Printmaking can be a nasty business. Traditional etching uses nitric acid to dissolve an image out of a metal plate. Inks are laden with solvents, and everything is cleaned up with turpentine or acetone. For nearly 500 years, artists have braved toxic chemical cocktails to create etchings, but the results are worth it. Metal plates are sturdy and produce many identical copies with fine etched details and a wide range of lights and darks.
But printmaking doesn't have to be toxic. On a misty Sunday afternoon, I caught up with Libby George, a local artist who has been using a process called solarplate intaglio to create etchings with sunlight, water and non-toxic inks. George is known for her succulent, hazy pastel drawings of buildings and landscapes, but printmaking used to be her thing. For 15 years, George worked at home with her own press and all those scary chemicals. After her two sons were born, she worried that "it was only a matter of time before somebody got into something," so she threw everything out and switched to pastels. Nearly three decades would pass before George found a safe way to print again. "I love printmaking but I didn't want to go back to chemicals," she explains.
About six years ago, George traveled to the Making Art Safely studio school in Santa Fe with help from generous grants. Pastels had gotten repetitive for her, and the solarplate process was enticing. It offered fresh opportunities to explore printing again, along with plenty of room for creative growth. The many steps involved are still challenging George, who relishes continually learning from little mistakes. "These happy accidents you just can't think of yourself, and they're better than anything I can think up!" she says, leaning in to giggle as if sharing a secret.
Wrapped in an ink-stained, white smock, she swipes a curl of chestnut hair away from her glasses and hops from table to table in her studio to demonstrate each part of the process. "Here's a solarplate," she says, handing me a thin orange sheet of photopolymer plastic mounted on metal. The plastic starts out soft, but hardens when exposed to sunlight.
To begin, George creates a black and gray image on clear acetate film. Sometimes she'll draw directly onto it, other times she'll print scanned drawings from her computer. Window shades pulled tight, she grabs a new plate and places the image over the top of the orange plastic. Humboldt County's sunlight is notoriously fickle, so George uses a UV light to expose the plastic. Depending on the image, exposure times vary from 10 seconds to a minute. "Every second makes a difference," she says.
The plate is soft, and where the light cannot pass through the acetate film it stays soft. It's the plate's ability to accept varying levels of light that makes this process possible, otherwise it would be a simple black and white imprint. Where the acetate film is clear, the solarplate becomes hardest. The darkest parts of the image keep the light off the solarplate, forming the deepest etchings, while in the faintest gray areas, the etched image is just barely there. Once the plate is exposed, George places it in a tap water bath and gently scrubs it with a soft nylon brush for 45 seconds. Those areas that didn't harden with light exposure get scrubbed away, and her plate is ready for the next step.
Turning to her inking table, George scoops up a glob of soy-based lamp-black ink and plops it onto a Plexiglas pad. She runs a brayer across the ink, its 4-inch-wide cylinder spreading the pigment out with a sticky sound. As George rolls the brayer across her new plate, it shoves ink deep into the etched markings. She carefully wipes away any excess from the surface with lint-free tarlatan cloth, then prepares to lay it on expensive paper.
If her finger happens to touch the printing surface it will leave a mark. "Every printmaker in the world that comes to your show and looks at your print will know that," George cautions. With a sly whisper, she says, "You can pretend that it was on purpose but they will know it's not!" Noticing a stray drop, she wipes the edge of the plate on her smock and lays it carefully on her press. George then slowly turns the crank of her press and everything is fed through. Under intense pressure, any ink left on the solarplate becomes a new layer for her developing image.
Most prints are run, or "pulled" through the press at least four times. Different colors and ink applications build up depth in the surface of her works, and the slight variations of each pull ensure that every print is unique. Even though the same plate can create identical prints every time, George searches for the right combination of variables. "I like to pull it and look at it and say, 'OK, what does this print need?'" Sometimes it's another pull, other times a print requires small additions of painted details.
Etching, inking and pressing. Minor changes in every step create an array of possibilities. George loves getting lost in the process, musing over happy accidents while the hours fly by. Now that she's found a safe way to print again, she looks forward to the innumerable paths printmaking allows. Judging by her body of work so far, plenty of surprises await.
—Libby George will have a reception for her new show, "Finding That Light" on Saturday, Aug. 9 from 6-9 p.m. at the Upstairs Gallery during Arts Arcata.