Nontoxic Printmaking, Safe Painting & Printed Art

Acrylic Resist Etching                           
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Three Media in One

Intaglio Printmaking is not just a particular way of creating images, of working in a sculptural way, or of making prints, but all of those things in a single process. A blank plate becomes the basis for virtually limitless creativity, employing a variety of tools and methods to produce marks with great breadth of expression.The grooves, indentations, ridges, scars and scratches produced by intaglio mark making turn the flat surface of the plate into a textured, eroded landscape. These lines, textures and tonal areas are fully revealed in the final intaglio print. The Acrylic Resist Etching system makes use of three key methods to produce marks on a metal plate: dry techniques, etch techniques and collagraph. These can be used independently or in combination.

In the more mechanical or dry techniques, indentations on the hard surface are made by the artist using a variety of metal working tools, such as a drypoint needle, pieces of sandpaper, or even an electric engraving tool. With the etch techniques the process is more indirect. The artist creates mordant resistant deposits on the plate so that the corrosive bath can erode exposed areas of metal, which will then hold ink. Thirdly, there are the collagraph or building-up processes in which additional layers are added to a plate. Due to their toughness, acrylics are highly suitable for this approach. Most of the new grounds, such as a hard ground or ImagOn, effortlessly stand up to the rigors of etching and of printing. This innovative printing from acrylic intaglio surfaces has the added advantage of easy wiping, and a clean plate tone is much easier to achieve than on a metal surface.

The chosen method(s) selected to create a plate may vary, but the inking, wiping, and printing process is common to all intaglio methods. For more information on inking, wiping and printing, click on the following link:

Electron Micrograph of Acrylic Polymer Chains.
Photo taken at University of Maine during the Orono Ground research collaboration, courtesy of Surface Science Institute U Maine, 1997

The Art of Polymers

Acrylics undergo a dramatic transformation during drying; this is called polymerisation. Tiny acrylic globules, or monomers float individually in a watery emulsion and then link together as the water evaporates. This process can also be aided by the application of gentle heat - by placing the plate in a drying cabinet after the application of acrylics, for example, or by using a hairdryer on the plate.

Polymerisation is complete when the monomers remain firmly linked in long chains, thus turning them into polymers. Once dry, a very tough, plastic-like substance has formed on the metal plate that is both hardwearing, as well as perfectly mordant resistant.
Industry already has a history of exploiting these properties; cars are painted with waterbased paints, and acrylic photo resists - similar to ImagOn film - are used for making printed circuit boards in the electronics industry.

Acrylics and other Polymers and Safety

In the 90s water-based paint products were generally hailed as being THE safe alternative to the then dominant VOC and oil-based systems. Quite a few of the claims of improved safety have been borne out by facts, but the idea of 'intrinsic' safety of water based products and polymers is exaggerated, and may even be misleading. Some manufacturers make acrylic paint and printmaking products with impeccable ingredients, full MSDS documentation and certified lab testing, and have a perfect safety record - such products can be deemed 'nontoxic'. But there are many water-based products that may still carry significant toxicity. Especially cheaper products may contain powerful toxins such as glycol ether, plastic softeners (phthalates), formaldehyde, unreacted volatile monomers, or even traces amounts of benzene. Shockingly, some of the recent safety scares in paints and printing materials are connected to products that were actually marketed as being 'safe' and 'green'. Users are advised to familiarize themselves with safety facts and recommendations beyond manufacturer's claims and advertisements; even MSDS information may be misleading or incorrect.

The illustration shown above was made by etching a brass plate in Edinburgh Etch and printing with Akua inks on Hahnemuehle paper.

