All ye who enter here, abandon all hope

I mean, really, that title feels appropriate because I’ve started work on something that’s just extremely unlikely to work out well. Let’s face it – carbon transfer is challenging enough to begin with. Even I know that. Let alone doing it in color. Yes, you read that right: I must’ve gone mad. Carbon transfer, and not just black, but also C…M…and Y. It’s going to be either a long journey, or a frustrating one, or both. Let’s see.

How about we start off with an appropriate illustration of just about everything that could go wrong? Heck, why not. Here it is:

Not really a color carbon transfer, but it’s a carbon transfer alright and it has colors in it!

I made the one above one earlier today. Well, it actually took me two days to make it; I did the separate color images yesterday and then assembled the whole thing today. Alright, celebrate: it’s a carbon transfer print, and there’s colors. Hurray! That was quick, wasn’t it? Celebration over and back to business. Here’s a list of some of the things that are wrong with it so we can start working on this.

It’s not a very contrasty picture. Pigment concentration was way too low on this first batch of color tissues I poured. I mean, it was a totally wild guess and 1% (the concentration of India ink I generally use for black tissue) turned out to be way insufficient with the acrylic paints I picked up this week.

It’s not a very sharp picture. Having looked at this print and some preceding test prints closely, I concluded that it must be a problem with halation or light scattering within the tissue itself during exposure.

Contributing to the lack of sharpness is also a relatively minor registration issue, but this was really a seat-of-the-pants approach and by far too unreliable to keep doing it this way. So I’ll have to figure out some kind of registration system.

The image above is composed of a cyan, magenta and a yellow layer. Technically this should produce a perfectly neutral grey. I got surprisingly close, actually; I hadn’t expected it to be as neutral as it turned out. But it’s not actually neutral. So I’ll need to balance the pigments against each other in addition to increasing concentration. And I’ll probably have to add a black (‘key’) layer, so CMYK instead of CMY. In a sense, I’m going to try and become a very, very slow and inaccurate human inkjet printer or offset press. Yay.

It’s not really a color picture. You did notice that, didn’t you? Well, not really surprising, because all three exposures were made with the same negative. It was just a proof of concept and I actually don’t have any color separation negatives yet. At all. So that’s also an issue: I’ll need to figure out how to make color separations. Preferably in GIMP, as well. Although this may become one of those cases where I’ll have to bite the bullet and migrate to the real thing.

Well, back to the real thing, because I used to be a Photoshop user when I still had organizational access to licenses and before the whole thing became a subscription plan. I think GIMP is really a commendable effort and I have the deepest respect for the community that has built it and that maintains it. I am also painfully aware of the complexities underlying it in terms of software engineering and community management. But in all brutal honesty, from a user’s perspective, GIMP just…well…it sucks @$$. Sorry. It’s nice for simple tasks (which then manage to take surprisingly long to get done), but for any serious work, it’s just a lead ball on a chain.

That brings us to the digital negatives. Let’s be honest here once more – these are the most realistic shot I have at this anyway. And that means I’ll have to settle (at least to a reasonable extent) the many issues I’ve had over the years with digital negatives. Alright, theoretically speaking, I could make color separations from negatives (or heck, even slides) using my color enlarger onto proper film. I even mentally outlined the basic workflow and decided that it should be possible – perhaps not free of any crossover, but it should yield somewhat presentable color images. But boy, calibrating the whole thing would be a major endeavor and I’m pretty sure I’d have to do some serious electrical engineering to make me some calibration equipment I don’t have. This in itself is a very deep hole. So inkjet negatives are going to be my plan A. For better or worse…

Well, that’s about it in terms of blatant problems. At least as far as I can tell right now. That leaves us with a color carbon transfer print that’s not really a color print, and just about every step in the process requires attention. Just about every step in the process may end up in some fundamental issue that’s not practical to resolve. Hey, I have a huge admiration for Calvin Grier and his color carbon (and gum) work, and to a large extent his work has been an inspiration to even give this a try. But there’s his level of determination, and then there’s mine. The difference between them should be expressed in light years, not yards. Know your limitations.

Anyway, enough of the sourpuss whining; let’s have a look at some fancy colors. Because that first example does show you I’ve been a busy little bugger these past few days, wouldn’t you say? Yes, you would; here, have a look:

First batch of color glop
Cheerful, isn’t?

I made my first ever batch of C, M and Y glop. I used acrylic paint, 1% concentration, and evidently that was way too low. It was already pretty clear when I mixed it all up, but I proceeded anyway because I needed a starting point. That it wouldn’t be perfect, was pretty much a guarantee, so might as well push on.

First tissues. As it should be, it was sweltering hot when I poured them so they took ages to settle. Now, the weather has turned, so things are going quicker now.

