and amazon)

The mediums can also be combined with acrylic paint at a pinch, for a poor man’s version.

Transparencies (for printing the photographic image) (Henrik and polymetaal)

Then the following household items: soda, washing up liquid, soy sauce, sponges and chamy leather (local supermarket)

Total Cost

Assuming you already have a camera or a smartphone, a pc with Photoshop, and a printer that prints B+W, an additional €2000- €5000 will get you set-up (depending on how much you pay for the press).

Material cost per print    

– first print €1.02

– Each subsequent print €0.35