The Health and Wellbeing Aspects of Traditional Processes in Printmaking

This month I’m delving into why I’ve moved away from the traditional artmaking processes I used to work in, towards less toxic and more environmentally friendly versions.

I’m a trained painter, printmaker and photographer.  And whilst I’ve painted my whole life and love my photography background, my deepest satisfaction has always come from printmaking.  I think it’s the combination of technical expertise, the egalitarian and anarchist nature of printmaking’s history, and the essential community and sharing ethos of printmakers around communal facilities. Of course, never quite knowing what you are going to get from your efforts until the print is revealed through the press is thrilling!

You can read more about my printmaking background here, but essentially I taught all forms of the main varieties of printmaking (lithography, screenprinting, etching, drypoint, relief, collagraphs, stencil etc) through the Brisbane Institute of Art, Impress Printmakers Group and privately at my own Studio.  On top of this I ran a letterpress, etching press, and my own dark room where I worked in the cross-disciplinary practices of salt prints, cyanotypes and photogravure.  My speciality, and what I trained for overseas, was traditional copperplate photogravure.

These printmaking and photographic processes often involved (to varying degrees) the use of metals, acids (and their associated fumes), inks (both oil and water based), solvents and other cleaning agents, talcs, resins, etc.  And whilst I was very competent, having trained in safety and OHS, as well as running print workshops (with the appropriate facilities) and having my own background in wellbeing – I wasn’t prepared for the fact that unbeknown to me, I was highly sensitive to chemicals and metals.

Studies are now showing that people can vary widely in their ability to tolerate chemicals and heavy metals in their systems before the build-up causes immunity issues.  And I had grown up on a rural setting in a place that minimised the use of the chemicals around me.  So, as a mature adult I had no knowledge that this was a problem for me, or that I had genetic predispositions which meant that chemicals and metals could really affect my body in very detrimental ways.  It wasn’t till over 10 years of odd health issues, followed by very severe and almost fatal outcomes following a terrible health crisis that I was made fully aware of my chemical and metal limitations.

So, as I re-enter the world of art with a newfound awareness, I want to share my thinking process behind discontinuing some of my earlier arts practices and evolving my artistic approach.

Here are compelling reasons for this shift, rooted in prioritizing health and wellbeing:

  1. Health Risks: Traditional etching processes involve chemicals like nitric acid or ferric chloride, posing serious health risks, especially for individuals with sensitivities. The potential for respiratory issues and skin irritation prompted a re-evaluation of these practices.
  2. Metal Exposure: Handling metal plates in etching can contribute to metal toxicity, impacting bodily systems. For someone sensitive to metals, this exposure became a significant concern, necessitating a move towards less metal-intensive processes.
  3. Ventilation Challenges: Proper ventilation is crucial in etching processes to disperse fumes effectively. For those with respiratory sensitivities, maintaining a well-ventilated environment can present challenges that affected the overall working conditions.
  4. Limited Protective Measures: While protective gear can mitigate risks, it may not suffice for individuals with heightened sensitivities. Inadvertent exposure remained a concern, emphasizing the need for a shift to methods with fewer inherent risks.
  5. Alternative, Safer Practices: Opting for alternative printmaking methods, such as linocut, woodcut, or digital printing, offered creative outlets without compromising health. Exploring these methods became a natural progression in aligning artistic expression with wellbeing.
  6. Reduced Enjoyment and Satisfaction: Constant concern about exposure and sensitivities diminished the joy derived from etching. The emotional toll prompted a search for alternative mediums that could provide satisfaction without compromising health.
  7. Advancements in Printmaking: Acknowledging advancements in printmaking technologies, I explored non-toxic alternatives. Solar plate printing, utilizing a light-sensitive polymer plate, showcased the potential for safer practices while maintaining artistic integrity (although in my own case, this even had negative implications).
  8. Commitment to Wellbeing: Prioritizing personal health became a driving force in reconsidering chosen practices. The long-term impact of exposure to hazardous substances prompted a commitment to explore safer and healthier creative avenues.

Please note!!  Most of these issues were well documented when I was printmaking, and by no means am I saying that printmakers should not continue with their chosen mediums!  I still love etchings, and I still buy beautiful lithographic, screen printed, and letterpressed goods.  The point I wanted to make here is that if you have chemical and metal sensitivities, all the health and safety strategies that are in place may not protect you from exposure that could have a worse effect on you than the rest of the population.

In summary, an artist with chemical and metal sensitivities may decide to discontinue certain practices as a proactive measure to safeguard their health. The potential risks, combined with the availability of alternative methods, can lead to a thoughtful decision to pursue artistic expression in ways that align more harmoniously with their physical and mental wellbeing.

This month I’ll be sharing a little more on some of the health pro’s and con’s of these major printing techniques, and their impacts on the health of the environment too!

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