Saturday, 17 August 2013

Solar Plate print workshop.....

I recently spent a weekend at West Yorkshire Print Workshop in Mirfield enjoying a fantastic solar plate printing workshop tutored by Susie Turner.

Smoke Bush by Susie Turner

It's a process I've wanted to have a go at for sometime having seen and been inspired by images produced by Susie and those of Dan Wheeldon, and intrigued by the actual process of using sunlight to expose the images plus the added bonus of using water to develop the image on the plate- resulting in plates similar to those used for etchings but without the complicated chemical process usually associated with that technique.

The workshop was amazing and due to the inclement weather on the Saturday we got the chance to use and learn both indoor and outdoor techniques for processing the plates. The sun thankfully came out on Sunday long enough for us to work outside and process some additional plates to those we had done inside on the Saturday using the small portable UV exposure unit that Susie had brought with her, quite a handy little box of tricks particularly considering the lack of sunshine we generally get in this country.

We worked with both positive and negative images, using artwork we had brought with us pre printed onto acetate in black and white, plus we also had the opportunity to use found objects such as pressed leaves, feathers etc. as long as the object is flat enough to make contact with the plate whilst under the glass sheet on the contact panels the item will block out the sunlight sufficiently to create the image.

In terms of image creation the simplest way to think of it is the part that is blocked out or black in the artwork will not harden onto the plate and will wash away in developing therefore the parts allowed to the light will harden onto the plate and remain there during developing. Of course there a myriad of things in between this depending on how black or grainy the image is, plus an aquatint can be exposed onto the plate to create very subtle layers for an intaglio image. Practice and play are the way forward to explore the possibilities as the plates and equipment needed are not vastly expensive.

Most good print suppliers now supply the photopolymer plates in an A5 size, plus then you need a simple glass fronted contact board (a sandwich of glass, foam and a piece of MDF board as pictured below with some bull dog clips to make a nice tight contact) talc and a soft makeup type brush for dusting the plates prior to image placement, a water bath, soft agitation brush (a babies hair brush is ideal) for developing, maybe a thermometer to keep an eye on the water temperature, a watch with a second hand for exposure and development times, a pair of marigolds and your off- I think as printing techniques go that's a very, very simple set up to achieve.

Exposing the image to the sun using a glass fronted contact board...

Exposure times were remarkably short and we all started out with a series of test plates from a selected portion of an image we wanted to print up using 15 second intervals of exposure time in either sunlight or UV light up to around 2 to 2.5 minutes total. Using the test plate strips is a good way to start off as you can then determine how the image is exposing on a certain day and time of day, as the weather conditions: sunny, cloudy, partial cloud etc. and time of year and day will effect the required exposure time immensely. Obviously using a UV light box will be more accurate as the 'conditions' will be the same each time, just the image properties and requirements will need to be assessed.
Then comes the developing...

Its incredible to think how easy these pre prepared plates are to develop using water, making it the perfect way to achieve an etched quality to printed work without all the hassle of using chemicals.
The water needs to be around a tepid temperature of 20 to 25c and the process for relief plates involves lots of agitation in the water bath for up to 2 mins with a very soft brush such as a baby hair brush or sponges then rinse under the cold tap, dry off quickly using a 'flat motion' with clean newspaper on and off the plate very quickly as the plates are quite tacky and the paper can easily stick- the polymer is quite unstable at this point too so no dabbing or wiping heavily as this will damage the image, a hairdryer can also be added to the mix to aid drying the plate quickly. For intaglio images a more gentle approach of agitation is taken. Submerge the plate in the water bath for around 30seconds and leave it alone then using a similar technique as in etching removing the bubbles form the surface of the plate using the brush and/or sponge for around another 30 seconds or so, then rinse and dry in the same way. Just as in etching the image can be seen developing in the water bath so a visual inspection of how the image is coming on can be maintained at all times- nothing really is set in stone time wise, but the longer the plate is in the water bath developing the more opportunity the polymer resin has to wash out.
Here's Helen, one of the workshop participants developing one of her plates with Susie in the background...
Then the plates need to be post hardened in daylight/light, there are no maximum time constraints for this as the plate will not 'damage' in the sunlight if left there for some time if you decide to take a much earned tea break but, if it starts to rain rescue your plates as they will remain sensitive to water especially when hardening. Obviously the stronger the sunshine the quicker the plate will harden and if it's inside it may take a while, the plate turns a more blue colour in appearance once hardened and no longer feels tacky to the touch- also be careful of fingerprints during developing and hardening as the plates will pick them up quite well!
A relief plate post hardening in the sunshine...
post hardened plates waiting for inking and printing....
And so to the inking and printing...


If you want to have a go at the process Susie runs many workshops from her studio in Cambridge as well as other outreach workshops in the country. You can find out more about her work and current planned workshops at 
More information about West Yorkshire Print Workshops can be found at who organise many print technique workshops and offer different levels of membership to the open access facilities.
I hope you've enjoyed this post- get printing!

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