By Julia Ayres

Published in Watercolor, An American Artist Publication
Fall 2000 issue
© BPI Communications Inc.

Over the past 20 years, artists have become increasing concerned about the potential health hazards associated with their materials and the environmental conditions in their studios. Those concerns have been strongly expressed by printmakers, who traditionally have used some of the most toxic chemicals. Several books and dozens of magazine articles have offered advice about creating a safe and hazard-free studio. I have written several articles for Watercolor on the use of water-based inks for making monotypes and prints, and I have included more detailed information in my books, Printmaking and Monotype: Mediums and Methods for Painterly Printmaking (both Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York).

New York artists Susan Rostow and William Jung set out to create that kind of healthy environment when they began planning for a baby. They wanted materials that met their creative needs, while also making a safe environment where a child could play as they worked. They knew immediately that etching acids, petroleum solvents, and oil-based inks would have to be removed from the studio.

After much experimentation, research, and application, Rostow and Jung not only invented art supplies for themselves, but also established a small business selling their Akua-Kolor water-based inks, which are now among a growing list of nontoxic materials that are available.

Jung has been a full-time high school art teacher with the New York City Board of Education of 15 years. He is also an accomplished printmaker, sculptor and oil painter. In 1988, he applied for a project grant to work at the Lower East Side Printshop, where Rostow was the artistic director and master printer. She was also part of the jury that accepted him.

Their first collaborative work between artist and printer was a traditional etching made with nitric acid and oil-based inks. Rostow recalls that neither of them was particularly concerned with possible toxic health hazards. Her specialty was making photo-etched plates with toxic KPR developer. Her workspace was often filled with the fumes from acids, solvents, oil inks, and photo-developing solutions because she was not aware of safer methods and materials. At the same time, Jung’s neighbors complained the fumes from his oil painting were creeping into their spaces. His apartment and studio were in a Lower East Side building purchased cooperatively with other tenants in the early 1980’s. Jung and Rostow’s relationship developed in the three years after they met. In 1991, they were married, and Rostow moved into Jung’s apartment and studio. As their awareness of health issues grew, they gradually turned the studio into the Water-based Printshop. In 1993, Rostow left the Lower East Side Printshop to devote her full attention to the couple’s collaborative work.

First they looked for water-based inks that would answer their needs. They wanted them to behave similarly to the way oil inks would when rolled out on a plate, staying moist while the image was developed and the plate was printed. They found that most of the water-based inks available commercially were formulated to dry quickly.

Their next step was to research how watercolors and inks are manufactured. After Rostow and Jung consulted with chemists and read all the available literature, they realized that the fillers added to most inks imparted a chalky appearance. They then started mixing raw ingredients that might work better.

The couple chose the finest pigments and mixed them with gum arabic, the chief binder in watercolors, also using several other vegetable gums and other natural ingredients. They added benzoic acid, a safe preservative used in food, as an ingredient stabilizer. Because there were no fillers in the mixture, it was necessary to shake the bottle before using the inks. Rostow and Jung felt that inconvenience was a small price to pay for color consistency without a plastic or chalky appearance.

The artists used these new inks in their printmaking classes. Students who used them wanted to purchase the inks, so initially Rostow & Jung simply charged the price of the ingredients. As demand for their inks grew, the artists realized they had a new business.

Rostow and Jung came up with the name Akua-Kolor for their ins after someone inadvertently typed a "k" instead of "q" in the word "aqua." When they discovered the word "akua" means, "spirit" in Hawaiian, they decided this was their correct label.

To launch the business, Rostow and Jung consulted the Small Business and Development Center and Monona Rossol, the director of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, who provided valuable safety information and put them in touch with a toxicologist, Dr Rudolf Jaeger. Jaeger certified their labeling as an approved nontoxic product.

Jarrett Jung was born in January 1996. Before he could crawl, he as placed on blankets by Rostow’s side as she worked. As he became mobile, his space was fenced to keep him from teething on ink bottles. Today he has freedom to print and play in the entire studio, but is restricted to using the safest pigments: yellow ochre, red oxide, ultramarine blue, white and black.

Rostow wrote this about the safety of the colors. "We like to take additional measures to ensure safety. Pigments (with the exception of earth colors and ultramarine blue) are considered chronic health hazards. This means that if you are exposed again and again over a period of time you may develop reactive health problems. Although there are no hazardous fumes inhaled with water-based colors, as there are with oil-based colors, pigments can enter your body by skin absorption. It is an accumulation process that may harm you over years of use. In that case, if hands are kept clean and the ink is kept off your skin there are absolutely no health risks. We do not eat or drink in the studio. Because Jarrett has a hard time keeping the ink off his body, we limit his colors to the safer pigments."

In addition to the inks, Rostow and Jung developed a carborundum mixture that can be applied to a plastic plate using a stencil and screen. The carborundum catches the ink as it is wiped across the plate. The carborundum area produces intense results and may be used for additional prints. Some artists thin the mixture with acrylic medium and apply it with a brush to create more varied applications.

While Rostow and Jung are pleased with their small art-supply business, they remain dedicated to creating art, and a good portion of their time is devoted to making monotypes. That process begins with rolling colors on a printing plate and sometimes adding another layer of color by rolling ink on top to deepen the color intensity. Simple tools, such as wooden sticks, rags, and tissues, are used to wipe lights from this dark field. The image is then printed on paper.

The artists often repeat the process and print additional plates to further develop the image. Because Akua-Kolors stays moist, they may be printed on dry paper. Registering and printing the additional plate drops ins simpler than having to handle moist paper that changes size.

While working, Rostow also applies color with a brush. In order to draw fine lines, she uses a needle applicator with a refillable bottle that she and Jung invented. This new product is a refillable, foam-tipped Monotype Pen.

This pen is only one of the new products Rostow and Jung are developing. They are also working on a line of liquid watercolors, and they are developing water-based etching inks.

Happily, the menu of reliable, safe, effective colors and inks is growing, and Rostow and Jung are a significant part of this development.