Use fire to create new textures, forms and shapes

Burning collagraph plates introduces exciting random and organic methods to your platemaking. I love this technique as you give up a certain amount of control and allow your materials to guide your creative process.

The dynamic possibilities offered by fire enable you to radically alter the shape of your plates, as well as create new and interesting surface textures.

collagraph print from burnt plate
inking burnt collagraph plates

Thankyou to my students

The examples in this post were mainly created by enthusiastic students on the ‘exending collagraphs’ and the ‘printing for pyromaniacs’ course. We recently spent 3 solid days exploring this adventurous plate making method, and these intrepid printmaking pioneers really pushed the boundaries of using fire in collagraph platemaking.


In this post I describe how we made and burnt plates, and also some hints about ways of successfully inking burnt plates. But first, a little bit of health and safety.

Work Safely

You are using fire as a tool and you need to manage the risks and remain in control!

Consider your working space

Ideally set up a space outdoors in an area sheltered from the wind. Wherever you are working have a non-combustible surface to work on. We used a sheet of steel, or a paving stone as a base.

Control the fire

Have a damp towel handy to put out any fires that get too fierce, this works very well and effectively damps any flames or smouldering material without making everything soaking wet.

using pliers and wet towel to work safely

Protect your hands

When you get really involved in the effect of fire on your plate it is easy to forget what is hot! Thick gloves can make handling the materials difficult but we found using pliers to hold the plate was a good safe way to hold and manipulate the plate against the fire.

Be aware of smoke and fumes

With acrylic gels and tile cement you are basically turning the water in the materials to steam, and burning card creates some smoke, so stand down wind of your work to avoid inhaling any fumes. You may also have some other plastic materials on the plate, in this case it is important to be aware of potential fumes and take precautions so you don’t breath them in. PVC gives off particularly noxious fumes so don’t use this on your plates.

Base plate material

We used regular mountboard. The fire will burn through layers creating interesting contours, which are more distinct than simply tearing the card. Tearing rough shapes from your plate means you spend less time burning it. Have a look at the ‘shaped printing plates’ post for some thoughts on how the plate shape affects your designs.

The edges of the card catch fire more easily than the centre, so if you want holes in the plate, poke or cut a small hole first, then burn it to make it bigger.

Thin plywood (‘aero ply’) does not catch fire so readily as cardboard, however sometimes the heat causes it to de-laminate and bubble up, making dramatic cracking sounds!

burning a printing plate with a candle

Start small with a candle and parcel tape

Stick some brown parcel tape or sellotape tape onto your plate. If you add aluminium tape this will prevent areas from burning.

Melt it gently by holding the plate over a lighted candle. Take it slowly as once the tape reaches a certain temperature it will melt fast, creating lovely lacy shapes. The edges of the tape will melt away sooner than the centre.

When you have finished melting the tape it might have sticky glue on surface. This can stick to your damp printing paper at first so dust it with talc, and do a couple of test prints with oily ink to prevent it tearing the paper. You can also add aluminium tape over the sticky areas to seal it in.

Move on to a blowtorch

Small blowtorches as used in the kitchen for making crème brulee are excellent for burning collagraph plates. They are lightweight, easy to use and don’t cost much.

An electric heat gun, the kind used for stripping paint, also works for burning plates.

kitchen blow torch
heating gesso with a heat gun

Making a plate to burn

It is a good idea to make a test sample plate first, so you can try out any different acrylic paints or gels and see how they react to the effects of heat, and how long to burn them for.

How thick or thin you apply the gels affects the type of texture you get, so test this out too.



Try acrylic gesso, acrylic paint, acrylic gels and mediums as well as bathroom tile cement, anything fairly thick and water based is worth a go.

Using a brush or palette knife make patches of each of the acrylics on your test plate. Burn them with a blowtorch or heat gun while they are still wet. The heat turns the water in them to steam and makes them bubble and blister so interesting textures start to appear.

Also try letting them dry before burning them – this produces different results…..

samples of burnt acrylic gels

What is gesso?

On courses people often ask ‘what is gesso?

