How To

Barbara Mason is not only an expert with her knowledge of the Solarplate technique, she is an enthusiastic, giving teacher that shares her knowledge unconditionally…..Dan Welden

synthesis12x12-copy.jpgSOLARPLATE is a steel backed polymer printing plate used by artists who draw, paint, make marks or use photography.   The process was developed in 1970-71 by Dan Welden, Master Printmaker and  pioneer of ‘safer’ printmaking techniques, after which he co-authored “Printmaking in the Sun” with Australian artist Pauline Muir.

Originally I wanted to use this process to do 4 color editions of viscosity monotypes, since the color is stable, unlike color change with metal plates.  Of course, Solarplate generated it’s own excitement and the process took on its own life.   I went on to make hundreds of Solarplates and began sharing and teaching others.  It soon became obvious that Solarplate was easier and more consistent to use than other types of polymer printing processes.

There are four things that make this process work:

An opaque image on a transparent film

Contact between the image and the plate

Exposure to UV light

Water wash

There is no need for the toxic grounds, solvents and acids  like those used with traditional etching techniques.

Anything you can Xerox, draw or print onto clear Mylar or acetate can be exposed onto a  Solarplate. Xeroxes onto Mylar or acetate work well. Film Positives out-put from a camera onto film are good.

Digital photographs printed through your computer onto transparent film can have excellent results. They are all however, reliant on the quality of your printer.  Many artists experiment and explore possibilities with two transparencies sandwiched together. India ink, oil pastels, oil bars, china markers, etching ink and many marking pens work well and can draw well on Mylar or acetate.  Many markers also work well by drawing directly on the Solarplate.  Caution: do not use water soluble marking materials directly on the Solarplate.

working-on-acetate-300x199You can expose many translucent materials as well as varied objects and obtain excellent results; you need to shorten your exposure time if the image is delicate. This is backwards thinking but very important. The less time you expose, the darker the image will be. The longer you expose, the lighter it will be.

These drawings are done using china marker, oil bar (the rust color), oil pastel (the purple color) and black etching ink. The color it only for demonstration to tell the mediums apart, as the opacity of the drawing media is the critical thing, so any color will probably work.


working-on-acetate2-300x199Once the drawing is to your satisfaction, use baby powder to “dry” the ink and crayon, sprinkle it all over the Mylar with a soft cloth or paper towel and then rub it off gently. At this point you can hold the drawing up from the back to see how it will look when printed.

IMPORTANT be sure there are no lumps or ridges on your original that will keep you from getting good contact between the plate and the acetate.


baby-powder-300x199The easiest way to get Solarplates the right size is to order the size you need. A big paper cutter will work for cutting custom size plates, but you need to hold it very securely and pull the arm toward the plate as you cut.  Use very firm, consistent pressure. It takes a bit of practice. Never put your hands or fingers directly on the plate once you remove the plastic protective layer, since it will mar or leave fingerprints.  Take safety precautions, don’t put your hands in the washout water and eye protection is always a good idea.  The part of the plate that is cut off will have a lip that is bent up, I immediately cut this off because if one forgets to do so, it will not give you good contact when you are exposing. In a normal room with very little light you have about 5 minutes before the plate starts to expose, if there is any sun coming though windows, cover the plate with black plastic as soon as possible.

see-acetate-300x199Since Solarplates expose in UV light, you can use the sun.  Since I live in Oregon where daily sun is iffy, I use the Solarplate Exposure unit available through which is the least expensive manufactured unit available and made specifically for the process.    It is pretty heavy with the box, but this extra weight gives you better contact.  You need at least ¼ inch plate glass, do not use window or picture glass unless you test it first.   Most  Plexi-glas has a UV inhibitor in it and will not work.


step10-199x300You should lay the plate face up, after removing the plastic protective sheet, on a thin foam or clean felt cushion. Next, place the artwork transparency face down on the plate. Add the piece of glass on top, creating a sandwich.  Finally, place the exposure unit on top of the glass. The glass must be larger than the exposure unit or you will not have good contact. I usually expose the plate for about 35 seconds for the screen and 15-25 seconds for the image, however this may vary with the artwork.


exposure-box-199x300To make an intaglio plate you need to use a two step process. In order to keep the blacks, one must use a random pattern aquatint screen (stochastic screen).   This should be done prior to exposing the artwork and is ALWAYS 30-40 SECONDS with the exposure box. The second exposure to make an intaglio plate is done by laying your image face down, or emulsion side down on the plate and exposing it a second time.  Use careful handling with the screen since dents can create poor contact and unwanted blemishes in the plate.

step-11-300x199You are burning out the whites, eliminating any possible tone from the unwanted areas and at the same time, the blacks and greys are unaffected. Do not look at the light.  UV light is dangerous and damaging to your vision.

There may be some trial and error when you first learn to do this process. I recommend using very small pieces of scrap plates to figure out the exposure times…it will save your sanity and your money. If you have trouble you can email me at barbaramason45 at

This process can be done in the sun as well. To use the sun you need to work in the middle of the day and make test plates to figure out the exposure times. Clamping the glass to a board with quick release clamps available at lumber yards works well. I recommend you have really good opaque positive images for working in the sun as these give you more leeway on exposure times. Be sure it is not raining, you cannot get these plates wet before developing. Also be careful not to touch them with your hands, hold them by the edges or you might find a surprise fingerprint in your work. Cover all with heavy black plastic and take it inside to change from the screen to the image.

