Nontoxic Printmaking, Safe Painting & Printed Art

Lithographic Toner Wash           
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Nik Semenoff                                         

Developing the Toner Technique

In 1984, I was granted a sabbatical in which I was hoping to find what newer commercial lithographic techniques could be applied to fine art printing. During the year I had visited some of the local offset printers and also made arrangements to spend a week at Tamarind, seeing a few other printers along the way. Towards the end of the sabbatical in the spring of 1985, I was asked to do some design work for the upcoming 50th anniversary of our university, so I returned for a few days to the Extension Division were I was on faculty as a media specialist. 

Nik Semenoff, Summer Storm, waterless lithograph on Rives BFK
dark grey blue Van Son Rubberbase plus ink

My office was across the hall from where the department had installed the Xerox copier, so I became aware of the secretary having problems in adding toner to the machine. After helping her, we threw the empty plastic bottle in the trash and I returned to my graphic activities.

Driving home, I started to think about which of the several of my grease tusche formulations I would use on the new edition I hoped to start. Commercial stick or paste tusche is formulated with limestone in mind, which makes it too greasy for use on metal plates. There had been attempts by fine art printers to come up with a mixture better suited to aluminum, the preferred substrate in North American, but I had not seen any on the market. So, during the sabbatical, I had tried to come up with my own grease tusche, but certainly had not produced anything much better than the standard products available. Still it was my hope to produce a nice tusche wash for the new edition.

As a commercial artist at a lithographic plant in my early career, I understood how the traditional litho process was used, but from a different point of view. I knew there was a method by which memos could be duplicated from a paper plate, which had been put through a Xerox copier and mounted on a Multilith press. As a fine art lithographer, I was aware of transferring Xerox copies onto stone or plates, using solvents to dissolve the toner plastic and bond it to the surface. So why not use the toner powder by itself as a wash media? I quickly did a U turn and drove back to the university to retrieve any possible toner in the bottle we had discarded. Luckily, there was a small amount still in the container.

At home that evening as I was about to start my experiment with the toner powder, one of the BFA students who was a printmaker, came for a visit.  I explained my theory as we proceeded to the print studio. I quickly discovered that toner cannot be easily wet with plain water, but as a practicing photographer, I had Kodak Photo-Flo available, which did the trick. We applied a wash to a small plate and manipulated it without fear of contaminating the surface, as I knew the plastic contained no grease. When the water evaporated, I understood the plastic would have to be bonded to the metal by some means, and since Xerox copiers used heat, I went to find my paint-stripping heat gun. Within a few seconds the toner was adhered to the plate; gum etch was applied and the first attempt to print a toner wash was at hand. The leather roller produced a nice wash image, which was printed out on newsprint to our amazement. What I didn't like was the embossing from the relief produced by the solid toner particles where they were built up in the darker area. Just like in Xerox transfers, it was a simple matter to washout the toner and replace it with asphaltum. The toner wash process had just been discovered!

Over the next few weeks I spent my sabbatical cheerfully experimenting with what I realized could be a major development for printmakers. Instead of printing editions, I was pleased to discover the limits of this new medium, finding where the problems lay and what new techniques could be used by artists. I found that it certainly could be manipulated with no fear of getting a ghost image on the substrate, until it was bonded to the surface. I found that while it could be used on stones, lacquer had to be used because the plastics in the toner somehow prevented asphaltum from penetrating the stone surface. This was OK as many stone lithographers considered that was the best way to protect the image for large editions. By now I had secured toners from several sources to find they were not all the same. In my attempt to see if solvent washes might be possible, I found that some were slightly dissolved by paint thinner, which led to artists having another method of setting the toner to the plate. I decided to designate the non-affected earlier toners as type A, and the more common materials as type B. A Minolta representative told me that the newer materials now contain waxes to reduce heat needed for bonding to paper, thus saving energy.

one big advantage to airbrushing areas with toner is that they would not fill-in, like they normally do with grease tusche

At first I had not printed any editions with the exciting new process, but produced a number of medium sized plates and printed proofs to see how best to do the washes. To show lithographers what could be done with toner washes, I prepared a plate with a number of different techniques shown within ten areas of the surface, then took it to the university's printing service and had 200 of the 17 x 22 inch sheets printed by offset in April of 1985. These would be distributed to anyone inquiring about the toner washes in the anticipated interest of printmakers.
By the middle of summer I was back working at the university, and decided to ask one of the better lithographic students to see what she might do with toner washes. We met in the print department and I took her through the technique of mixing toner washes and doing the entire process. In about a week, she showed me the large print she was able to produce, including an area lifted off by paper towel to produce a different texture. She had applied for the masters program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, so this new discovery would be an exciting thing to bring with her in the fall.