It is a thick paint used for priming canvas before painting. Traditionally made from whiting and rabbit skin glue, it was applied to the canvas in many coats and sanded down in between to make a smooth surface for oil painitng. I assume this was the poor apprentice’s job.

Nowadays you can buy acrylic gesso from any art shop or art supplier. It is great for making collagraph plates because it is thick enough to hold brush marks, you can draw into it while it is wet, or scratch into it when dry. The important difference between gesso and other acrylic gels is that you can sand it to create smooth or flat areas, whereas acrylic paint and gels are too rubbery to smooth with sandpaper. If you haven’t got gesso in your kit I recommend you get some – you will find lots of uses for it in making collagraph plates.

Combine techniques

Once you have the idea of how thick or thin to apply the textures, and how long to burn them you can mix and match acrylic gels with tape and start to tear and scorch the edges of your plates as well.

I’d suggest you work with little or no plan – just experiment with the materials and stop when you have something you think looks interesting.

burnt collagraph plate
two prints from a burnt plate

Transforming old collagraph plates

If you have a box of old plates (I hope you do!) it is fun to re-visit them and give them a new lease of life by torching them. You can try this just as they are; depending on what they are made of the surface will change and you can alter the shape as well.

Alternatively paint the surface of the old plate with gesso etc. and then burn it. The example here was originally a  landscape made with textured wallpaper – it was never printed as the artist felt it was no good –  but a bit of burning turned it into something much more interesting!

Sanding and sealing your burnt collagraph plates

Once you have finished with the fire it is important to prepare the surface for inking.

Burning leaves quite a rough surface so if you do nothing more to it, it will hold a lot of ink and it will print very dark. There are also loose bits on the surface that will crack and drop off.

Start by sanding the surface of the plate. We used foam sanding blocks, but any sandpaper will do. This will smooth out high bits and remove any loose pieces.

After sanding it the surface will be more even, but still pretty rough so smooth it by painting at least 2 coats of diluted pva (dilute it to single cream texture). This means you will be able to wipe the intaglio ink off the top surface more easily and the textures will show up better.

Once the pva is dry seal the surface with shellac to prevent the pva sticking to your damp printing paper in the press.

At this stage you can also add aluminium tape to make some areas even lighter.


sanding burnt collagraph plates

Inking your burnt collagraph plates

Even though you have varnished and sealed your plates they can print quite dark as they have a lot of texture on them.

When mixing your inks for intaglio inking, add a good amount of transparent ink (aka extender), this helps to reveal all the textures. I would use at least 50% transparent ink, sometimes 80% if the plate is very rough.

burnt collagraph plates with holes
inked collagraph plates on the bench
printed shaped collagraph plates

Combine intaglio and relief inking

Print your plate as intaglio to see how it looks. Then ink it up again as intaglio and roll over it with a contrasting colour, this will pick out the high points and add more depth to the image. Rolling over with white ink or another light opaque colour produces interesting effects. 

Once you get going try two viscosity rolls as this also works very well to show the layers and intricacies of the texture.


doing a viscosity roll
burnt collagraph plate with viscosity

Cleaning your plates

My advice is don’t bother! We just inked the plates up in different colours without removing the residue of ink, this means the colours gradually change and mix producing lovely subtle results. Previous colours show through in deeper areas of the plate giving a nice surprise.

When you have finished the printing session clean the plate by wiping with linseed oil.

Quite often the inked up plates look fabulous, so it is always possible to leave the ink on until it is dry, (could be a week or so) and then frame the plate.

print from melted parcel tape

Keep developing your collagraph plates

Burning plates adds an element of chaos to your work – if your plates turn out too crazy you can always cut them up to help control some of the wildness!

If you have used a mountboard base, you can also try peeling or cutting some of the textures off one plate and collaging the scraps onto new plates.

As always aluminium tape is useful to smooth and lighten areas of the plate and you can add this at any stage as long as the plate is not too oily.

The message here is give yourself permission to play – don’t try to plan or control the process too much, allow things to unfold and see what happens.

The message here is give yourself permission to play – don’t try to plan or control the process too much, allow things to unfold and see what happens.

Let me know how it works for you, or leave a comment under this post…..