Saturday, August 6, 2011

A word about greenery...

While spending a couple of weeks this summer at the wonderful Zea Mays Printmaking in western Massachusetts investigating green (i.e. non-toxic) printmaking techniques, an opportunity came up to show and share the mysterious beauties of chemigrams, which in turn led to a query about the safety of chemigrams and photographic processes in general. In a world where most of us are exposed to any number of potentially harmful substances on any given day, this is no small matter. I had to admit to my fellow printmakers that as far as I know, there is no green way to produce a chemigram. Even apart from the toxicity of developers and fixers used in standard black and white processing, those of you who have experimented with hard resists (e.g. the various varnishes discussed in many of the posts on this blog) already know that the only ones that really work are those soluble in mineral spirits (Golden's MSA varnish and Liquitex's Soluvar, for example) and that these varnishes in turn need to be diluted with mineral spirits (full-strength, not odorless and not Turpenoid, neither of which work) in order for them to slowly lift during the chemigram development process. Some of you have probably had the pleasure of experiencing a mineral spirits-induced headache after a night in the darkroom or the printmaking studio. The only thing I can suggest to health-conscious chemigramists is to make sure you have adequate ventilation in your work area (darkroom ventilation is a given must-have, even if you are just doing basic black and white work) and wear disposable gloves at all times. Do not mistake your solvent jar or container for your coffee cup in the dim light of the darkroom.

I would certainly be interested in hearing from anyone who has suggestions to make chemigrams greener (cyanotype chemigrams? non-solvent based varnishes?)...but I suspect it may be one of those processes, like traditional lithography, that carries with it certain hazards no matter what. A safety-conscious chemigramist is of course a happy chemigramist...


  1. An important subject to talk about, Rich. As for paper developers, Silvergrain Tektol used to be pretty nontoxic - no HQ, no metol - and Chris Anderson used to tout it, I believe. It's basically a vitamin C based developer, with some potassium carbonate thrown in as accelerator. Since last year it's been called Eco-Pro but the formulation as I understand it is the same. There are many other nontoxic developers: coffee is one (see our post from April 2011), although the double expresso I drink may cross the line.
    As for fixers, you can't formulate away from them too much, at least at this stage of our knowledge, but if I were green, even greenish, I might go with sodium thio rather than ammonium thio.
    For resists, it's true we've grown to love our mineral spirits acrylic (MSA) varnish, but again, there are nontoxic ways to go, many of which require a concentrated course of experiment with varieties of materials. In the simplest cases, if you want something to lift off, then syrup or glue might be a good bet; if you want to lift it yourself then try tape, frisket, or even clay, they all work. But the holy grail of resists remains to be found. Where is Monty Python?

  2. All good suggestions, Doug. Of course the issue is sort of that once one comes to love the effects that can be achieved with the decidedly non-green MSA varnish, it is hard to wean oneself away...much like learning to love the taste of squash if you've spent your entire life eating animals, I guess. I've used tape and frisket before with mildly interesting results but return again and again to hard varnishes because that seems to be the effect I appreciate most.

  3. From my experience I recommend - no, I insist - that users of varnishes, whether spray or brushable, don their respirator while these materials are wet and open to the environment. Even if the area is not enclosed, unless you're on a windswept moor somewhere. Try the 3M 7500 series of half-facepiece models (they come in different head sizes) and be sure to get the R6001 organic vapor cartridges that go with it. You will not have to learn to love the taste of squash..