Nontoxic Printmaking, Safe Painting & Printed Art

The Green Print Studio                            

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The following article was originally delivered as the lecture "The Green Print Studio in the USA: A Model for the 21st Century" as part of the SGC 'Global Implications' conference held in Chicago, March 2009. The text is reproduced here with the kind permission of Liz Chalfin.

Liz Chalfin (Zea Mays Printmaking)

One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is

environmental sustainability. The implications

are borderless and stateless. Environmental degradation

in one area of the planet has profound consequences globally;

and environmental leadership in one area

of the world can

resonate around the planet.

Since the 1990s there has been a movement to develop safer alternatives to traditional toxic printmaking processes. The motivations for the "non-toxic" printmaking movement have been twofold: to create a healthier environment in which to make art, and to make less of a toxic impact on the environment. Great strides have been made in the years since the original research took place in Scotland, Canada, and Australia and "greener" printmaking is beginning to make an impact on the global print community.

Before I go much further, I think it's important to clarify the terms "green" and "non-toxic" in relation to printmaking. As stated in Friedhard Kiekeben's website: ( "the term nontoxic/non-toxic has become synonymous with safety-conscious practice. Nontoxic processes still use a variety of chemicals, and the ultimate safety of any material and process is dependent on their informed use."1 In this article I use the terms "green" and "non-toxic" interchangeably to describe processes and materials that are solvent-free and that aim to use the safest current practices.

Green History
Since the mid-1980s there has been a trend towards exploring safer and non-toxic alternatives to traditional printmaking practices. The technical research was conducted at studios and universities in the UK, Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States by innovative artist/scientists who recognized the need for safer methods. Much of the impetus came from the growing awareness that traditional printmaking was harmful to the health of the practitioner and the environment. These creative innovators went on to spread their knowledge and experience with greener alternatives to the larger printmaking community through workshops, demonstrations, books, videos, DVDs, and an immense generosity of spirit.  

Slow to take hold, the non-toxic printmaking movement has gained new ground during the last two decades. Many colleges and universities are teaching non-toxic printmaking methods to a new generation of students. Dedicated faculty, from all over the country, have taken it upon themselves to train in the new technologies and to impart that information to their students. The initial resistance to the processes is being chipped away and more people are embracing this contemporary and conscientious approach to printmaking. Besides being healthier, the new methodologies have opened up new avenues for creative exploration.

Over the past decade, a handful of green shops have emerged on the printmaking landscape. Founded by artist/printmakers they provide a vital place for the dissemination of new printmaking technologies to an audience of non-student artists. These studios are lifelines for hundreds of practicing artists who no longer have access to school facilities. They provide a physical space to work in a healthier environment; a theoretical and practical laboratory in which to test, explore and evaluate the green printmaking products; and a philosophical home where environmental consciousness can be expressed through art practice. Each of the studios represented in this article make a unique contribution to the global printmaking community - through the workshops they offer, the exhibitions they organize, the studio spaces they provide to artists, and the outreach they practice in the global printmaking community.

Zea Mays Printmaking studio and its green mission statement.

Going Green
Where does one print outside the Academy? What about the generations of artists who were trained traditionally, but who now have the need and the desire to learn safer alternatives? Where are the print shops, the collectives, and the private studios in communities across the USA that practice green printmaking, and how does one go about setting up a green studio? Once you do set up a studio what obstacles do you face? Is there resistance from the traditional printmaking community to greener printmaking? How do we overcome resistance and broaden our outreach? What are the rewards?

In order to find out the answers to these questions I developed a questionnaire and sent it to all the green studios I knew of in the United States. The conclusions and studio profiles in this article are based on the answered questionnaires.

Let's start with the rewards. The implications of having green studios are broad. Artists are returning to printmaking. Many studio directors spoke about their clientele as individuals with a background in printmaking that had left the field because the toxic chemicals caused health problems. These artists believed they would never be able to return to an art medium they loved and had mastered. The green studio provides a place for these artists to work safely - and to re-discover printmaking.

