Photopolymer/Solar Plate Printmaking

A page from the original article published in Imprint winter 2010, Volume 45 Number 2

‘All that is needed to make the plate is a UV light source and water to wash out the exposed plate. Simple, quick and safe! No acids, rosin powders or bitumen grounds.’

Cover for Imprint winter 2010 Vol. 45 No. 2 featuring GW Bot‘s Paddock Glyphs – Garden of Poets, 2008, linocut on Korean Hanji paper, artist’s proof, 94.5 x 61.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Australian Galleries.

The following conversation between Sandra Williams and Susan Baran was published in the winter 2010 issue of Imprint Vol. 45 No. 2.

In 1972 Dan Welden, a master printmaker from the USA, started experimenting with light sensitive photopolymer plates commonly found in the commercial printing industry. By exposing a plate in the sun, he found he could produce a high quality intaglio image that was a safer and simpler alternative to traditional etching. He coined the term ‘solarplate’.[1]

Sydney-based artist Susan Baran has keenly embraced this printmaking process and has been working with photopolymer plates for over a decade now. She talked with Sandra Williams about her way of working with the plate.

SW: Susan, how would you describe your printmaking before you started using photopolymer plate?

SB: My printmaking experience was firstly with screenprinting using very toxic inks and solvents, then as an etcher using nitric acid, rosin aquatint and more solvents. I was satisfied with this way of working though concerned about the fumes I was being exposed to.

SW: How did photopolymer plates become a key element of your printmaking practice?

SB: I joined Warringah Printmakers Studio in 1999 looking for a place to print. I had vaguely heard of ‘solar plate’ but was not really interested until I saw what was being done at Warringah with this new type of plate. It was a period in my life when my children were young and etching was proving to be too slow for my limited studio time. This new technique appealed to me because I could make plates so quickly.

SW: Was the transition from traditional etching to making photopolymer plates difficult?

SB: No. I just loved the ease of the whole process and was really interested in learning how to work in a safer, less toxic way.

SW: Why is this way of working less toxic?

SB: All that is needed to make the plate is a UV light source and water to wash out the exposed plate. Simple, quick and safe! No acids, rosin powders or bitumen grounds.

SW: Can you explain in more detail your method of working?

SB: Instead of working the plate I prepare a transparency. I photocopy objects, fabrics, drawings and photographs to create a collage on paper. I then make the transparency, again using the photocopier. Finally I draw onto the transparency with an etching needle, working into the black areas, and add to it with crayon, lithographic pencil or Indian ink. This is the stage where I push and pull the image. When I feel it is resolved I expose the plate.

SW: Can the plate be altered after being exposed?

SB: No, not a lot. With an etching you work the plate until you are happy with the image, but with photopolymer plate you must work the transparency before exposing it. However, there are a few things that can be done. The polymer surface is very receptive to drypoint lines so line work can be added at any time after exposure. Gesso or acrylic medium (with or without carborundum for blacker tones) can be painted onto the exposed plate to add tone or to cover up something if desired.

SW: What effects can be achieved with photopolymer printmaking?

SB: I have described the way I choose to work, but it is a very versatile method where a variety of effects can be achieved, for example by drawing and painting either onto acetate/drafting film or directly onto the plate. Prints can have a lithographic feel by painting or drawing onto sandblasted or grained glass just like you would on a stone. Plates can be exposed without a dot screen and washed out for a long time to be suitable for relief printing. Photographic or computer-generated images can be used just like they have for screenprinting in the past.

SW: You mentioned a dot screen. Can you explain what that is and why it is used?

SB: A dot screen is to a photopolymer plate what an aquatint is to an etching. Whereas an aquatint uses tiny rosin particles to create tone the dot screen is a high-resolution film covered with minute, random, opaque dots. The dot screen is exposed first, then the artwork. If a dot screen is not used a type of open bite effect results, and sometimes this is preferred by the artist.

SW: How are the exposure times determined?

SB: There are different brands of plate available (Mavelon, Printight, Torelief) – all with different exposure times. Then it depends on whether you are using the sun or an exposure unit. Generally test strips are done to work out the preferred exposure time for a particular image.

SW: What is the best way to learn about photopolymer printmaking?

SB: Ideally it is best to do a workshop. The process may sound complicated, but it is really very simple and straightforward with enormous potential for making great prints.

 

[1] Solarplate is Dan Welden’s registered brand of photopolymer plate.