The variety of marks, washes and reticulations was created by using a combination of the following resists:

  • oil crayon
  • carborundum Speedball wash
  • Crisco smears
  • dry brush marks
  • Hunt Speedball wash
  • Sharpie
  • Lascaux acrylic paint
  • litho crayon


A Painterly Aesthetic

Over two decades ago Keith Howard started etching with waterbased products. Initially, this move was driven simply by a desire to avoid the toxic hazards of traditional intaglio printmaking. To the great excitement of artists, his explorations showed that acrylics could not only emulate the aesthetic created by conventional etching methods - with ease - but could even extend creative versatility. Traditional intaglio printmaking has a strong linear bias, but is lacking in painterly possibilities. By contrast, Acrylic Resist Etching introduces a new breadth of painterly mark making to the intaglio medium while retaining all of its essential graphic qualities.

Safe Photo Etching for Photographers and Artists
Keith Howard, 1999, Wynne Resources, Alberta
ISBN 0-9695577-0-1

(below) Keith Howard
, range of acrylic wash or destruction ground effects from etched copper plates, 1995

The Properties of Acrylics 

Acrylics brushed, poured, rolled, or sprayed onto a metal plate form a strong bond with the plate surface. During etching, acrylics do not tend to chip off along the edges of the eroded intaglio, as is the case with oil-based resists and, if required, can even be left on plates during printing. In the liquid state acrylic grounds can be easily cleaned from brushes or work surfaces with soapy water, but become water and mordant resistant once they have fully hardened.

Acrylics can also acquire self-texturing and tonal qualities when they are diluted rather than used neat. This unique property is exploited in acrylic resist etching techniques such as the "destruction ground" or the diluted SOFT GROUND. Both of these are designed to conjure up reticulated wash effects on the print which resemble lithography or wash painting, whilst infusing them with the depth and crispness that is unique to intaglio printmaking.

The acrylic wash process works like homeopathy: the more diluted the solution the more potent the effect. For a standard acrylic resist wash medium, dilute about 1 part acrylic medium to about 50 parts water. This will yield a black after about an hour of etching in Edinburgh Etch. Lighter tones are created by filling in with more concentrated layers of acrylic medium. The rust  colored Hunt Speedball Screen Filler is Keith Howard's preferred wash medium. Lascaux make a dedicated wash medium which is ideal as a wash resist on zinc and steel plates.


        1 : 50 = Acrylic Wash Medium

The Art of Removing Plastics

It is often thought that plastics are hard to break or dissolve. However, the polymers used in acrylic resist etching are easily broken down and removed by alkaline substances such as sodium carbonate. This is essential for the speedy reclaiming of plates after etching. The alkaline process performing this miracle is known to chemists as saponification. During this chemical transformation the alkaline stripping solution essentially breaks up the polymer chains of tough acrylics and converts them into a harmless soap solution.

Once saturated, the soda ash stripping solution can be safely disposed of (after straining off any remaining solid particles), and may even be re-used as a neutralising agent for a spent etching solution.

Now there are also new kinds of safe solvents based on orange oil, or D-Limonene, that work more like conventional petroleum spirits, but without their health concerns - even hardened acrylics and inks are easily and safely dissolved, layer by layer. For example: ZAcryl D-Solve (see below).

Direct Brush Marks and Open Bite

An image can be created freely on a metal plate by painting marks directly onto the surface with acrylic stop-out varnish. Using brushes of various shapes and sizes will allow you to work in a fluid and painterly way. The thinking you have to apply is typical for many processes in intaglio printmaking: in essence you are regarding the metal plate as an eroded background into which you are shaping islands of light. All the brush marks you apply with stop-out varnish remain raised as non-printing areas, while the areas surrounding them are positive, or open bite, and are turned into the eroded tones and textures that will ultimately transfer ink onto the paper.

This kind of direct etching technique produces very distinct results on different kinds of metal. On copper the image resulting from an open bite is mainly made up of an eroded ridge around the painted marks. On steel the areas surrounding the stopped-out marks turn into dark areas. However, painting on the plate with stop-out varnish is by no means restricted to creating patches on the plate. By adjusting your brushing action in a more dry or streaky fashion you can create lively hatches and textures that can then print as vibrant line work; using quite a stiff, bristly brush is best for this.