Green studios are less expensive than traditional print studios to set up and to maintain. When you walk in the doors the first thing that hits you is the absence of solvents and their odors. The usual smell of a print studio and the subsequent headaches are gone. Because the solvents are removed from the space, there is no need to invest in expensive ventilation systems. This cuts down significantly on the costs of setting up a studio. The green products are generally cheaper to purchase, and many can be bought from a supermarket or hardware store. Most of the materials are less time intensive to maintain and use; clean up is easier and the studio stays neater. Disposal is far less of an issue than in traditional print shops. 

Zea Mays Printmaking studio members and workshop participants.

Green studios retrain mid-career artists as well as emerging artists in safer techniques. They speak to a growing consciousness of preserving the environment. They train artists from around the world who take this knowledge back to their countries. They create communities and dialogue between communities. They demonstrate, through practice and exhibition, the high quality of prints made using safer and non-toxic processes. Finally, the relative safety of the materials allows for greater experimentation and a whole new way to approach printmaking.

But does a green print shop also face unique challenges? Yes and no. The main challenge each studio cited was a mindset, a prejudice against the new techniques and products from a generation of printmakers comfortable using traditional materials. Many of the green-print-studio founders spoke about an initial attitude that new approaches couldn't create works of art that were comparable in quality to prints made using the toxic materials. This attitude has softened over the years, mainly because of the strong work coming out of each of these venues and their counterparts in higher education. The rich and dynamic prints emerging from green studios sell the processes and the more people see the art, the less the resistance. 

Prints by members of Zea Mays Printmaking: Joan Wiener (left), Nancy Van Deren (middle), Joan Dix Blair (right)

Another challenge the directors spoke of was the learning curve. Many printmakers who come to the various studios need to learn a whole new way of working with new materials. Seasoned printmakers who are not invested in the mission of safer and non-toxic printmaking are reluctant to learn substitute methodologies. Printmakers who are on board with the mission of safer and non-toxic approaches still have to step back to a beginners level as they master the nuances of contemporary techniques.

The Techniques
The simplest way to start greening up a print studio is to remove the solvents used for clean up.  All oil-based inks can be cleaned off work surfaces, plates, brayers and tools with vegetable or mineral oil. The oil loosens the viscosity of the ink enabling you to wipe the ink away. The greasy residue left behind can be cleaned with soap and water, or a biodegradable cleanser such as Simple Green.  

Viable replacements for etching grounds, oil-based inks, and photo chemicals abound. ACRYLIC RESIST ETCHING has been well documented on FRIEDHARD KIEKEBEN's website ( and in informative books by Robert Adams and Carol Robertson, Keith Howard, and HENRIK BOEGH.2 Z*Acryl and Lascaux make wonderful grounds and stop-outs for all manner of intaglio.3 KEITH HOWARD and DAN WELDEN have written great technical books about photopolymer intaglio processes.4 Susan Rostow has developed a superb water-based ink (AKUA Kolor).5 Other ink manufacturers have joined in the movement and are making water-based and water-miscible inks (Faust, Daniel Smith, Graphic Chemical, and Caligo to name a few). In terms of materials and information, there is no longer a good excuse not to remove the toxic elements from the print studio.  

The Studios
At the time of writing this article, I am aware of only a handful of independent green print studios across the United States.  (I am sure there are more out there, flying under the radar.)  Each has a unique character and plays a special role in its community. Each takes a different shape, but all of the studios share some commonalities. Each studio began modestly, through a strong desire by a single individual to create a place for making prints safely. All of the founders were motivated by a growing awareness of the health risks of traditional printmaking and a desire to find a healthier way to make prints. Each founder used a creative approach to establishing their studio - from initial fundraising, to acquiring equipment, to reaching out to the art community. And each studio has changed over the course of its existence in response to the community within which it resides, morphing into a print shop that fills the needs of the artists that call it home.

Studio Profiles
Reflecting the communal and congenial aspects of printmaking, all of the studios profiled here have within their missions the advancement of safer printmaking, the sharing of information, and the support of their artists. 

