Toyobo Weekend

Learning intaglio printing with Toyobo plates at the Edinburgh Printmakers studio

Several years ago I took a course in 'solar plate' printmaking at the Curwen Print Study Centre in Suffolk. The process allows you to make intaglio prints from photographs (or any image that can be printed onto a sheet of acetate), using traditional printmaking paper, inks and presses. I loved the prints I made on that course, but I didn't have access to a studio in Cambridge, so it wasn't something I could continue easily.

Since we moved to Edinburgh, the courses and studio access at Edinburgh Printmakers have been on my radar. Earlier this month, I finally got around to taking one of their courses, so I could re-learn the printmaking process with Toyobo plates, guided by an expert artist.

Some people who read this might be familiar with the process (and probably know much more about it than I do), but for those who are not, I'll briefly explain. It begins with choosing an image and using Photoshop to convert it to monochrome, adjust tones and contrast to your taste, before printing it onto a sheet of acetate. Read on, and I will explain what happens next...

Toyobo plates are pre-prepared and don't require the use of any harmful chemicals. You put them in a UV light unit (or, if you have any, in the sun) in contact with the acetate sheet with your image. Through some clever magic that I don't know if I fully understand, the image on your acetate is 'etched' into the plate, and you can then fix it by washing the plate in water, drying it and baking it again in UV light to harden it.

The first plate I exposed was a series of test strips - ie. using a piece of card to mask out the plate and making a series of exposures, increasing in time with each strip. This is done to determine the optimal exposure time for your final plate. Once this is dried and hardened, you can ink it up and make a test print, from which you can determine the exposure time to use for your final plate.

This was my test strip proof. Different exposure times in the UV unit affect the brightness of the image when it's printed. I made my final plate using the exposure time I selected from the test print. I think I chose the second from the left. With hindsight, maybe I could have gone for the middle one, or somewhere in between! (I'm planning to go back and make some edition prints from this plate, so I might experiment with using some ink extender to brighten it up a little bit).

Inking the plates is done by spreading ink over the entire surface, and then using a soft scrim to wipe it away. While most of the ink is removed, some of it is left in the tiny recessions on the surface of the plate (again, I might not be describing this 100% accurately). The result is that the ink sits on your plate in the form of an image, which can be printed by putting the plate (and a sheet of paper) through the roller of a printing press.

We made a few prints trying out different kinds of paper. I'd like to say, there was a lot more to the course than I'm giving away here. The teacher was highly knowledgeable; there were so many little tips and tricks that she could share with us, and I felt like I learned a lot, but also still have much to learn. We learned about different kinds of paper, too, and how to tear them into pieces to get the traditional deckled edge that printmakers use, as well as soaking and blotting each sheet before it goes through the press.

This might be my personal favourite of the 3 different paper types I tried. It was made on Fabriano Rosapina white paper. There are lots of different papers available and, as you learn, each has different characteristics and suitable uses. I'm a bit of a paper nerd and really love the look and tactility of different art papers; it gives you another layer of creative choice in the process which can make a big difference to your final print. I always choose my papers carefully.

Now that I've completed a course and induction at EP, I can access the studio so I'm hoping to make use of my membership and keep practising and learning this process. In time, hopefully, I will be able to offer some small editions of prints for sale online and in-person at art markets.

The great benefit of this course for me is that a whole new way of working with my photography has been opened up. The image I printed is one I made with my mobile phone right outside the print studio, waiting for it to open on the first day. Something relatively uninspiring can be made into a beautiful analogue print. I should try new things more often...

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