The Big Stone Conundrum.

I had lots of plans. I was going to try and make a CMYK lithograph of a dead pigeon, on the largest stone I could find.

Pigeons were, and continue to be, a source of research, visual exploration, and metaphor. I had been photographing dead pigeons whenever I came across one, which is more often than you might think, given how short my daily commute is.

In my mind I had it all planned out – deeply scored registration marks would make lining up a breeze; lightly graining the stone between colours, and then using counter etching to open up the stone to new drawing, while keeping remnants of the previous layer. It was going to be smoooth. Until it wasn’t.

Geowash-K, the VCA in use at AGALAB, is incredibly strong. Yes, it removes the drawing material, but horror of horrors, left too long, it also dissolves the fatty deposits on the stone! On a small to medium stone, printing in black, you can get away with it. I learned that moving quickly and using less VCA meant I could keep most of my image, and printing in black meant it wouldn’t have to be… super clean?

At this point, I wouldn’t recognise myself.

If, however, you were working on the largest stone available, measuring a full 70cm x 100cm, and you wanted to print a clean yellow… disaster ensued. To get the stone clean of drawing materials required more VCA and more time, which led to more of the fatty deposits dissolving and, in some cases, disappearing entirely. Yellow was both heartbreaking and exhausting. The drawing just disappeared. I know when I teach lithography, I say this is a possibility, just to prepare students… but I don’t really mean it.

Magenta and cyan were similar experiences. I persevered, despite the disaster image I was creating, because it would still be worth trying a deeply scored register, graining lightly between layers, working with a citric based counter etch. I’m pleased to say these things all worked, but the image was a disaster. I’ll post it here, but I’ll never show it in public, I’ve not signed any of them since returning from Amsterdam. They sit in a drawer, a reminder of what should have been.

“Do I even know anything about lithography?”

This second week at AGALAB certainly had me questioning my life choices. My first three stones failed. When I say failed, I mean inking, processing, and printing disasters.

It’s hard when this happens, not because of the time you spent graining and preparing, or even because the drawing is an original that you’ll have to attempt again. It’s hard because it doesn’t make any sense, and that’s part of the process. In every book about stone lithography will be a paragraph, chapter or section about failure. Sometimes it happens.

I chose to start with three small stones, and simple drawings – one plain crayon, one crayon with a gum resist, one tusche stick wash. I processed the stones as normal, with freshly made gum, nitric acid, and ultra fresh sponges bought especially for the trip. I even had fresh cheesecloths, or “kaasdoekjes” in the local dialect. And, in the spirit of sustainability, health and safety, and my research grant, I used Geowash-K as a direct replacement for solvents in the processing.

I poured a very small amount of VCA onto the surface of each gummed stone, struggling to dissolve the original drawings, but persevering through a high degree of sheer will. I buffed as much off as I could, used some noir a monter to prime the images, hit the stones with a fresh wash of water, rolled up… and everything filled in. All three stones. All filled in. But also.. the images didn’t quite come up either. WTF? So not only was there too much grease on the surface, there wasn’t enough grease in the image?! It was a nightmare. A slick of inky grease clung to the surface of the stones, but the images themselves did not roll up well.

I’m going to admit a failure of research at this point. I didn’t photograph or film the disasters. In a moment of embarrassment, shame, fear, I didn’t document, didn’t want to admit what happened.

I went into automatic problem solving mode. I mixed a strong anti-tint solution, using citric acid as the studio did not store phosphoric. I broke out my emergency felt pads, brought along as a last minute “just in case”, but never actually imagining I would use them. I descummed, two, three, four times, trying to at once roll up the image, but also prevent the non-image areas from greasing over. I was grateful for the cool autumnal weather, but alarmed by all the other users in the studio, who were gradually become aware of my despair.

Eventually, some sort of semblance of the original images inked up on the stones, the surrounding area a bomb site of felt pads, water, gummy fountain solution, anti-tint, and the saddest fresh ”dirty” sponge, loaded with loose ink particles and grease.

I talc’d, gummed, buffed, and went for a long cycle ride. I wouldn’t come back until evening. The next few days, I would print my disaster stones, unhappy with each other them, still greasing over, still requiring absurd amounts of anti-tint, all the while drawing on my Very Big Stone in fear of the processing ahead.

Aside: I was unlucky – my time at AGALAB coincided with the departure of their specialist technician in the traditional etching and lithography department, so I had no staff member to consult. My understanding was that few people had had much success with VCA and lithography anyway, and I came to AGALAB knowing this would be hard, but maybe not quite believing it.

My first week at AGALAB was humbling. I had been before, so it would be easy, right? Just slide back into my apron, and get to work, right? Wrong.

Brexit. I have a lot to say about Brexit, none of which is appropriate before the watershed, so I’ll just say this: shipping is not what it used to be. Rather than carry everything, I sent a box of nearly spent inks, a selection of paper offcuts, and some other materials to myself, ten days in advance of my arrival. I then spent the first two days in Amsterdam on the phone, weeping to customs, pleading for their release. I’ll leave it there.

It wasn’t the most auspicious start. Luckily, I had given myself over to two days of just graining, so I was able to wash away the bad, alone in the studio with a selection of stones. I chose the largest stone available, bigger than anything I could handle in my own studio, and some small and medium ones.

The best part of a live-in residency are the quiet hours. First thing in the morning, the light streams through the tall windows, the air is very still. On Sundays, when you have the whole studio to yourself, and you spread across every surface. That first weekend was bliss, just selecting and graining stones, checking out the press and rollers, preparing for the work to come.

Monday arrives and the workshop is filled with artists, technical staff, interns, and visitors. First drawings finished, and carefully, tentative, I began to process, having made a fresh gum solution, excited about processing with Geowash-K, excited about transitioning my stone lithography practice away from harmful traditional solvents.

The first three stones were complete failures.

I’m Ling, and I make prints. I also like looking at prints, handling prints, accessioning prints, printing with others, reading about printmaking. I like all of printmaking, screenprinting, etching, litho, but also monotypes, and digital prints. Each is a voice in a choir, an instrument in a band. I sure love teaching print. At least, I think I do. Or did. I can’t be sure now.

Photograph of myself in my studio, holding a litho fan and looking to one side
Me, in my studio in Woolwich.

I definitely love print, but it is a complex and difficult relationship. Once you poke your head up from the press and look at the world around you, lots of questions appear. Some of these are existential and timeless, the sorts of questions about examining life, not unique to art, or printmaking – why am I here, what am I doing, what’s it all for?

Other questions are more in this moment: is what I’m doing sustainable? Is what I’m doing causing harm? Is printmaking sustainable? Is it causing harm? If printmaking is so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? No, geniunely, why isn’t everyone doing it? Are there barriers built it, biases in its design, exclusions in its practice?

I’ve lost a lot of time confronting my practice in my mind, while I raced about with teaching and technician jobs. Sometimes the bigger questions take over the work, and the visual themes of empire, migration, and memory take a backseat, it’s a flaw I recognised in myself. There was never enough time or energy to make any changes, or to try and answer any questions.

So here I am, in 2021, following the strangest, saddest, angriest, weirdest, most eye-opening two years many of us will have experienced. I’ve left full-time teaching and technician life, for the life of an artist trying to answer questions. This is where I will be recording some of my findings.