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Printmaking with Solarplate™ Copper

An Explanation of Printmaking Techniques Using Solarplate™ Copper

Printmaking may be the most embracing of all artistic disciplines. From the simplicity of drypoint to etching to digital technology, printmaking continues to encompass new tools, often developed from the immediate needs of the artist. A major concern for many contemporary printmakers is the toxicity of existing printmaking techniques; another is the inconvenience of mixing, using, storing and disposing of chemicals such as grounds, acids and solvents.

Enter Solarplate™ Copper, an innovative new means to create intaglio, relief and photo-etching prints with one simple process. Developed by master printmaker Don Welden in the 70s and refined over the intervening decades, Solarplate™ Copper is quickly catching on with printmakers, photographers and teachers because of its ease of use and extremely low toxicity. Solarplate™ Copper is an exciting alternative to more traditional processes.

Solarplate™ Copper is a thin steel plate prepared with a light-sensitive polymer surface. It works like a photograph: A transparency is placed on the plate and exposed to a light source. Everywhere light touches the plate, the polymer hardens while unexposed areas remain soft and water-soluble. Solarplate ™ Copper, once exposed, is developed in a water bath that rinses away unexposed areas. A final exposure to the sun or in an exposure unit hardens the final image. The plate can then be inked and printed (preferably with a press) in the usual fashion. The Solarplate™ Copper offers the artist almost unlimited creativity and freedom!


Step One: The Exposure Unit

There are a variety of ways to successfully expose Solarplate™ Copper. Printmakers who are lucky enough to work in a studio with a vacuum exposure table (the sort used for photoetching) should definitely use it! Contact printers, used by photographers and available at photographic suppliers, are the next step down. Most artists will want to construct a homegrown contact frame consisting of the following materials: A base made of a 3/4" piece of plywood, layered with a 1/2" thick piece of foam rubber, topped with a plate of high-quality clear glass (about 1/4" thick). Do not use Plexiglas, lexan or plastics since they scratch easily, and some have UV light screening. Clamp the frame together on each corner with rubber-tipped clamps.


Step Two: Preparing Your Art

Art for Solarplate™ Copper must be in the form of a transparency, which opens up numerous possibilities for the artist. Working directly on a surface of mylar, transparent acetate or glass, artwork can be created by drawing or painting using an opaque black medium -- India ink, Sharpie, litho crayon, tusche, Stabilo 8046 pencils, etc.; or one can photocopy photographs, physical objects, existing drawings and paintings onto a mylar sheet. Some artists enjoy the surprise elements of collage; by using flat objects in contact with Solarplate™ Copper, a photogram-like image can be created. Digital artists can scan an image and print it on transparency film.

Many printmakers who have worked extensively with Solarplate™ Copper have found that digitizing the image generally renders the best results.

Scan either an original or a photographic image. Large format drawings and painting can be photographed and scanned. Use your image manipulation software to convert color information to grayscale. Adjust the image to bring out brightness, midtones and deep blacks. Size the image so all edges cover the Solarplate™ Copper, or leave a border if you wish. Print the photo positive image on the transparency film recommended for your printer, using your printer's highest available output.

The transparency is used as a contact positive (in intaglio printing) or negative (for relief printing). In exposing your artwork, it's best to place the "emulsion" side of the transparency face down on the plate. Anywhere a line is created, it will appear as a dark line in intaglio printing, or a white line in relief printing.


Step Three: Exposing the Plate

For a relief print: Keep in mind wherever a dark line appears on your transparency, a white line will appear on your plate. So think of your drawing tool as if it were a carving tool on woodblock or linoleum. This technique works best for images with large, flat areas of dark or light. Remember this technique will yield a print that is the REVERSE of your original image, like a lino cut.

Place the Solarplate Copper™ on the foam bed of your contact frame. Place your transparency on the Solarplate™ Copper, cover the entire "sandwich" with your clear glass plate, and clamp it securely together. Expose it to the sun; gently rock the apparatus for evenness of exposure.

