About Solar Plate Etching

Traditional etching is a printmaking process that dates back 500 years. Unfortunately, it is not a very environmentally friendly technique, as it involves sheets of metal, usually made of copper or zinc, and acid used to etch the print onto the metal.

For many years I have been intrigued with print making but have never had the opportunity to pursue the study as the equipment is costly and print making involves toxic chemicals that I could not use at home.

The Artists Association of Nantucket set up a ‘green’ print making studio when they opened their Visual Arts Center making the equipment available to member artists and promoting the use of Solar Plate. Solar plate is a light-sensitized steel-backed polymer material used as an alternative to hazardous printing techniques. It is a safe approach to etching and relief printing. Dan Welden, a master print maker, has always had a love of experimentation and an interest in making printmaking more user-friendly. In the early 1970s his investigations into safer and healthier methods led to the development of the technique now widely known as Solarplate printing.

Solar plate etching not only uses techniques that are less toxic than those used in traditional printing methods, but are also more versatile. I was happy to take advantage of the new print studio at the AAN. In addition, Dan Welden was an Artist in Residence at the AAN just as the print studio was getting underway. I served as his studio assistant during his residency.

I am particularly intrigued with the depth one can achieve in etching and the many techniques available to enhance the etching. There is much to explore and excite in this journey!

How it’s Done

First the artwork is prepared on glass or transparencies with light stopping opaque paint or ink.

Next the artwork is laid, face down, on the unexposed plate. The the ‘sandwich’ is exposed to light, either sunlight or in a special light box.

The plate is then lightly scrubbed to reveal the etching and then put back in the light for hardening. The plate is then ready to use for printmaking.