Discover the pleasure of preparing paper for collagraph printing, and help your printmaking sessions flow smoothly at the same time.
Your printing time is precious. You may be paying for time with the press. You may have a job with deadlines that eat into your printmaking time, or children coming home from school cutting your printing session short.
Some interruptions you can’t avoid, but preparing paper doesn’t need to slow you down. There is no need to stop inking up and mess about with drippy wet paper and soggy blotting paper each time you are ready to print.
Picture a beautiful flat stack of evenly damp paper with the soft supple texture of suede, just waiting and ready for you to print as you need it.
Sounds good? Read on…..
Why use damp paper for printing?
Collagraph plates have a textured surface that embosses into the printing paper. This is a large part of the appeal of collagraph prints.
Your paper must be thick enough to accommodate the contours of the plate, I would suggest at least 220 gsm. The paper must also keep its strength when wet, otherwise it would fall apart when soaked in water. N.b. Etchings also have similar paper requirements.
When the fibres are thoroughly damp they are relaxed and mold easily around all the indentations on the printing plate. The printing press can squeeze the damp paper into small grooves and crevices so it picks up fine details of textures on the collagraph plate.
You will find that the damp paper is more receptive to ink, printing clearer and brighter than on dry paper.
It is worth trying a print on both damp and dry paper just to see the difference.
This way if a print doesn’t turn out as you hoped you will be able to diagnose the problem if it is caused by the dampness (or dryness) of the paper.
In these two pictures everything was the same apart from the damp / dry paper.
A little bit of planning ahead…..
I always prepare the paper the day before I plan to do a series of prints.
Allowing the paper to rest overnight means it is perfect to use in the morning as the fibres have taken up as much water as they need and each sheet will be evenly damp all over.
There should be no trace of water puddling on the surface and no crispy dry edges.
It should feel like expensive suede with a lovely fluid responsive texture.
First get your bath: this should be big enough to allow the paper to lie flat. I usually use an oven cleaning tray from Lakeland Plastics, black trays from garden centres are also good. If you paper is really big you can use your bath.
Pour in clean water. immerse half the sheets of paper you plan to use, add them one at a time to make sure they are all wet on both sides.
Generally 15 mins soaking is enough. Experiment with your usual paper to see what works best.
This method is quite forgiving so it is not really critical.
If you forget about it and soak the paper for too long it will absorb more water.
You may find you will need to leave your paper stacked up a little longer before it is dry enough for printing on.
Lay a sheet of blotting paper on a heavy waterproof board (I put a piece of 15mm ply wood in a plastic bag for this).
Lift one sheet of paper from the bath and let it drip, then gently lay it down on the blotting paper; then cover it with a dry sheet of printing paper. Keep going, one wet one dry till all the soaked paper is used up. Finish up with another sheet of blotting paper and another heavy board.
Put weights on top of it – anything you have, the heavier the better.
Tip: You can use your full water bath as a weight as well.
Handling damp paper
It is easy to mark damp paper with dirty or inky fingers.
Wash your hands, and try to avoid touching the paper with your fingers; wear clean gloves, use tongs or paper fingers*.
Tip: holding damp printing paper by opposite diagonal corners makes it easier to manipulate.
*Paper fingers are little strips of card folded in half. Use these to handle all your paper while you are printing to help prevent inky finger prints.
Surprising changes in size
Paper expands when damp and contracts when dry. It can change in size by a surprising amount, on a big sheet of paper this can be a centimetre or more, usually more lengthways than across.
If you compare the size of the original plate to the dry printed image size you will certainly notice the difference in dimensions.
This has implications if you are planning to make a print using several plates.
After you print the first plate the paper starts to dry. If you don’t get a move on the paper will shrink before you have printed the second plate and it wont register (match up) with the first one.
The solution is to get all your plates ready inked and print them one after the other in quick succession. If you can’t do this cover the half made print with plastic to prevent the paper drying out while you faff about.
If it does dry out you can re-wet it so all is not lost.
Help! My paper is too wet!
If you can see water on the paper it is still too wet. Use blotting paper or a clean towel to soak up some of the excess water before printing.
If you paper is obviously wet you may not have allowed enough time for the stack to rest and become evenly damp.
It could also mean you soaked the paper for a bit too long in the bath. Try putting more weights on the stack and leaving it a few hours longer.
It is a bit like making sourdough bread, there is no rush.
If the paper is getting dry round the edges seal it up in a plastic bag to keep the moisture in – don’t leave it too long like this though or you will find you have the next problem:
Help! My paper has gone mouldy!
What If you prepare too much paper and can’t use it all?
If the temperature is cold it will keep for a week or so, however if you are working in a warm climate it can go mouldy in a couple of days.
If you are not going to use it in a day or two spread the damp paper out to dry – you can re wet it when you next need printing paper.
The mould makes grey or pink rings and dots on the paper; it doesn’t look great although kids could use it for making fake old maps etc.
Soaking, draining and stacking your paper can be a calm and meditative process. I think separating out the task of preparing paper for collagraph printing and giving it due attention is a helpful way of getting ready to print, even if you only need half a dozen sheets. It is easier to keep the paper clean and doing it the day before ensures it is evenly damp.
Starting to ink up secure in the knowledge that you have a supply of perfectly prepared paper waiting for you gives you a good feeling, as though you are on top of things.