Fifteen Year Challenge for Finer Polymer Photogravure Prints

When I first put my procedure for making and printing polymer photogravure plates online in 2006, it was after a few years of my own frustrations in the process. I posted it in response to a lack of comprehensive information about the subject as it pertained to creating continuous tone images for photography. The traditional printmakers weren’t concerned with it, and the computer nerds (of which I am one) didn’t have any meaningful elbow grease or track record when it came to making traditional intaglio prints.

Jon Lybrook, Master Printmaker, Intaglio Editions
Jon Lybrook, Owner and Master Printmaker, Intaglio Editions

Picking up where others’ work had left off, I created a custom workflow and process compensation curve to accommodate a finer, higher-resolution aquatint screen than anyone else was using at the time. Our screen is 2-3 times as fine as traditional rosin dust used for aquatinting copper photogravure plates. At 1200 dpi, our fine, third-generation, heavy-duty aquatint screens with custom stochastic pattern are a double-edged sword. We don’t sell them to the public because they are less forgiving than coarser screening processes, but yield superior, fine continuous tones for photogravure when handled and used under a controlled environment using the tried-and-true KM73/83 plates by Toyobo, for which our screens and system for making continuous tone plates was designed.

While excellent technical books on polymer platemaking and creating digital negatives for contact printing are now available, there were but a few good ones in 2004. The only one most of us referenced was written by digital negative pioneer and process wizard Dan Burkholder. Today, faster methods to getting inkjet-quality photogravure prints from polymer, such as Direct-to-Plate (as taught by printmaking instructor Don Messic) and reliable, open-source software for calibrating your printer drivers for making custom digital negatives now exist.

While direct-to-plate (DTP) is easier and faster to teach polymer plate making certainly, it does not employ a critical, secondary aquatint layer to create the proper plate texture and variable depths. This is what gives photogravure its unique 3D qualities, otherwise you’re just printing a flat inkjet print that’s been transferred flatly to a plate. This critical aspect of plate depth and ink relief is among the most apparent qualities in traditional photogravure prints – when made on on finer, Asian, gampi papers, in particular. While hard to demonstrate in a digital image, the look of a traditional copper plate photogravure, when executed properly, is unmistakable.

Cross-section of photogravure plate
Illustration by Peter Miller

While DYI is all the rage, some artists need an experienced, dedicated technical collaborator who understands their goals. Finding someone who has an intimate knowledge of the photo mechanical process as well as intaglio printing itself, is still the same today as it was 150 years ago. Finding such an experienced artisan is certainly harder than it was way back then.

Intaglio Editions 20 x 30" large plate
Intaglio Editions 20 x 30″ large plate

As far as process and workflow, not much has changed at Intaglio Editions in our 15 years working with artists, clients, and their collaborators. We still create custom plates to meet client specifications including plates crafted for a specific ink color. In proofing the work with the client to refine the nuances and going back to the digital file and reshooting plates as needed, we have been able to provide the optimal prints our clients demand for their fine art projects. What has changed since the early 2000s is our ability to branch out into new territory, following the traditional processes, bringing the use of polymer even closer to the look (and literal feel) of traditional copper photogravure, without the added toxicity and expense.

Isabel Eaton - Polymer Photogravre printed ca. 2009 by Jon Lybrook
Isabel Eaton – Polymer Photogravre printed 2006 by Jon Lybrook

What makes Intaglio Editions Premium Photogravure Plates different is our custom, high-resolution aquatinting process, and our ability to offer extra large pre-made plates up to 23″ × 39″ (among the largest commercially available). While other methods are limited in size and often leave tell-tale “salt-and-pepper” grain in their photogravures, our traditional double-exposure method creates a more authentically etched plate and print, but at a price. It is more time-consuming and requires more steps and attention to detail than other methods.

So why do we do it? This extra work our process requires follows closer to traditional platemaking methods and gives our custom plates the edge, literally. Unlike newer plate processes, the surface of our plates have detail and textures can be felt by the fingertips. This demonstrates how we provide the smoothest continuous tones possible with this process more in keeping with traditional photogravure plates. Our plates and prints have been praised by artists, photographers and printmaking experts worldwide for their fine nuances, smooth tones, and shadow detail.

Intaglio Editions continues to offer the photogravure-quality plates we use in our printmaking to professional artists and printmakers who love making rich, photographic prints, but who may not be interested in becoming expert platemakers as well. This helps our friends and customers get faster results, and helps them achieve that last stride of excellence that so often eludes newer plate makers, or those new to photogravure printmaking.

