Formulating Safer Inks

by Susan Rostow & William Jung

Our first collaboration in printmaking began when we first met in 1986. We did a traditional acid etched plate and printed it with oil based inks. We continued printing together and got married in 1991. By 1993 we decided it was time to start working on the greatest collaboration of all; a baby.

Many fears and questions arose while making the decision of having a baby. Is it possible to make prints without breathing in toxic fumes from oil- based inks, solvents, acids and photographic chemicals? Are these fumes doing damage to our reproduction systems? Is it possible to print while pregnant? Will it be safe for the baby to come into the studio? Will we live a long and healthy life? Questions, questions, questions…We knew in our hearts that the printmaking materials that we were working with were a hazard to our health. We read as much as we could about the harms that each substance could possibly bring on to our bodies. We knew we had to do something about it because we didn’t want to give up on printmaking for nine months or forever for that matter.

At first we tried monoprinting with water-based inks. Monoprinting was fine but we were unhappy with the quality of the water-based inks that were available. We found water-based woodblock inks to be loaded with fillers.

We realized that “necessity is the mother of invention” and set out to make our own inks that would do exactly what we wanted them to do. We experimented with a variety of formulas after reading books on how to make watercolors. Our goal was to make water-based ink for reductive monotype that had a greasy working consistency similar to that of oil-based ink. It needed to roll-up smoothly and stay wet on the plate for a long period of time.

After testing many formulas we decided that very few ingredients were really necessary. We left out additives that ink manufactures use to keep the pigments suspended in the base. All this meant to us was that we had to shake the bottle of ink before each use. In return our colors would not have a plastic or chalky appearance. We also did away with fillers that are generally used to extend and stiffen inks. Fillers are powders that are inexpensive and are used by manufactures to fill up space in the container. These fillers only dulled the colors and were not necessary in making good quality ink.

We decided the best binder for monotype ink was gum arabic. Along with the gum arabic we added another ingredient to help the ink roll smoothly, something to keep it from drying, and something to give it a greasy consistency. The real trick was in figuring out the correct proportions of binder and additives in combination with each individual pigment. We learned that all pigments have different characteristics and the formula had to be adjusted for each individual color.

Once we understood the necessary components of the base we focused on pigment selections. As artists, we were concerned about the light fastness of every color. We used The Artists Guide to Selecting Colors by Michael Wilcox and Hillary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints to guide us in deciding on which pigments to use. Printed papers taped to our sunny studio windows also reassured us of their light fastness.

After years of research, experimentation, testing and consulting with chemists, toxicologists, printmakers and artists we came upon a unique water-based ink formula that fulfilled all our monotype desires. We felt confident that the inks we were using were of excellent quality since we selected only the finest and safest ingredients. In addition to meeting our needs, our new inks had tremendous advantages over any other oil or water based ink we have ever used.

Printmaking became more enjoyable than ever before. Cleaning up was so easy with just water and a sponge. Our new ink rolled out directly on the plate so the chore of cleaning an ink slab was eliminated. No time was spent soaking and blotting paper since prints were made on dry paper. Finished prints did not require the tedious task of drying flat under blotters. Now, more time could be spent on the creative level while less time was spent on preparation and clean-up.

Our baby boy was born in 1996. We had no fears as we worked all during the pregnancy. Jarrett is now seventeen years old and a happy healthy member of our printshop.

“Family of Three”
Drypoint monoprint, by Susan Rostow & Jarrett Jung (age 5)

See how Susan Rostow creates this print on the
SAFEPRINTMAKING with Akua Water-based Inks video.


Photos from video below:

Rolling Akua Kolor onto the
monotype plate

Applying drops of Akua Kolor
onto the plate.

Reductive monotype techniques

Printing the red plate.


View more prints by Susan Rostow and Jarrett Jung
View Slide Show of Rostow & Jung family Collaboration 2008 (Printing Really Big Monotyes by Steam Roller Skateboard and Break dancing)