Discover the best way to ink and print a collagraph plate

The first thing to say is that each printmaker is unique and everybody does it differently.
It is still fun to argue about the best way to ink up a plate though!

I know from experience that ‘inking up’ can get pretty heated. The Inkers Printmakers group go for a weekend away each year, this time we stayed at Worfolk Cottage near Scarborough. A group of us went out for a walk and made drypoint plates in situ. We returned to the house and gathered round the big table to ink up our plates. Everybody got stuck in, no doubt thinking ‘I can do this in my sleep’.

There are 16 members of Inkers, some people have been printmaking longer than they, or anyone else can remember (60 years?) and we share decades of teaching and technical printmaking experience between us.

The group is not renowned for sensitivity or politeness, and pretty soon the room was full of noisy surprise, doubt, scorn, advice and personal comments about individuals inking up techniques. Each printmaker came away convinced they alone knew how to ink up properly.

We remain friends of course, but I am going to show you my way, which I think is the best.

Intaglio inking combined with relief printing Video

The video and written notes here begin with mixing inks, then show inking up a plate as intaglio, followed by a layer of relief printed ink. I also throw in instructions for printing the plate just to complete the whole process…

I managed to pack all this into about 5 minutes on the video. A big thank-you to Jose Eugenio for filming it all, some shots taken while balanced on a ladder!

I’d love to know if you have discovered any other ways of inking and printing a collagraph plate, I’m not saying yours will be better than mine though…

Additional notes about inking and printing a collagraph plate

The collagraph plate

Cement collagraph plate showing textured surface

Cement collagraph plate showing textured surface

A plate with a good variety of texture and layers of different levels works best for this inking technique. The one I am using here is made from tile cement sealed with pva and shellac.

You can follow this method for all sorts of collagraph plates made with aluminium tape, scraper board etc. as well as etched lino or pretty much any intaglio plate.

Printmaking ink

I am using Hawthorn Printmaker’s stay open etching inks in this video. These are based on linseed oil, and made in York so very handy for me. They also do mail order.


Mixing printing ink


Hawthorn Printmakers ink

Hawthorn Printmakers transparent ink

I always mix more transparent ink with the colours; sometimes the proportion may be 80% transparent to 20% colour. I suggest you experiment with your mixes, but remember adding transparent ink produces more interesting collagraph prints as it enables the textures to show more clearly.

Transparent ink does not alter the consistency of the ink, it just thins the colour.

Consistency (aka viscosity)

Ink straight out of the pot is very thick, (high viscosity). Collagraph plates are often quite delicate as they are made from cardboard, sticky tape etc. so a looser consistency is kinder to the plate and easier to use.

I add linseed oil to make the ink runnier. (I know Barry at Hawthorns does not approve of this and suggests linseed oil reducing jelly instead.) Linseed oil is used to alter the oiliness of the ink when you are making viscosity prints.

Inking your plate as intaglio

Inking a collagraph plate as intaglio

Inking a collagraph plate as intaglio

Intaglio inking means getting ink into the grooves and rough surfaces of the plate and wiping it off the raised or smooth areas.

Three handy tip

  1. Work on an old magazine: keep turning the pages over so you have a clean working surface. When you’re finished just chuck the inky magazine in the recycling bin or use it as firelighters.
  2. Use newspaper to hold your plate steady and avoid fingerprints.
    DON’T PUT YOUR FINGERS ON THE PLATE. Especially if you are wearing plastic gloves – fingerprints will show and mess up your print, your gloves will also get very mucky. Sometimes I feel like a parrot repeating this to students.
    Use newspaper to hold your plate steady and avoid fingerprints.
  3. Use stiff hogs hair brushes to paint ink onto the plate. These are quite cheap – bristles may drop out but it doesn’t matter. Cover the whole surface of the plate with ink, paying particular attention to very rough areas (e.g. carborundum) or deep lines and textures.

Wiping your intaglio printing plate

Materials for wiping an intaglio plate

Materials for wiping an intaglio plate

Use newspaper to hold your plate steady and avoid fingerprints. Remember?

