Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Elephant No. 52: Gelatin Printing

For today's elephant, I decided to try gelatin printing. While I'm familiar with the concept of silver gelatin printing in photography, I'd never heard of using actual gelatin to make a print until a couple of days ago.

The concept is fairly simple:

1. Make a sheet of really firm gelatin the night before.

2. Roll some water-based ink onto the gelatin surface with a brayer.

3. Manipulate the ink on the surface in various ways.

4. Lay a sheet of paper or fabric on top of the surface.

5. Gently lift the print and let it dry.

I made the gelatin last night following some detailed instructions I found online. The ratio is two tablespoons (30 ml) of powdered gelatin for every cup (250 ml) of water, which is about one-quarter the water that you'd use to make a gelatin dessert.

When the gelatin powder has been dissolved and boiled in water, you pour it into a cookie sheet. The ideal thickness for this process is apparently 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Once the gelatin is on the cookie sheet, you leave it to set overnight.

The gelatin sheet that results is more like rubber than gelatin. It can apparently be cut to size, wiped clean to reuse, and kept around for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.

Once the gelatin is ready to go, you can start playing with the surface. The first thing to do is apply some water-soluble ink. I thought I might be able to use acrylic paint, but it would have required something called an extender (to lengthen the drying time), and it was far more expensive than simply buying some water-soluble block printing ink.

The ink goes on in what seems to be a very translucent way, but don't be fooled. It's actually far more saturated than it looks.

After you have the ink on the gelatin plate, you can start the actual printing part. One of the sites I looked at suggested making a silhouette to lay on top of the ink.

When you remove the silhouette, it takes all the ink in that area with it, leaving a void.

You can then lay a piece of printing paper over this, which will leave you with a white area. I tried this, but I didn't much like the effect of a stark white area in the middle (although it later grew on me). I could have added some ink into the empty area after removing the silhouette, but I wasn't all that interested in playing with it.

The other thing you can do is create patterns right in the ink. All this involves is the removal of ink by brushing across it. I was careful not to cut into the gelatin plate when I did this, but it's a very simple process. I found this technique slightly more appealing.

There are other things you can do to make this more exciting, such as using more than one colour of ink, or painting ink on top of whatever design you've created, or adding texture with various objects. I thought I'd try to go fairly plain on this attempt at gelatin printing, just to get a feel for it. In retrospect, it might have been more interesting if I'd played a bit more.

A few general things about this process:

1. When you press your printing paper onto the inked gelatin plate, make sure to smooth it down everywhere. You need to be gentle but firm. As you can see on some of my prints, I didn't always pay attention to the central area, and sometimes I missed the edges.

2. The ink will tend to spread across the gelatin plate when you press down with your printing paper. This creates a nice enough effect, but sharp lines aren't the easiest thing to create.

3. The texture of the paper will imprint into the ink, exaggerating the paper's texture to a certain extent. If you don't want this effect, go for a paper with very little texture.

You can really only create one good print from each design you make. However, it's very easy to re-ink the gelatin plate and create something new. The plate also cleans completely if you wipe it gently with a dry paper towel, being careful to remove the final thin film of ink.

This was quite a simple process, but it didn't do much for me. I don't know if it was the lack of control, or the limited nature of the designs I could create, but I didn't love gelatin printing. I kept my gelatin plate for now, so I may try gelatin printing again before the plate does something weird in the fridge. Perhaps combining extra inks and new textures might make it more appealing. Or not.

Elephant Lore of the Day
When the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris October 1889, one of its most remarkable features was a giant stucco elephant out back, next to the Jardin de Paris.

Originally built for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889, the elephant was purchased by Moulin Rouge owner Joseph Oller as an entertainment venue for gentlemen only. For the price of one franc, a man could climb a spiral staircase inside one of the elephant's legs. When he reached the elephant's hollow abdomen, he was treated to a display of belly dancing: at the time, both exotic and erotic. Other than the dancers, women were not allowed in the elephant.

Sadly, the elephant was removed and destroyed well before its time, and when the Moulin Rouge was rebuilt in 1906, the elephant was gone.

The elephant in the garden of the Moulin Rouge, ca. 1900.

To Support Elephant Welfare

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