Let’s start with the important existential question – Why clean up?
I often ask myself this, as things just revert back to a mucky state as soon as they are clean! However, there are (at least) three good reasons for cleaning up your printmaking inks.
1. Your printing papers
Most modern safe inks are designed to dry on absorbent surfaces (paper) and stay wet on hard surfaces. This means if you leave smudges of ink around in the print area, they can stay wet for several weeks – waiting to get on your fingers just before you pick up that expensive pristine piece of printmaking paper. This reason alone is enough to encourage cleaning the ink up thoroughly after a printing session.
2. Your inks
Ink left on brushes, palette knives, pots and rolling slabs will happily mix with your new clean inks and alter the colour. This can potentially have interesting results, but its best to be in control, especially where yellow ink is concerned as this will quickly turn green if the is any hint of blue around it.
3. Your rollers
You have paid very good money for your precious rollers. Leaving ink on them till it dries will ruin the surface, leaving wet ink on the roller attracts all sorts of fluff, flies and dust. Love your printmaking rollers; keep them smooth and shiny and ready for action!
Use less ink
Before you think about how to clean up inks, consider developing working habits that don’t leave too much ink on the slab / roller.
Dab ink on the roller with a brush instead of dolloping a big gloop of it on the bench.
Make ‘free’ prints
Making prints at the end of your printing session feels like you are getting free bonus prints, and makes cleaning up printmaking inks more fun.
Use up the inks on the rollers and slab to create quick spontaneous mono prints. These may turn out to be surprisingly wonderful in themselves, alternatively you can use them for collage or chine Collee papers.
The beauty of this activity is that you are working with no expectations, and you are ‘warmed up’ having been printing for a while. If you have been editioning a print you may need a bit of fun and freedom to play. Even if you don’t actually take any prints, you can just mess around with the inks, mixing and working into the colours – that’s how new ideas are born.
Cleaning up printmaking inks; the business
There are two ways of cleaning up printmaking inks, and you will use these in combination; mechanical and chemical
1. Mechanical methods
Basically, this involves physically removing it. If you can scrape up any ink and save it for later that is good, but shows that you were probably using too much in the first place.
Use sheets of newspaper to blot the ink; lay a piece of newspaper over the ink on the bench and roll over it with an inky roller. Both sides of the paper will absorb some ink. You can do this at any point in your cleaning up process. The newspaper can go in the paper recycling bin, but I sometimes use it for firelighters.
Ask your elderly neighbours and family to save them for you if you don’t generate enough of your own. Newsagents may also give you left over yesterday’s papers.
A good supply of rags is very useful in the studio. I get old bedsheets and tear them up. If you let people know you want old sheets, it is surprising how many you will be offered.
Also try charity shops, holiday cottage owners, small hotels, and commercial laundry companies
If you use lots of rags there are commercial services to collect and wash them. Don’t try washing them yourself – it is a nightmare believe me.
I like the big ones for builders or care homes. The baby ones are too small to be that useful in my opinion. For big ones try builders’ merchants e.g. Wickes / Screwfix, you can also buy patient wipes on line from medical/care suppliers.
After cleaning your hands use them for a final wiping of the bench or keep them and continue using as rags.
If ink has dried on a hard surface, (e.g. glass), I find a glass scraper is a really good tool to have handy.
This is a plastic handle which takes a double ended Stanley knife blade. It is usually used by decorators for cleaning paint off windows. Get one from your local diy depot.
2. Chemical methods
This involves using chemical solvents to break down the structure of the oily ink and make it easier to wipe it all up.
There are a number of solvents to choose from, it is a good idea to pick two, one strong one and one gentler general purpose one.
Some of the things to consider when choosing solvents are: Safety / Smell / Cost / Ease of use / Effectiveness.
Even ‘eco’ cleaning products can affect your skin so protect your hands; wear gloves.
Latex gloves may not protect from solvents; ideally use nitrile or vinyl gloves.
What type of inks are you using?
Modern safe printmaking inks are generally less toxic than some of the inks we used to use back in the 70s and 80s. These inks needed strong solvents which gave the print room a distinctive smell, loved by printmakers but probably destroying some of our brain cells as well, not to mention making the skin on your hands look about 100 years old. I guess each generation reminisces about the good old days, but working conditions for printmakers are surely safer now.
As you will know if you have been following the blog, I use Hawthorn Inks as they are made in York so I can call in and have a chat with Barry about the latest colours he’s been mixing when picking up my supplies. You don’t need to be local though as they ship worldwide. I think their inks are great – and they aren’t paying me to say this. However, there are other good makes of ink you can use, a couple of well-known ones are Akua and Caligo.
Kitchen ingredients; vegetable oil and washing up liquid
All these safe printmaking inks are based on natural oils (soy, linseed etc), and can be cleaned up with vegetable oil or washing up liquid.
The problem with vegetable oil is that it leaves a sticky film on things and can cause confusion with your viscosity printing. By introducing more oil onto the surfaces in the studio you can lose track of your carefully calibrated oil in the inks. However, it is a really safe cheap clean up method. If you choose this method use veg oil first and finish off with something like wipes (see above) or citriwash (see below).
Neat washing up liquid is recommended for Akua inks and this is very effective, it loosens the ink before you wash it off in warm water. I still felt that everything was a bit sticky afterwards so I don’t tend to use this unless there is nothing else available.
Recommended chemicals for cleaning up printing ink
There are also a number of safe solvents which I think are more effective than cooking oil and soap. I have tested out a few for you here, so you can choose which ones to use yourself.
A note about nasty ones
Petrochemical solvents, of which White Spirit may be the least dangerous, were the main ones we used in the past. They are basically unsafe, unsustainable, smelly and inflammable, but can still be still cheap and effective.
A good alternative to White Spirit, this can be used neat or diluted. It is a good price and doesn’t smell much, this stuff works well.
The more you dilute it the cheaper it gets, so test out different dilutions to see what works best for you.
Citrus based washes go under various different names, this is a good all-round cleaner, that can be used neat and also be diluted.
I put diluted Citriwash in an old spray bottle and use it to clean the bench, it’s good at removing the thin dried film of ink that can be left on the glass slab after cleaning.
Totally gorgeous smell and very effective for cleaning up. It is also rather expensive but you don’t need much.
I use this for viscosity printing as there is more cleaning up involved throughout the process. I put it in a bottle with a hole in the lid and sprinkle it on where needed, enjoying the lovely orange blossom smell.
“In the end is my beginning”
I think my first question ‘why clean up?’ is the wrong one to be asking. Cleaning up is an integral part of the printmaking process and one we should embrace in the manner of the Zen monks. It clears your mind after a printmaking session, providing a pause to your rhythm of work. If you spend time developing a cleaning up routine that suits you, the ritual soon becomes part of your creative practice.
A meditative cleaning up process helps you to love your tools and care for your studio space, leaving it ready to begin your next bout of creative activity.
As always your ideas and experiences of cleaning up printing ink are welcome – please leave a comment if you have anything to add that may be helpful to other curious printmakers.