Learning photo litho printing

Choosing an image

I had spent ages narrowing down a choice of my photos to take to the photo litho course by Marcia Ley at Northern Print. I knew I needed a black and white photograph (or a drawing). I knew we would be doing a single colour print during the course. What I was uncertain about was how much contrast and detail was necessary, whether it would work with mid-toned or light greys in the original image.

I tried digitally manipulating the funfair in fog image but didn’t like the way the graphics programme rendered the foggy sky. If I’d had more time (and a certain well-known graphics programme) I would have tried mixing different layers in different styles possibly.

I considered a photograph of a closed down café near Spillers Quay in Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne but did not have time to do as much digital manipulation as it needed. It needed splitting up into different areas and layering to get the level of detail I wanted whilst reducing it from greys to literal black and white.

Eventually, I had to rush and didn’t have enough black ink left in my printer to print the images so I save three images onto my smallest iPod Shuffle and took that with me.

Resizing images on the computer.

Resizing images on the computer.

Marcia gave us an introduction talk about the process, what we would be doing during the day, and showed us examples of photo litho plates and prints by various people, and the ways of making marks if we wanted to do a drawn or painted image.

We went downstairs and I was able to use the computer to print out my images on an inkjet printer to start preparing the image to make the plate.

I showed Marcia my choice of images to get her experienced perspective on which could make the best print. She thought that the carousel one, with some additional work to it, might work well but that the scaffolded viaduct would work best. I’d hoped when I took the scaffolding photographs that I could turn them into a print or two one day. I also have other photographs of substantial scaffolding that I have wanted to turn into prints.

Making the plate and printing it

Photocopying the photograph onto acetate was the next stage. I scratched into the carbon to highlight some lines. If I had had more time and had been able to print two, I think I would have drawn more into the acetate by scratching into the carbon black areas.

Marcia did a test strip plate, cutting up parts of our spare acetates to create a single plate with narrow strips from all. Having decided the best setting for most of the prints was the same.  We then took turns to make our plates. We put the acetate on the light sensitive plate, placed them acetate side down on the ultra violet light machine, pressed the buttons to start the vacuum seal (fascinating to watch) and then the light.

After the plate had been exposed, we could see that the darks in the image were blue and the rest of the plate green. We covered the plate with developing liquid that washed the green away, then washed off the developing liquid before coating the plates with gum arabic to protect them. Since we needed to leave them for a while after drying them off, that was the best time to take a lunch break. Marcia said that she would normally leave plates overnight if possible.

Printing the plate

The ink was very sticky. I watched carefully as Marcia rolled out the thick ink till it covered a rectangle thinly and made almost a hissing sound. I tried to watch and listen as attentively as I could. It’s the details of art processes that can make the difference between something working or not. It takes a lot of time to get the feel of materials and processes, to learn the subtleties of how something should feel, to understand what. I was very aware that Marcia has so much knowledge of printmaking and I tried to learn as much as I could by in the short time we had available. It’s not a shortcut to doing things oneself but it helps.

I couldn’t quite see what I was looking for by looking at the inked areas to see if there was sufficient ink there – but I think that probably becomes more evident after inking up lots of plates, and a lot more evident if using a different colour.

I didn’t put enough pressure on the plate initially so it was too light a print. The press is electric. It felt a bit odd to set the press rolling at the touch of a button.

My first photo litho print.

My first photo litho print.

I had the print turned so I could do one roll to cover the whole plate but you can see the area I started to roll, on the right.

Wiping my plate with water again, I tried a second time, but the plate dried too fast (it was a warm day) so the ink started sticking to areas where it shouldn’t stick. I had to flood the plate with water to get the areas clean that needed to be clean. They were anxious moments as I hoped I had not wrecked my plate but it was reasonably ok.

I had originally hoped to print in black as well but having seen how much work was involved to clean off the blue ink so I could print in black, and that the plate could get damaged in the process (and because I was getting tired), I decided against that. I did one last print on a thicker paper (below). It is probably not obvious in the photos of the prints that there are differences when printing on different papers.

Then I decided to leave my plate as it was to be an object rather than cover it in gum arabic so it could be printed again. We cleaned up after ourselves before returning upstairs so we could ask Marcia any final questions.

My final photo litho print of the day, on thicker paper.

My final photo litho print of the day, on thicker paper.

My first question was whether she would be doing another course for not-quite-beginners in photo litho. I was starting to think of other prints I wanted to make even before I had printed my first one, as I began to see how the process worked. My mind was flicking through possibilities.

Reflection on the course and next steps

I left exhausted but keen to learn more about printing techniques. I am concerned that I wouldn’t remember how to do the photo litho if I went back in two or three weeks and tried to do it, so at some point I might have to do another course. I want to try drawing and painting to create a plate. The waxy lithographic crayon looked tempting – I had visions of drawing people, animals and skulls to turn into prints.

I would like to learn how to do photo litho in two or more colours. I have sea, and surfers and sea, and swimmers and sea prints I want to make. Then there are the buildings, and the landscapes, and gardens… But I need to try screenprinting again, and photo etching, and maybe woodcut… So many prints to make, so little time!

I was concentrating so hard on learning that my enjoyment of the course – and how much I liked the Northern Print people, our tutor, and my fellow learners – may not have shown much – but I enjoyed the day a lot and look forward to doing another course there.


Do visit the toilet when at Northern Print, if just to see the art. I love Willow patterned china so was delighted finally to see inside the 1st floor toilet. There’s a lot more Willow pattern than my snaps indicate.



One thought on “Learning photo litho printing

  1. Pingback: July 2014 update | Janet E Davis - the person

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