When the printmaking department head returned in the fall, I showed him the new method, which he thought might be of interest to some New York printers. I made contact with Ken Tyler in the spring of 1986, who was interested enough to have me come to his shop in New Bedford to show him and his printers the process. During lunch, Ken reflected on how it would be interesting to know how much this toner technique might change images over the next ten years. While in New York, I was able to show a number of printers this new process and did a workshop at the Art Student League of New York for a large number of local printmakers. I was later told by the director that this caused a mild revolution at the League.

I had already published my work with birefringent materials in LEONARDO, the international refereed journal in the arts, so submitted an article on my toner technique to the publisher. It was published in Vol. 20, #1, 1987. I had also put together a book on my work from the previous sabbatical, A Lithographers Notebook that sold through Daniel Smith. In it I had included the toner technique as well as other processes meant for traditional lithography. The process was now being launched into the international printmaking community.

two methods for making toner chalks; diluted shellac is simple and can be used by anyone who likes charcoal drawing

As I worked with the various toner products, I started to think about making it into chalk-like sticks to produce charcoal drawings. At first I attempted to use the pastel manufacturing method, but getting the right amount of glue binder was difficult as it would inhibit the bonding of the particles to the plate. After much research and building various compression methods, I finally was able to manufacture toner chalks by compressing it into a block that could be separated into six pieces along break lines. Living in the center of Canada, I did not have a good outlet for the product and sold very little for all my effort. In time, a lithographer who had seen the toner chalks, found his own method of manufacturing chalks and sells them through outlets in the US. Because the charcoal image is so versatile, I have discovered a better method of making toner chalks of various hardness, putting this information on my university website. This very popular website also contains more on the technology of using the toner technique in the various ways it works so well.

By this time, I was doing more work with the printmaking department at the university, where we had a masters program. Christine Christos had come to work on her etching studies, and after hearing one of my talks to lithographers on how to use toner with positive plates, she asked if it could be used with photo etching plates. Since I had already started using lithographic positive plates and sceenprints with toner washes on Mylar, she decided to try the technique with etchings. Her first plate came out well because she was a knowledgeable printmaker who took great pains with the details.

I decided to see if the toner applied directly to zinc plates might produce a resist to the acid mordant we were using at the time. While this did work well, it would be more exciting to produce a positive rather than the negative of the toner wash. After much research, I found that a thin coat of diluted shellac was capable of reversing the resist to produce very fine etchings. To get rid of the dangerous acid mordant we were using in the department, I was also researching the use of electro etching, which is the opposite of electro plating that I was well aware of in my goldsmithing practice. The result of my collaboration
with Christine was an article in Leonardo, Vol. 26, #4,1991.

In early 1990, I was told that many printers in New York were aware of the toner technique, but thought it was discovered by someone there or in Europe. I was informed that Tamarind was holding one of their symposiums in the summer and I should apply to show off the process to the large number of lithographers who would attend. The director put me on the program, where I showed it to a large audience of very enthusiastic printmakers.

(image) Close-up of a small zinc plate that was electro etched using thin shellac to produce a reversal. The background was not masked out, as I wanted to know just how well the very thin shellac film would resist the electric current. In practice one would mask out any areas to be kept perfectly white.

It was suggested to me to send an article on the toner methods to the British journal Printmaking Today. It was published in Vol.3, #4, 1994.  From what I can see on the Internet and at conferences, Ken Tyler's comments on how the toner technique would change images over time, was a keen observation. Toner has become part of normal printmaking conversations and will continue to grow as more come to realize what can be done with it. Along with polymer intaglio, it has become the basis of my waterless lithographic process,   

The original papers on litho toner wash have been translated into a number of languages. These and other of my innovations appear on various websites - put into the public domain with the understanding that anyone is free to use them, but to give me credit when publishing articles containing data referring to them. This concept of sharing innovations, I call 'Copyleft'.

Nik Semenoff D Litt,
Artist-in-residence, University of Saskatchewan

Copylefted, 2008