New and experienced printmakers alike may want to take advantage of our long-standing $99 Trial Plate offer. We’ll create an 8″ × 11″ plate of your custom image using our custom, double-screened, high-rez platemaking method for just $99, to see if our plates don’t provide the smoothest, richest continuous tones you’ve ever seen from this process. Shipping, handling and customs, duties, or other fees will apply. Our Premium Photogravure Plates and other customer services are available at the Intaglio Editions Shop.

Wiping and Printing a Polymer Photogravure Plate in 60 Seconds

Recent work with photographer Larry D. Hayden kept us hopping for a few days in August head.  Here’s a little video excerpt showing off Larry’s evocative work and how we printed it.

 

 

Printing Continuous Tone Photogravures from Polymer Plate

Printing for continuous tone using polymer plates is not easy. Not only do you need to be an experienced printmaker to get good results, but you also need to be a plate technician – or have the good fortune of having one in-house: Someone who knows how to render nuances and shadow details from an image and make large plates, without sacrificing sharpness, detail and quality.

This video demonstrates printing with polymer photogravure plates from Intaglio Editions for superior photographic prints. View Intaglio Editions photogravure printmaking video tutorial – and others – directly on our main website.

 

We provide a wide range of traditional fine printmaking techniques and fine print editioning services.

Call Jon to talk about your fine printmaking project today at 303-818-5187.

How to Avoid Wavy Prints

Avoid wavy prints with Intaglio Editions!

Wavy prints can be avoided by doing some simple preparations.

You finally got to the point where your prints are coming out beautifully — with rich solid blacks and wide range of tones. Heaven!

There’s only one problem: The print is not flat! In fact it’s got some warping that’s pretty severe.

The good news: There is a solution to this horrible problem. The bad news: It involves more work! But don’t worry, it’s actually going to improve the quality of your prints in many ways, assuming smooth, continuous tone is important to your printmaking. These tips will allow you to ensure your prints are perfectly flat AND will have the added benefit of receiving the ink better and in a more uniform manner. This translates into more smooth, continous tone for your prints.

To avoid wavy prints with your intaglio printmaking, you can do 3 things:

 1) Calendar the paper along with the grain, prior to printing. The grain is indicated by looking under raking light at magnification, or knowing which way the watermark faces with respect to the grain.

2) Make sure you’re printing with the grain of the paper, as well as calendaring it with the grain, prior to printing.

3) Flatten the prints while still damp, in between blotter and boards using this procedure

Happy printmaking!

Snapdragon 2 - monotype by Jon Lybrook

Snapdragon 2 – monotype by Jon Lybrook

Photopolymer Gravure Process Q&A

I get several emails a year asking questions and for clarifications about photogravure done with polymer plates and my company’s intaglio workflow procedure for doing it.  Good questions are usually asked more than once, so I like to publish them when they are to help prevent the need for answering the same question multiple times.  I also use the information to refine my procedure.

Return-Path: <sandtrad@cmn.net>
From: Bill and Barbara Sanders <sandtrad@cmn.net>
Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary=Apple-Mail-23–66191753
Subject: polymer gravure artists
Date: Wed, 6 Jun 2012 15:31:00 -0600

Dear Jon,

Found your website and information from Boxcar Press and would like to discuss a few art things with you. I talked with my friend Patricia Brandstead this morning and she said you are a good resource for someone learning polymer photogravure.

A little bit of background: I have been a printmaker for 30+ years starting in Honolulu and have been making copperplate photogravures for 25+ years both in Hawaii and Colorado. This spring, returning to Hawaii and meeting up with printmakers there, I was kindly shown how to make polymer photogravures as an alternative to copper. I returned with 5 lovely etched plates! My studio is in Steamboat Springs (where Oehme Graphics is) and I have a small Brand press and a NuArc NL22-8C exposure unit. I am able (usually) to make transparencies in my Epson printer with PictoricoOHP film and I have a great screen from Mark Nelson. More “equipment” is ordered.

I have a feel for the basic “flow” of the process but have a few sticky challenges:

1. my exposure unit is a glass-topped vacuum frame which I think needs to be modified, with Kreen film?, to work with the polymer KM73 plates. Don’t have a clue how to do that

2. cutting the plates seems to be a challenge so I’m going up to Oehme Graphics to attempt to use their plate cutter

3. I have no idea of exposure units except for the times I use for copper and figuring out the curves etc are way beyond me. I have the transparencies made (by a friend) to compare to the ones I use for copper

Do you give workshops?
Does anyone?

I’ve downloaded your instructions from your site — they’re great. Would appreciate feedback as I’m feeling the polymer plates are even better than the copper!

