Full bloom – DAS carbon starting to come together

I’ll probably jinx it by saying this, but…I have a feeling my DAS carbon printing workflow is really starting to get somewhere. Maybe I should take a moment to reflect on some of the key lessons learned. Perhaps even muse a little on what’s next, too…

I’ve got this sitting on my worktop, waiting to dry:

…and I’m quite pleased with it so far. I shot this 8×10″ Fomapan 200 negative on Sunday and made a first print earlier this week, after running the negative through chromium intensifier a couple of times. That initial print was a little too harsh. This is the second one and it looks just right.

Moreover, this is not the only one; I’ve made a couple more (peonies, some other stuff, too) and although I’m happier with one image than another, they all came out pretty much fine from a technical viewpoint – give or take a shadow or a highlight, but it’s all manageable.

It seems that at this point, I can fairly reliably haul a view camera somewhere and turn the scene into a presentable carbon print within a few days. It sounds so simple, but it took me a while to get here. What happened?

My first attempts date back to late 2014. I was using dichromate for the sensitizer and digital negatives back then, and frankly, those prints were…crap. I ran into severe problems in particular with contrast control – to a large extent (oh, the comfort of about a decade of hindsight!) due to a remarkably poor choice of inkjet printing film I was using back then. I think it took me a little over 6 months to decide that I (1) wasn’t really going anywhere with it and (2) I wasn’t having quite as much fun as I should be having. Yes, I did also try printing from in-camera negatives, but I guess I was trying to figure out too many things all at the same time, so those too sucked, basically.

I’m not quite sure why I picked it back up two years ago. Probably because I saw a video with Calvin Grier demonstrating his flavor of printmaking magic. Doesn’t matter – I brushed off the jar of dichromate and gave it another go. This time, I actually managed to pull a print or two that I liked. It helps I moved to the new house and new workspace in the meantime – it’s more tidy and organized, and that helps to keep my head clearer as well, I think. I also had much more time and focus on the project, which helped greatly.

Before long, I hatched the somewhat silly idea to try color carbon transfer – but I haven’t gotten particularly far with that, to date. One issue I ran into fairly quickly was a consistency problem, with density variations across a single sheet. This seemed to track down to my method of sensitizing my tissue, using a paint roller to apply the dichromate-ethanol mixture. Other contributing factors may have been problems with drying time variations. At some point, I decided that dichromate was a dead-end street and that I would have to incorporate a sensitizer into the tissue. DAS is the obvious choice.

This sent me down a new rabbit hole. At first, DAS seemed to be pretty straightforward to use, but I fairly quickly ran into a nasty problem with highlights crumbling off of the temporary support during warm-water development. In a way, I never really solved this – after very rigorous testing, I decided that DAS just doesn’t have quite the flexibility of dichromate when it comes to contrast control. I knew this ‘from the books’ right from the start, but it took me a long time to figure out the extent of the errr…phenomenon.

This process of testing and figuring out (also with dichromate, in fact) actually brought me a couple of things that I still rely on currently, as they just seem to work quite well for me:

  • I try to take notes and document findings that seem relevant. I actually have a glop/tissue database that I use to log all my glop recipes. This way I can spot patterns if there’s a problem, and I can go back to a recipe that worked well for something previously. Each tissue gets a little sticker with a recipe identifier so I know what I’m working with, and I can also find out what ingredients exactly went in there.
  • I standardized on tissue sizes and recycle the tissue support Yupo and the intermediary support sheets. Whenever a stack of used materials gets big, I’m reminded that I need to prepare some new materials. And since it’s always the same two sizes, I always know how much glop or subbing solution I’ll need and how much yield I’ll get from it.
  • I use small prints for testing as much as possible. This sounds a bit silly, perhaps, but small prints just are quicker and easier to make – and they use less materials as well. My violin teacher always used to say “if you can play it slow, you can play it fast as well”. In a way, she was right, and with printing, it’s similar. Having said that, there’s always a couple of challenges associated with scaling up (ask anyone in the chemical industry or manufacturing in general!), but if you have the fundamental problems ironed out, size really doesn’t matter anymore.