Keep turning the magazine pages over so you have a clean working surface.

Wipe with a rag

  • First wipe the ink using a rag. You can buy tarlatan from printmaking suppliers specially for wiping intaglio plates, or else tear up old sheets, which I find works very well.
  • Wipe gently; imagine you are wiping jam off a child’s face, not scrubbing the kitchen floor. Warning: most people wipe off too much ink to begin with.
  • Keep turning your cloth so you have a clean piece to wipe with. Mix the colours as much as you want to.

Wipe with newspaper

  • Use newspaper to hold your plate steady and avoid fingerprints.
  • Lay a piece of newspaper on the plate and using the flat part of your hand to slide the paper around. If the ink is still too sticky to do this, wipe it a bit more with the rag.
  • Keep changing to a clean piece of paper and wipe the plate all over. Always keep your hand flat – you are aiming to wipe the top surface and or smooth areas, not take ink out of the grooves.

Wipe with tissue paper

  • Give the plate a final polish with tissue paper. This sharpens up the detail and makes the light areas brighter.
  • Use newspaper to hold your plate steady and avoid fingerprints.
  • Keep your hand flat.

Clean the edges

  • Hold the plate by the edges – don’t put fingerprints on the surface!
  • Use a rag or roll of loo paper to wipe the edges clean.

Rolling a layer of ink on a collagraph plate

Green ink rolled as a relief layer

Green ink rolled as a relief layer

Relief inking means rolling a thin layer of ink over the raised surface of a printing plate.

Linocuts and woodcuts are generally treated as relief prints; ink is rolled over the plate so it covers the top surface. Areas that have been cut out of the plate have no ink in them so show as white on white paper.

Collagraph plates can be printed as relief too; the roller puts ink on the raised areas, and lower levels remain un-inked.

However, the really exciting thing about collagraphs is that you can ink up as intaglio, with ink in the grooves, and then roll a different colour relief ink over the top surface!

Printmaking Rollers

For lino prints you apply ink by going backwards and forwards all over the plate with a small roller. With collagraphs the roller goes over the plate only once, therefore it is useful to have rollers big enough to cover the whole plate in one go.

Ink for relief printing collagraphs

For collagraphs roll a very thin layer of ink onto the plate, don’t make it too thick or it will obscure the textures of the plate.

If you have inked up your plate as intaglio use the same type of ink, in contrasting colours, for the relief layer.

Paint dots of ink on the roller using a hogs hair brush, then roll the roller back and forwards on a glass slab to create an even film of ink on both the slab and on the roller.

Rolling relief ink

Lay your intaglio-inked plate on a clear surface next to the slab.

Take a breath, get into position and start rolling, once you have started don’t stop, roll smoothly over your whole plate, then replace the roller on its stand. Now you can breathe again!

The plate is now ready to print.

Printing your collagraph plate

Printing press with a registration template

Printing press with a registration template

You need an etching press to print intaglio plates successfully. This is because the rollers produce a lot of pressure, squeezing the printing paper tightly against the plate to extract the ink from the deep lines on the plate.

In the video the press bed has a registration template to help get prints straight on the paper.

Lay some tissue paper on the press, then put your inked plate on this and slide it into position.

Handle the damp printing paper with ‘paper fingers’ to avoid getting inky fingerprints on it.

Cover the printing paper with a sheet of clean newsprint to protect the (expensive) press blankets.

Please have a look at the video to see a demonstration of printing a collagraph plate.

Infinite printmaking possibilities

The whole wonderful process of inking and printing a collagraph plate and combining colours through intaglio and relief techniques becomes quite addictive and keeps many printmakers coming back for more. The unpredictability and infinite possibilities of this method make for a rich and exciting printmaking life.

The printing plate is only half the story – you can completely alter the print by choosing different inking methods, this is something we explore on the ‘just printing’ courses I run in my studio.

If you are new to this technique I hope this post will help you get the hang of it, if you are an old hand please let me know what you think of the method and how you do it yourself.

Ideas are free; if you share this information please add a link back to this site or credit “the curious printmaker”.