Reading a book about Printmaking recently, I found it mentioned that it is possible to print on to plaster. The example shown was a combined collagraph and etching (Adam and Robertson, 2008, pp. 220 – 221). This seems to offer interesting textural possibilities which link sculpture and printmaking, one of the ambitions behind my study of Sculpture as my final first year course.
There is very little information readily available on this process or examples of works that can be seen on the internet. However, it seems that the famous, innovative printmaker Stanley William Hayter experimented with the technique in the 1950s:
“Hayter was very interested at this time in how the two-dimensional line could be extended into the third-dimension. His explorations in this area reached their apogee in the plaster objects that he made by pressing an engraved metal printing plate onto plaster, leaving a risen impression of the design where the wet plaster was forced into the grooves. When dry, Hayter would go back and carve deeper into the plaster cast and sometimes add colour. He very much considered these plaster objects to be works of art in their own right and they are intriguing examples of dual objects that are both prints and sculptures.” (Grange, 2015)
There is an example of his work on plaster here although any three dimensional, sculptural element isn’t really evident in the image.
The internet yielded some further references, here, printing from plaster and here printing onto plaster from etched metal plates. There is also a useful video here showing the process in detail. Carving into plaster to create a print matrix looks rather dusty and therefore hazardous to me. I am much more interested in the possibilities for colour, texture and design offered by printing onto plaster to produce a shallow bas-relief.
For an initial trial, I designed a very simple woodcut. I chose wood because it offers interesting mark making opportunities. I can carve into it and stick texture onto it, and seal the surface with shellac.
I inked the surface both in intaglio and relief and placed it in an improvised container of foil to act as a cast. I felt very, very foolish when my plate floated up to the top of the plaster, and the ink melted off the plate. I had used, as usual, Caligo safe wash inks.
The positive good thing about this trail, apart from realising why everyone else uses metal plates, was that the foil made really interesting textures which I shall return to.
To do this successfully, since I don’t etch metal plates in my domestic studio (aka kitchen), I need either to have the plate extend under my frame and seal the edges with clay or glue, as in the video, or use a heavy enough plate that I can embed it in clay to print. My next test was using Japanese vinyl. The first thing was to throw it in a bowl of water; it sinks. Next I selected ink which needs to be removed with veg oil or solvents. I had now made wooden frames so I cut a plate a little smaller and made sample marks with tools of various sizes, cutting at various depths. This I inked intaglio with a toothbrush. The surface was wiped, allowing me to pick up and press the plate into a prepared clay slab using a brayer. The edge of the brayer left marks in the clay, but I rather liked these.
Plaster was poured in and allowed to set overnight, which I hoped would let the ink be drawn into the plaster.
The ink has been successfully picked up and has acted as a release for the plate. Tiny, crisp details have been captured. Having wiped the planar surface, high contrast is achieved. A less smooth surface would retain a little more ink and lower the contrast but might be more characterful. Texture could be impressed around the plate but any identifiable item would need to relate to the plate subject matter. A plate could be incorporated into a bigger design but, again, the relationship would need careful consideration.
To extend my experimentation, I wanted to try printing a collagraph onto plaster. As a substrate, I chose kraft board because I have scrap pieces from framing, I can carve into it with lino or woodcut tools and glue onto it. I chose a piece bigger than my frame and marked out the internal size in pencil. I chose an image from a recent exploration of Lyme Beach as a reference and sketched a simplified version on the board.
This was worked up by cutting with woodcut tools and a Dremel, painting with pva, gluing on tyvek and sprinkling with carborundum. A blowtorch was played over some areas to make the pva and tyvek bubble; one of my favorite textures to print. The plate was painted with shellac to seal it and, hopefully aid release, especially for the carborundum.
The plate was inked intaglio with a toothbrush, wiped and then coloured rubs applied to high points. The frame was then fixed to the board using low temperature hot glue, in the hope that I would be able to break everything apart again non-destructively.
My plaster was poured and a piece of pea net with a picture cord loop placed into the top of the plaster, which was then left overnight.
Would I be able to get my frame off? Would I be able to release the plaster from all that texture? The hot glue just pealed off and the plate released easily, but the result was visually disappointing at first sight. The surface had an almost powdery appearance and the areas which I had hoped would be flat colour, weren’t. Examining the surface with a loupe, it was clear that the plaster had opened up and then picked up the fibrous texture of the kraft board in spite of sealing with shellac. However, areas where the board was covered in melted tyvek or pva had printed well. Where pva hadn’t been subjected to the blowtorch, it had reactivated and transferred to the plaster in places. The carborundum hadn’t produced the velvet contrast I was hoping for, but this is the value of a ‘sampler’ plate.
I decided to try hand colouring the plate with water based Inktense pigment inks, which I hoped would be repelled by the oil based printing ink, bringing out the raised design. Hand coloured prints often look contrived to my eyes and this is no exception. However, the transparent inks produced a lovely, velvety colour. Experimenting, I tried some other colours and density of ink on the back of the tile.
I resealed the printing plate with polyurethane gloss varnish, but, looking with the loupe, it was clear that this wasn’t filling the fibrous texture, so I resorted to the smoothest, glossiest finish I know of; hammerite smooth paint. This is a difficult conundrum; to capture detailed texture whilst having a glossy finish. This time, I blind printed the plate, without ink.
The hammerite has reduced the texture a bit and some chemical components seem to have leached into the plaster. This time, I coloured the whole tile with water based pigment ink, but it took very patchily, perhaps due to that uptake of chemicals. However, this created an interesting effect of its own.
The tile was then dry brushed with gold acrylic to bring out texture.
This is getting somewhere interesting texturally, but I would like to succeed with printing ink.
I could abandon the idea of using kraft board and return to lino or vinyl, but they offer a different quality of mark; much harder and more precise. I could turn to metal or plastic and use drypoint as a technique but that only offers a linear flat image and I want to produce a bas-relief with textural qualities. My objective to is achieve a plate surface which has been carved into but also developed upwards. To persevere with this approach, I might improve the release of the ink onto the plate by relief rolling the plate, sealing the plate more effectively with several layers of shellac or higher quality varnish. I think I have to go for it and say ‘it is what it is’ and celebrate whatever texture and colour it brings to the table. Scale is an issue; I can scale up the size of my marks, but not the height or depth. At least my plate is reprintable.
Adam, R. and Robertson, C. (2008) Intaglio: acrylic-resist etching, collagraphy, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint: the complete safety-first system for creative printmaking. mdon: Thames & Hudson.
Grange,H (2015) Sculpting the Line: British Sculptors as Printmakers. https://ripassetseu.s3.amazonaws.com/www.hepworthwakefield.org/_files/documents/apr_15/FENT__1430399251_Sculpting_the_Line_Online_Essa.pdf (Accessed: 1 October 2015).