You can also try out different dabbing devices like textured rags or sponges soaked in stop-out varnish to add variety to the composition. Whilst the acrylic is wet you can also use a brush handle or a piece of card as a squeegee to draw lines or scrape marks back into the surface. Any stop-out mark that is squeegeed into a very thin layer will produce a tonal effect, not unlike the destruction ground technique.
Pollock-like drips can be made on the plate with an acrylic binder (such as Lascaux 2060, or Golden GAC 200) or a waterbased wood glue.

After etching and stripping the plate, more layers of open bite marks may be repeatedly added to enhance the complexity and depth of the work. The direct mark making approach can also be combined with the destruction ground approach, where tonal wash qualities are produced by diluting the acrylic grounds with water.

There are many more exciting ways of making direct mordant resistant marks on the plate which are strictly speaking open bite techniques; some of these can be etched straight after completing a design on the plate. For instance pre-cut pieces of adhesive tape (acting as mordant resists) can be stuck directly to the metal surface to produce geometric shapes in an etching. Crisp lines of varying thickness can be drawn directly on the plate surface with waterproof felt tip pens. This works because the acrylic ink used in these pens resists corrosion, allowing you to etch away the metal around the drawn lines.

Equally immediate are the many "greasy" materials that can be very successfully used for direct mark making. For example, the mark of a soft wax crayon can give a very textured etched line similar to a crayon line on paper. Mark making with things such as Vaseline or solid vegetable fat (Crisco) is of a more experimental kind, but can be extremely successful for laying a base of etched tone and texture before further definition is given to the plate through another, more controlled, technique.

Similar to diluted acrylics, these materials present a permeable surface that results in variations in the depth of the etch because of the differing thicknesses of the resist layers. This creates a gradation of tones on the print.
The possibilities of this approach are extensive and it is left to the imaginative printmaker to explore and develop his or her own direct etching vocabulary.

Tom Drew, shaped print and plate, 
acrylic resist hard ground etching and 
etched aluminum plate
(Saline Sulfate Etch)

Tailored Acrylic Grounds and Varnishes      

Most acrylic paints and binders may not only be used for painting, but also as etching resists. There are a number of dedicated stop-out varnishes on the market, such as the Golden Acrylic Stop-out Solution which makes a good all-round varnish for etching. For the direct mark making techniques especially, it is well worth utilising a broader range of acrylics as resists - preferably after familiarizing yourself with their creative properties on a sample plate.

The two key properties needed in an acrylic etching ground are (i) good mordant resistance on the one hand and (ii) easy removal after etching on the other. Interesting effects can be etched from directly applied acrylic paint marks, but due to their high pigment content these will eventually break down, causing the plate to foul-bite. Stopping-out with a clear acrylic binder will yield much greater or total mordant resistance, but some strong binders such as Golden GAC 200 or the Badger Aquatint Solution, can be difficult to remove in the soda ash stripping solution.

By contrast, Future floor finish (Johnson's Wax Klear or Klar in Europe), gives both good mordant resistance and is easy to remove; but the fluidity of this product makes it less suitable as a thick stop-out solution for direct mark making. The straightforward technique of using Future as an etching ground was first publicized by Keith Howard in 1991, and since then has become extremely popular in the printmaking world. This clear acrylic represents an ideal etching medium and is used by many contemporary printmakers as their staple hard ground.

During my research at Edinburgh Printmakers, testing a wide range of acrylics, I found a varnish made by Lascaux to be well suited in all its properties as a base ingredient for a number of tailored etching grounds. The product is Lascaux clear gloss varnish 575 - 2060 (mainly available in Europe). Some products, however, do not always including the black coloring often required by etchers.

The varnish 2060 has great mordant resistance on all metals etched in any of the metal salt solutions, whilst being easy to break down in soda ash. The addition of a suitable waterbased coloring or pigment turns the clear varnish into an ideal stop-out varnish for re-etching partial areas of an already bitten plate.