Sincerely,
Barbara Sanders

~^*~^*~^*^~*~^*~^*~^^*~~^*^*~~^*~^*^~*^~*~^

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for your message.  Ironically I “pocket called” Patricia this morning by accident!  Polymer has some challenges, but what doesn’t?  It is a rewarding medium, but it did take some time to get happy with it, or it with me.  🙂

I removed the glass from my vacuum frame years ago to prevent newton rings which Harold Kyle at Boxcar advised me on, and I never looked back.   If you don’t have issues with newton rings, no need to even do it.  My online procedure outlines what has worked for me and my process. Yours may be different. Since that time Pictorico has released a textured OHP media which may prevent newton rings.  It also supposedly eliminates the need for baby powder which I used to prevent contact problems between the plate and the OHP, which tends to be a little tacky.  I’ve never used it, but you might try it before going through the pain of dismantling your vacuum frame and removing the glass.

I’m using a custom aquatint screen that is considerably finer than those commercially available, among which, Mark Nelson’s are probably the best for polymer photogravure using the Toyobo KM73 plates.  He also gives workshops a few times a year that are quite popular and well received.  He has a special process for creating digital negatives and curves using colored inks on Epson printers that is rather involved but yields good results.  I was never able to get it to work for me, but it could be because my aquatint screen is finer, which is a double-edged sword.  Greater tonal range, but more pressure and contact is required in both the printing and creation of the plates.

I use a large, Kutrimmer, floor model paper cutter to cut and trim out plates.  You want something sturdy, sharp, and tightly assembled.  Wobbly ones ruin plates and patience!

Exposure times will be custom to your exposure unit and media used.  My exposure times will likely be different from yours.  Same with curves.  Your inkjet printer will differ from mine such that, even if we have the exact same models, the output will differ.  Determining the right curve to use is an iterative process — lots of trial and error as with most things printmaking and you’ll want some basic training in Photoshop to become familiar with using curves as an Adjustment Layer.  Lynda.com has some great Photoshop tutorials.

If you’re consistent in your test process, you will get where you want to be with it eventually.  I don’t give workshops, but I do make plates for printmakers, and give private consultations through my company Intaglio Editions: http://intaglioeditions.com  I’m also happy to share whatever information might be helpful to you in your pursuit of the process.  If you’d like to do a private consultation on the process either over the phone or in person, at your studio or mine.  It seems pricey I know, until you compare it to the thousands of dollars in time, plates and paper I’ve blown over the years!  Call me if you want to discuss it or have any other questions.

Also, would it be OK with you if I were to reprint your questions and my answer on my website?  I’ve found it helps people get answers they need more easily sometimes.

Kind regards,
Jon Lybrook

Imagesetters, Aquatint Screens, and What Killed the Last Dinosaur

Imagesetters were the Tyrannosaurus Rex of graphic arts service bureaus in the 1980s. They did everything bigger, better, faster and cheaper, and took the commercial printing world by storm. They were the first wholly digital commercial output devices which used lasers to create high resolution films for the industry. They are basically giant, black and white film processors that use photo-based film and photo chemistry and are therefore, like the dinosaur Kodak, fast becoming all but totally extinct.

So why are imagesetters relevant to today’s fine art printmakers? Why is it a problem they are going away? In one sense it is not. Most printmakers are artists in their own right, and as such are scrappy, persistent, creative, industrious, loners. We figure out how to get things done, regardless of the technical difficulties and limitations. Were there to be no more aquatint screens or intaglio presses available tomorrow, you could leave it to a printmaker to find a way to work, invent a solution, plod on, and keep the tradition alive. When you’re the only one in the studio who is aware of the difficulties you face, and cares, it’s lonely, but the energy of overcoming the challenges is exhilarating and keeps us going forward.

The advent and subsequent maturity of inkjet technology has put most imagesetters out to pasture long ago (and sent quite a few south to Mexico as well). Yet, nothing has quite come along to completely replace their capabilities. While inkjet printers are perfect for creating prints, digital negatives and film positives, the dot created by inkjet technology is not at all comparable to what the behemoth imagesetters can do. Inkjet output, while lush and pristine at arms length, are smeared and fuzzy when you look at it under a loupe. When transferred to polymer plate, these fuzzy divots turn the photopolymer mushy, versus the hard, solid points required to create a good, durable plate matrix that will withstand the pressure and repetition of a professional intaglio printing press run. The commercial printmaking industry has found other, “direct to plate” methods that has made film, and thus imagesetters, obsolete. However direct to plate is very expensive and so there is still a vital need for such technology to produce aquatint screens within the fine art printmaking community.

