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Research into alternative ink technology at
Middlesex University School of Visual Communication Design

Growing Your Own Ink
A Study in ‘Phytochromography’ by Phil Shaw MA(RCA)

4 colour screenprint using vegetable inks

4 colour screenprint using vegetable inks.Click the fruit to see enlargements. Click here to see 58k Jpg of whole image.

Since the introduction of ‘water-based inks’ in screen printing doubts about the true nature of their basis prompted research into the possibility of producing inks from vegetable sources. History suggests that not only is this possible but that it might even be viable as an industrial process. The research reported on here concentrates primarily on the development of a range of ‘process’ or ‘trichromatic’ colours. Complementing this work, the establishment of an ‘Ink Garden’ capable of supplying quantities of plant material for further research, is also described. Initial results show considerable cause for optimism though some problems remain.

We’re now in our third year of working with and trying out the various commercially available water-based screen printing inks, and we have been very impressed, not only by their subtlety and range, but also, surprisingly, by their oil-like versatility. We’ve printed, using the ‘Lascaux’, ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Rowney’ systems on steel and aluminium sheet, ‘perspex’, acetate and ‘formica’ as well as paper and wood. Yes, yes, yes, everything’s fine in the water-based garden. Now that we’re all getting used to them, it is hard to understand what all the initial resistance was about.

Notwithstanding the undoubted advantages of these new inks, I could not help thinking that there was something not quite right about this so called ‘water-based revolution’. All the above mentioned products, and so far as I can tell, the equivalent industrial inks like Sericols Aquacolor are in essence reliant on acrylic polymer technology for viscosity and curing, and on mined or synthetically produced mineral compounds for pigmentation. Every schoolperson knows that acrylic polymers are produced from fossilised hydrocarbons - oil! The same schoolperson can also tell you that mined minerals are a non-renewable earth resource. So whilst the inks are, in practical terms. water-based, in the sense that you thin and wash up using water, they are still, fundamentally oil-based inks, and as such they continue to present us with an environmental problem.

With this realisation in mind I decided to embark on some research into the possibility of using plants as a source not only of colour but of thickeners too. After some initial reading on the subject I was ready to start gathering and testing a variety of plant species to see what might be achieved.

Phil Shaw MA(RCA)
Associate Lecturer
Middlesex University
Faculty of Art Design and Performing Arts
Cat Hill
Herts EN4 8HT
E mail Phil 9@MDX.AC.UK
Tel 0181 362 5059/5070

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