Printmaking with metallic ink can be an alluring option for adding glamour and iridescent shine to your prints. As we remain deep in winter in the Northern hemisphere and are drawn to glimmers of light in the darkness, we reflect on the lustre and shine of metallic inks and their use in printmaking.
The History of Printmaking with Metallic Ink
Throughout history, metallic inks or powders have been used in printmaking to enhance colours or add status to the print as an object. Gold, representing divine light or wealth and luxury, was added to sculptures, paintings, and manuscripts in the form of metal leaf.
In printmaking, metal pigments were used including copper, aluminium, and zinc. These were combined to form the alloys brass and tin which stood in for gold and silver. For millennia, the mineral mica has been used by artists and artisans for its shine and sparkle. Kirazuri (雲母摺り) is the Japanese method of printing with mica. Mixed in or added after, the iridescent mica powder created shimmering, luminous areas within the printed image. It could enhance a highlight or add glamour to a portrait’s background. In a sub-genre of Ukyo-e woodblock printmaking called Surimono, special prints were commissioned for private ownership that might include real metal pigments and mica to beautify a print and signify exclusivity.
What is Metallic Printmaking Ink Made From Today?
Unlike the mined mineral, today mica is manufactured from synthetic fluorphlogopite and coated with all manner of colourants and oxides to produce a myriad of glittery pigments and pearlescent powders which expands on the properties of the naturally occurring mineral. Metallic pigments from real metals don’t contain any inherent sparkle. Ground down to round particles they create an opaque, dull effect, but in the form of tiny flakes or ‘leaflets’, they can reflect light in multiple directions and create shine and reflectivity.
Intaglio Printing in Silver and Gold Metallic Inks
Here at Jackson’s, we stock two types of metallic ink for Intaglio, Cranfield Traditional Etching Ink, and Akua Intaglio Ink. Each manufacturer has designed an ink to fit within their respective ranges. Cranfield use true metal flaked pigments in a linseed oil base to create a traditional oil-based intaglio ink. Due to the type of metal pigments Cranfield prefer, they have not formulated a Caligo Safe Wash etching version, of course there is no reason why the Traditional Etching metallics cannot be used alongside the Caligo Safe Wash inks, you will just need to adhere to the respective clean-up processes. Akua Intaglio inks are soya oil based and use metallised, or coated, mica pigments, maintaining the water washable properties of the ink. Side by side the inks appear and behave quite differently.
Etching Inks are traditionally quite stiff with lots of pigment load and less tackiness than relief inks. This enables the ink to be pushed into the lines and for it to remain there while the excess is wiped off the plate’s surface. The incised lines can vary enormously and here I have used three plates to include a very fine etched line, a deeper, wider etched line, and an acrylic spray aquatint.
Cranfield’s Traditional Etching Metallic Inks are a stiff ink, and feel a little tackier than other colours within the range. The metal pigments are inherently drying, therefore it is not recommended that you wipe on a warming plate or leave the ink sitting on the plate for an extended period. Cranfield suggest adding a very small amount of Easy Wipe compound to aid wiping. I did find if I added too much, it dulled the metallic appearance of the ink, so testing is advised. I found wiping with butter muslin after an initial scrim wipe helped a great deal. The colour and tone of the gold and silver were strong and held well in the finest of lines. The crisp leaf pigments of Cranfield Traditional Etching metallics reflect from the embossed printed line to create a gilded appearance. On a white paper the tones were strong with the gold giving a copper colour and the silver giving a deep metallic graphite colour.
Akua Intaglio ink is a very soft ink that makes plate wiping a dream, in fact no scrim is required – after scraping the excess ink off the plate, you can simply skip to a newsprint wipe for the rest. These inks differ in the fact that they appear as a glittery suspension in the oil carrier. The printed lines were softer with the metallic particles more visible. The metallic particles did tend to break free of the ink, so found their way onto the wiped plate surface and occasionally onto the non-print areas of the image. On the very fine etching the gold pigment had trouble getting into the lines of the plate, but overall, the ink gave a delicate print with a little more sparkle than the Cranfield.
Cleaning up both works in the same way as the other colours in their respective ranges, I did however find the Akua metallics harder to remove with just washing detergent and water so resorted to some printmakers cleaner to help.
Relief Printing in Silver Inks
Given the huge popularity of relief printing, there are many ink brands available, with several including metallics in their ranges. At Jackson’s we have metallic inks by Cranfield, Akua, Essdee and Schmincke that include traditional oil based, water-washable oil as well as water-based inks for paper. Unlike intaglio, relief printing transfers a larger amount of ink onto the paper, and because we apply it with a roller, a tackier ink is required. The relief block will transfer a flat layer of ink to the paper, so I thought it worth exploring the idea of using an undertone colour to see if any enhancement of the metallic quality could be achieved. The technique of placing undertones under metallics is universal, for example a red or yellow under gold and a black or blue under silver is thought to add richness to the metal leaf or metallic paint above. When using this idea in printmaking, accurate registration will be required.
