AGA LAB Top Ten – 8, 7

8.  Working all hours

The Artist-in-Residence programme gives users 24hr access to the workshop, without restriction.  While I tend to fall asleep around 10pm and know better than to use the workshops at night when tired and more likely to make mistakes, I loved starting at 6am.  I would pad into the workshop in pajamas, put my paper in bags to soak for the day, prepare my work list, get my materials out and sorted, and take stock of my progress, before making the tea. 

I am a keyholder at Thames-Side Print Studios, so I can access it at any time as well, but there’s something different about living on site.  The ability to take a short nap without travelling, to have cooking facilities on site, all increased the sense of immersion and focus.

7.  Solvent-and-acid-free

This would be higher up the list if it weren’t so hard.  AGA LAB’s commitment to a solvent-and-acid-free environment was one of the big draws for me.  It forced me to learn a new way of practicing etching, and it was hard. 

Contamination is a constant issue with acrylic grounds, as is the drying speed.  The stop out dried very quickly, but took longer to remove in the mystrol bath.  The hard ground would set into the brush between plates.  Copper sulphate produces very hard sediment and before I worked out how to safely brush the sediment out between etches, I would scratch my own plate, or contaminate the mystrol bath with sediment that would then scratch the plate as I removed grounds with a brush. 

These problems were, of course, compared to the traditional way of working.  I imagine screenprinters who learned solvent-based printing first, also faced similar issues when studios started converting to acrylic-based processes.  I had to remind myself that comparing processes would only get me so far; I needed to approach these products flexibly. 

I had three complete failures of plates, which I then recycled into test plates for grounds and washes.  I had bits lifting off unexpectedly, I had other bits that refused to move.  I had ridges where I wanted smoothness, lines that broke up, aquatint that clouded, sediment everywhere.

As a process person, it was amazing: a series of continuous and increasingly frustrating puzzles.  As an artist without a deadline, it was interesting to think about the aesthetics specific to these processes within an already niche process.  But it was very hard, and I had to resist the urge to use the emergency hard ground ball I had snuck into my luggage at the last minute, and to go to the hardware store to buy and then smuggle in a bottle of methylated spirit. 

The major advantage to solvent-free etching was the ability to work very long days, consecutively, and know that I was not exposing myself to hazardous substances. No spirits, no vapours. In normal open access print workshop environments, it can be a bit ‘solvent-y’, which is a flippant way of saying that very few arts organisations have the structural capital necessary to invest in and maintain sufficient local exhaust ventilation to create the air exchange needed to keep the air safe.