Washout or Development: Once the plate is properly exposed, you put it in a shallow tray and use about a cup of water.   This is preferred rather than wasting running water or filling a bath and having it slosh all over.  I use a soft brush, equivalent to a ‘body brush’ to scrub out image. I wash my plates out for about 45-60 seconds depending on size. Wear gloves. We do not think it is dangerous, but be safe, not sorry. Always wash your hands when finished and especially before eating.  When working with children, I encourage them to use protective eye gear….they sometimes are closer to the washout areas and splashing may occur.   After the plate is washed out, blot it dry with phone book pages leaving no water on the surface of the plate.  Use separate pages each time and dispose of each sheet after use.  Do not reuse.  Post expose (put back into the exposure box)  for about 5 minutes or longer.


The relief plate is generally exposed one time, without the acquatint screen.  The ideal artwork for relief should be totally opaque, no greys.  With a good opaque image or opaque objects, it makes little difference with the length of exposure time.  For best results, wash completely down to the metal, which takes about 2-5 minutes.  If residue remains, you may have your paper stick.

Blot immediately since the wet plates are soft and parts of the image can be lost.

Post expose immediately for about 10 minutes or longer.

You may wish to file the corners slightly to prevent Tarlatan from snagging.


There are a huge variety of inks that work for both relief and intaglio printing.

The main categories are OIL or WATER BASED.  This is a matter of preference to the individual, since both have inherently good qualities.  Its good to compare your results.

There are, however, different types of oil based inks, based upon their use.  Intaglio printing requires something that is easy to remove and yet clings to the furrows of the plate, whereas relief and lithographic inks have more tack and remain on the surface better.

Using Akua Intaglio ink to print your plates:

Akua is the newly formulated water based brand of ink that works very well.

Squeegee the ink onto the plate and remove as much as possible.  Using a soft tarletan, wipe the plate in a circular fashion.  Finallly polish the plate with phone book pages or a soft rag. Using  the flat of your hand with a rubber glove will help keep the paper from sliding and make it easier to wipe.  The plates will need very little wiping with soft tarletan, about 1/3 the time a metal plate would take to wipe.  This honey and soy-based ink will print on dry Arches 88 paper so it is an ideal ink for teaching. It dries by absorption into the paper and stays wet on your ink slab for days and days. It is water based and is easier to clean up with detergent.      Any ink left on the slab can be scraped up and retuned to the can so there is little if any waste. Slightly damp paper will give a softer image wheras the dry paper gives you a crisper result. You can add magnesium carbonate to this ink to stiffen it.  Do not use water to modify the ink.  There are modifiers also, including  is a transparent base, oil converter and blending medium. The inks are heavily pigmented and you may wish to add transparent medium for a greater tonal range.

Using oil based ink to print your plates

I like Graphic Chemical 514 bone black as it is a very soft and creamy ink.

Squeegee oil based etching ink onto the plate using a plastic squeegee. Remove the excess with soft tarletan and clean the surface with phone book pages. Clean the edges of the plate using a lint free cloth such as an old t-shirt. The edges of these plates are thin and sharp, if you use paper towels you can easily cut yourself.

I use oil based ink to wipe my plates and roll a background color of Akua Intaglio over the plate. Because oil and water do not mix, the background only drops in where there is no oil based ink and the oil based ink does not usually offset to the roller. This saves a lot of roller clean up while printing.

I use a standard etching press to print the intaglio plates, using lots of pressure and the three standard blankets, the sizing catcher, the cushion and the pusher on top.  If you do not get a good impression, increase the pressure. If it is still not good, you might have over-wiped the plate as this is easy to do when you start using Solarplates. I usually use damp BFK printmaking paper, but any dampened print-making paper will work.

Clean Up

a very important job that is now totally non toxic

The truth is that oil based inks can be cleaned up with water and oil. We use salad oil or baby oil in the studio and have a totally non toxic studio. No solvents are used except rubbing alcohol. This takes a bit more elbow grease than solvents, but saving your body and the environment are probably worth it. Scrub the plate with a soft brush.   A shoe shine brush is ideal.  You can also use a dish detergent or some household cleaners to finalize your cleaning.  Once clean, blot thoroughly and/or let it air dry.  If you need to degrease the plate, use rubbing alcohol. I put it back into the sun at this point as the plates are so sensitive to water that I want to be sure they are totally hardened. You may wish to write on the back, any pertinent information such as your exposure times…..I don’t always remember what I do down the road. I store the plates in a binder with plastic pages, remove the paper from the pages, I found the black paper that comes with the binder ate the back of my steel plates a bit.

A friend once told me that as artists, we define our reality with our work. I think to a degree this is true, that we are all searching for some inner visual truth that we can portray to others. Art is an act of making the invisible visible, bringing a hidden dimension to human awareness. The word “abstract” means to separate or withdraw something from something else. Or to refine something large into something smaller and concisely informative, to pull the essence into some personal interpretation. As artists we do interpret and sometimes we can even make others see what we see.

Let me know if you have problems and I will help you through them.  –  Barbara