Working notes.

Had a good day in the print rooms today. Managed to more or less pinpoint that juicy museum green I was on about yesterday. Also been trying to remember the litho process whilst thinking carefully about paper quality, other colour choices, line work, not pissing off the other people who are using/manning the facilities, time management and not getting annoyed with myself every time I make a mistake (which was lots).


Okay, just for the hell of it (and because it will help me remember … and also hopefully make everything I talk about when it comes to lithography less like Ancient Greek to anyone who doesn’t do print making and happens to be reading my work blog) here’s a bit of information about lithography as I understand it.

Lithography (I think that’s pronounced lyth-OH-graph-eee) or ‘litho’ for short:

It’s a printing process that uses either a metal plate (I’ve been using zinc ones) or, if you’re really hardcore, a huge lump of limestone (that can only be taken from one specific quarry in France because the stone’s got some really interesting properties that I should probably know more about but don’t). Unlike etching or woodcut or lino or even certain kinds of screen printing, the surface you actually print with is flat, which means you can get a really good, deep, even colour. You can get that flat thing with screen print … but the things that makes lithography better than screen print are as follows:

– it’s more ‘sciency’ because you print with a greasy chemical stain. Everything you do with lithography revolves around the basic principle that grease and water repel. Good times to be had with that.
– you draw straight onto the surface that you print with, so it’s more physical and less technical (I think)
– the results you get with lithography are more varied than that of screen print. Because all you need to actually make an ‘impression’ is something that leaves a greasy mark, you can use solid and liquid mediums … mix grease with water and get really unusual results. If yo know what you’re doing (I don’t yet), you can get some absolutely stunning results.
– because of the above, litho is also about as close to painting with print as you can get. As a big fan of messy inky drawings/paintings, this really appeals to me.
– you use fuck-off big heavy rollers to ink up the plates. Does wonders for your arm muscles. Actually, the physicality of the whole thing in general is great fun (as a side note, this is something I really miss when I am animating. Animation is so fiddly … you can’t really chuck shit around like you can with print).

There is also a bit more of an element of chance with lithography. There are so many variables so it means that lots can go wrong. Nice and risky.

There is also a photographic litho process that I know nothing about yet. There is also also offset lithography, which I know very little about, except that it’s how most books are printed (this includes solipsistic pop, which is rather good). If I felt like it, I could have done a small run of books at college, but there just aren’t enough days in a term and I am graduating, darn it. No time.

Er. Right. lithographic process using a zinc plate in a nutshell:

1. Get zinc plate. Cover it in ‘prepasol’ – 20-1 solution. Rinse, repeat. Rinse and then let it dry. Prepasol is a solution of nitric acid. 20-1 doesn’t hurt, 7-1 (the stuff you use if you’re using an older plate) smarts a bit if you get it on your skin. Don’t do that. Anyway. Prepasol ‘primes’ the slab of zinc and makes it sensitive to any greasy mark you care to scrawl on it. This, annoyingly, includes finger prints, so don’t be touching the surface once it’s ready.

2. Draw/paint/smear your design onto the plate. Leave that to dry.


3. Cover the plate in resin and French chalk. I haven’t actually asked why you do this but it really dries the plate out (probably useful) and sticks to the greasy stuff you’ve been working with and takes the ‘tack’ out of it. Again, this seems useful. Maybe it ‘neutralises’ the greasy properties ready for the next step….but I couldn’t tell you for sure just yet.

4. cover your plate in a thin layer of gum etch or ‘atzol’ and let it dry. This is a golden brown, gloopy liquid. The smell reminds me of fruit gums and honey roast ham. It’s unusual but certainly not unpleasant. Atzol desensitizes the zinc plate so you can roll it up with a big roller full of oil-based ink and not obliterate your drawing.

5. Whilst the atzol is drying, you roll up said oil-based proofing ink. You always proof using a black, non-drying ink with a ‘nap’ roller. A nap roller is a big, fuck-off heavy roller which has a kind of suede leather surface to it instead of being smooth. The nap rollers we use at college are incredibly old. I think one of the technicians mentioned the one I am using is about sixty years old and is only really a teenager in nap roller years. I need to check that I heard this right … and probably treat it with a bit more respect if that’s the case.

