Non-Toxic Printmaking

In the past several years I have accumulated significant experience working with non-toxic printmaking materials and processes.  I began this research while working for Ron Pokrasso, an artist and master printmaker living in Santa Fe, NM.  Prior to meeting Ron I had always been skepticle of non-toxic materials:  I figured that the stronger the chemicals, the richer the prints.  Like many artists, my love affair with print media developed in the dank, gritty, and wonderfully smelly environs of old-school print shops!  The sweet, dangerous smell of oil-based inks, mineral spirits, and asphaltum were like aphrodesiacs.  Although I now recognize the importance and poignancy of non-toxic art making alternatives, it wasnt safety concerns that initially fueled my interest in Ron’s particular brand of printmaking: it was mainly out of sheer intrigue at what I observed in his shop.
Observing Ron’s unique approach to non-toxic monotype and intaglio techniques, I realized that the transition to non-toxic materials (specifically Akua brand intaglio inks and photo-polymer etching) didnt necessarily mean a loss of quality or richness, and in fact opened up many new possibilities and applications.  In my mind, print media exist as a field of ideas, and the broader the field, the better for the artist – and in this case, the better for the artists’ longevity.
I believe that effective printmaking happens when the technical process supplements the artists ideas.  The techniques I learned in Ron’s shop enabled the efficient expression of my ideas and have proved adaptable enough to accommodate new projects. I definitely dont think traditional methods should be replaced, but rather that new methods should be explored alongside traditional ones, so that future printmakers have the broadest range of options.  Contemporary artists must be agile, and their tools must also be agile.  I think non-toxic media offer artists’ an expansive array of possibilities: they link up with traditional approaches to printmaking while also utilizing the benefits of contemporary technology.  And of course the fact that they are less damaging to artists and to the environment is an important bonus.
It is my hope that the following blog posts provide some insight into the possibilities of non-toxic printmaking materials.


Ron Pokrasso, discussing important print business.
Ron Pokrasso, discussing important print busines

Mixed Media Print Workshop with Ron Pokrasso

May 2014 – Santa Reparata International School of Art, Florence, IT.

This past month I had the priveledge of assisting my mentor, collaborator, and long-time friend, Ron Pokrasso, with his mixed-media printmaking workshop in Florence, Italy.  The workshop was a ten day intensive course designed to introduce participants to non-toxic monotype and photopolymer intaglio printmaking techniques.  Beginning with the basic elements of monotype – i.e. applying ink to plate – and moving through more complex processes, such as solar plate etching, we covered an impressive array of different approaches.  The  participants ranged from artists with years of printmaking experience to complete beginners.  Regardless of prior experience, everyone came away with a significant body of work.

With seventeen participants the studio was busy with activity.  Fortunately Santa Reparata is extremely well equipped and spacious.  The studio contains 4 etching presses: 1 Takach tabletop press, 1 mechanical press w/48″ bed, 1 medium sized french wheel, and 1 small Charles Brand press.  Additionally there is plenty of open table space (with glass slabs), two large exposure units, functioning darkroom, and digital output center (Mac computers w/Adobe suite and Epson 17″ printer).  Ron has been teaching at Santa Reparata for over 9 years, and has worked closely with studio coordinator Marta Pierazzuoli, to establish the equipment necessary for his brand of printmaking.

The workshop kicked off with a few days of straight monotype action: painting, rolling, or otherwise applying ink to plates.  Instead of plexi-glass, Ron uses PETG.  I too have adopted this material as it is loads more cost effective and also serves as a great substrate for photopolymer films such as ImageOn.  It is less rigid (doesnt crack), thinner, and has some give to it – qualities which make it ideal for press work.

I was surprised at how quickly the participants took to the process, the momentum was virtually immediate.  While this was undoubtedly due to their individual creativity, not to mention Ron’s virtuosity as an instructor, I think the materials themselves facilitate accessibility.  Akua inks are easy to mix and dont require wet paper: meaning less time between generating the image and pulling a print.  They do possess some traits that can be tricky to work with, such as the fact that they dry by absorption (if you print on slick, non-absorbent surfaces, the ink will never thoroughly dry).  Generally, however, I think there are less technical hurdles to overcome in order to achieve strong, bold images (although it still takes time to think like a printmaker!)

After the initial monotype frenzy we moved into Photo Polymer Etching, focusing primarily on solar plates but also engaging with ImageOn film.  The character of these processes is different than traditional etching/engraving, where acid is used to bite into a copper plate to create etched marks.  Instead they rely on light sensitive emulsions to capture an image from a transparency (printed digitally).  Solar plates consist of a light-sensitive coating  adhered to a metal backing: the emulsion is often orange or dark green.  To produce an image one exposes the plate to UV light with the positive image transparency covering the emulsion side of the plate: this can either be done in an exposure unit or in the sun.  Exposing the plate to UV light hardens the emulsion which is not covered by the black of the positive image (i.e. the clear areas of the transparency).  When you “develop” the plate (wash the plate in water), the unhardened areas (your positive image) wash away, thus leaving recessed areas which will hold ink when you print.

The process proved particularly appealing to our participants.  Photography often plays a key role in the experience of a traveler: as a means of documenting an experience and also as a way of processing an unfamiliar environment.  Photo-intaglio techniques provide a way to translate ones photographic investigation/vision into printed imagery – combining the responsive photographic impulse with the more intuitive process of hands-on printmaking.  The synthesis between these attitudes is at the heart of Ron’s approach to print media: working between different plates and from a variety of source material he emphasizes the variability of the medium.  I have always enjoyed his combination of technical expertise with conceptual wisdom.  He conveys an attitude toward printmaking that is agile, intuitive, and playful.




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