Sunday, February 5, 2023

A Beginner’s Guide to Gel Plate Printing

I’ve got a guest post for you today from gel plate printing artist Rachel LeMonnier.  Enjoy!

Gel plates are a quick and easy way to get into printing. You don’t need a printing press and you can make wonderful prints with some cheap copier paper and acrylic paint. This is a great project for kids to try, but it’s just as much fun for adults!

The only downside to gel plate printing is that it can be a little expensive to buy initially, so it’s best to start with a small plate. This video offers a useful comparison of the main plate brands. The top ones include Gelli Arts, Speedball, and Gel Press. Pick up your gel plate on Amazon or eBay or check out a local art store. Don’t dismiss the cheaper brands, they work just as well.

You can even make your own gel plates if you fancy being adventurous! They are not difficult to make. There are tons of recipes online, especially on YouTube, but this one is pretty easy to follow.

Getting Started

Once you have your new gel plate, wipe it with some soapy water. Any grease on the surface of the plate will repel paint and change the nature of the print. The next step is to assemble everything else you’ll need:

  • Cheap acrylic paint
  • Paper – copier paper is fine for early experiments
  • Materials to make textures, such as bits of plastic net, bubble wrap, leaves, etc.
  • Roller
  • Some spare newspaper or scrap paper to clean your roller between colours
  • A bottle of soapy water and kitchen roll to wipe the plate clean

Simple Texture Prints

The easiest way to start gel paint printing is to use two or three colours to make texture prints. Add a small amount of paint to the surface of your gel plate and roll it out until the paint coverage is even. Press something textured on the plate – this will remove some of the paint and leave a pattern behind. Place your paper on top of the plate and press firmly. Remove the paper and hey, voila! You have a print!

To build up multiple layers of paint, you need some kind of paper registration system, or each subsequent print won’t be in the exact same place. This might not matter if all you want are some random abstract textures for scrapbooking, but it will if you have plans to create a specific image. One easy way to keep your paper in the right place between prints is to use some masking tape to fix it to the table at one end – a sort of hinge. Lift the paper up and fold it back while you add more paint/textures. When you fold the paper back over the gel plate, it should be in the right place, give or take a millimetre or two.

Botanical Prints

Making botanical prints is fun and the results can be surprisingly good. To get started, collect some grasses, flowers, and leaves. Roll some paint on your gel plate. Place leaves, etc. on the plate. Put a sheet of paper on top and press down firmly over the entire surface of the plate. This print will give you an outline of the materials, but when you look at the plate, you’ll see all the textures left behind. You can pick this up by placing the same paper back down or create a new print on a second piece of paper.

Remember, acrylic paint dries quite quickly on a gel plate, so don’t mess around. If you want to leave the paint to dry, add a new layer of paint and this will soften the dry paint. The paper will then pick up both layers of paint, which is great fun when you make botanical prints.

Build up layers for multi-layer prints. The photo below is a good example of what kind of effects you can achieve with botanical gel paint printing.

Phototransfer Prints

It’s possible to make very cool prints with the aid of photos printed on a laser printer. The results can be hit and miss, but it’s worth trying. Images need strong contrast to work well, but even faint prints can be reworked with coloured pencils, ink, and anything else you have to hand.

If you don’t have a laser printer, try using inkjet prints or photocopies. There are videos on YouTube outlining the exact process.

The process is simple. Print off some suitable images on to copier paper. Roll out a thin layer of ink on to the plate. Place the print face down on the paint. Press firmly and then remove. Because the printer ink repels the paint, you’ll be left with a ghost image. The more sharp contrasts you have, the better the ghost image (strong black and white photos work best).

Wait for the paint to dry – leave for 10 mins or so or blow a hairdryer over the surface (on a cool setting, or you risk damaging the plate).  Once the plate is 100% dry, roll a fresh layer of paint – a contrasting colour is best, such as white if your ghost image is dark. Place your sheet of paper down on the plate and apply pressure firmly and evenly. Test how well the image has printed by carefully lifting it up. If not all the paint has transferred, apply some more pressure.

You’ll (hopefully) end up with a great print!

Magazine Prints

Magazine pages can also be used. They work in a similar way to laser prints, with the ink on the page repelling the paint. Again, images with sharp contrasts work best.

Experimenting with Prints

There is no limit to what you can do with a gel plate. You can make stencils using scrap paper, add paint to the plate using paintbrushes for a more painterly effect, or create multi-layered prints using different techniques. Have fun seeing what you come up with!

The Don’ts of Using Gel Plates

  • Gel plates can easily be damaged. Take care to store your gel plate between rigid plastic sheets or keep it in the clamshell packaging it came in. This ensures sharp objects don’t damage the surface.
  • Always place your gel plate on a non-absorbent surface – don’t do what I did and use it on an old wooden table, which pulled some of the soils out of the gel and damaged its absorbency…
  • Only use water-based paints on a gel plate. Oil-based paints will damage it.
  • Stick to water and mild detergent when cleaning your plate. Never use harsh chemical cleaning products!

If you look after your gel plate, it should last for several years, although homemade gel plates won’t last as long as shop-bought ones.

Using Your Piles of Gel Prints

It won’t take long to build a stack of gel prints. You may want to frame the best ones or use them as cards or gift tags. Other discarded prints can be kept as collage materials and used for multi-media artworks. Never throw your old gel prints away, even if you feel they didn’t work. They can always be used for something!

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