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Collagraphy: the basics.

Updated: Jan 17



Despite being around since the 1960s as a coined term for mixed media printmaking, collagraphy still intrigues many.


"What is a collagraph?


is a question I get asked a lot.


Below are five pointers to help you understand and appreciate this lesser-known printmaking technique.



1. Beginnings


The term "collagraph" was first coined by an American artist who was experimenting with new printmaking techniques in the 1950s. His name was Glen Alps (1994 - 1996). Alps was born in Colorado but gained a Master of Fine Arts and taught for 37 years at the University of Washington, Seattle.


His term describes a type of printmaking whereby the printmaking plate is glued with various textured materials. The French verb "coller" means "to stick/glue" and this is fundamentally what a collagraph is: a print taken from a collaged base.


Artists and printmakers were applying ink and taking prints from textured surfaces before Glen Alps coined the term collagraphy. For example, prints onto paper were already being taken from engraved stone or plaster reliefs. It was Alps who wanted to explore further and he coined the phrase collagraphy to describe what he was doing.


Collagraphy found its soulmate in abstraction. Abstract art sprung to life in the turbulence of the early 1900s. Artists, musicians and writers all felt the urge to create in ways that reflected the upheavals taking place around them. The two world wars in Europe disturbed society's psyche and artists, who no longer wanted to depict an ideal classical world which no longer felt relevant, chose to break free from tradition. Artistic movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Dadaism all embraced radical ideas and enjoyed this sense of artistic freedom.


When new stronger glues were invented in the late 1940s, artists then began to stick "Found" objects on their work. It wasn't long before artists tried covering the textural mixed media surface of a canvas or board with ink and taking a print from it.


Collagraphs are predominantly intaglio prints. That is to say, the ink is worked into the crevices on the plate. Its the same inking technique used for etchings. The term "intaglio" comes from the Italian verb "intagliare" meaning to carve. 15th century Italian printmakers were reputedly the first to ink and print from metal plates etched by acid, possibly inspired by a weaponry technique whereby swords were dipped in wax, patterns were scratched in, then dipped once more to etch the pattern onto the metal. In contrast to relief printmaking, where ink is rolled onto the top surface of the plate and the grooves are left blank when printed on paper, intaglio prints rely on the ink left in the crevices to provide the printed image. A well-known relief printing technique is lino cutting; ink is rolled over the top surface and where lino has been gouged out with a tool, these areas are blank on the printed paper.


Collagraphy has been evolving since the 1950s. It has gained a reputation for being perhaps the most experimental printmaking process, thanks to the efforts of printmakers prepared to push boundaries with the type of printing base and collage materials they're using. The beauty of a collagraph is in the embossed paper, created by the "bumpy" surface you've inked, and how everyday materials can be upcycled to look like something completely different. Whether you're a printmaker who just loves inking abstract textural surfaces, or one who loves the challenge of making scrunched tissue paper look like a tree, collagraphs are fun and surprising.



2. Constructing a collagraph plate


There are no hard and fast rules about how you construct a collagraph plate.

Some use thin plyboard, but it seems that a thick card suits most collagraph printmakers really well. Materials are often chosen for a "trial and error" approach! I have remained loyal to mount board as my preferred base, for several reasons. Recently though, I have started to experiment with thinner cardboard from cereal boxes. The thicker the base you use, the more sturdy it is, and the more prints you'll be able to pull (called an "edition"). If your intention is to edition 30 prints from one plate, you'll need to consider your base and collage materials carefully to ensure they stay intact for long enough to allow that many. Each collagraph in an edition is inked individually by hand, which means a lot of rubbing over the surface. This can dislodge anything fragile you've stuck on.


So, using a good glue is important. I'm not sure how anyone coped before PVA was invented - it's the glue of choice for most printmakers making plates for collagraphs. Not only does it stick most things onto the base really well, but it also provides a really nice tonal effect in the print itself.



3. Texture, Tone and Line


These are the three elements I consider when planning a new collagraph. As I said before, all printmakers approach it differently. One approach is to cover the whole base with items you've glued on (straightforward "collage") and focus on the texture or pattern those materials will create on the paper when inked. This seems to be how many collagraph printmakers start out, and it's a good way to find out how each material behaves. It's not long before you build up an arsenal of favourite items you like to use when building plates for texture and pattern. My top five are: tissue paper, masking tape, embossed wallpapers, string, and lace. I have also successfully used: foil, couscous, Polyfilla, fabric, Sellotape and a whole lot more!


The second element to consider is "tone". How light or dark do you want each area of your plate to print? Materials with a rough surface will hold the ink when you wipe away during the intaglio method, whereas materials with a shiny surface will wipe away clean. PVA glue is perfect if you want to create a light area, and you can paint it onto the base like a paint instead of merely using it to stick other items on. For a dark tone, I like to peel away the top layer of mount board, because underneath the smooth top layer there is a fuzzy second layer which holds ink really well.


It's worth sketching a composition on paper first and shade the areas you want to be dark. When you build the plate, remember to select rougher materials for that shaded area to give the desired darker tone. For non-shaded (desired "white" areas), look for smooth materials that will wipe clean, or just paint on PVA glue. If using mount board as your collage base, if you leave it bare, when inked it will print as a mid-tone - a bit counter-intuitive, I know!