Intaglio Editions Aquatint Screen

Holy Grail of Polymer Photogravure: The Intaglio Editions Aquatint Screen

Aquatint screens are high resolution dot screens, used to produce a random pattern of precise dots on polymer plates. Aquatint screens are analogous to the rosin dust used in the step of “dusting” plates, with copper plate photogravure to create a similar, high resolution, random dot pattern. They are often used in polymer platemaking using the ‘double exposure’ method popularized by modern printmaking pioneer, teacher, and author Dan Welden. Using this method, first the plate is exposed to the aquatint screen, then to the image positive. The dot screen allows ink to get distributed evenly throughout the plate, then the film positive image creates the bias and distribution of light or dark, depending on the image. Dan is a marvelous instructor and legendary in the art of printmaking by the way, and if you have the opportunity to hear him speak or take a class with him, do not miss it.

So, one of the keys to creating rich, uniform, continuous tone intaglio prints is to have a well-made aquatint screen. At Intaglio Editions we invested in customizing the highest resolution aquatint film we could get for our process to create some of the most continuous tone, photogravure-quality intaglio prints from polymer plate. Nothing we have found commercially is as fine, nor as smooth. Unfortunately, we were never in a position to produce or sell our custom aquatint film commercially. It wasn’t what we were interested in doing and the vendor who produced them for us has since proven disinterested or incapable of living up to the standards we need.

Luckily there are still a few imagesetters being maintained and kept in production, and there are still a number of fine art printmaking supply companies offering either generic or trademarked aquatint screens they will sell you. If you find a screen you like, buy alot of them quickly. Rumor has it the industrial-grade, infrared film used in this process will soon stop being manufactured. When this happens, what will become of the polymer photogravure process is unclear. We could all settle for more graphic-arts looking prints, print using other alternative processes such as platinum and palladium, or go back to creating copper gravure plates using rosin dust!

My sense is it will go back to the way things were done during the time of Albrecht Durer, the founder of printmaking, where artists would go to the technicians and, working with them directly, would have their images engraved professionally by the artisans who know how to do it best. Much like a conductor might guide an orchestra to the proper nuances and toward the desired finale. This approach is not for all printmakers where the do-it-yourself spirit is high. But it can be much more cost effective than re-inventing the wheel. Dan Welden once asked me, do you want to be the artist wearing the beret on his head, or the guy with plunger in his hand? At the time I wasn’t sure, but my answer today is, both. As collaborators we can do so much more, so much better, and do it more consistently than we ever could on our own.

So what killed the very last T-Rex? My guess would be loneliness.

Questions re Pictorico film for photogravure – also after using KREENE

I get a fair number of technical inquiries and tend to post some of the more interesting ones with common themes that plague many printmakers getting started in this process. The variables are seemingly endless and it only takes one inconsistency with the process to have undesirable results.

This one has to do with mottling in the plate, often referred to as ‘measles’. Generally it is caused by improper or insufficient contact between the film and plate, as is the case here.

Thanks to photographer and printmaker Lene Bennike for giving permission to publish our exchange in order to help others with similar problems.

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From: Lene Bennike contact /at/ lenebennike.com
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Subject: Questions re Pictorico film for photogravure - also after using KREENE
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2012 08:14:55 +0100
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To: jon /at/ intaglioeditions.com


Hi Jon Lybrook,

I m a Danish fine art photographer and printmaker having used the polymer photogravure since 2006 after many years of doing platinum/palladium and cyanotypes. My reason for approaching you is the fact that we can no longer get image setters positive here in Denmark so I am again using the Pictorico OHPs. Like earlier I often encounter measles in the highlights and midtones something I have not been used when doing other alternative techniques. However, searching the internet I came across your advice of using Kreene plastic instead of glass and got some Kreene from Boxcar Press. But after testing twice I still get the same result of measles. The plates we are using here are the KM73. Have you any idea of what could be the problem?

Thanks in advance for any suggestion that might solve this.

Best regards,

Lene


On Jan 27, 2012, at 6:20 PM, Jon Lybrook wrote:
HI Lene,

Thanks for your message. Sorry to hear about the measles.

Are you drying your inkjet film in a warm film drying and dusting your
plate with baby powder per my procedure? That step should be performed
whenever exposing the plate using inkjet film such as Pictorico. The
film has a tendency to retain moisture. By drying it in a conventional
print drier to remove the moisture you remove some of its tacky quality.
Likewise the light dusting of baby powder on the plate allows the film
to slide smoothly over the plate when drawing down in the vacuum frame,
helping to give tight, continuous contact between the plate and film.

