Tar gel is fantastic stuff to add to collagraph plates, it will help you create lively dynamic effects, and is really fun to use as well.
I assumed that everybody knew about Tar Gel, but recently when I mentioned it to other printmakers they looked blank, so I did a straw poll among my students – also blank faces.
I hope I can put that right with this post….
What is tar gel?
Tar gel is one of the many acrylic mediums made by Golden. It is described as having ‘long rheology’. (The term originates from the Greek word “rhei” meaning “to flow”)
Tar gel is formulated to flow like honey, maintaining a long even string which you can dribble, flick, drop and doodle with on your plates. The texture is runny but it holds its shape when lying on a surface. As it has an acrylic base you clean it up with water while it is still wet.
How to use tar gel on collagraph plates
Before tar gel sets it is pretty sticky and will attach itself to almost anything, so whatever your plate is made of tar gel will should work on it. I have tried it on paper, acetate, metal, carborundum and sand paper.
Once it dries on a rough surface you can’t get it off, and this also applies to your clothes, and other absorbent surfaces so it’s best to do a bit of preparation / protection before you open that jar.
I strongly recommend you have a practice with it before diving in and dripping it on a collagraph plate. Once the tar gel is on your plate it is difficult to remove it, although you can smooth it out, creating a shiny layer if it all goes wrong!
Dip a knitting needle or palette knife in the gel, let it start dribbling into the pot as there is usually a blob that comes off before it goes nice and even. There is a knack to it and you need to get used to how fast it flows and how fast to move the palette knife. Hold the knife about 20 cm above the plate and just move your hand around watching how it lands on the surface.
This takes concentration, and the speed needed means you don’t have much time to think, so it’s good to have an idea of what you are going to do before you start dribbling.
Here are four suggestions for things you can try with tar gel on your collagraph plates:
1. Free form dribbling
I often add the tar gel last of all; create a base plate with a range of textures on and then dribble the tar gel as you wish. It forms a lacy layer over the textures already on the plate and adds light when you ink it as intaglio.
This example has aluminium tape (lightest areas) plain card, (medium tone) and carborundum (dark tone) as the base layer.
2. Pre-treat materials with tar gel, then collage them
Another way to add it is to use aluminium tape as a base. Dribble tar gel on to it, and once it is dry cut or tear the tape and stick it on your plate to add patches of texture.
In the previous image of the free-form dribbling you can spot two triangular patches of aluminium tape, pre-prepared with tar gel.
As well as aluminium tape you can also dribble tar gel onto various papers to use for collage.
3. Apply Tar Gel from a bottle
The palette knife technique is the simplest, but you can also attempt to get it into a bottle. Use a plastic one with a removeable nozzle. This, in theory, means you can squeeze it gently and a nice even stream of tar gel will emerge.
Getting it into the bottle is very tricky – see this video for a description – interestingly she doesn’t film the process, and having tried it I can understand why!
I used an e-liquid needle dropper bottle used for vaping. The nozzle was too fine so it didn’t dribble but it did make lovely tiny round dots.
4. Masking areas
If you want more control over where it goes, I recommend using a mask to cover areas of the plate. Frisket is a good material to use for masking. This is a clear and slightly sticky back plastic, so it stays in place but can be removed afterwards.
Alternatively cut or tear shapes from newspaper to mask areas of the plate and prevent tar gel dribbling on to it.
In this example I laid strips of newspaper across the plate and dribbled tar gel between them.
Effects when printed as intaglio
Because the tar gel lines are raised, intaglio ink collects either side, creating quite a 3d effect in collagraph prints.
Its high gloss finish means the top edge will wipe very clean when you are inking up as intaglio. This creates clear bright lines in your prints.
Effects when printed as relief
The raised smooth surface of tar gel will take ink from a roller so it works well as a relief print.
If you ink the plate as intaglio and then do a relief roll over it with a different colour you can get some interesting layered effects.
This example has not been inked as intaglio, just relief so the white areas are quite prominent.
This print is made from an acetate plate with a round ‘sun’ cut from carborundum wet and dry paper, including some dribbling.
I masked the sun and made a free form tar gel dribble to illustrate the feeling of sunlight.
The plate is inked up in several colours using the viscosity technique, with no intaglio inking.
A plain dark bacground highlights the tar gel
This is a mount board plate covered in a single piece of wet and dry sandpaper. When inked up as intaglio, this produces an even dark colour all over the background.
The moon is a flat disc of aluminium tape, wiped clean of ink so it is a bright white area on the print.
The tar gel was dribbled in a spiral around the moon; I masked the rest of the plate just in cases I lost control of it!
You will notice that the aluminium tape pre-prepared with tar gel forms the ground at the bottom.
A plate with a mix of techniques
I started with sheets of paper and painted carborundum on them loosely with a thick brush.
Once dry, the textured papers were torn and collaged onto a mountboard plate as a base layer of texture.
The next layer includes tar gel dribbled on top, controlled with simple masks. I also added more light areas using pre-textured aluminium tape.
Here is a detail of surface of the plate showing the range of free flowing textures layered up to create the bottles design.
Tar gel for collagraph plates
If you have a tub of tar gel languishing forgotten in a drawer I hope this post will prompt you to re-discover it and give it a go. Equally if you have yet to discover tar gel, I hope you will be inspired to get hold of some and play around with it.
Tar gel could help revive an old plate or inspire a completely new one. Either way it will surely introduce a bit of creative flow into your practice.