Exposure times will vary depending upon the density of the image, and the amount of UV light available. Denser images require longer exposure times. Exposing a plate in bright sunlight, through a transparency with "average density" will generally require two minutes of exposure. Even cloudy days can produce enough UV irradiation to expose your plate, but exposure times will be longer. We suggest cutting small test strips of Solarplate™ Copper using a guillotine type cutter, or a sharp draw knife. Use these test strips to experiment with exposure times. With experience, you will be able to judge the best exposure times for the amount of sunlight available. Looking at cast shadows is a good way to judge available light. If the plate feels tacky, it is underexposed.

For an intaglio print: "Double exposing" the Solarplate™ Copper, first with an aquatint screen and then with your transparency, creates predictably good results. The aquatint screen -- a transparency covered with a small, random dot pattern -- helps detail show up in the final image. Exposing your plate to an aquatint screen first will enable your darks to hold ink better. Without the screen, these areas will not hold ink well when the plate is wiped. Note that aquatint screens are not cheap, and are quite fragile, so treat them gently.

First, set up your contact frame indoors with the aquatint screen in contact with the Solarplate™ Copper then expose the plate for the same amount of time you plan to expose your image; then bring the exposed plate inside, replace the aquatint screen with your image, and re-expose the Solarplate™ Copper.


Step Four: Developing the Plate

The Solarplate™ Copper is developed by washing it in cool tap water (about 68° F), which causes the unexposed film to wash away.

Using a very soft nylon or natural bristle brush (sold as mushroom brushes in culinary supply stores), the Solarplate™ Copper should be gently scrubbed in a stream or bath of water. The longer the plate is in the water, the deeper the bite will be, which will hold more ink. For an intaglio-style plate, 1-2 minutes is recommended, while a relief plate can be washed for 10 minutes to give the deepest bite. If the plate feels gummy, keep washing until you feel the texture of the bite. After the washout process is finished, blot the plate quickly with newsprint and use a blow-dryer to finish the drying process.


Step Five: Hardening the Image

The Solarplate™ Copper should be re-exposed to the sun for 5-10 minutes to finish the hardening process. If there is any stickiness, it should be exposed longer. It is then ready to ink.


Step Six: Inking the Finished Plate

  1. Because the Solarplate™ Copper is relatively thin, inking and wiping can be made easier by constructing a support for the plate. Dan Welden suggests the following:
  2. Cut a piece of ¾" plywood slightly larger than the plate.
  3. Glue a vinyl-coated sheet magnet (available at craft stores) to the wood.
  4. Place a large page from an old phone book on top of the magnet. This helps to keep things clean.
  5. Place the inked plate on top. It will be held there securely by the magnet.

The plate is now ready for inking and wiping.

For a relief plate: Use a brayer to roll out either Daniel Smith Oil Based Relief Ink or Daniel Smith Water Soluble Relief Ink. Please note: Unlike competing brands, Daniel Smith Water Soluble Inks do not use water as a base or vehicle. We use a water-miscible printing vehicle for this ink. Water based inks may cause plate deterioration and should be avoided.

For an intaglio plate: Rather than using a brayer or a metal ink knife, which can scratch the image, use a flexible piece of matboard as an ink knife to apply a thin layer of Daniel Smith Etching Ink. Wipe out the plate with a soft tarlatan as usual, gently wipe again with newsprint, then clean.

For easier cleanup, try using our Daniel Smith Water Soluble Relief Ink here as well. It works great on intaglio Solarplate™ Copper. To wipe our Water Soluble Ink from the plate, use cheesecloth or soft tarlatan. Clean the plate using vegetable oil and clean your tools with water.

Both relief and intaglio plates should be run through a press at high pressure for the best results.

To clean the plate, one can use mineral oil or a vegetable oil like safflower or canola; a thin film of oil left on the plate helps protect it. Store the plate, wrapped in black plastic or a similar light-resitant material; inadvertent long-term exposure to light can damage the plate. A Solarplate™ Copper will yield 25-125 intaglio prints before degrading; you may get thousands of relief prints from a single Solarplate™ Copper.

For more information on printing with Solarplate™ Copper, see Printmaking in the Sun by Dan Welden, available from Daniel Smith Fine Artists' Materials.

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