Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reduction Engraving- Part 2- Problems with Printing

If you missed my last post, I have been working on a commissioned portrait of a kitty called Jemma for a wonderful family in WA. It is a two color reduction engraving printed on Lettra 300gr paper. The first color was a medium gray and was printed a couple of weeks ago. The second color was supposed to be black, but things don't always go the way they're planned… The last weeks have been a great learning experience and a testament to the friendly and supportive community spirit of printmakers.

Before I begin with the "real" problem, let me add in here, that when working with both mounted linoleum and resingrave I run into issues of the condensed fiberboard under the block not being completely uniform and changing of the block thickness as the print run progresses. I'll show a couple of photos to illustrate:

If you look at the above left side photo first, you can tell that the right side was lower than the rest of the block, so it's not printing properly even though it's been inked well. To fix it, I just shimmy it up with torn up pieces of tissue paper under that part of the block. I keep adding layers and proofing, until the area prints evenly with the rest of the block. 

Sometimes the block will compress slowly over time and change the way it prints in the middle of the run. If you look at the above photo on the right, you can see that the side of the face is printing well, but now there is a lighter area the width of the whole cat in the middle that is lighter than the top and the bottom of the print. Again, editioning stops and I need to tear paper and shimmy the block so it prints more evenly. This is normal, and usually after about 50 prints or so the plate settles and stops changing on me and I can finish printing. The nice thing is that if its a reduction block, I can just keep the little pieces of paper in place in between carving, and then when I get around to the second color, the press is already set up properly to print. 

So now we get to the part of the learning experience. If you are not interested in a lot of technical talk, please just scroll down several paragraphs to the end of the post. ;) When the second block was finally to the point where I was happy with it I started proofing it. The problem was that the ink would just not transfer correctly.

Here's three closeups of the proofs. (The very top of the post with the face, and the two above images.) I got a lot of little pit marks and it seemed that the first color was almost repelling the second color. I've done my fair share of reduction cuts so far, and had never had this happen before. So during the first day of serious proofing I fiddled back and forth with a lot of things. My first hunch was that the gray ink had been loose when I printed, so the black ink was not adhering to it properly because it was stiffer. So I tried: loosening the ink, dampening the paper longer, adding more pressure, in different increments and combinations, but nothing was really taking care of the problem in a satisfactory way. I also cleaned the block with alcohol, just to make sure there was no residue left on it from previous printing (lol or hairspray used as fixative for drawing). Dampening longer helped, but making the ink too loose was not a good option, because when the ink was so runny it easily plugged up the smallest lines and then the engraving did not print properly, and for the same reason adding more pressure with loose ink was not a good option either.

After a couple hours of proofing, mixing inks etc. I called it a day and wrote to the Wood Engravers Network list serve to ask for some advice and ideas. A couple names of printmakers who are way more versed in reduction work than me popped up and I contacted both of them with a long email about what was going on and asking for advice. Sherrie York does beautiful reduction linocuts. I have been an admirer of her work for a while, and we emailed back and forth several times trouble shooting. I also got the guts to email Gaylord Shanilec, who works in large multiple & reduction block engravings. (Both of these artists are so wonderful I'll have to dedicate a separate post for each at a later point in time.) From Gaylord I learned that he had had a similar problem before when he used Setswell in his first color and he had been recommended varnish as an additive to give body to the ink and to help it settle better on top of the first layer. I thought that was a great idea, but had no varnish to work with and did not have time to wait for several weeks for it to arrive if I ordered some. The big eye opener was that Setswell, that I had used as an additive to the gray ink is a wax instead of an oil. I used Setswell because I was printing a large solid area of color and Setswell helps the color go on more smoothly. Because I thought it was an oil, I thought that if the consecutive layers are just less viscous, then they should print on the previous colors with no problem. But if the first color is waxy, and the second color was also waxy, you can imagine that the two just won't print on top of each other very well. So I felt a little stupid, not knowing what I was putting in my ink, but we learn as we go, right? (My disclaimer: I never used Setswell in school, since I was working on etchings back then.)

So now we are getting somewhere! I mixed a whole new batch of ink, a dark warm gray color, with NO Setswell. I used a Daniel Smith black relief ink and brown and white Charbonnel etching ink. This made for a rather loose mix, so I added an etching transparent base (which is super stiff) and a small dab of miracle gel. Now the ink was at a good consistency with some body to it.

Because the paper already had a layer of ink on it, I thought dampening the paper for a little (30 seconds) longer the second time around would not hurt either, since that seemed to do the most good during my first round of proofing. Even that short time mattered, because Lettra is so unsized and absorbs the water sprayed on it immediately. If I did something in between printing, like take these pictures, I could notice a difference in the way it printed. The more time it sat in between the towel, the darker/unclear it would print.

With these new measures I was still getting a little bit of the pitting, but not like before where it was repelling. Now the printing could be controlled with the right amount of ink on the block and dampening of paper so the problem had been effectively solved! The middle was still printing a hair lighter than the top and bottom, so instead of adding tissue underneath, i just added a strip of newsprint on top of the blanket on the press to save some time. (see picture above)

Here's a picture of how the block looks on the press, and when you remove it, the layers of tissue and paper underneath it:

Of course today, my little man refused to sleep in his crib, so he had to come and help mom print. Apparently it wasn't too exciting, since he was out in the first ten minutes. Thank God for baby wraps. I'd never get anything done around the house without them...

I hope that this post has been helpful to some of you working with relief prints. The lesson for today: Setswell is a great additive in relief work, but use sparingly or replace when doing multiple block work.   

I did end up ordering some varnish and will probably try that at some point, just to see how it changes ink transference from block to paper. I like to print on thicker paper if I have a choice, but getting areas to print solid without losing tiny detail work is always a (good) challenge.

Editioning is now finished for this image, and I am waiting for the last prints to dry so they can be cleaned up, numbered and signed. I ended up with a fair share of lost prints due to so much proofing, but will have the extra prints from the edition for sale in my Etsy shop in the next couple of weeks if anyone is interested. Above is a picture of the two colors printed separately and here is a closeup of the face with the two colors printed on top of each other. 

I am very happy with the way this engraving turned out and am excited to do more in the future. I think for the next project, I will work on a tiny print for the WEN members bi-annual mailing. I had an idea of a stinkbug on an acorn pop in my head that would be fun to do for it. Thanks for reading my blog and as always I am happy to hear comments and questions if you have any.  


Wade said...

I absolutely love it! Thanks for sharing your process with your readers! Seeing the steps that more experienced printmakers take to solve problems that come there way is incredibly helpful to those of us who still have a lot to learn. Keep up the awesome work.

Also- cute kitty!


Anonymous said...

Mirka, I agree with Wade. Beautiful cat (once again), fine technique.
Sorry to hear about the coverage problems, but your report about finding the solution is also instructive for those of us who follow your blog. Thanks. :-)

Mirka Hokkanen said...

Thanks for the comments. If there is a topic that you'd like covered let me know and I can work on it. I was thinking that a post of ink additives would be beneficial after all this.