Learning the Similarities & Differences between Oil & Water-based Inks

Working with Master Printmaker, Tony Kirk at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking, Norwalk, Connecticut
By Susan Rostow
To see a slide show of Susan and Tony’s work at CPP click here.

1995 was a great year for advancements in innovative printmaking. That was the year that Akua Water-based inks came into existence and The Center for Contemporary Printmaking (CCP) in Norwalk, Connecticut was established. In fact, I taught the first Akua workshop at CCP with our first line of ink Akua Kolor; which at the time consisted of only four colors in small, hand-labeled bottles. For the past 13 years Akua inks have been used at CCP by independent artists, workshops and their annual event “The Monothon”. Despite this lasting relationship, it wasn’t until March of 2008, that Akua water-based inks were considered by CCP’s, master printer, Tony Kirk for the contract printing that is an integral part of CCP’s programming.

The Helen Frankenthaler Artist's Cottage at CPP
The Helen Frankenthaler Artist's Cottage at CPP

Tony called me earlier this year announcing that he received a grant called the Employee Enrichment Fund from New Canaan Community Foundation, which is funded through the Jeniam Foundation, at the direction of Andrew Clarkson. Tony wanted to use the grant to learn how to use water-based inks. I was honored that he asked me to come to CCP to give him a private lesson and I gladly accepted though I admit to being slightly apprehensive. Tony is an incredibly accomplished master printer and I wasn’t sure if I had three days of new knowledge to offer him. I was concerned that there wouldn’t be much difference between his current printing procedures with oil-based inks and my methods with water-based inks. We would soon find out.

I arrived to CCP in March ready to stay for three days in their newly renovated Helen Frankenthaler Artist’s Cottage complete with print studio, two intaglio presses and living accommodations for the Artists-In-Residence. I settled-in immediately and was excited to begin this printmaking learning experience. This would be my first opportunity working closely with a master printer on plates created by well-know artists for the intention of creating editions. My experience printing with water-based inks mostly comprised of monotype, collagraph and alternative contemporary printmaking methods such as Intaglio Type and SolarPlate. Printing water-based inks with traditional acid etched-plates, resin-based aquatints and steel-faced plates is relatively new to me.

Tony Kirk printing an intaglio test plate
Tony Kirk printing an intaglio test plate

Tony had a variety of plates ready to go. There were plates made by Mary Frank, Donald Sultan, David Finkbeiner, CCP staff member Chris Shore’s personal plates and a test plate which was used for instructional purposes. The test plate had aquatint sections ranging from very light to very dark. It also had a section of line etching and drypoint marks made using roulettes, drypoint needles and other tools. I thought this test plate would be the perfect place to begin.

We conducted our tests using Akua Intaglio water-based ink and Graphic Chemical 514 oil-based ink.
When removing the water-based ink from the jar I observed how carefully Tony scraped an even layer off the surface with the ink knife, a practice he is accustomed to from working with oil-based inks. I told him that he did not have to be so careful with Akua Intaglio water-based inks. It is okay to dig into the jar with the knife, in fact I recommend it. Before removing Akua Intaglio water-based ink from the jar, I dig into the ink and mix it from bottom to top. Some separation may occur with Akua water-based inks; therefore mixing will ensure more consistent ink batches.

Image by Mary Frank
Image by Mary Frank

Tony and I discussed the differences in storing oil-based and water-based inks. If oil-based is stored over time, a hardened layer of ink will form on the top of the can. This is called skinning and is the cause of a significant amount of wasted ink. The dried layer is peeled away and the ink below is used. If a can of oil-based ink is stored and the cap is not closed properly, the entire can of ink will harden and the whole thing must be thrown away, or used as a paper weight. When Akua water-based inks are stored for a long period of time, instead of getting hard, the ink will get looser. This loosened ink is still in perfect condition and only requires a little mixing with a knife before it can be used.

