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Making stencils for gel printing with a digital cutter – part 1

This is the first of a planned series of posts about making stencils for gel printing using a digital cutter. In my case it is a Cricut Maker, but the principles are general.

These stencils came out of some thoughts I had about making silk screen versions of my gel prints. I was hoping to use colour separations. This is the process by which original full-colour digital files are separated into individual colour components for four-colour process printing. Every element in the file is printed in a combination of four colours: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This is known as CMYK in the world of commercial printing and in silk screen printing. This isn’t an original idea, of course. Anyone familiar with Matisse will almost certainly be aware of his stunning cutouts, but may not be aware that they were also published in silk screen versions.

I began with a scan from one of my prints. I created the CMYK colour separations with Paint Shop Pro (from now on PSP). Unfortunately, I no longer have access to screen beds, so this is currently not an option. In practice, I don’t think I’m fit enough any more, to spend several hours pulling ink through the screens. However, having already used scans of pen drawings to make stencils, I decided to experiment with these separations. The print I’m using here is called ‘Area 52’, available from my shop.

The image below is an example of one of the colour separations. This is from the magenta colour channel. In this form, it clearly can’t be used directly to make a stencil suitable for gel printing.

Magenta colour separation from original image file. Not suitable for making stencils in this form.
Magenta colour separation from original image file

Simplifying the file

To create a version that can be cut as a stencil, it needs to be much simplified. I did this using various tools in PSP, which led to this. (More details of the process by which I did this, will be in later posts. If you can’t wait though, get in touch and I’ll try to help.)

Simplified magenta file suitable for making stencils
Simplified Magenta channel

PSP allows me to digitally recombine these simplified images, which led in turn to this image. This is closer to what you would get with screen printing, but is useful to visualise the outcome.

Digitally image from recombination of simplified image. Simulation of effect of using stencils made by digital cutter.
Digital image created from recombined and simplified channels

Be flexible

However, just because a file is called magenta, doesn’t mean that it has to be used that way. PSP allows me to digitally recombine the image files in any order. With four files to combine, there are 24 possible combinations, so this one below is just one. It helps to make a point though. When the stencils are cut and used to make gel prints, you have complete freedom in the colour you use.

Digital image created by shuffling colour separation files when recombining. Simulation of effect of using stencils made by digital cutter.
Image created by recombining channels in different order.

In the real, as opposed to the digital world, there are other variables. Varying the opacity of the paint used, and varying the order in which you use the stencil, will also give different results.

Finally, just as an experiment, here is a combination image using CYMK files from two different images. I’ve included it just to make the point that once you have the stencil you have complete freedom in their use.

Digital image created by incorporating data from more than one image. Simulation of effect of using stencils made by digital cutter.
Experiment in combining channels from separate image files.

In many ways, this last image is analogous to making a collagraph print from multiple plates. I have experimented with this many times in the past.

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Gel printing – my approach

Multi-layered Gel print

I’ve tried to record the process of making one of my gel prints several times, but without success. This is because my working methods mean I am usually working on perhaps a dozen prints at once, jumping between them. I build up each image over time by adding layer after layer of colour and texture. The closest I have come is a series of photographs of different stages. This post tries to fill some of that gap.

Applying the paint

All gel prints start with paint on the plate. This is the first big variable. I apply the paint with a brush, a roller and even my fingers. Rollers give the most even effect. Even then as the roller loses paint to the plate in one place it can start picking it up elsewhere. The basic aim is to create variations in the thickness of the paint sitting on the plate. This helps to create variations in colour and visual texture in the eventual gel print.

How much variation you want is a matter of choice. For me, early layers tend to have more or less complete coverage using a limited palette. For later layers I may only cover part of the plate, perhaps using a mask or stencil. On any layer, I can create textural variation by applying anything with texture to the paint as it sits on the plate. I use pill packets, bits of card, pieces of scrap plastic with interesting textures or just crumpled paper. I often remove paint completely with cotton buds.

How this will print depends on a range of factors – what colour is it going over, on the use of opaque or transparent paints and on how much is left in the thinnest areas. Using more than one colour at a time on the brush or roller also creates variations and colour blends. Adding acrylic medium also alters things.

Layering

I don’t clean down the plate between every layer. Because the transfer from plate to paper is not always 100% this can leave patches of paint behind. Rolling fresh colour over these patches often picks them up and transfers them to the print, adding texture.

Using transparent paints in a layer will shift the colour underneath depending on the two colours used. If the upper layer is partial this will leave the underlying colour untouched in some areas. Removing part of a layer also allows the underlying colour to come through. The effect will vary between transparent and opaque colours.

I also restrict the area to which I’m applying the paint using masks or stencils. I usually cut or tear these from newsprint. Opaque paint will obscure what is underneath. I do this to simplify messy areas or perhaps to combine separate blocks of colour. Using transparent or semi-transparent paint can subdue contrast between adjacent areas or shift colours by mixing through layering. Acrylic medium can create translucent effects if you mix it with opaque colours.

Eventually the build up of paint on a plate makes the transfer of paint to the print too unpredictable. This is my cue it needs cleaning. The paint left on the plate won’t be wasted however, even if it has dried completely. Start by rolling out an even coat of colour over everything. Then start to take the print as normal, but leave the paper on the plate longer than usual before you lift it. If everything goes well the last layer has bonded with the residue on the plate and most of it will transfer to the paper. You are unlikely to get a print this way that stand in its own right. The idea is just to use it as the first layer for a subsequent gel print.

As the layers of paint build up I look for the happy accidents and try to reinforce them. It is the way that successive layers show through that creates the subtle colours and textures which I think are the defining characteristic of gel prints. Some paints are opaque, other transparent. It is very rare for me to plan out an image. Even when I do that plan is often quickly abandoned when I see something unanticipated but which works! Eventually I get to a point where, as I look at an image it says Stop! That is something I can’t define. IT seems to be a combination of visual balance in terms of shapes and colours and overall cohesion/balance of the image as a whole.

Composition

Building up the image in layer after layer makes adhering to a specific composition difficult. I rarely have a fully planned composition in mind. Even when I do, that can be derailed when something unexpected happens which I like. The closest I usually come is the use of very simple structures like this crib sheet of mine. The artist Bob Burridge produces a rather more refined version you can buy.

Compositional diagrams
Set of compositional diagrams

A final thought on colour

As you add layers to your gel prints, you need to consider not just the area to be printed but the colour you will use. Careful thought here will give you more control over the final image. The first thing to do is to get a colour wheel. If your first layer is pretty much all cadmium yellows, look on the wheel at the colours either side of yellow. Using these colours for subsequent layers will give you a final image which is harmonious and balanced.

Alternatively look on the wheel at the colour opposite yellow – the complementary colours. Don’t just look at the direct complementary, look at the colours on either side of it which form the so-called split complementary. Some wheels also include markings for colour triads and for four colours. Try them. Using these colours will add drama and intensity to your work.

Don’t make the assumption that you need equal areas of complementary colours. Sometimes a large area of a relatively low-key colour can be balanced by a small intense area of its complementary. Think also about the effects of using transparent layers of one colour over its complementary. Think about how the effect differs from using opaques colours side by side. This can have an impact on your composition too.

Examples of my gel prints

There are lots of examples in the shop in the Lockdown Series 2020 and many more in my Instagram feed.