I ended up reviewing basically every step in the process in detail to get things to work consistently and reliably – from the negative to the final support paper.

One realization that made a huge difference was that for DAS carbon to work well, you really do need a really long tonal scale. Bullet-proof negatives, indeed. So either I have to develop the living daylights out of the film, or try to be proficient with some kind of intensifier – preferably a very aggressive one, like chromium. Or, you know, do both.

For the tissues, I experimented with pigment dispersions, and found that in principle, many approaches work. Mulling or tumbling are both viable options to disperse dry pigments, and gum arabic, honey, gelatin and high-tech dispersants like Orotan 731K all work. Likewise, water-based paints or colorants like watercolors, Indian ink and even acrylic paints can be used. Currently, I prefer Kremer XSL black since it’s efficient and easy to use (‘just add water’), but really, there’s no want for colorants. Plenty of options, and that’s one of the appeals in carbon transfer, I find!

When making tissues, I’ve found that I get a quick turnaround by pouring in the evening, hang the tissues on a line, blinding the windows and turning on a dehumidifier in the room. By the next morning, my tissues are dry and ready for use. Easy!

My experiments with color and later DAS meant I had to figure out the double transfer process. In itself, it’s straightforward enough: develop the initial relief on a temporary support from which it’s later released and transferred to a final support. The final support is typically gelatin-sized paper. The temporary support some kind of polymer/plastic sheet that readily accepts the gelatin image.

The preparation of the temporary support medium is something I’ve experimented quite a bit with, and ultimately I conclude that it’s a compromise in itself. On the one hand, it needs to have sufficient affinity to gelatin so that the carbon transfer image will reliably adhere to it during warm-water development. It shouldn’t wash off or partially detach (‘flagging’). On the other hand, the gelatin image should not be attached too firmly, as it will then be difficult to separate the temporary support sheet from the image when it’s transferred to the final support (paper).

Most guides, manuals and experiences of carbon printers rely on albumen to size plastic (polyethene, polypropylene) sheets so that the gelatin image will easily adhere to them. I find that albumen can easily be used in a single-pass operation, by diluting the egg-derived albumen to around 2% and adding a little 4% DAS solution to harden it. Pass the sheets through this sizing/subbing solution and hang to dry in a place that receives daylight. The sheets are then ready to go. Albumen proves to easily strike the compromise between offering sufficient adhesion for the image, without holding on to it too firmly to let go when the time comes.

I also found that using gelatin instead of albumen works fine, but the concentration requires some attention. Use too little gelatin and the image won’t adhere well enough during warm water development. Use too much, and the image will bond so firmly with the temporary support that it’ll be impossible to peel it off without damaging the image. A concentration of around 0.15% gelatin seems to work well, again hardened with 4% DAS solution at a rate of a few (2-4) ml per liter sizing solution. I actually prefer gelatin because my egg whites tend to become very smelly over time and I feel it’s more consistent/dependable to use dry gelatin.

Furthermore, I did some experimentation on the sizing of the final support papers. I prefer to use Schut Laurier and Schut Salland papers; the former is a 100% rag paper and the latter is a 50/50 rag & ‘wood-free’ paper. They look and feel almost identically. I find that sizing needs to be 20g of dry gelatin per square meter of paper at the very least, with 30g/m2 working quite well. The sizing doesn’t have to be hardened, but other than what some sources suggest, it doesn’t necessarily hurt either. I’ve transferred plenty of images to chrome alum hardened paper (that I originally intended/used for single transfer prints) and it works just fine. I soak the final transfer paper for at least 10 minutes (regardless of hardening) so that the gelatin is nice and swollen and conforms easily to the relief of the image.

For sizing the final support papers, I use a 5-6% gelatin concentration for the “Type 2 photo restoration gelatin” that I also use for the carbon image itself. 5-6% is a concentration that still flows nicely when hot, but also sets easily, and it works well to create the required 30g/m2 load. I size the papers in much the same way I pour tissues. Soak the paper, put on a level surface and squeegee off the water, then pour the gelatin on the paper and spread with a comb. Wait until it sets and hang to dry. I don’t use coating rods, magnetic guides, brushes etc.