Feel free to send me a scan of one of your prints so I can better see
what you’re talking about.

Kind regards,
Jon


Hi Jon,

Thanks a lot for your reply.
Yes, I m usually drying the film about 10-20 min in a warm film/plate drying cabinet and the baby powder I have been using for a long time.
But I must admit that when testing the Kreene by exposing the attached steptablet I forgot to dry the film – probably because it is an old one having been dried earlier.

By searching on the internet I have come across info about the new Pictorico ohp films having a tendency to give more problems – could this be correct? It is a fact that the Pictoricos are much thicker than image setter positives. Have you tried other films?

Below is Lene’s scan of her printed test:

Polymer Photogravure Test: Measles

Mottling on Lene’s Polymer Gravure Test Plate


On Jan 31, 2012, at 3:11 PM, Jon Lybrook wrote:

Hi Lene,

What light source are you using for making your plate exposures? I used to use black light bulbs and had some weird inconsistencies in the continuity until I started using a OLEC metal halide light source with a bulb suited for polymer plates.

What are you using for an aquatint screen?

Imagesetter film doesn’t have as many issues as inkjet film and doesn’t require drying or baby powder. I’ve experimented with many inkjet films in the past. Pictorico works, so I continue to use it and have not looked back since I started using it.

I’m using the new version of the Pictorico OHP Premium (not ULTRA which is milkier and more opaque) and have had no big problems with the transition.
I think I had to increase my exposure times by 25%. The new version of the OHP Premium film is actually thinner than what they were producing a few years ago. There is a version of the Pictorico that has a texture on the surface which supposedly makes it so one does not have to dust with baby powder. I haven’t tried it.

Also, do you mind if I publish our Q&A on my website? Others may find it helpful.


Hi Jon,

At the printmaking studio where I do my work they have the following lamp: a Philips HPR 125W HG – a Mercury Discharge Reprographic Source – http://www.lamptech.co.uk/Spec%20Sheets/Philips%20HPR125.htm

The aquatint screen is 85% black 30 my (reprofilm)

The Pictorico I have been using for many years is the TPU100, but they have become slightly thinner over the years. On the new packages which I got from Bostick & Sullivan recently it says PictoricoPro, but item no remains the same.

Can I gather that the measles on the image I sent you recently is due to moisture in the old film? I m asking since will be away for a while working in a printmakers studio in Paris and no means to do photogravure there.

Yes, you may go ahead and publish our Q&A on your website.

Thanks,

Lene


On Feb 2, 2012, at 7:03 PM, Jon Lybrook wrote:

Hi Lene,

OK. This is good info.

Looking closer at your sample test, I’m inclined to believe you have a contact issue with your film positive. I notice the percentages listed where the measles occur more prominently are slightly out of focus, which would suggest less than perfect contact. Look at 38% and compare it to 50% in terms of the relative sharpness. Likewise compare 96% to 100%. The perimeter is fuzzy. The perimeter is also where the majority of the mottling exists.

Polymer Photogravure Test: Measles

Mottling on Lene’s Polymer Gravure Test Plate

Before and after starting the vacuum pump to initiate drawdown of the kreene plastic on your vacuum frame, you will want to use a flexowand
(http://www.jetusa.com/prepress1.html) or dry, lint-free rag to push out any bubbles from under the kreene. Push as much air as you can from one edge of the vacuum frame to the other before starting the pump, then after starting the pump, move quickly to ensure tight contact. The flexowand will allow you to see if any air gets pushed up against the kreene plastic which should dissipate.

For optimal contact, the size of your transparency should not be bigger than the plate.

You should see and feel a sharp lip where the edge of your plate meets the kreene plastic. If it looks uniform on the surface of the kreene or there is not a defined edge you can feel with your hands, the contact is likely inadequate.

If after about a minute you still find a lot of air bubbles are getting pushed around with the flexowand, stop the pump, open the vacuum frame, adjust your plate and transparency slightly, close the lid and repeat the above instructions.

Let me know if that helps and good luck!

Jon


Hi Jon,

Thanks so much for your info.

Can I just ask you one more relevant question re the vacuum frame or more precisely the vacuum pressure that you are using?

Lene


On Sat 2/4/2012 10:49 AM Jon Lybrook wrote:

Hi Lene,

Yes, of course. Pressure is drawn down steadily to the maximum pressure I can get to help ensure no air bubbles. With Kreene replacing the glass you can’t really go too high — I’ve not experienced that in any case.

Best wishes,
Jon