Method replacing rosin or asphaltum aquatint using oil-based printing ink which is easy to use, producing unique textures. Extract from GREEN PRINTS by Cedric Green published by Ecotech Design, Sheffield, UK. - a handbook on new methods for non-toxic intaglio etching and metal plate printmaking, featuring the technique of Galv-Etch, a modern development of the 19th century electrolytic technique of Electro-Etching, and introducing Fractint and other new alternative methods avoiding the use of solvents and chemicals harmful to health and to the environment.
  version français


tinting methods with ink ground 

The most commonly used traditional method for applying an even grain over a etching plate intented to print an even tone, is rosin aquatint. But there are many people who are allergic to the very fine rosin dust and who cannot afford the expense of a high quality sealed aquatint box. In addition the process of melting the grains of rosin on the plate will produce fumes that are very dangerous and carcinogenic. Another method of producing an aquatint texture is with asphaltum powder which has to be melted and which also produces carcinogenic fumes.

I have developed 3 alternatives to rosin or asphaltum aquatint, the first of which which I call 'fractint' because of the textures produced sometimes can resemble some computer generated fractal patterns. It relates closely to ink ground in that it uses linseed oil-based relief printing ink which functions as an resistant layer which is not soluble in water. The other two methods must also be used with an ink ground, and are salt aquatint, and sugarlift tinting.


After applying a thin even coat of stiff ink to the plate with a soft roller (treothene or similar), and before it is dry, it is placed face-down against a flat smooth non-absorbent surface like a polished metal plate or a rigid smooth plastic sheet, and then put through an etching press taking care not to let it slip against the surface. This can be done by laying strips of card slightly thicker than the plate on either side, projecting towards the roller to lift it to the level of the plate edge. Then the plate is pulled carefully off the surface, and the ink will be found to have formed a fine complex branching organic pattern which fills the spaces between any previous lines or lowered areas.


"Casse noix" - etching and fractint using ink ground - zinc plate printed in intaglio and relief - 25 cms square


detail of print above

The ink in fact is 'pulled' into tiny ridges and valleys by suction between the surfaces, and the scale of the pattern is dependent on the viscosity of the ink and on the fine structure of the smooth surfaces. A slightly matte surface generally gives a finer pattern. A thick viscous ink, but rolled down on the inking slab to a thin layer gives the best results. Black ink gives finer results in general, but white ink leaves the underlying design easier to see.

When the ink has dried, it can be treated like an aquatint, progressively stopped with ethanol/shellac varnish, and etched in stages. Fractint is generally more suitable on a plate with etched lines than on a plain plate, although it can be used as a pure tone method. Fractint is very sensitive to specks of dirt, hairs, and bits of skin in the ink and produces patterns around any 'impurities' on the plate or plastic sheet. Often these are interesting and can be incorporated, but to avoid them, the ink must be very smooth, without lumps, and the plate, plastic sheet, inking slab, and rollers should be wiped clean before starting. (TOP)

.Magnified fractint texture - from proof pulled from a copper plate. Note vertical line to the right which was a slight scratch on the plate, showing how sensitive fractint is to fine lines on the plate

salt aquatint

The second method using ink ground, is an adaptation of salt tint, which has been used before with traditional grounds, but which, when used with an ink ground, has the advantage over fractint of very closely resembling resin aquatint The grain produced can be much finer than with fractint. But this use of it also has the advantage of not requiring an expensive aquatint box or needing to be heated to melt it onto the plate (the fumes from heated resin are as damaging as turpentine fumes).

Equipment needed for salt tint – ink grounded plate on card, sieve, pestle and mortar, salt


First the plate is grounded with ink as for needling or as for fractint, but without cobalt dryers. The ink ground should be as even and thin as possible. Then the plate is laid face up onto a sheet of paper or card larger than the plate. While the ink is still wet, a layer of fine salt is sieved all over the plate, until it is even all over. It does not matter if it ends up quite thick. The salt may need to be ground in a pestle and mortar if comes out of the packet too coarse. You may have to make a special sieve (as illustrated) with a finer mesh than the average domestic sieve.

magnified photograph of copper plate with reticulated black ink ground after salt tint has been dissolved

Lift the plate and card carefully and transfer it onto the bed of the etching press. Lay another sheet of thick paper over it all. Back the sandwich with a thick felt blanket, and roll it through the press. The salt lying on the ink ground will be pressed through to the bare plate, displacing the ink and forming a finely reticulated pattern which closely resembles a resin aquatint. How fine the texture is depends on how finely the salt is ground and the mesh of the sieve used to apply the salt to the inked plate.