Tissues, tissues…laundry day…tissues…

Tissue making was straightforward enough; it’s just more cheerful than the usual black. Cyan, magenta and yellow are the new black, hah! Oh yes, I made some black ones as well. Lots of testing to be done, so tissues are needed.

Alright, now let’s have a look at the exciting stuff. How about exposing some of these? I was in for a surprise, because it had been quite a while since I had seen an actual dichromate print-out image. Several years, in fact! But with these non-black tissues, it’s easy to see the image even before it hits the mating bath:

The print-out dichromate image is especially visible on the yellow tissue

Alright, so we can print, but as I said before, there are millions of issues and apart from the blatantly apparent pigment concentration issue, there is the sharpness problem. Look at this:

Wet carbon prints are always a bit fuzzy. But not this fuzzy. This ain’t no good.

Yeah, that’s not right. That’s the halation issue I mentioned earlier. Well, we did some back & forth on Photrio where there’s always a few people who are worth their salt and then some when it comes to…well, whatever photo-related, really! Many good ideas and useful suggestions, and fortunately, it turned out that actually the pigment concentration alone was the key. Increase that to a more reasonable level, and the halation issue goes away. Man, if all problems are going to be that simple…but they won’t.

By the way, do you notice anything particular in this series of prints from which the close up above was taken?

It looks just like…well, a print shop of sorts!

No? Can’t blame you; apart from that it’s three colors, there’s not all that much to see. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that they’re prints from a 4×5″ negative. That’s right, film. Not digital inkjet negative. I made a series of an inkjet negative as well, but it looked like this:

First CMYK series from digital negatives. Lots….and lots…of work to do

So the problems with digital negatives should be pretty clear here. Well, at least the density problem. This is from a negative where I boosted the ink deposit level by 50% (the highest the printer driver will allow), and this density isn’t sufficient. Well, it actually might be, if not for the problem that massive reticulation occurs as the print dries. Dial ink flow back to -10% (yes, minus 10%) and the problem still persists. So that’s why I ordered some new transparency material in the hope that this will solve the issue.

Anyway, back to that initial image I showed for a minute. After the two series of separate prints shown above (one 4×5″ negative, one poor attempt at digital negative), I decided to try and go for a double transfer so I could see what it would look like if I overlayed a couple of prints. This is where my recent trial with double transfer came in really handy! I used the ‘montage film’ that did so well in that test for this trial. Here’s the yellow ‘separation’ (quod non!) as it was drying. The relief stands out really nicely, even though the actual pigment image was nearly invisible – yellow, with very low density, on a transparency! That’s like looking at a thin deposit of egg white in the kitchen sink or something.

Relief on the a weakly pigmented yellow print as it dries on polyester film

Fun times. Anyway, we still had a bit of a loose end: it’s the pigment concentration thing. Sounded easy enough to fix, right? Well, turned out to be a little more involved, and that’s pretty much where I am now. I did the obvious thing and poured some additional tissues at 5% acrylic paint concentrations. I just did some magenta ones for a quick test. Well, problems…firstly, the glop gelled over as it was sitting on the hot plate. Yeah, like hot milk or pudding. Then, development of the image was difficult – it was really slow and the unexposed gelatin washed away only with difficulty, and to make matters worse, on one of the test prints I had about 40% of the image not even adhering to the final support in the first place!

It looks like if you use higher concentrations of acrylic paint, the glop and later tissue starts to behave, well, like acrylic paint, really. It starts to harden, because that’s what it’s supposed to do. If you work with a 1% concentration or thereabouts, it’s not an issue, because there’s so much water that will keep the acrylic molecules separated, that no noticeable gelling occurs. But once you increase the concentration, the acrylics team up on you and form a solid front. Well, that’s my hypothesis anyway.

Now, the 5% acrylic paint test did show that higher pigment concentrations solve the halation issues:

Magenta print with 5% acrylic paint transferred onto Yupo. Disregard the blue blob sitting on that branch; it’s on the scanner glass. Sorry, birdwatchers. It’s not the infamous blue tit, or whatever you might have thought it was.

Yeah, that’s sharp as it should be. So now it’s just a matter of finding a better pigment source than these acrylics. Well, seems like Photrio consensus is that water colors are a better choice anyway, so here goes:

Back to square one! Different paints, this time

So that’s three paints I’m testing currently: for magenta, we have a cheap but somewhat promising gouache paint from Talens. Same pigment as the acrylic I used before: PV 19. For Cyan, I splurged on a small tube of Windsor & Newton watercolor, pigment PB 15 (also the same as previously in the acrylic). Yellow is the watercolor offering from Talens under their Van Gogh brand; PY 128 (you guessed it – same as before again). I have the impression the yellow is a bit lean on pigment, the W&N cyan one looks very good, and the Talens magenta might be a lot of bang for not all that much buck. But let’s see how it works out once these tissues are dry. I used 2% of each paint for each tissue, so there will likely be pretty big density differences. Stay tuned!

And now we wait

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