Since I don’t have a suitable press, for flattening the final prints I use the tried-and-tested gummed tape approach. See the photo at the start of this page, showing a print after a final soak taped to a mirror. I find I need to use a fairly wide margin for the tape to adhere to as it will come loose otherwise during drying, leaving the print warped, resulting in a kind of pincushion distortion. When done properly, the end result is a flat print with an in my view very attractive semi-gloss that still shows the paper texture:

I’ve not (yet) tried adding a matting agent to either the image or the paper sizing – maybe one day.

So all this, plus a huge number of additional small details I don’t really think about most of the time but that cost me time in figuring out at some point, leaves me with the ability to make perfectly presentable prints. It’s true what they say: carbon transfer is a labor of love. Well, it’s a labor for sure. The end result can indeed be lovely, too. The investment and commitment contribute to the satisfaction of making these. Whether that conveys to a view – maybe, hopefully so. But I’m having fun and that’s what counts primarily for me.

What’s next? I’m not sure, really. For one thing, I’m going to keep making these single layer B&W prints from camera negatives. It’s fun, it works and the result is worth it to me. There are some other things I’m thinking about and that I might explore.

I might try and overcome my dislike of inkjet negatives and give those another go. In itself, I’m not too anxious to start up a hybrid workflow – the images I shoot digitally, I’m fine with printing as inkjets or simply sharing digitally in the first place. I don’t really need to “alt print” them. However, it would enable me to pursue directions that rely on some kind of digital manipulation or input. So I might have to set up some new experiments printing from inkjet negatives now that I’ve figured out my basic DAS-based workflow.

One of the routes that rely on digital manipulation would be the color project. I pretty much bookshelved it, but I never actually forgot about it. It’s been lingering in the back of my head somewhere all the time, and maybe I should give it another go now that I’ve made progress in related fields that depend on it. But the inkjet negatives will probably be part of this, so I’ll have to come to grips with those, first.

Another area I might explore is the universe of pigments. So far, I’ve stuck to high-tech, modern pigments intended for graphic arts. But I’ve always found the work of others in other areas inspiring as well. Calvin has of course his work in the area of natural earth pigments which speaks to the imagination through the conceptual premise of making a print from just rocks, trees and animal bones. In a similar vein, Witho Worms has done his well-publicized projects involving photos of coal mine spoil tips printed with the carbon collected from those same mounds of debris.

On a side note, I learned not too long ago that Andrew O’Neill did something conceptually very similar when he lived in Japan – many years before Witho came up with the idea! I don’t think Andy has any YouTube or Insta posts on it, simply because none of those platforms were around at that time.

Witho of course also has his provocative (I find) project involving making prints from the ashes of deceased people. ‘Funny’ enough, when my cat died a little over a month ago, I considered having him cremated and doing something similar. I only learned about Witho’s project later on. Witho’s ash-prints are white on white, but my thought has always been to print with the light-colored ashes onto a black or dark surface. I may follow up on that concept (but without the ashes) at some point. Btw, one concern I have with the ash-based prints is that in a carbon workflow, the unexposed tissue washes away during development. If (human) ashes are part of that tissue, I have some ethical and legal concerns with such a workflow, which would necessitate capturing the development water and separating the human remains from them. All considered, I find the whole thing a little lugubrious.

Still, pigments are a world that just begs to be explored.

Another area I might venture in a little further is that of transfer surfaces. Most of my prints are on paper, but I’ve made a few prints on glass as well, and quite like the result. I attempted an orotone process, which really works perfectly fine and I might pursue that a little further with a larger series. But I’ve heard of people printing on ceramic, aluminum and even wood, which all sound quite interesting as well.

In short, now that I’ve got the basics down (I think), there’s room for further exploration and variations to the theme. Plenty left to do! I have no particular order of priorities here, so I’m going to see and what comes to me first. Stay tuned; I’ll be sure to post about it when the time comes!

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