Monday, May 8, 2017

Process Obsession - Palladium over Pigment Printing

"Without obsession, life is nothing."

-John Waters

I like John Waters and his quirky movies. Love him or hate him, he is an original. In March of 2017 I began working with a new (to me) process to bring color into my handmade prints. After returning from my second trip to Mongolia in February, I began the long process of bringing the images I made on the expedition to life. I began with the methods that have ruled my work for the last 25+ years; platinum/palladium prints often combined with gum bichromate. While I was happy with the prints I was making, something was missing. Much of the new work from Mongolia really needed to be in color, especially the landscapes. However, I'm not a big fan of machine made inkjet prints. As beautiful as they can be, they lack something that is essential to how I work, the hand-made touch.

About twenty years ago I read about my friend Dan Burkholder combining platinum/palladium and inkjet to make color prints. I experimented a little bit at the time, but didn't like what I was getting so I put it down. Another friend of mine, Jim Collum of Santa Cruz, CA has been working this way since about 2001. When I decided to try the process with the Mongolia work, I turned to Jim with some technical questions to get me started. And once I got started, the obsession began. Over the last 2 months, I've printed almost every day I've been home (I was gone for two weeks traveling and teaching). In that time I've made about 150 prints using this process from about 80 different images. Most of the prints have been about 8x10 plus about a dozen at 12x18. I've been working with platinum/palladium since 1989 and have never had such a concentrated, productive period. Not having a day job really helps!

The Process

Begin with a color image in Photoshop:

Windows, Iceland, 2016
The image is converted to CMYK (see Note below) and the black channel is cleared. To clear the black channel, after converting your image to CMYK, go to the Channels tab, select the black channel and then go to Edit>Clear. This leaves what remains of the color image:

The CMY part of the image after clearing the black channel.
This needs to be converted back to RGB color space for printing. The color image is printed onto whatever paper you choose that is compatible with the platinum/palladium process. I often end up adjusting saturation either locally or overall, depending on the the colors in the image and the result I'm after. For all of this work I've been using the wonderful Hahnemühle Platinum Rag (HPR) paper.

Going back to the original image, convert again to CMYK, then the contents of the black channel is isolated and turned into a digital negative. To isolate the black channel, after converting to CMYK, go to the Channels tab, select the black channel, then go to Image>Mode>Grayscale. This will give you a file from which to create your digital negative of the black channel.

The black channel isolated.
This is then inverted and flipped to create a negative and printed on Pictorico OHP transparency film the same way I would for any other image I make into a platinum/palladium print. 

Inverted and flipped to make a digital negative.
The Final Print
Note: You need to make a change in your default Color Settings for this process to work. In Photoshop under the Edit>Color Settings menu select CMYK, then Custom CMYK:

Then select Black Generation and choose Maximum and click OK:

Now you are ready to go!


The hardest part of this process is registering the digital negative with the inkjet print. And it gets harder as the prints get bigger. I used registration marks on most of the prints I've done so far with mixed success. What I'm doing now I find easier and gives more consistent results. After I size the color image to the same size as the negative, I increase the canvas size by 10 to 15 pixels with a black background like so:

This gives a thin black border around the image. After coating and drying, I place the print and negative on a light box and carefully align the negative within the black border. Jeweler's glasses are a big help!

Once everything is lined up, I tape down the four corners of the negative and make the print.

And another thing (important)...

It turns out when the color image is printed onto paper (HPR in this case), the image comes out slightly longer than the image on the negative. When I say longer, I mean in the direction of paper movement through the printer (I am using an Epson 7880). This happens for two reasons. One is due to the difference in the thickness between the paper and negative material (Pictorico OHP). Also, I am printing the pigment using Photoshop and the Epson driver. The negative I am printing with a different piece of software, QuadTone RIP. Both of these issues contribute to the dimensional disagreement. Through trial and error, I determined by adjusting the height of the color image by 99.7% I could get a good match with the negative. To do this, go to Image>Size, de-select the little chain link, change units to percent and enter 99.7 in the Height box and click OK:

So far this adjustment is working for me. The results may be different on other printers.

Moving Forward

Clearly this process has struck a chord in me and has changed my work. You can see examples on my website. I will also be adding this process to some of my workshops. Leave a comment if you want to be added to my mailing list.

While, it's not for everything, it has given me a new voice to work with. Some colors just work better than others, and success is also image dependent. I feel like I now have a much better handle on what it can do and what I need to do to get what I want out of it. Initially I thought I would only use it for the Mongolia work, but as I've tried other images I'm finding it has a home in other bodies of work as well. You get good at a new process the same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Practice! And nothing makes you want to practice more than being obsessed.

"Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment."

-Claude Monet