Monday, January 24, 2011

Overcoming problems in relief printmaking when using water based inks

Recently in the printmaking forum at WetCanvas some artists new to relief printing posted inquiries about problems they had been experiencing. I thought it might be good to share in my blog some of the advice that was given so anyone who might read this journal entry could also use this information to help them.

There seem to be a lot of problems printers experience while working with water soluble inks that are pigment based bound together with gum arabic. I am talking primarily with some brands under names such as Speedball, Daler-Rowley, Ocaldo, Demco (Canadian made). These types of ink can dry very quickly on the inking slab, brayer, block surface if the enviromental conditions are too extreme caused by heat or direct sunlight. Another problem is working with them when the temperature is too cold as they will not behave the way they should for application. The ink will sometimes not grip the brayer surface or apply well to the block surface either.
If it is warm and dry where you are doing your printing you could add a small amount of retarder to your ink. Speedball manufacture such a product and also they make a clear medium extender.
As for working in the cold, your best bet is to print in a space at room temperature.
You may want to make sure that your brayer (roller) is totally free of any residue from past use (especially if it may have seen oil based inks used on it). Water soluble ink picks up best on a clean smooth surface. I personally tend to favor using a soft rubber brayer but to each his own.

Another factor may be the surface of the block itself. Is there any residues on the surface that could act as a resist against water soluble inks?
Might try wiping with soft cotton cloth and denatured alcohol or you could also lightly sand the surface of the block using an extra fine grit paper or sanding sponge.

The ink should be rolled out on your glass into a thin even mass and picked up by the brayer again to allow a thin even coating on your block surface. Ink application is best achieved by rolling it in different directions across the surface. You can tell if there is a even shine across the entire surface but also you shouldn't see marks where heavier and lighter ink layers overlap.

Paper is another important factor to consider. If you are applying hand burnishing to transfer the ink to the paper you want an absorbant paper surface but also the paper should not be too thick.

Here is a list of lighter weight papers that are suitable for printmaking and I have provided links to some of the major retailers online who sell these. GSM refers to the weight of the paper in grams squared). Generally anything higher than 200 gsm might require the use of a press to give you the best results due to the thickness of the paper. The ones listed shouldn't require a great deal of hand pressure. These are also suitable for oil based relief printing off a block surface including those using linoluem, wood, resingrave, styrofoam, softoluem, easykut, speedykut, plaster relief, etc...

Magnani Revere book weight (175 & 120 gsm)

Canson Johannot book weight (120 gsm)

Zerkall Frankfurt (120 gsm)

St. Armand old master (80 gsm)
this mill based in Montreal makes paper in the old world tradition and although I have never tried their Old master drawing paper it is recommended for letterpress and judging by the weight would lend itself to relief printing I suspect?

Arches Text weight (120 gsm)

Somerset text weight (120 gsm) aid

Zerkall book vellum (145 gsm)

Zerkall Nideggen (120 gsm)

Somerset book (175 gsm)

Gutenberg (various weights)

Arturo (!20 gsm)

Rives Lightweight Paper 115 gsm

Mohawk Superfine 120 gsm

Velin Arches (Arches text weight) 120 gsm



Masa (77 gsm)

Kitikata (30 gsm)

I will also mention a retailer based in Toronto Canada who have a fairly extensive array of Oriental made papers worth checking out. The Paper Place on Queen St. W are one of the best sources here in Canada I have found. I believe they also ship worldwide.

Another thing to try is a slight misting of the paper before burnishing. Not too much though since you don't want bleeding of the ink to occur. The slight dampness of the paper surface can also aid a better pick up of the ink onto the paper.
When burnishing the back of your print paper you might want to place a sheet of wax paper, acetate or glassine in between the burnishing tool and the paper. This helps to prevent possible damage to the print paper and also helps the movement of the burnishing tool across the block surface located underneath the print paper.


  1. Thank you for this post! I've been wrestling with the problems you mention using the same water based inks.
    You've given me some techniques and ideas to try and resolve said problems.
    Also as an added resource, I've been having good results using French Paper's products. In particular their Speckletone and Muscletone lines.
    Thanks again!

  2. Very timely advice Brian! I was attempting to print in my new studio which was hat and fingerless gloves cold before the heater kicked in properly. The Speedball ink was NOT behaving itself. I had to force it onto the lino and it ended up too thick and spread. When I tried a thinner layer they were wishy-washy and blotchy. At that point I decided it was time to go indoors and do some painting...

  3. Thank you Bruce and Colin
    happy to share this info. as many of us have not been sure where to look...perhaps this will serve as an easy to Goggle resource?
    Bruce thanks for the mention about French Paper. I am not familiar with that line but I did find their website. For anyone interested it can be found at

  4. I use Caligo Safe wash inks and Akua Water based inks for relief printing

  5. Try Akua inks. They recently have aligned themselves with Speedball. I've worked with them for years. Also The Japanese Paper Place is another great supplier of Asian papers, mostly of Japanese origin. They supply to the Paper Place, and work with artists regarding paper selections. You can order papers online.