Printing with Agar – An Experiment

For those of you that don’t know, I am currently in the middle of a sort of artist-scientist exchange called Art Neuro. There are now 16 pairs (one artist, one scientist in each) working towards a sort of cultural exchange, culminating in an exhibition at the Rag Factory in November, but with lots of fun events going on in between, such as synaesthesia cocktail evenings, artists talking about their practice in conjunction with the research they’ve been given to react to, that sort of stuff.

For the exchange I’ve been paired off with a very nice research scientist named Silvia (hi, Silvia!), whose primary field of research is neuromuscular diseases and looking at how polycomb proteins could possibly help to treat muscle tissue dystrophy. It’s all very exciting stuff that could very well be life-changing for a lot of people if her work yields positive results. I feel very privileged to be looking over her shoulder and making work inspired by her findings and trying to draw comparisons between scientific and artistic practice. There are more similarities than you might initially think.

Anyway, this brings me to the title of this blog. One way I thought I might be able to make a really direct link between lab process and studio process is by trying to use materials that are commonly used in the lab to create work. Bit of a longshot maybe as a lot of the things I liked the look of were pretty hard to get hold of as a layman, but one of the super common materials that gets used in prep all the time is agar agar.

For the uninitiated, agar agar (or just ‘agar’ as I will be referring to it from now on) is a gelling agent made from seaweed, not unlike gelatin in terms of texture, density, all that. Veggies out there will already know this as it’s used in cooking as an alternative to animal gelatin. It’s pretty colourless, odourless once set and doesn’t seem to have any sort of strong flavour (unsurprisingly it’s a little bit seaweedy, but not overly). It’s also really cheap. You can get it powdered or in sort of stringy nest type structures. Seems to be cheapest from Asian supermarkets, but it’s pretty inexpensive no matter what.

Gelatin printing is a thing that exists. It’s a way of producing quite textural-looking, layered monoprints without a press. Google gelliprint and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a technique I’ve been meaning to give a go for a while and I sort of figured that if you can do it with gelatin, you can probably do it with agar.

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So, I’d sort of experimented with monoprinting in the past. The above image is one from about 6 years ago which I created when I had a big studio to use and access to print presses and all that sort of stuff you don’t have so easily when you’re working from home. I’ve always liked monoprint as it’s very quick, the layering, colours and marks you can get are really painterly. I miss that in my work at the moment. I’d like to get a bit of that freedom back into it again, so sort of figured this agar thing might be a nice method to try.

SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t really like the process and was a bit disappointed with the results from the first attempt. I will probably give it another go, but I’m not sure this is the process for me or this project. However, I’m still writing this out because I’m pretty sure other people can get some use out of it. I know gelatin printing is pretty popular and one of the questions that always seems to crop up is can you do a gelatin print without using animal products. I don’t think I have a definitive answer for you, but here’s how I did it and what I found. Make of it what you will :)

 

Step one: making the plate.

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Okay. So. Here’s my plate-making kit. Tub of agar, a baking tray to use as a mould (this one is super tiny. It’s my besselheim plate for cooking experiments and now printmaking experiments apparently) and some cellophane. You could probably do without the cellophane if you don’t have any to hand, but it made it getting the finished jelly plate out of the tray loads easier.

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First up, I lined the baking tray with some cellophane. This was, as I mentioned above, less to do with the agar sticking to the mould more just to try and get the plate out in one piece – agar is a little more brittle than gelatin and I wanted to avoid splits in the printing surface.

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Next, I dissolved my agar powder in water and brought it to the boil. There isn’t a whole lot of information out there on the internet about agar printing, but the few posts and videos I did find all seemed to imply that more is probably better in this case. Instructions on the side of my pot of agar said I should use 2-10g per kilo of water. For my little plate I used a bit over 2.5g in 250g of water. A good digital scale was kind of useful for measuring that out.

 

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After boiling the agar for about a minute I took it off the heat and poured it straight into the mould. I then waited for a minute or two for any bubbles to come up to the surface and skimmed them off using a piece of scrap paper. You want your printing surface to be completely smooth for the best results according to everything I’ve read about this.

After the plate had cooled off for about ten, twenty minutes, I popped it in the fridge to speed the process along. I left it there for about an hour. By the time I came back it had set just like you’d expect jelly to set. It was springy to the touch, more dense than an edible jelly … a little like the blocks of jelly you can buy, but when you squish it it splits a bit more easily.

 

Step two: inks and printing.

 

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So with this method I was really trying to find out if I could replicate the sort of translucent, gentle marks and layers that you get when monoprinting with a press. Like I said up the page, I like the painterly nature of monoprints and, although you can do a lot with them using textures and stencils that wasn’t really what I was looking for so much. I was playing with brayers, spatulas and tools to move he ink around on the plate rather than stencilling or inlaying with textured papers or that sort of thing. It looks like you could do that with some success (I tried a little bit of texturing with some kitchen paper), but that isn’t the aesthetic I was searching for on this occasion.

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Inking the plate was pretty straight forward. Water based inks (examples above) took to the plate really easily. They go incredibly watery on contact with the surface, so I found it pretty difficult retaining any intricate detail using the spatulas and other tools…but I can sort of see how on a larger scale and with a bit of practice I could use the marks to greater effect. Cleaning the plate after each layer was pretty straight forward. Just kitchen roll or a similar soft paper wiped over the top got rid of most of the gunk.

 

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Next I tried with oil-based inks (I use caligo safe wash at home). These were a little trickier to get to work with the plate (oil and water-based things never mix brilliantly), although they went on fairly well when I used palette knives, spatulas and spoons to spread the stuff rather than the brayer. I was sort of hoping they might retain a bit more detail (maybe use the beading you get with oil and water to my advantage) but, if anything, they were worse than the water-based ones for spreading around all over the place and generally making a lot of nice textures, but not so much anything with any sort of definition. I managed to get one image out that sort of looked like what I was going for (see the grumpy guy with explosive hair below), but it was such a struggle. The lovely marks I kept making with the ink just didn’t stick round long enough for me to be able to take a print. By the time I’d finished one part of the image another portion had oozed out of shape. That’s probably brilliant for some people, but I found that really annoying.

 

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On such a small scale the agar plate wasn’t too bad strength wise. I had a couple of minor tears but if I wanted to come back and do another session with it I definitely could. The textures and marks you could get with it are interesting, but I really struggled (this time) to get enough definition alongside those interesting looking marks. I’m sure it would be great for other people though and would definitely be worth trying if you’re more into stencils, found textures, that sort of stuff. For me, I’d say it’s probably a good starting point for a piece, but not a method I’ll be likely to realise work through from start to finish. Worth trying though, even if it was only for one amusingly messy afternoon.



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