Studio Profile: Zea Mays Printmaking
Florence, Massachusetts

Zea Mays Printmaking is a studio, workshop, educational facility, and research center dedicated to new developments in alternatives to toxic printmaking. They test products and methods and strive to demonstrate the greatest aesthetic potential of each new medium. At Zea Mays they document their research extensively and have a library of material on safer printmaking. As an educational facility they offer workshops in new approaches to printmaking. The emphasis is on intaglio, relief and monotype printmaking and they offer a wide range of courses for all levels of expertise. Zea Mays' staff and guest artists teach the courses. They are also available to "take the show on the road" for offsite demonstrations and workshops. Zea Mays Printmaking offers individually designed Artist Residencies and contract printing. The 2,500 sq. ft. studio has three etching presses, a relief press and a book press, a metal plate shear, an airbrush aquatint spray booth, a NuArc exposure unit for photopolymer processes, ample tables, a library, and exhibition space.  They house over 500 prints in the Flat File and Archive. The private editioning studio is a separate 500 sq. ft. space with a 40" x 72" Takach etching press.

Zea Mays Printmaking studio interior and exterior, Florence, Massachusetts.

Liz Chalfin established Zea Mays Printmaking in 2000. It is a privately owned for-profit entity. Initial funds to open the studio were raised from private investors who own shares in the company. Zea Mays started out in a 1,000 sq. ft. studio in an old mill building converted into artist studios. It began with one used Takach etching press (34" x 60"), two worktables, an airbrush aquatint set up, a vertical etching tank and a borrowed exposure unit. At that time, the studio could accommodate up to four artists working in close quarters at any one time. At inception, Zea Mays offered studio access, memberships and classes. Zea Mays expanded in 2004 to a 2,200 sq. ft. space in the same building. They added two more etching presses (Takach 24" x 36" and Praga 24" x 30") and a relief press (one press bought used, one on loan, and one donated). They purchased a used NuArc exposure unit to replace the one on loan and a drying rack, flat files, a plate shear, storage and more etching equipment. In addition they built many new worktables, storage files and a drying unit. Computer equipment, a scanner, and printers were donated and purchased used. In 2008, Zea Mays added 500 sq. ft. of space for a private editioning studio with a 42" x 70" Takach etching press, purchased new.  Zea Mays currently offers workshops, memberships, studio rental, contract printing, internships and exhibitions. Members range in age from twenty- to seventy-year olds, from novices to professionals. Member benefits include studio access, workshop discounts, gallery representation, and participation in an annual print sale. Workshop participants come from all over the world to learn from a wide array of non-toxic printmaking techniques from guest artists who are experts in their field. Many workshop participants are art faculty at high schools, colleges and universities. Workshops, memberships, contract printing and print sales support Zea Mays Printmaking's current operating budget.

Studio Profile:
AS220 Printshop
, Rhode Island

The AS220 Community Printshop is part of a larger non-profit arts organization: AS220. The Printshop is focused on providing an accessible and healthy environment for printers in the Rhode Island area. Within a 500 sq. ft. space, the shop provides studio access and instruction in letterpress, silkscreen, and intaglio. Run by a panel of key-members, the shop must constantly balance the different priorities of members and mediums. Due to minimal ventilation, the traditional use of solvents in cleaning was replaced by a regime of vegetable oil and Simple Green, while newly perfected acrylic products took the place of traditional intaglio grounds. The shop strives, however, to be conscious not only of the effects of different materials on the individual's health, but on the local and larger environment. While plastic products can be safer for consumers, AS220 members feel it is important to be conscious of the use of petroleum-based substances. AS220's goal is to create a shop environment that balances the artistic demands of the members with the impact on the health of artists, the local watershed, and the global impact of using and disposing of a variety of resources.

Participants at the AS220 Printshop, Rhode Island.