 

Our first experiment was to test different papers with a variety of soaking times. We tried several common printmaking papers and found that Akua water-based inks print well on most papers. However, our favorite paper for printing intaglio plates was Hahnemuhle Copperplate. After pulling several proofs, we came to the conclusion that the paper soaking time is the same for Akua water-based ink as for oil-based ink most of the time. We agreed that when printing aquatints with water-based inks, the paper requires soaking for about 45 minutes in a water tray and needs to be blotted well with a towel before printing. Aquatints that were printed on paper that soaked for less time appeared blotchy and printed inconsistently with Akua water-based inks. We also learned that when printing line etchings and drypoints with Akua water-based inks you can be more flexible with paper soaking time. Prints made with paper soaked for either 1 minute or 45 minutes looked about the same.

Tony revealing a print-in-progress. Image by Donald Sultan
Tony revealing a print-in-progress. Image by Donald Sultan

The inking and wiping of the plates require the same procedures. The only difference we found was that water-based ink requires less wiping than oil-based inks. The steps for inking and wiping the different types of plates varied slightly. Tony applied the ink with a card or dauber. Sometimes he used a soft tarlatan rolled in a ball and other times he used a stiff, flat sheet of tarlatan. When using the flat sheet of tarlatan, he placed a large rubber eraser (about 4″x 6″) on top of the tarlatan. The eraser allowed the tarlatan to move easily across the surface of the plate. In some cases the final film of ink was removed with newsprint paper or hand wiping.

Tony believes that a final hand wiping is necessary for certain plates when using oil or water-based inks. The hand wiping gives him complete control over the plate tone. Using the palm of his hand he wiped the plate again with a light, quick motion. Hand-wiping is a centuries old printmaking practice so I can see why this method is appealing to a master printer. Despite its historical roots, I recommend eliminating this step. Both oil-based and water-based inks contain pigments. Absorption of pigments through skin contact over a long period of time may be harmful to one’s health.

Drypoint detail from test plate
Drypoint detail from test plate

Water-based and oil-based prints are indistinguishable from each other. All prints with aquatints, line etching, drypoint, and carborundum plates printed equally well without any modification for either inks. However, we did modify Akua water-based ink for the Solarplate made from a hand drawn transparency by Mary Frank. The Solarplate printed with oil-based ink printed lighter, showing the fine, linear marks on the plate. The print in which Akua water-based ink was used appeared very dark with less contrast. This is due to Akua’s heavy pigment load. Certain line details were less visible on the Akua water-based print compared to the oil-based print. In this case, it was necessary to modify Akua Water-based Ink in order to reveal the lines and obtain the same results as oil-based inks. By mixing 40% Akua Transparent Base into 60% Akua Intaglio Carbon Black water-based ink, the pigment intensity was reduced. After printing again, we learned that this mixture was successful and the water-based print now showed the linear detail that was missing from the original print. Results proved with this modification, the water-based and oil based final prints were indistinguishable from each other.

On our second workday, we wanted to have a lunch break shortly after inking up a plate. I assured Tony that it would be fine to leave the inky plate and come back to print it after our meal. Akua water-based Intaglio ink dries by absorption not evaporation so it stays wet on the plate yet dries when printed on absorbent paper. Once we returned from lunch we forgot to print the plate we had previously prepared. We found it 24 hours later and printed it with beautiful results. Tony said that if a plate were inked with oil-based ink and left unprinted for 24 hours, the ink would harden and have to be removed with paint-stripper.

work in progress image by Donald Sultan
work in progress image by Donald Sultan

One of the advantages of working with water-based over oil-based ink is how quick, safe and easy it is to clean up. With the use of inexpensive liquid dish detergent we had plates and ink slabs spotless within minutes. In my own private studio I never clean up my ink slab because there is no need. As mentioned before, Akua Intaglio Water-based Ink won’t dry unless it’s printed onto absorbent paper. We cleaned our hands with ordinary hand moisturizer. When we were done printing the studio was filled with the aroma of the lotion instead of the toxic fumes of solvents.

After printing we covered the studio walls with prints and invited CCP members to view our work of the past three days. Prints made with oil-based and water-based ink were pinned side by side and nobody could tell the difference between the two.

 

cpp_group_around_table.jpg

CCP is housed in a 19th Century Carriage House renovated to include a gallery and studios. For more information about their workshops, edition printing, special projects and the Monothon call CCP (203.899.7999) or visit their web site at www.contemprints.org

 

To see a slide show of Susan and Tony’s work at CPP click here.