Liquid light emulsion on wax

Tina Maas shows us how she makes photographs on floating pieces of wax.

Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.

This process is not a new formula in the strict sense. It belongs into the liquid light emulsion category of techniques. Nevertheless

it is quite unusual to put emulsion onto wax

and therefore I will share my experience with it in case anybody else would like to give it a go. All advice is based on personal experience from working on my “Ophelia” project. I am not claiming to be an expert at this and am aware that many steps could probably be done differently and still work. The following description is the way I got my results. Feel free to experiment further. If you do give it a try, I would be very interested in your feedback.

The following procedure explains how to develop an image onto a wax plate. It involves making large negatives from your images, making the wax plates, sizing them, coating them, drying, exposing, developing and re-photographing them.

What you need:

 

  • OHP film for large contact negatives or normal negatives if you use an enlarger
  • Table and spirit level (optional)
  • Oil
  • Wax pellets, old pot and hot plate or stove
  • Artist spray varnish
  • Liquid Light Emulsion
  • Various plastic containers for pouring wax, heating emulsion
  • Brush for coating
  • Gloves
  • Darkroom with red safelight
  • Usual developer, fix and running water

1Create large Inter negatives from your digital image files.
All you need to do is convert the image to grayscale in Photoshop, then invert it to obtain the negative. Lower the contrast for an even density with not much contrast to give yourself a nice even image in the end. I print on Pictorico’s OHP film that comes in large sizes. You can also work with real negatives in an enlarger if you wish. I have not tried that but it should work fine.

2Making the wax plates
You can initially use any white candle wax or yellow beeswax, but after a while it was easier for me to buy wax in small pellets as I needed larger quantities and wanted to create more consistency. You heat the wax pellets in a saucepan on a hotplate or stove until it is liquid. In the meantime you prepare an evenly balanced table (ideally check with a small spirit level) and coat it with oil. Oil is what I used to prevent the wax from sticking to the table surface after hardening. I broke several pieces trying to pry them off the table so oil certainly helps to lift the wax pieces off the table. I poured the liquid wax from the saucepan into a jug for greater ease of pouring with more control but this is certainly optional. I found I needed several layers of wax to make up a thick enough plate for the size I wanted to work with. My shapes, since they were created freely on a table, were roughly oval in shape but varied considerably. Sometimes the wax would form runoffs that I had to peel off again after semi hardening and reuse in the main pot. Make sure you coordinate the size of your wax plates with the size trays you can use in your darkroom as each plate has to fit into the tray comfortably for slight agitation.

 

3Spray the plates
After the plates are the desired thickness and size and have hardened sufficiently I did spray them with a clear artists varnish. Again, this step is optional but I introduced it after I had real trouble getting the emulsion to stick to the wax during coating and hope that it has helped the adhesion. I did not try a classic subbing solution so that might also work fine.

4Mixing cyanotype chemicalsLiquefy the photographic emulsion
Liquefy the photographic emulsion (any make will work I think) in a hot water bath and coat the wax plates with a smooth brush (less smooth and you will see even more brushstrokes). Coating is tricky as the emulsion is water based and so the wax naturally repels it. I found that you just have to keep brushing and eventually it begins to stick. That process might be to do with the gelling point of the emulsion (when cold the emulsion is solid and it liquefies as it is heated up).
 