Schmincke Aqua Linoprint inks include silver, gold and copper and are manufactured using coloured pearl mica pigments. The silver is slightly tinted with graphite (PBk10) – Schmincke say without the grey component it would be pearlescent and a little too transparent to really look like silver. The inks are gum arabic based with a high pigment load. The silver has good opacity on both black and white paper, printing over a black undertone colour did not appear to increase the metallic quality, however a double layer of the silver retained the tone but enhanced the reflectivity of the ink. This second layer of silver was applied immediately over the first before it was dry. Schmincke’s three metallics, as well as the pearl medium can be mixed with “normal” Aqua Linoprint colours to obtain metallic variants of all the colours in the range.
Essdee Block Printing Inks include a range of metallics and pearlescent colours utilising mica as opposed to metal pigments. They describe them as mineral pigment powders with metallic oxide coatings which provide a metallic colour and appearance. The silver ink prints as a handsome, sparkly pewter and a double layer again enhances the opacity and reflectivity of the ink. On black paper or a black undertone the ink appeared quite translucent with a subtle sparkle of mica particles.
Akua Intaglio Inks are multipurpose, so as well as being excellent for intaglio and collagraph, they can be rolled out and used for monoprinting and relief. These water washable inks as mentioned before, contain coated mica pigments in a soya-oil base. The Akua silver printed with a gentle sheen and a delicate translucency. I found adding some opaque white was an option to add some opacity on black paper, however again, best results come from a double layer of ink enhancing its metallic appearance.
Just like their etching range, Cranfield has chosen a traditional oil-based formulation for their metallic relief inks, with genuine flaked metal pigments. Printing by hand burnishing, although great on lighter papers, becomes more challenging on heavier weights. This higher tack ink will yield better results on heavier papers when printed using a press. The body of the ink holds up under printing pressure to give a crisp image and a double layer does increase the opacity for a true metal shine. It was with this ink that I found printing over a black undertone to work best with accurate registration achievable due to the added tackiness of the oil based formulation. The result gave a three-dimensional quality with the solid metallic silver really sitting in the foreground.
Whichever inks you choose for your relief printing, drying and clean up will vary not only between ranges, but within ranges also. Drying times need to account for temperature, humidity, absorption of paper and how thickly the ink is applied. When cleaning you need to watch out for mica particles breaking free of the ink and transferring to other surfaces.
Screen Printing with Metallic Inks
As always in printmaking, variables count, including paper type, ink layers, and in screen printing, the mesh count of the screen. Metallic inks have large particles of pigment and perform better with a coarser mesh count, a 77T (196US) mesh is recommended for screen printing metallics on paper. The inks can be printed through finer mesh, but the metallic impact will be reduced. Printing metallics over an undertone colour is much more common in screen printing. Although you will not see the undertone colour, it can add warmth or coolness, enriching the gold or silver above.
Above you can see a silver ink half printed over a layer of undertone black and half directly on to paper. It is shinier over the black than where it sits directly on the paper. You can also print an initial layer of transparent base, then print your metallic over that. This will help the ink sit on the surface of the print and increase its reflectivity.
The two ready-to-use screen inks for paper we stock are Aqua Art Water Based Screen Ink and Daler Rowney System 3 Screen Printing Acrylic. The pigments used are metallised micas since both are water-based systems. The Aqua Art gold prints very opaque through a 77T(196US) mesh, so a single pull is sufficient to create a solid appearance of true metal. The colour enriching effect of the red undertone appears marginal as a result, however printing over a first layer of ink, be that an undertone or a transparent base, increases the reflectivity of the gold and enhances its metallic shine.
The Daler Rowney gold acrylic for screen has a soft, sparkly appearance. The bright mica pigments reflect well on a dark background but on white there is some translucency to it. Squeegeeing a second ‘pull’ of ink through will help with this. However, when printing directly onto a white paper, a second layer printed when the first layer of gold is dry will really add opacity.
Given the translucency of the Daler Rowney ink, making use of an undertone base colour will significantly influence its final appearance and so widen the scope for printing many variations of gold.
Printmaking with metallic ink will always add an extra dimension to your work, whether you choose to make them shine as a foreground element or subtly enhance areas in a more naturalistic way, I hope the above article provides some useful pointers for exploring them.