AS220 Printshop was established in 1988 by Mark Pedini, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working with not-for-profit parent organization AS220. The original AS220 Printshop was in the basement of the building housing the parent organization. In its infancy, AS220 Printshop was the only public community print shop in Rhode Island.  In 2003, the Printshop closed because of increasingly stringent fire codes. The Printshop reopened in 2007 when AS220 moved into a different building purchased with a home for the Printshop in mind. The Printshop began by offering silkscreen workshops and silkscreen facilities and has expanded to included etching and letterpress. It currently occupies a 500 sq. ft. facility. The current facility has a Vandercook Proof Press, a Kelsey Letterpress, cabinets of type, a Graves etching press (18" x 36"), vertical etching tank, acrylic aquatint airbrush set up, Rembrandt lithography press (in storage until their future expansion), and a computer and scanner. The original equipment was purchased used, or donated to the Printshop. AS220 is planning to move in 2010 to a building adjacent to the current space and the Printshop will expand to include lithography and to create a ventilated space for traditional etching in addition to the non-toxic acrylic resist etching facility. AS220 Printshop offers classes, press time and memberships. The Printshop offers dedicated printers the opportunity to gain shop access in exchange for monitoring services. At AS220 Printshop there are a mixed group of users, from college graduates to established artists. The single member of staff is funded through an AmeriCorps VISTA grant. AS220 has an equal pay policy (everyone is paid the same, from Executive Director to workshop teachers). Additional money is raised through fees for workshops and studio access, and a biannual print lottery.

Studio Profile:
New Grounds Print Shop
Albuquerque, New Mexico

New Grounds Print Workshop, one of the first completely non-toxic print workshops in the United States, was established by its director Regina Held in 1996 after she received her MFA in printmaking from the University of New Mexico. The award-winning print workshop was first operated out of a small, private building in Albuquerque's rural South Valley. In March 2000, New Grounds moved to its current location in historic Nob Hill, one of Albuquerque's premier shopping and dining areas. During another expansion in 2002, a separate gallery and classroom were added to complete the 4,000 sq. ft. facility. With six hand-operated etching presses, New Grounds matches, and even surpasses, the number of printing presses available in many university printmaking departments. New Grounds is a safer and alternative printmaking facility fully equipped for etching, photogravure, monotype and relief printing. Regularly scheduled classes are offered in all of these printmaking mediums.  The core of their facility is the membership program, which provides experienced artists with affordable access and flexible hours. In addition, they offer press rental at hourly rates to non-members. Both members and non-members can take advantage of their expertise in custom printing, printing assistance, and plate exposure for photogravure plates.

Courtyard of New Grounds Print Shop, Albuquerque.
Click to take the New Grounds Print Shop studio tour:
Regina Held established New Grounds in 1996. New Grounds is a privately owned, for-profit business. New Grounds began in a 350 sq. ft. space with one press in a refurbished garage. In 2000, New Grounds moved to a 3,600 sq. ft. space. They added four presses, a guillotine shear, and a NuArc exposure unit. In 2002 they added a second press, two large drying racks, a light table, a dry mount press, framing equipment, flat files and worktables. In 2006, another office was added which included computers, scanners, and printers. In 2007, New Grounds expanded into a neighboring building and added a commercial gallery, Matrix Fine Art, which occupies almost 2,000 sq. ft.  In addition to physical growth over the last thirteen years, New Grounds added services, more studio access, and gallery space. New Grounds has a diverse group of users, from novices to professional artists, mid-twenties to mid-seventies. They offer memberships, classes, and exhibitions. An innovative model of pre-selling five-year memberships and personal borrowing funded the first expansion of New Grounds. Currently, New Grounds supports its operating budget through memberships, art sales, art fairs, classes, studio rental, framing, and the sale of supplies.  

Studio Profile:
Center for Research, Art, Technology, & Education (CRATE)
Oakland, California

The CRATE is a superbly equipped studio in a 2,000 sq. ft. industrial space in Oakland, California. The board of directors, Studio Director, and staff (graduate print students from local art departments) are committed to the stewardship of fine art printmaking in both its traditional forms and in the advancement of progressive, safer ways of working. They constantly develop new materials and techniques and make them available to the printmaking community. The studio features two American French Tool etching presses, a Fuchs and Lang lithographic press, a 30" x 40" NuArc flip-top platemaker, spray aquatint facility, and separate etching room.  Digital equipment includes three Mac workstations, a tabloid-size flat bed scanner, and a Xante transparency and lithographic platemaker. While they do offer classes to printmakers-at-large, their main focus is working with visiting printmaking faculty. By teaching teachers they indirectly reach a new generation of printmakers and influence facilities across the United States and internationally.  

