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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

I’ve been looking for new art projects my fiancee and I can share with our autistic students. Having been in the field of custom printing for over 40 years, I’m particularly drawn to hand-crafted approaches to what have become the super-automated technologies of commercial printing.

At the moment I’m still considering monoprinting (painting a design on a flat glass, metal, or plastic surface, and then burnishing damp printing paper against the plate to pull a single impression), but just recently I came upon another approach to custom printing that may also have promise for our art therapy work. That is collagraphy.

Collagraphy, also spelled collography, is relatively new, having been invented in 1955 by Glen Alps (according to Wikipedia). In fact, the description I read in Wikipedia makes it sound very much like a fine arts version of an offset “paper plate” or “polyester plate.” Granted, offset plates are flat. They have the image area and the non-image area on the same surface, and the ability of the image area to attract the greasy custom printing ink and the ability of the water-covered non-image area to repel the oily printing ink are what make offset printing “work.” That is, you can effectively (and definitively) separate the image areas from the non-image areas.

Not so with collagraphy. Collagraphy is either a relief process or an intaglio process (unlike offset printing). These are different from one another, but you can use a single collagraphic plate to produce either a relief print or intaglio print or both on the same substrate.

First of all, a relief printing process (which would include such techniques as woodcut printing and linoleum cut printing) involves creating a printing plate with a raised image area. The plate is inked and then brought into contact with printing paper, transferring the image from the plate to the substrate.

This image transfer is achieved with pressure (between the paper and the printing plate), but the pressure can be applied either with a printing press or with a burnisher of some type (such as the back of a spoon) rubbed across the back of the printing paper when it is in contact with the inked plate surface.

This pressure transfers the image. That is what makes this a custom printing process. And that is also what makes this process—at its most rudimentary level—akin to a more developed printing technology called letterpress (and another one called flexography). If you find a commercial printing vendor with a letterpress or flexographic press, this is exactly what he is doing with his equipment.

In contrast to relief printing, intaglio printing involves wiping the thick commercial printing ink across the surface of the printing plate (which has recessed image areas cut into the base substrate of the plate). When you then wipe the surface of the printing plate clean, the only ink left on the plate is in the recesses cut into the substrate. When you place printing paper (damp but not actually wet) onto the inked plate and then run it through a press, the damp paper (combined with the pressure of the process) pulls the ink out of the recessed image areas on the plate and deposits it on the paper.

What makes collagraphy unique is that you create a paper plate with multiple textures in the image areas, and then you either apply printer’s ink onto the relief areas of the plate (anything that sticks up above the flat printing surface), or you ink the entire plate and then remove (wipe off) any ink on the plate’s surface, leaving ink only in the recessed areas of the paper plate. (All of this is prior to the printing step.)

Or you can do both relief and intaglio printing with the same plate. In this case you would just print one version intaglio (recessed image areas) and one version relief (anything that rises above the surface). Presumably you would print both images in register (alignment).

What Makes Collagraphy Different?

So far, anything I have just described can refer to any relief or intaglio process. If, however, you are doing collagraphy, you start with a paper (or actually sometimes wood) substrate, and then you build up its surface in a number of different ways.

Wikipedia notes that you can use “acrylic texture mediums, sandpapers, textiles, bubble wrap, string or other fibers, cut card, leaves, and grass” (Wikipedia, Collagraphy). You affix these to the printing plate surface with glue. Other articles I have read suggest using wallpaper (since it has depth and texture). These articles also mention carborundum (since it is a powder that you can sprinkle over glue to create a rough texture that holds a lot of printing ink). Even thick glue-drenched threads can be used to create depth on the printing plate.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word “koll” or “kolla” means glue, and “graph” means drawing, so you are effectively drawing with glue. Or, more specifically, in making the collagraphic plate, you are creating a custom printing plate on a paper board (or sometimes wood) using glue and all manner of other items to create raised image areas that will accept ink from a “brayer” (a roller made for applying ink) or brush. And even the glue itself can be used to build up raised areas such as lines and curves that will accept ink and print it on the substrate.

Once you have created the plate, you coat it with shellac to seal everything so it does not degrade as you add the ink, print the plate, and then wipe off the ink to clean the plate. The shellac acts as a sealant and protective coating while also strengthening the plate.

But it doesn’t stop here. You can actually build up areas of the plate with wall filler. You can then shape the wall filler with tools or press textured items into the wall filler before it dries to transfer the texture from the items (such as the fabric) onto the printing plate.

Printing the Plate

Once you have crafted the plate to your satisfaction, and the wall fill and shellac coating have dried, you can wet the printing paper in a tray of water. The paper has to be of sufficient thickness to not come apart with the pressure applied by the raised areas of the plate (which actually embosses the paper).

Articles I read suggested using brushes (such as toothbrushes) to work the thick ink into all recesses of the printing plate. You can also use scrim material to work the ink into the plate or to clean off excess ink. (Scrim is a gauzy textile with a dominant weave pattern that will help in either applying or removing ink.) Paper or fabric can be used to “polish” the plate, ensuring that those areas you want to be white (highlights) will retain no ink.

When the plate is ready, you place it in the bed of the press, check its alignment with a registration sheet, ink the plate, take a piece of printing paper out of the tray in which it has been soaking in water, place it between sheets of blotter paper to remove some of the water (to make it damp but not actually wet), put the paper in the press, and pull a proof.

If the ink is muddy, dark, and/or sticky, you need to back off on the ink. If your print is too light, you may need to increase the pressure of the press.

If you want to use more than one color, you can wipe the plate clean with the tissue and scrim, and then apply different colors of ink to different areas of the plate before pulling your next proof.

How Does This Relate to Commercial Printing?

If you actually go through the process of hand printing anything, you will better understand the computerized and mechanized technology currently in use. The huge, multi-unit presses in commercial printing establishments still apply ink to paper substrates, even if they are run by computers and even if they use closed-loop electric eye mechanisms to control the color. The better you understand the core custom printing process (intaglio and relief printing in the case of collagraphy), the better able you will be to create the printing nuances you need in order to achieve the precise effects you desire.

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