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Playing with different kinds of printmaking inks

A little printing experiment to evoke the sparkle of the trees lit by the moon at night

In a recent article we saw how a different colour scheme could completely transform the atmosphere of a print. In this article, I would like to share the little experiment I made with different types of inks while printing dreaming of a spring night

We print with ink (not with paint)

Different kinds of printmaking inks (oil based and water based) from different suppliers

Very often, I am being asked about which paint I use to print. I do not use paint but inks. Those inks are different from paints; they have in common to be made of a pigment and a medium, but the medium is appropriate to printmaking. It is slightly sticky to adhere to the plate and transfer without spreading uncontrollably when pressed onto the paper.

There are as many technical choices offered by printmaking inks as for paints: water based inks (they can be compared to gouache) and oil based inks (they can be compared to oil paint).

Some special inks exist too, such as process or metallic inks (water based or oil based). And you can also add quite a few additives before printing, to change the viscosity of the inks (basically thicken or thin them), accelerate or slow down their drying time, increase their transparency, etc.

Combining water based and oil based inks as well as metallic ink…

When making several colours prints, it is possible to mix the different kinds of inks to take the most of each (see below the pros and cons of each kind of ink). The same rule applies as with paint: apply the water based inks first and the oil based inks on top.

This is what I did when I designed ‘Dreaming of a spring night’. As I wanted to translate the sparkle the moon light gives to the leaves of the trees I also used some metallic ink.

On this four plates prints, the first two layers are printed with water based inks, and the two other layers with oil based inks:

  • I mixed a cyan blue with a little ultramarine blue to print the leaves of the trees,

  • and used a pure ultramarine blue for the tree trunks.

  • I then printed with a metallic silver typographic oil based ink to depict the shine of moon light on the vegetation. At this stage, there was quite a lot of silver!

  • I then added a deep Prussian blue last layer and used a safe wash oil based ink. This ink partially covered the silver ink and gave an interesting shine to the Prussian blue.

Why choose water based or oil based inks?

Water based inks:

4 plates linocut print, framed: The promise of spring
  • They often have a beautiful mat finish,

  • Their main quality is that they dry quickly (sometimes it is necessary to add a little retarder when printing),

  • Their fast trying time allows to work fast when making a print with several colours,

  • They are ideal when making a print which will be framed.

The plates, rollers and surfaces can be cleaned easily with soap and water.

Oiled based inks:

Greetings cards in the making: Spring blossom
  • They have a beautiful slightly shiny finish,

  • Additives can be added to accelerate their drying time (which can be quite long - count in days - and can differ from one colour to another in the same make though),

  • When dry, they are set and can be handled and will not stain,

  • They are ideal when making cards or stationary.

The material can be cleaned by wiping with a cloth and ordinary cooking oil and then degreased with washing up liquid or soap if traditional oil based inks have been used (toxic solvents can be avoided).

If the newest kind of oil-based inks have been used, the material can be safe-washed or aqua-washed with soap and water.


This print is a variation of a print included in the series A sense of place which you can see by following this link.


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