CRATE studio interior, Oakland, California.

CRATE was founded in 1997 by Mark Zaffron (he also founded Z*Acryl Materials in 1994). It is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization. CRATE began in an 800 sq. ft. space with a Griffin etching press, a NuArc plate sink, table-top Amerigraph Exposure unit, drafting table, ink tables, homemade light table, airbrush aquatint area, and computer work station with scanner and printer. The press and exposure unit were purchased new, other equipment was bought used at auction. In 2000, CRATE moved to a 2,200 sq. ft. space in an old industrial building in West Oakland. A flip-top NuArc exposure unit was donated to the studio and a French Tool etching press was purchased at a significant discount from Conrad Machine. They added a Fuchs & Lang lithography press, purchased used.

CRATE offers classes and workshops in the use of Z*acryl products. Approximately one hundred people come to the studio to take classes annually. The primary users are printmaking faculty who want to learn how to use the acrylic-resist etching products. Z*Acryl began by borrowing on a credit card to design and build a mold for a vertical etching tank and to formulate and manufacture acrylic grounds. Zaffron recouped his initial investment in two years and was able to project future income from the sale of his products. CRATE currently supports its operating budget through the sales of Z*Acryl products and workshops.

Studio Profile:
Making Art Safely (MAS)
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Making Art Safely is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico and offers artist-led creative workshops in monotype, woodcut, digital processes, waterless lithography, screenprinting, and photopolymer intaglio. MAS began in 1994 under the direction of Don Messec as part of the College of Santa Fe under the name CSF Graphics Workshop. In 2003 the name changed to the CFS Printmaking Center and maintained its affiliation with the college. In 2004 the studio became an independent entity and changed its name to Making Art Safely. Making Art Safely was incorporated into Boy Fish Press, Don Messec's studio when it went independent.  Making Art Safely's mission is to develop, nurture, research and pursue professional artists printmaking in a safe, non-toxic, and biocompatible way; to develop a functional knowledge base for the field; and to convey that knowledge through education and publication. MAS offer workshops, edition printing, and contract printing. 

Workshop participants at Making Art Safely, Santa Fe.

Making Art Safely began in a 600 sq. ft. space with two donated tables, two flat files, and two rented etching presses. It currently occupies 3,000 sq. ft. of space and includes seven presses, multiple plate burners, digital equipment and more. Most of the equipment was purchased used, save for one Takach press, donated new.  MAS funded its development through studio fees, workshops and fundraising events. They fund their current operating budget through classes and printing projects.

Studio Profile:
Watermark Press
Hartford, Connecticut

Watermark Press is a studio devoted to the art and practice of printmaking, the book arts and inter-related processes. They advocate the use of safe, non-toxic, solvent-free water based inks and cleaning supplies. Watermark offers classes in monotype, relief and intaglio printmaking, and book making. In addition, they offer memberships and open press time.

Martha Jeffrey Galuszka pulling an intaglio/carborundum print at the Watermark Press studio, Hartford, Connecticut.

Martha Jeffrey Galuszka founded Watermark Press in 2007. It is a privately owned studio. Watermark Press, an 800 sq. ft. studio, is located in a renovated manufacturing building in a historic section of Hartford that is undergoing an arts renaissance. The studio began with a 28" x 48" Sturges CPS etching press, a 30" x 40" light table, flat files, work tables and storage. They subsequently added a Vandercook Universal three-cylinder flatbed letterpress (18" x 24" block size) and a drying rack. The initial monies needed to start the studio came from personal and family investment. Watermark Press supports its operating budget through classes and art sales.

