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Shellac Plate Printmaking

Making Shellac Plate Prints:

A technique that I use frequently in my print work is the Shellac Plate. The shellac plate is a versatile material that can be worked both intaglio and collograph style. The results are similar to etching, but the materials are less expensive and the process less technical, requiring no specialized equipment or chemicals.

For the plate itself, I use a sheet of hot press illustration board, which I coat with 3-4 layers of amber shellac (available at hardware and home improvement stores). This should be done in a well ventilated area, with time left between layers for the shellac to dry completely (about an hour depending on temperature and humidity).

Once the plate material is made, I cut a piece the desired size with a utility knife. I often draw my image out first on paper, but you can also draw directly on the plate using a Sharpie pen.

To transfer the drawing to the plate, tape a piece of transfer paper onto the plate, then tape the drawing on top (remember that your print will be a mirror image of your drawing). Trace over your drawing with a pen or pencil to transfer it to the plate. Once the drawing is transferred, go over the lines again with a Sharpie so that they don’t get rubbed off by your hands as you work the plate.

Drawing outlined with an etching needle

I begin working the plate by going over the drawn lines with an etching needle. It is not necessary to dig deeply into the plate; you just want to expose the white board under the shellac. The quality of the line will be determined by how much pressure you use: even light pressure will leave a mark on the plate. Once this is done I charge and wipe the plate intaglio style and pull a first proof.

The first proof on the press

Based on the proof, I continue to add to the image with the etching tool. Anything that scratches the shellac surface can be used to make line and tone on the plate: sandpaper, steel wool, X-acto knife etc.

For white highlights, use a Q-tip to clean selective areas the inked plate. This will remove the plate tone and leave a lighter area

Additional tone and texture can now be added to the plate by painting on acrylic medium in select areas. These areas will hold more ink and create soft tonal transitions. Tone can also be created with an etching tool by cross-hatching or stippling the plate, but this collograph approach has a more subtle quality.

Acrylic medium is painted on with a brush
The inked plate after the addition of acrylic medium

After proofing the plate I decided I wanted the wings to be solid black. For solid black areas, cut around the desired area with an X-acto (you do not have to cut deeply, just through the shellac layer). Once this is done you can peel away the shellac layer and expose the illustration board underneath. This area will hold ink and print as a velvety solid. To create highlights, I use a Q-Tip to selectively spot-wipe areas of the plate after it is inked in order to remove any plate tone.

Final proof on press
The final print: “El Guapo”
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