Friday, May 01, 2009

Solar-powered techniques Part 2: Solarplate printmaking

Thank-you to everyone who has written to me with best wishes for my mother. After 8 days in hospital she is glad to be home. I was able to clear out most other commitments and made it as easy for myself as I could, so that I could be there for her as much as possible. I am pretty tired out now and am trying to take it easy in order to recover. I hope that you will understand if I don't respond to your kind messages personally.

In April I finally made it to a second workshop at Impress Printmakers Studio. My first one was in 2006 and was my introduction to artists books. This recent workshop was on Solarplate Printmaking.

Solar plates are a method of exposing plates either for relief or intaglio printmaking. It's another low toxicity technique that looks pretty simple and that I have been aching to try for about 3 years. Luckily, I purchased the "bible" on the technique around that time, as it is out of print and as time passes, the price is rising in a rather unbelievable fashion. Dan Welden took solar plates from their commercial application and experimented with their use in fine art settings. He wrote the book with an Australian scientist and artist, Pauling Muir and gave it the rather lyrical title "Printmaking in the Sun". I believe that a second edition is currently being written.

The book is amazing. It is wonderfully thorough but if anything, the talk of exposure times and test strips made me feel that I really needed to attend a workshop before I could give this technique a try. Once we went through it at the workshop, I realized that the basic technique is simple, although each print you make will be different and a certain amount of testing and "tweaking" is necessary to get the result you want.

The basic process is:
  • prepare your artwork on e.g. wet media acetate, OHT, drafting film (intaglio images are not reversed while relief ones are)
  • place your art and the plate in a contact frame and expose to UV light (the sun or a lamp/light box will harden the polymer in the areas it reaches)
  • remove and rinse in water, using a soft brush to remove areas that have not hardened (i.e parts of the image where the UV could not pass through to the plate)
  • print!

Personally, my greatest interest is in finding a way to make intaglio prints. I don't really like the idea of working with the acid and other materials necessary for traditional etchings. It seems very daunting. Recently Wim de Vos at Studio West End took me through the hard ground process, together with aquatinting and that has dispelled some of the mystery around the whole thing, but I still feel it could take me years to produce anything I find truly satisfying. I like the idea of working away here at home with solar plates; plus they provide the option of using my photographs as a starting point, which is very appealing to me.

The major drawback I can see with solar plates is cost. The plates themselves are not cheap: $14 for a 15 x 21cm plate against $7.90 for 12.5 x 20cm zinc plate. And while there are no other chemicals to buy for the process, it is quite possible to ruin a plate with the wrong exposure (once you've rinsed the plate, you can't re-expose if you aren't happy with the result). I guess this is where real discipline needs to be exercised to ensure you test your exposure and print your test plates, and keep testing until you have the result you are looking for. That way you are only wasting small pieces of plate, rather than a full plate. According to Dan Welden, it is possible to re-work plates by scratching into them with etching and drypoint tools, but I can imagine this wouldn't always give the result you were seeking.

Well, I suppose you might like to see some results from the day for yourselves. I'm not too sure how impressive they will look online, but they will give you some idea. I plan to re-print them using the old "pasta machine press" to see how the plates respond.

This first test (below) is an intaglio print made with some of my cloud imagery. This was originally part of this photo.

This silhouette (below) comes from the cover of "Resistance" (which by the way I hope to return to soon, now that the weather is cooler). They were both printed in both relief and intaglio. The lovely thing about them is the debossing, which you can't really pick up in these pictures.


  1. The process sounds fascinating. Thanks for taking us through it. I like the results. I think the subject was a good one for the technique. How many prints can one make from a single plate? Is it durable? (No pressure to answer, I am just curious! I know you said you may not respond as you need rest, and who wouldn't! I'm glad your mother is recovering well.)

    I'd love anther post on this process when you get back to it!

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    Thanks for your comment. The plates are supposed to be quite durable - I believe you can get about 30 intaglio prints and more from relief plates. I am keen to do a lot more with this technique and I will post my progress. Glad it is of interest to you!
    BTW my mother and I are both doing well!

  3. Amanda, thanks for your cogent post. I made prints with solar plates for the first time a few months ago in a workshop. We used both relief and intaglio processes. One of the reasons I took the workshop was because, I too, like you, am not interested in working with toxic chemicals.

    One point of interest: our instructor brought with her a home-made light box, which turned out to be extremely helpful when we found ourselves without sun for a day. Her husband had made the light-box for her by using a large toolbox to house several black-lights (for UV-ray-exposure), over which he'd suspended a piece of glass on which the solar plate and the material with the image could rest while it was "baking." Very ingenious, and a fairly low-tech solution.


  4. Well you are very lucky to have that book. I did solar plate recently with Seraphina Martin on two Saturdays. We did do two small plates to learn the process, but then we were just basically 'into it'. I got some plates to expose at home. We paid something over $80 for 10 x A5 plates. How does that compare? I thought it wasn't bad.

    I go to Seraphina's Printfest which is just printing only, so I've been limited to collographs that I can make at home. So this gives me another choice. I do like etching, but it is so labour intensive and you need all the equipment.

  5. Hi Wendy,
    Thanks for dropping by! Yes, I would say that $80 for 10 x A5 plates is very reasonable. That is as good as you will find them, I'd say. It's just that compared to zinc plate for traditional etching or lino or wood for relief, it is dear. Of course, all the methods are different,and they all create different aesthetics. With traditional etching your set-up costs would be greater, but the on-going cost of plates would be much less. In the end, I usually go with the technique I enjoy's too short, as they say.

  6. thanks for the links to the book!
    what do you use to print? just a normal roller? i used a solar plate to print an image but at college where they had a proper pressing machine and the image came out perfect - but now i want to try this at home, so obviously i do not have anything that will apply enough pressure for the image to come out with releif - any pointers?
    x x x Sara