6. Once the plate has dried, wash the drawing out from underneath the layer of atzol using white spirit. Get as much of the drawing out as you possibly can. Once that’s done wipe off the surplus white spirit.

7. Pour on some wash-out solution (some stuff called ashpaltum … it’s a dark, very greasy liquid that comes in a big can) and wipe a thin layer of the stuff into the image with a rag. Let it dry for about a minute then wash away the atzol with water in an obliging sink. Do not dry the plate.

8. Proofing and printing. Whilst the plate is still damp, you take the nap roller and ink up the plate using a sort of gentle roll and flick movement (it’s all in the wrists). You then let the water dry off the plate, put it on the printing press, find some newsprint and proof that sucka. Chances are your first proof will be shite. Proof a few times until you start getting prints that are approximately what you were aiming for with your drawing (i.e the black bits are dark and even enough). Don’t try and overload the plate with too much ink too quickly, you’re better off taking your time and ‘deepening’ the image gradually.

If you need to, now is the time to make alterations (deletions, additions, whatever).

deletions: resin and french chalk on that ink again, then take this stuff called ‘erasol’ (it’s basically a really strong detergent and is therefore kind of caustic … the internet is trying to tell me that it’s also a component of mustard gas … I’m not sure how true that is) and apply it to the area that needs to be corrected. You sort of leave it there for a minute or so then brush it with a fibreglass stick or a piece of pumice. Wash with water then gum up with gum etch or do this thing called the ‘victory etch’, which I will get onto in a bit.

additions: if you need to add something more to your image, then you do the resin and french chalk again, then add 7-1 prepasol to the area you want to add to. Rinse, dry, redraw image and process as before.

9. Victory Etch. Once you’ve finished proofing, you roll up your image with black ink again, do the resin and french chalk thing and then get the bottle marked ‘victory etch’ and pour some of that stuff all over your plate (no idea what that solution is … I am guessing it’s acidic because it makes the zinc ‘shine’ a bit more and removes any light grease staining with a little coercion. Not sure though). Keep etch moving across the plate for about two minutes. Wash off with water in sink. Dry. Gum with atzol and leave to dry for at least 10 minutes (apparently it gives the etch time to mature).

10. Mix up your chosen ink colour. For me today, this was that green I really wanted to mix. Managed to get a nice shade by mixing emerald green, raw umber and white together (I think it was about 1 part emerald, 2 parts umber, 8 parts white). Ink tins are a bitch to get open. You can smack some of them open with a knife. Others require a big burly technician with a funny sort of steel tool, with a sort of nubbin at one end, and a sort of a pointed bit at the other for hooking under stubborn lids. I could do with one of those for jam jars.


11. Wash out. This is where you wash out the black ink with white spirit like last time. If you’re going to be printing a light colour, then it might be best to mix a bit of the colour you’re using with white spirit rather than using the asphaltum again (it’s kind of dark and murky). Wash gum off with water in sink.

12. Roll up plate with colour and print. This has probably taken you all day.

13. To change colour, roll up plate in old colour, gum up with plain gum arabic, not atzol (there’s another bottle called gum arabic … it doesn’t desensitize the plate like atzol does but does protect it from oxidisation). Mix fresh colour, wash out as above, roll up, etc yadda yadda.

If you need to leave the plate for any length of time, gum it with gum arabic. When you’re ready to carry on you just wash it off. If you’re going to leave it over night then you have to roll it up in black ink.

Whe you’re done with the drawing you’re working with, you wash the ink away with white spirit then dump erasol all over the sucker, then rinse and leave to dry. plates can be used three or four times before they need to be ‘regrained’.

Okay, that’s more or less it. I can feel my brain dribbling out of my ears.

Brain haemorrhage aside, that sort of explains what I have been trying to remember today. There is a metric crapload of historical and scientific context I could dredge up about lithography … but it’s half one in the morning. I don’t think I can do much more before I collapse.

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