Designing a two plate collagraph print

Sometimes it’s not practical to fit everything onto one printing plate!

I am going to explain why I decided to use two plates for this collagraph print and how I worked out the process of designing and constructing the printing plates.

Why use two collagraph plates to print one deisgn?

Two plates create possibilities for combining different collagraph techniques, giving you more control over the contrasting textures and colours.

By using two plates you can keep distinct areas separate and your design can be more structured and defined.

There is also potential for overlapping areas of the two plates, however I didn’t do that in this one.

Starting with a theme

I often suggest you dont plan your final print in detail, but explore the materials with an idea (or none) in mind and see what emerges. Working to a theme is a slightly different approach. In this example I planned the design in some detail before working out how to do it.

The subject is ‘Circus’. This was part of York Printmakers regular print activity;  every two months we make a print on a chosen theme and share the results. It is a good way to challenge yourself, and try something you wouldn’t otherwise do.

Circus memories

I remember being taken to a circus when I was about 5 years old. The main attraction from my point of view was a performing goose, (there was also a donkey). Clearly the circus was very small and quite low key, but it made a big impression on me.

My research for the print involved talking to my mum to find out what she could remember, basically geese climbing a ladder and going down a slide. As my recollection was not this specific, I wanted to illustrate my feeling of the proud goose being the star of the show, caught in the spotlight and holding the attention of the wonderstruck audience.

I googled for images of geese to help make a convincing image and produced a sketch.

Designing the image

The design makes the goose central; the tent above directs attention down to him, his pedestal below points up at him, and all the audiences’ eyes are focussed on him. He is the only bright white in the image, so that will attract the viewers eye, and the gold crown is the final clue that this is all about the goose!

design drawing for the 'circus goose' collagraph print

An initial exploratory mono print

I did a quick exploratory mono print to test out the design and colours.

This was made by rolling ink directly on to acetate and scratching / wiping areas off. I like doing this as it helps to simplify the design, making it clear which bits can be missed out, and which are essential.

A mono print is quick and direct so you can easily make changes at this early stage, before you have invested too much time in constructing a complex collagraph plate, let alone two plates. It also helps to get an idea of the range and balance of colours.

mono print in colour to test circus goose design

Deciding how to construct the collagraph plate/s

Once happy with the design and idea, the question is “how do I construct a plate that carries the design through to the finished print?”. 

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know there can be a lot of options to choose from. This is part of the appeal of collagraph printmaking, but can sometimes be overwhelming.

I wanted a rich dark background to help convey the mystery of being inside a circus tent at night. The focus is on the goose in the ring under the limelight, and this is emphasised by the shadowy structure and sense of enclosure all around.

Carborundum and dry-point

Carborundum is very gritty and rough so it holds a lot of ink, producing a rich dark effect, so that seemed a good starting point. This will need to be inked up as intaglio, and if I use a clear acetate plate any gaps in the carborundum can be used for scratching fine details (eyes, feathers etc) with a dry-point needle.

The two contrasting techniques of carborundum paint and dry-point go together well as both are inked as intaglio.

I planned give the image depth by fading the colours from the back to the front of the audience, as well as from the back to the front of the circus ring.

Acetate plates

Using clear acetate means you can trace the outline of the image the ‘right’ way round on the back of the plate; when you turn it over it is magically reversed!

It also makes it easier for a two plate collagraph print as you can lay one plate over the other and see what is happening in the design.

acetate plate with carborundum paint

Sticky back plastic and aluminium tape

Contrasting textures and sharp graphic shapes can be tricky with carborundum. I wanted to include different textures, and highlight definite areas on the plate with colour. Particularly the bunting and boards round the circus ring;  by raising them above the background surface (they are made from thick card) they will pick up any ink from a roller so they can be a contrasting colour from the background.

The podium is made from sticky back plastic with a wood grain texture. It looks black on the plate but prints quite light with a fine wood texture. Adding some sharp detail in the foreground increases the sense of perspective in the image.

This is a different type of plate construction and inking technique from carborundum, and works well as a separate plate made with relief inking in mind as well as intaglio.

The two plates will be inked up and printed on damp paper, on top of each other.

acetate plate with sticky back plastic and tape design

First test of the two-plate collagraph print

The first print is usually like the first pancake – expect room for improvement! The carborundum areas need to be inked and printed a couple of times so they are impregnated with ink and print really nice and dark.

In this one you can see the ink is rather pale and patchy on the audience and on the brown ground.

I thought the reds came out too pink, and also too similar throughout the image.

Once both plates were inked up I made sure the goose was wiped clean of ink so he would appear very white on the final print, with minimal details picked out in drypoint.

first print from both plates together, showing room for improvemeent

Second and third test collagraph prints

It took me 3 prints before I got the colours working. The ones I had in mind didn’t all work together despite the mono print experiment.

The dark red I first used on the tent (‘dragon red’ from Hawthorns) looked too pale and pinky – I ditched this and used a neutral grey which allowed the other colours to shine.

I realised that the goose needed his own brighter yellow colours for feet and beak to make him really stand out from the reds in the background.

To give him more support I swapped the dragon red on the podium for grey on the top and raw umber on the side. This helped to link the colour palette together.

For the audience the intaglio colour starts dark grey (‘Winter Grey’) and fades into raw umber. The ring fades from raw umber to sunset yellow.

The red is vermillion, and is rolled over the second plate as a relief layer.

Crowning glory

To finish it off I added gold leaf to his crown. I love using metallic leaf and it is easy to get carried away with the glitz, but restricting it to one small but important element of the image worked well in this print.

Be patient

I think the message here is don’t expect to get it right first time. Don’t give up till you have had several goes at printing it and making small changes. The plate improves with printing and you get used to its surface as you ink it.

I often get to this stage and then, if I feel the print has potential, I will re-make the plates with some improvemtns before printing a full edition.

third test print with final amendments

Keep things simple

If you have a design in mind, and a few different techniques you want to use, try considering how it would work with two plates.

It is a good approach to keep things simple and sometimes, surprisingly, making two plates is simpler than trying to fit everything on one.