 
So, possibly while you brush it the emulsion cools down and wants to gel and solidify and at some point you catch it at the right temperature that it will stay flat on the wax. I keep the emulsion for coating warm in a water bath throughout so it does not get cold and hence hard and lumpy. You can apply a second coat after the first one has settled (slightly sticky to the touch) or is completely dry. I will often do a first coat on all the plates (maybe 12 or so) and when I am done with the first coat on the last plate start again with the second coat on the first plate. If you get lumpy hard emulsion bits in your brush wash them out in hot water to get a smoother brushstroke again. A perfectly even coat is very difficult. In my plates the brushstrokes are usually visible and there are often thinner areas and lumpy bits of thicker emulsion but I have found that to be adding to the uniqueness of each piece. It is best to coat in as close to total darkness as you can manage (red safelight). I have found it best to take no risks as the plates do take time to dry and so fogging over time is even more likely. I think it is best to let them dry in total darkness over night. If you are pressed for time and want to use a hairdryer to speed up drying put it on cold and be very gentle and careful. In any case even over night I have had the emulsion crack on several of my plates. Sometimes only slightly and sometimes the entire thing came off. I assume that it was caused by differences in humidity and temperature. As wax is a very soft organic material it does expand and contract with changes in room temperature so that is always a risk factor even once the final image has been created. You may also find that the entire wax plate has curled up at one end and is no longer flat. In that case I have used the hairdryer on the hot setting on the wax from the back and softened the plate and then gently pushed it down to flatten it out. A very delicate process but it works.

5Print and develop
Once you have an emulsion coated wax plate the steps are similar to any other emulsion work. I place the large inter negatives onto the plate as a contact print. If you happen to have a completely flat wax piece you can use a thin sheet of glass to hold the negative in place but more often than not it will be bent out of shape to some degree and you don’t want to risk the glass cracking the wax plate. I usually start with an open aperture and a smaller “test piece” of wax. It is difficult to give any exposure guidelines here as it all depends on your enlarger/light source, the density of your negative, thickness of emulsion etc. But if you have coated all your wax pieces in the same way, your inter negatives are all of a similar density and you keep using the same light source for your exposure you will soon establish which exposure gives you a good image. Developing is the usual 3 min or until your image emerges. I do not use a stop bath but just cold water after the developer to neutralize it and then the fixer again for 3-4 min or until the white bits in the areas of thicker emulsion have all cleared (otherwise they will stay white and ruin your image). It helps to gently agitate the plate. Washing I do for 10 min in a running water bath. It is important that all your chemicals have a temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) or a bit less, as warmer water can start melting the emulsion and wash off your image. I have had hugely varying results when putting plates through the wet stage, from the emulsion shriveling up in thousands of tiny folds sliding around on the wax plate to no problem at all. Even if your emulsion comes off it may stick down again when drying so don’t despair and discard it before you tried. If your emulsion is thick enough you can fix and wash it almost without the plate and after washing place it back on the wax and hope for the best. I did not varnish or coat my plates with anything afterwards as the surface texture is very delicate (spray varnish may work though). I tried hand coloring one but was not happy with the results as the waxy surface did not even accept oil-based colors in a subtle way (forget water based).

6Mixing cyanotype chemicalsFinishing
For my project I wanted the final images to be floating on water and be illuminated through the wax with underwater lights. But that proved to be too difficult so I staged the final re-photographing in the studio. I still love the actual objects but they are of a temporary nature I feel, so I wanted to re-photograph them to create an editioned series.
 
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Silver gelatinSilver Gelatin: A User’s Guide to Liquid Photographic Emulsions

by Martin Reed, Sarah Jones

A practical art book illustrating the use of liquid photographic emulsion.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrea Shaker
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Hello Tina,

    Thank you for your instructions on using liquid emulsion on wax. What type of clear artist varnish did you use?

    Thank you,
    Andrea

  2. Posted April 12, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tina,
    congratulations on your job! amazing!
    I’m making some trials myself but I’m encountering with some problems in the process.
    So I decided to check out if anyone had tried liquid light on wax before and I found you! luckily! thanks for sharing your experience and the information you got.

    I would like to ask you something: the small wax pellets you used were soy wax or beewax or paraffin wax?
    because somehow in my attempts with liquid light the photo always comes out after few hours after everything is done and ready, as if the wax was repelling a sticker and I end up with plain wax and a sticker of my photo. Did that happen to you?
    I don’t know if this is happenning because I’m using an oil-based glossy polyurethane varnish (as it indicates in the liquid light instructions) or if it is because I’m using paraffin wax…

    If would really appreciate any information and advice.
    Regards from Peru.
    I would really appreciate your info and advice!
    Regards from Peru

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