Collagraphs don't have to be abstract! Landscape and Still Life are both good marriages for collagraphy, but I also enjoy the challenge of depicting animals and birds too. Anything goes, and it's up to you how you want to achieve it using materials at hand.


As with any artistic technique, there are limitations. Collagraphy is no different, and perhaps the most obvious challenge is "line". Line is important for delineating and creating recognisable forms. In painting and drawing, a brush and a pencil will do this for you. In collagraphy it is the surgical knife! Using a knife to score into the top surface of mount board will provide a printed line very similar to an etching. Knives aren't as easy to handle for curved lines, and practice makes perfect. Even the thinnest scored line will print clearly on paper if you have an intaglio press. The other way to emphasise shapes and outlines is to use cut-outs and glue them on. The raised edge of the glued cut-out will provide a small crevice for ink to sit, and this will be a line on your print. I like to vary knife-cut shapes and ripped shapes.


Eagle 1, Collagraph


4. Before inking


Once you are happy with your collaged base, and the glue is completely dry, you will need to varnish it. Purists use shellac varnish because it's fine enough not to clog all those lines and crevices you've been at pains to add to your plate. Button Polish is much cheaper, contains shellac, and works just as well. Shellac can be bought in dried flake form and dissolved into liquid form using turpentine in a jam jar. Paint an even layer over the plate with a large DIY brush. You can buy ready-diluted Shellac varnish in bottles. Leave the varnished plates to dry for at least a day before moving on to ink them. The varnish will protect the glued materials and ensure ink doesn't soak into them.


5. Inking


The ink I use for my collagraphs is highly-pigmented linseed-oil-based etching ink, which is lightfast. There are etching inks available which are not oil-based, and may work just as well. There are other sundries you need for printing a collagraph: scraps of tarlatan (known as "scrim"), squares of newsprint and tissue paper, a toothbrush and some cotton wool buds.


You will also need a washing bowl filled with clean water and a towel. This is because paper for collagraphs is soaked and blotted before being placed over the inked plate. If your printing plate is large you might need to soak your paper in the bath! Plate size will be determined by the size of the bed on your press. It's an intaglio press, which has a roller designed to squeeze out the ink from the crevices. It operates a bit like an old-fashioned mangle. Here's mine, made by Gunning Arts:



On your work surface you will need to place some newsprint - it gets messy! A glass plate or a mirror is placed to one side, and this is where you will squeeze your inks and mix colours before applying them to your plate.


I advise wearing rubber gloves for this bit: either with a piece of scrim rolled into a sort of dolly, or with a toothbrush, dip into the ink and begin working it generously over the surface of the plate. You aim to fill all the crevices, which is why a toothbrush is often my tool of choice. Once covered, you spend a lot of time wiping the ink away again with a piece of scrim. But only from the top surface, and to achieve this you should wipe carefully and evenly with flat fingers. No scrubbing! Continue wiping until the top surface looks dry, then polish the plate with tissue paper and if you want to highlight particular areas even further, a cotton wool bud can be used to remove the last traces of ink on smooth surfaces like painted PVA glue or Sellotape. On the collagraph, these areas will be white. Dark and light areas can be controlled by how hard or gently you wipe away the ink, and it's often necessary to ink a plate several times to discern the best wiping approach. I could say much more about combining several colours on one plate, inking a collagraph plate in intaglio AND relief, wiping colours into each other or keeping them separate. Not to mention multi-plates. These can be saved for another blog. At least you know the basics.


While I have been inking, the cut paper should be soaking in the bowl nearby. How many times have I finished inking a plate, turned to my bowl and realised I forgot to put the paper in!


Paper for collagraphs should be strong and so need to have a high cotton content. I tend to use either Fabriano Rosaspina or Somerset Velvet. I could write a whole blog about paper too! Start soaking just before you start inking is a good rule of thumb. The paper, once blotted carefully with the towel, will be pliable enough to lay over the raised materials on your plate. When the plate and paper are rolled through the press, the pressure will emboss the paper and all the ink from the crevices will transfer nicely.


The best part of collagraphy is peeling away the paper from the plate to see the result. I never get tired of it. There's always something I'm not satisfied with, but I also have many happy surprises. Enough to keep me continuing on my quest for the perfect collagraph!


Here's a good time to mention editioning. If you want to keep inking the same plate several times, you can build up an edition. The number you print is up to you. Once you've numbered your print 1/30 for example, you must not print more than 30. I tend to print around 10 or 15, as I don't have space to store piles of prints. The value of a print will go up for a smaller edition. Collagraphs are ORIGINAL prints, that's to say they aren't printed using a digital printer - just elbow grease and imagination!



Conclusion:


This blog explains the processes involved in collagraphy at a basic level. Hopefully it has informed you sufficiently to view collagraphs in exhibitions and online with appreciation for the work that's gone into them.


You are welcome to view the collagraphs on sale in my SHOP.


You can also book a Two-day Collagraphy Masterclass with me at my home studio in Dorset.


Many thanks for reading,


Genny


Disclaimer: I am not a historian and make no apology for inaccuracies in writing about events which may have led to the use of collagraphy as a recognised printmaking technique. I seem to have gleaned information from a plethora of sources over the years. If you are interested in this area of art history, there are authors who have dedicated more time to it. I would recommend the following book:


"Collagraphs and Mixed-Media Printmaking", Brenda Hartill and Richard Clarke, A & C Black Publishers Ltd, London, 2005.

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