After the ink has completely dried, perhaps accelerated by putting it in the sun, or on a hot plate, shake off the excess salt, and lay it in a tray of warm water to dissolve the salt. The plate can then be stopped out exactly as if it is a resin aquatint, and galv-etched or if it is a zinc, aluminium or steel plate, etched in Bordeaux etch. (TOP)

Small print from needled, salt tinted and galv-etched copper plate

sugar lift tint

Traditionally, sugar lift has to be given a grain by aquatinting it so that it prints dark in intaglio. But the combination of ink ground with sugar lift can be used to advantage to produce a texture without the separate step of aquatint, and will provide a 'tooth' to hold the ink within the sugar lift area, in a one step process. Sugar lift is used because it is a positive process - that is, if the plate is to be proofed in itaglio, what you see is what you get. But with an ink ground rolled over the dried sugar, the ink is forced through the cracks in the sugar to form small lines and dots which reveal the brushstrokes and different thicknesses of the sugar..

Small copper test plate after sugar lift tinting and stopping in 7 vertical steps of about 15 minutes at 1 volt.

The way that this is done is as follows:

1 Prepare a saturated solution of sugar dissolved in distilled or demineralised water, add a few drops of black Indian Ink to colour it, and a drop of washing up liquid or liquid soap to help it to stick to the plate.

2 Apply the sugar lift solution thinly to a well degreased plate with a brush, as evenly as possible, to those areas to print as a tone.

3 Allow it to dry a little, hastening it if required with a hair dryer, until it is tacky.

4 Then carefully blot the whole plate or the areas you want to print with a tone with a sheet of tissue paper. Smooth the tissue paper down gently over the areas of sugar lift until you can see the sugar lift through the tissue paper. Areas of sugar lift that have been applied very thinly showing the brush strokes can be allowed to dry and do not need blotting.

intaglio proof of test plate above

With practice you can judge how to vary the final effect by varying how hard you press the tissue against the sugar lift, or the number of times you repeat the blotting process. Peel off the tissue paper each time and discard it. The tacky sugar lift areas should be matte instead of glossy. Let the sugar lift dry further, If is has dried too much and does not feel slightly tacky, breathe on it to make the suger absorb the moisture of your breath, until it feels tacky again.

Then apply the ink ground with a soft roller (treothene or similar), pressing the ink hard into the sugar lift, to squeeze it through the pores created in the film of sugar, and to press the ink in around the edges of the areas of sugar solution. The ink should be mixed with a few drops of siccative or cobalt driers, and should not be too oily.

greenland 1 Proof of print showing fine texture from sugar lift tint on a zinc plate. This texture is produced by varied brush strokes and the thicker sugar strokes blotted several times. It was etched in 5 steps of 5 minutes each at 2 volts.

The oily ink will draw away from the slightly damp sugar lift areas as it dries and the texture created should be visible as a fine network of lines of ink. How fine the texture is depends on how tacky the sugar was when the ink was rolled over it. The drier is is, the finer the texture. After the ink has completely dried, perhaps accelerated by putting it in the sun, or on a hot plate, or under a tungsten lamp, lay the plate face up in a tray of warm water and the sugar will dissolve. It will all dissolve without touching the surface. Do not brush it, and after 5 to 10 minutes lift the plate very gently out of the water keeping it horizontal. Let it dry without blotting it or wiping it, and it will be ready to etch. A variety of textures and of degrees of granularity can be produced with experience. The secret is not to remove too much of the sugar lift by being too impatient and blotting it too soon. The ink should be allowed to dry properly before putting it in water and etching it. (TOP)

sugar lft 5

al Zinc plate for "Greenland" prepared with sugar lift. Note little polished zinc 'palette' to test and thin the sugar lift on the brush. Plate size 250 x 330 mm.
Greenland 3 al Detail of "Greenland" plate after black ink has been rolled over the sugar lift and then the sugar dissolved. Note brushstrokes and fine reticulations of ink over areas where sugar was slightly thicker.
det2 al Detail of print "Greenland 2"
grnlnd 1 al "Greenland 2" - colour print from single zinc plate with design transferred to bare plate by drawing outlines through tracing paper over carbon paper. Then design drawn in thin sugar lift solution, blotted and dried. Black oil based ink rolled over and dried. Plate immersed in luke warm water to dissolve sugar lift and reveal grain and brush strokes. Galv-etched in 8 steps of 4 minutes each at 1 volt. Proofed intaglio in dark blue and 3 colour layers printed in relief from same plate. See proofing colour plate below.