Mixed in equal parts with acrylic paint it makes a stop-out varnish very similar in its painting characteristics to a thick bitumen-based varnish; this is most suitable for the textural direct mark making techniques described earlier. Applied thinly, the 2060 varnish also gives a highly mordant resistant hard ground with very detailed and waxy drawing properties.

      Make up Stop-out varnish for direct mark making as follows:
  1. Fill half a jar with Lascaux clear gloss varnish 575-2060 or Golden GAC 200
  2. Mix with 50% of Lascaux Studio acrylic paint black 526 or similar product


      Make up Stop-out varnish for re-etching as follows:

  1. Use neat Lascaux clear gloss varnish 575-2060
  2. For an opaque ground mix with 10% KOH-I-NOR 3080-4 Universal Ink

Note: Thick layers of acrylic stop-out varnish may need a 10 to 15 minute immersion in a fresh, concentrated soda ash solution to be removed from the etched plate, or use one of the citrus-based solvents (see below). Use a non-scratch scouring pad and hot water to shift all remaining particles.

today, there are numerous ready-made acrylics and resists for printmaking on the market, see links below, or consult the web pages of printmaking suppliers and acrylic paint makers

Hard and Soft Ground

          Safe Stripping with Orange Zest Solvents

Acrylic stop-out can be stripped off in a strong soda ash solution or use one of the excellent citrus-based safe solvents now on the market (such as D*Solve by Z*Acryl) which remove acrylics with great ease.

"This truly revolutionary solvent was formulated as an alternative to petroleum-based turpentines and thinners. It is made from 100% renewable agricultural resources of soy, corn, and citrus, and is non-polluting, non-carcinogenic, and bio-degradable. Less than a teaspoon will thoroughly clean a large plate. DSolve will even strip dried ink from etched lines." Dick Blick

Image: Z*Acryl Product D*Solve


      Make up a Spray Aquatint and Hard Ground (based on this polymer) as follows:

  1. Fill half a clean jar with Lascaux clear gloss varnish 575 - 2060
  2. Add 5 to 10% KOH-I-NOR 3080-4 Universal Ink. Carefully mix the pigment (or acrylic airbrush ink) into the varnish until the mixture reaches opacity. The black ink will not corrupt the mordant resistance of the binder but will make it clearly visible on any metal.
  3. Dilute the mixture with 5 to 15% water to make the spray ink ready for use in an airbrush.

Sprayed as a fine mist the mixture will produce mordant resistant aquatint dots on the plate.
Further passes of the airbrush over the plate result in a finely coated surface, which after 20 minutes of drying makes an ideal, extremely even, malleable and highly responsive hard ground. This sprayed hard ground can be applied directly to a polished and de-greased plate. The varnish does not chip when drawn into and allows for the faithful execution of fine and deep line work, as well as for complex cross-hatching and multiple etching stages.

For more information about about spray aquatint click on the following links:

Aquatint       Intaglio Manual

SAFETY NOTE: a few acrylic products now carry a note warning of a possible cancer hazard;

this may be related to a formaldehyde content (2012)

Protection against low level VOC exposure

Today there are many paint products that are marketed as ‘safe’, yet there may still be harmful low-level VOC emissions, such as glycol ether. Examples: many water-based paints, acrylic floor finish, some artist acrylics, low odor, low VOC solvents, and printmaking resists.

Although a full organic respirator may be impractical for a day’s work we would recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some organic vapor protection. Dispose of the mask after a day’s work (about $ 5 per mask).

Product example:

3M™ Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief

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CONTRIBUTIONS. we may be able to include details of your practice, materials, or research on - just CONTACT us. the copyright of individual entries, essays and writings (dedicated or reprinted), brand names, images, and other contributions remains with the original authors and sources. submissions may be edited at our discretion. we welcome appropriate links to our resource. LISTINGS. corporate entries on our pages are listings for reference, research and illustration purposes - not commercial advertisements. RESEARCH. we are particularly keen on contributions highlighting new research and developments regarding safety of processes and methods, paints, inks, solvents, and coatings, and safety related to their application. 

