paving stone with ants nest

paving stone with ants nest

The urgent need to print can strike at any time: I was getting stuck into some serious gardening and started to move a stack of concrete paving slabs, which had been leaning up vertically for some time.

Between two slabs I discovered a wonderful construction, like a map of abandoned catacombs. The work of thousands of ants, now long gone.

Here was inspiration – I urgently needed to preserve it as I could already feel a print forming in my mind.

How to preserve the ants nest?

detail of ants nest on paving stone

detail of ants nest on paving stone

All thoughts of gardening put to one side, I examined the structure to decide what to do next.

It was made from sand and soil, lightly stuck together with some secret ant substance. I only had one stone and it was drying out quickly in the air and getting more crumbly……

generous coating of pva on acetate

generous coating of pva on the acetate

One thought was to spray it all with glue to preserve it, instead I decided to make a plate directly from it. My idea was to lay a sheet of acetate covered in pva over the surface, with the intention of picking up a thin layer of sand in the glue. This could, I thought, act like carborundum producing a rough texture on the plate and when inked up, give a dark toned print showing a map of the ants’ nest.


One failure leads to another success

laying acetate with pva on top of ants nest to take an impression

acetate with pva on top of ants nest

Not a great result – the soil stuck in lumpy patches or not at all, however in some places the glue soaked into the soil, leaving an impression on the acetate where the glue had been removed. Interesting!

This was not a neat replica of the ants work but gave a good impression that somehow captured the nature of the nest, an intentional pattern that had structure and sense but was a mystery and wonder to a human.

I did several of these before the structure became too degraded. Luckily I had a supply of acetates and a bucket of pva handy for just this type of occasion!

More insects to the rescue

You may know that pva on its own is not a good printing surface, even waterproof pva tends to re-wet and become sticky when damp paper is pressed against it under pressure. The paper sticks to the plate and tears apart, it is hopeless to print from.

Shellac is the answer. Another insect product and one I use on most collagraph plates where pva is involved. A thin layer of shellac seals everything without altering the texture and avoids the hazard of the plate sticking to the paper.

Another discovery!

crystals forming on the pva

crystals forming on the pva

Picture this; the pva on the acetate is just dry, (I am impatient to print it) the shellac flakes are dissolved in meths, I slap it on with a big brush and….   What’s going on?

Crinkly crystals start to form around the edges of the pva. They have quite an ‘anty’ look and I love it.

I keep going, I have several acetates to work on; a thicker shellac mix seems to make bigger wrinkles, the thick areas of pva are affected more strongly, with bold ridges, thinner edges have more delicate crystalline patterns.

detail of ants nest print showing crystals

detail of ants nest viscosity print

Since this exciting day in the studio I have done more experiments and find the effect happens when the pva is on a smooth impervious base, it doesn’t work on card. I am guessing the newly dried pva can still move around on the shiny acetate under the influence of the meths in the shellac mix.

close up of relief print from ants nest plate

close up of relief print from ants nest plate

It is not terribly controllable but I have used it on other plates to create storm clouds in the sky and wave patterns on the beach.

If anyone has any insight into this phenomenon please let me know what is happening…….

This series of events sums up why I love the curious approach to printmaking; the garden is still overgrown, ants are no doubt tunnelling away under the remaining stones, and I know that allowing your curiosity and intuition to lead you wherever it wants to go will bring fun, wonder and excitement to your days!

Here is a finished print I made using this technique. The ants are added as chine collee, gilded with toner foil 

Ant nest print with chine collee

Ant nest print with chine collee