Sugar lift tint has become my method of preference for its qualities of reproducing brushstrokes, producing fine grain with character, and the speed with which it can be done with fewer processes and controllable accidents....

galv-etching and tinting

Galv-etch and Bordeaux etch work particularly well with the above tinting methods because of the tendency to bite vertically and not to eat away at the edges as much as acids do. The first stage must usually be longer to break through the very thin film of oil left in the valleys. Note that this does not apply to sugar lift tinting, because there is no oily trace of ink on the plate as there is with fractint or with salt tint. With fractint each successive stage deepens and widens the valleys. After cleaning the plate with ethanol, and proofing it, if the results in some parts of the image seem too light or too coarse, a second fractint will fill the spaces with an even finer pattern. Alternatively, areas can be darkened by galv-toning after stopping out. The effect of the open-bite on fractint is apparently to darken it much more drastically than the effect on a bare plate. So do the open bite over fractint with very short times and a low voltage.

Bordeaux etch works in a way very similar to galv-etch because it is an electrochemical reaction not a corrosive action. But the copper deposit has a tendency to clog the finest lines and texture after an initial bite, which can be deliberately used to preserve fine lines. If the resist is strong, then the copper can be brushed out with a soft brush in the etching tray.. (TOP)

special effects of fractint

The results have their own unique character, with many advantages over aquatint which can be exploited for expressive effect. One of the most interesting qualities of fractint is the way the pattern relates to lines already etched on the plate - they are integrated into the pattern in different ways depending on their depth and spacing. The pattern never crosses lines but 'grows' outwards from the line edges to fill the spaces between. The very finest lines on the plate are respected in this way (unfortunately sometimes even scratches on the plate). Parallel lines are often doubled, that is, two parallel lines of ink are formed along the edges of the original lines and a new line is etched between them. Unprotected isolated lines are widened with a fine variable organic growth on either side. Fractint is not a technique for those who want mechanical evenly graded tones, for its results are often slightly unpredictable, and there is the opportunity for a creative response to the patterns formed around the lines already on the plate. Around the edges of the plate the fractint pattern changes, which can be used creatively and exploited for expressive effect. But to avoid this fringe effect, instead of using a rigid plastic plate to create the pattern, you can use a thinner and more flexible non-absorbent smooth film like heavy polythene sheet, or tracing film. The way that the sheet is peeled off the plate has a very distinct effect on the nature of the pattern (TOP)

Small print with fractinted texture, stopped and etched in Bordeaux etch in 4 steps.

variations and refinements

Sometimes when I have used another polished plate in the press to produce the fractint pattern, I have etched the second plate instead of the original, which mirrors the image, and produces a slightly more grainy tint. When the original plate is pressed against a smooth plastic sheet, enough ink is left on it to use to transfer to a second polished plate, which shows the original lines clearly, and after the ink is dry, can be stopped and galv-etched to provide another plate for colour. I often conceive and print the additional colour plates in relief, inked up by roller, and printed in quick succession face down onto the redamped paper carrying the original intaglio impression. (TOP)

Detail of "Nine Variations on a back" - proof from galv-etched copper plate with fractint texture over very lightly etched soft ground design, stopped and etched in 5 steps.

proofing galv-etched plates

Every printmaker has his own particular proofing tricks and methods, and in general plates produced by the methods described do not require any special methods. Etched lines and tint can be inked and wiped in the traditional way. But I have found that galv-etched plates with significant areas of open bite, or produced by the galv-on process, require the use of particular techniques to get the best prints from them. I mix my ink from medium plate oil and powder pigment as thickly as possible with the addition of a very small amount of lard or butter, and apply it on a slightly warmed hot plate (a domestic plate warmer with a thick flat copper plate on top) using either thick cards or a nylon spatula cut to form a precise edge to spread the ink thinly. As much surplus ink as possible is removed with cards or spatula, and then I hand-wipe the plate to leave the required tone in the galv-toned areas. With the kind of plate below,I find that tarlatan leaves the plate too clean and lacking in the character produced by the techniques.

« Atlantis – fragment » deep etched zinc plate proofed intaglio in raw siena, and in relief in ultramarine and burnt umber 16x25 cm. This print shows the effect of slight offset in registration.

Then, when the ink is dry, I redamp all the proofs, and, having cleaned the plate, I ink it selectively with a roller with coloured relief printing ink. I wipe the colour away from where I don’t want it. I place the intaglio proof face up on the bed of the press, and lower the relief inked plate exactly over the image, and print it. It is surprisingly easy to get the registration exactly right. If other colours are required. I quickly wipe the plate clean, roll it up with the next colour, wipe some areas clean, and repeat the process. All the time the paper stays face up on the press, and will not shrink. This method makes the printing much more of a creative process, and makes each print unique, a combination of intaglio base and relief monotype. The time saved by not having to make separate plates for each colour compensates for the slightly longer time in proofing. This method is very effective for a single galv-etched plate with quite deep areas of open bite. If the registration of the relief layer over the intaglio layer is slightly offset by very little, then a white edge appears at the edges of the deep etched forms that heightens an effect of three dimensional relief.



© . Last altered on February 1, 2015