Domestic Paints / Francesco Clemente: Sun, 1980
 Cobra Water-Miscible Oil Paints

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 Safe Painting for Artists: Artist Paints & Studio Art

This section of our Nontoxic Paint & Print Resource showcases safety-conscious and innovative practice, research, and resources in the vast and complex subject area of Paints and Painting. We are offering writings and resources for both major fields of Painting in two separate sections that encompass both the world of wall paints, lacquers, varnishes, and coatings and the world of artist paints for fine art studio use, such as artist oils, acrylics, or the new water miscible paints, and their application. 

Many of the issues and topics in both fields are linked and to some degree interchangeable. Intriguingly, contemporary artists from Jackson Pollock to Damien Hurst have made deliberate use of household paints (wanting to make less 'academic' artworks), and as the paint industry makes chemical advances these trickle down into the more refined, highly pigmented, and more lightfast artist paints, which share most of the base ingredients. Potential health issues from toxic pigments, VOCs, PAHs, thinners, and other ingredients are shared across both areas. So called 'Nontoxic' materials and paints are currently gaining a strong foothold in the market, but artists and users of paint need some specialist knowledge to make informed choices; we are hoping to be able to aid this process.

Jackson Pollock in his studio, © Hans Namuth Estate

There are many health related aspects that are relevant to both areas, and these are discussed in our pages on Pigments, Solvent Toxicity and Safe Solvent Alternatives, Reproduction Risks, and Legal Aspects. A lot of the information on solvent hazards and solvent safety is based on toxicological  research and writings originally published by Art Hazard News and the  Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Fine Art Painting Section includes a comprehensive essay by Merle Spandorfer on all the painting media available to artists, including acrylic painting, oil painting, gouache, pigments, mediums, etc., which was first published in Making Art Safely by Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY.

  Safe Painting for Artists:       Artist Paints & Studio Art

Safe Painting in DIY:        Domestic Wall Paints, Paints, Varnishes

   Eco Friendly Paint      
Sarah Houlton, PhD

   Pigments      History, Toxicity & Alternatives

   Safe Spray Painting and Airbrushing
    An overview

   The Chemistry of Acrylics    
The Art of Polymers

   Solvent Toxicity:      
Health Hazards and Medical Evidence

   Safe Solvents:      
Non-VOC Alternatives

   Reproduction Risks:
      VOCs, Paints, Thinners, and Pregnancy

   Health & Safety:      
Exposing Ourselves to Art and H&S Compendium

   The Green Art School      Art schools moving towards safer practices

   Artmaking & The Law:      A Selection of Essays

   Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety     An advisory and consultancy service

   UIC  Health in The Arts Center   A scientific compendium, resource and advisory service

   Instructional Videos  A selection of relevant YouTube videos

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'Painted Trees', Chicago Park District, 2011

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CONTRIBUTIONS: We may be able to include details of your practice, materials, or research on - just contact us. To ADD / EDIT / REMOVE entries: CONTACT us. The copyright of individual entries, essays and writings (dedicated, adapted or reprinted), brand names, images, and other contributions remains with the original authors and sources. We assert copyright for this web resource, our own writings, research, images, and editorial work. Submissions may be edited at our discretion. We welcome appropriate links to our resource. LISTINGS: corporate entries on our pages are listings for reference, research and illustration purposes - not commercial advertisements. RESEARCH: We are particularly keen on contributions highlighting new research and developments regarding safety of processes and methods, paints, inks, etchants, solvents, and safety related to their use and application. We also publish findings in the fields of workplace safety, toxicology and industrial hygienePlease Note: the terms 'nontoxic' , 'safe' and 'green' are relative concepts.