For more printmaking studios and information about upcoming nontoxic workshops click on the following links:

Printmaking Resources   Events/News (Calendar)


2. Henrik Boegh, Handbook of Non-toxic Intaglio
    Robert Adam and Carol Robertson, Acrylic-Resist Etching: The Complete Safety-First System for     Creative Printmaking
4. Dan Welden and Pauline Muir, Printmaking in the Sun
    Keith Howard, The Contemporary Printmaker
: Intaglio-Type & Acrylic Resist Etching,
    with contributions by Friedhard Kiekeben and David Jay Reed.

5. "Safer Printmaking with Akua Water-Based Inks"  (DVD)

This Facebook forum is devoted to health and safety hazards in the visual arts. Safety in the Arts welcomes comments, links to websites, reports of incidents, health issues and safety concerns, events, workshop and conference listings, etc. Click on image to access.

Artcore Wiki

Director of Zea Mays, Liz Chaflin

What made you want to start a non-toxic print practice?

“Well I was teaching at a small college in Southern California in the late 80’s and they moved the print studio into a basement with no ventilation. I didn’t want to set up a studio in that environment. After teaching there for many years I wanted to have a place outside of education.... prolonged exposure happens out of school. So I thought of this space after students got out of school to have a space to work.”

Do you feel like some traditional chemicals processes should not be used any more due to health reasons? If so, which ones?

“Yes, many. I think just the simple things like cleaning up oil based inks with solvents. There’s no learning curve of mastering a new technique. To me, that’s a no brainer. In terms of the other techniques I think that each artist has to make their own decision what they want to work with. Especially in a community space, what you chose to work with impacts everyone that’s around them. But I feel that artists need to be informed about what they expose themselves to. There are alternatives that are out here now.”

How do you see printmaking in current academia?

“I’m not in the academic world anymore so.... we have a lot of participants that come from college. There is a change happening and its usually school by school. I deal with about 30 professors a year that want to implement change. For instance, we’ve been at the editions artist book fair and our work is in museum collections. There’s starting to be a track record of legitimizing this movement. I think this is going to help academic believe this is a viable way to go.”

What type of ventilation do you have?

We have ventilation. We have 76 studio windows which creates a nice cross breeze. 2 specific areas... acrylic – vented so the particle matter is not breathed in. And another one in our darkroom where we process photo polymer plates. Above the plate where the plate is heated and developed and it’s a closed darkroom. We had an environmental chemist come and asses the studio.
We have no VOC’s in the studio.”

What advice do you give to Universities that don't want to change their studios to safer environments for their students or are maybe on the fence? Do you think that using toxic chemicals rather that safer methods is OK as long as they tell their students the repercussions?

“Pretty much I don’t think it’s okay but it’s the reality. They need to take caution respirators, gloves, goggles. They owe it to their students. If their dug in, they need to have their students take care of themselves.”
Is there any advice you could give to me, battling this dilemma of toxicity in academia and in contemporary print?
“Educate yourself, I think, I am a firm believer in...honey attracts more bees than vinegar.

If you brought a jar of vegetable oil and 7th generation all-purpose cleaner. Being an example... that’s going to have more of an impact than yelling at people about it. There’s no benefit to sticking your head in the sand. It’s not fine. Osha would shut it down. To me, there’s a stubbornness to change. They don’t want to start back at the learning curve to learn. Maybe this research will shed light. I’ve been doing this over 20 years, shouldn’t we feel some change? My hope is in people become aware of environmental issues.
“I don’t think you lose anything creatively when you work safely.”

“I think that thinking the ink is the problem is the wrong place to start. We use oil based, water based inks, soy based inks. Focus on the real issues, find the chemistry and focus on that. People tend to try something once and if they don’t like it they give it up, but when you think about new techniques or the first time you do something... there’s a learning curve. Airbrush aquatint, people don’t think you can get it to look like rosin. But we’ve been doing for 20 years.”

  • cleaning oil based inks up with;
 vegetable oil

  • degrease with 7th generation all-purpose cleaner

  • any type of soap and water

  • VCA
  entisol which is derived from coconut -
we also use soy solve

There’s a lot of literature about VOC effecting respiratory and soft tissue-
your occasional use of it probably won’t make you sick.”