Silk Aquatint printing up close

In this post I am taking the idea of silk aquatint as a starting point. But I am changing the scale and nature of the technique to make it big and rough, as though magnified many times. Imagine you have shrunk to the size of a fly and your amazing eyes enable you to see all the details of the fine silk aquatint blown up to bill board size.

What is silk aquatint printing?

Silk aquatint is a collagraph process, the texture of woven silk on the plate provides a dark ground to start building a design in lighter tones. The plates can be wonderfully detailed and the prints almost photographic.

Alternatively thay can be heavily textured and chunky as in my examples here. The polar bear print is made from coarse cotton fabric, printed with a blue intaglio, and a white ink relief layer.

To see a wonderful collection of examples of silk aquatint prints have a look at the K. Caraccio Collection on  this website.

'polar bears' collagraph print from a silk aquatint printing plate

Silk aquatint printing technique in a nutshell

For silk aquatint you make a printing plate by gluing a piece of fine silkscreen mesh to a piece of mountboard.

This plate now has a rough surface, which will hold ink.  The threads of the fine woven silk create lots of tiny pockets between them where the ink can sit. You can wipe ink from the surface but lots of colour will remain in the gaps between the threads, so it will print dark.

woven fabric threads magnified

if you ink up a silk aquatint plate as intaglio just as it is you will get a square of saturated colour.

To create lighter areas on the plate you fill the surface with something like acrylic paint, or gels. These will block the gaps in the fabric and make the surface smoother. You will then be able to wipe ink off the smooth surface, so wherever you have added paint to the plate it will print lighter than the untreated silk background.

There is quite a bit of info on line about making silk aquatint plates. Belinda Delpesco’s videos are a good place to start!

coarse muslin used as a silk aquatint printing plate

Working from dark to light
This method of making plates involves working from dark to light – ie your base plate prints dark and you smooth out areas on it to make it gradually lighter and lighter. The more layers of varnish or paint you add the smoother it gets and the lighter it prints.

Fine silk, Fine detail
The texture of the silk base is so fine that it prints dark with very little texture, this is the point of using silk; the lack of texture means you can add lots of detail. Complex images are built up with lots of overlapping layers of acrylic medium, and it may require a careful plan to help organise the varying tonal areas that make up a design.

The process is very similar the technique use for graded shading on carborundum paper.

A different approach
Out of curiosity I decided to take a different approach.

Needless to say this is pretty speedy and rather unplanned, so ideal for experimenting.

I thought if I am using fabric I like the fabric weave to show, so instead of using fine silk, I went big with coarse fabrics which have different weave patterns, like calico, denim and drill, as a base.

a selection of coarse woven fabrics

Glueing the fabric down
It is important that the surface of the fabric is not saturated with glue – this could start to fill the surface and affect the tone.

To avoid this risk use wide double sided tape to glue it down onto a piece of mount board. This is instant – no waiting for it to dry. By not wetting the fabric you avoid it stretching; many fibres stretch when wet, then shrink again as they dry, this means it can be hard to control the tension and get it to lie flat.

Make it dark
Whether you use glue or tape to fix the fabric down, it is helpful to give it a coat of dilute black acrylic paint. The means you are starting with a uniform dark colour. Some people use black acrylic to attach the fabric to the plate as well, but when using thicker materials this does not always work.

printing plate made from fabric painted black

Add some light
Acrylic gels, glue, gesso and acrylic paint are all perfect for smoothing and therefore lightening areas of the plate. If you have clear gels adding a bit of white paint helps you see what you are doing.

There are lots of acrylic gels to choose from; here are the ones I like to use.

  • Levelling gel is particularly good on coarse fabrics as it dries to a very smooth shiny finish.
  • Structure gel is also good as it has a lot of body, so it fills the coarse surface well.
  • For a fine silk base gloss medium is often used, but if you are working on rough fabrics this is a bit too thin to have much effect so you will need to add lots of layers of it.
a selection of acrylic gels for making silk aquatint printing plates
  • Regular readers will know that tar gel is always a great option for creating exciting texture on collagraph plates. So feel free to give your silk aquatint printing plate the tar gel treatment!


silk aquatint print with tar gel

You can paint the gels on directly, or use masks and stencils to help create a design. Remember to leave some parts of the plate as just fabric, these will be the darkest tones.

In this example I made a base layer with squares of gel to lighten the plate in patches.

Sticking masking tape over the whole plate means you can sketch a design on and then cut it out with a craft knife to make a mask.

using masking tape to create a mask before adding gel to the plate

Adding gels
To get a graded effect with different tones apply the gels in overlapping layers, allowing time for each to dry before adding the next one.

The more layers you add the lighter the final print will be.

On this plate the wiggly design was made by spreading a thick layer of levelling gel on over the cut out masking tape. Remember to peel the tape off while the gel is still wet.

The coarser the fabric the thicker the gel layers need to be to have an effect.

a thick layer of acrylic gel added to the silk aquatint printing plate

Sealing the silk aquatint plate
There is no need to seal the plate unless you have used pva – this will need shellac on it to prevent it sticking to the damp printing paper in the press.

Inking and printing the plate
Follow your usual method for intaglio inking a collagraph plate. For me this involves;

1. Paint ink all over the plate, working it in well especially to the dark areas.

2. Wipe it off with a rag,

3. then polish the surface with newspaper followed by tissue paper

I found the results were a lot better with a good proportion of transparent ink added to the coloured ink – at least 50%.

Print on heavy weight (220 gsm +) damp paper in the press.

'left behind' collagraph print from a silk aquatint plate

Add silk aquatint printing to your repertoire

Learning new techniques is fun. Its even more fun if you ignore some of the ‘rules’. Sometimes this happens if you don’t have all the right materials to hand and you need to improvise, many good ideas come from ‘making do’. At other times its just one of those lovely moments when you think ‘I wonder what would happen if I….’ and then you just go for it!

If you are familiar with silk aquatint why not try changing the fine silk ground for something rougher, it may alter your approach and suggest new possibilities. If you have never tried silk aquatint I hope this post gives you a way into experimenting with this interesting technique.

Whether you use fine silk or rough canvas, enjoy the journey and leave a comment below to let me know what happens.