A taste of what will soon be a book by Brady Wilks.
The Acrylic Gel Lift/Transfer is a process with many stages, ultimately enabling the artist to apply their photographic work to a wide variety of surfaces. The process entails the creation of a positive print, applying acrylic gel to the print, curing the gel, soaking the gel coated print, removing the paper backing, then applying the final suspended ink to a new surface. This exercise will illustrate the non-traditional acrylic side down version of the process that has been developed as a way to further control and manipulate the photograph. It celebrates the old transfer aesthetic of being a reverse of the original capture and allows more manipulation of the ink side before it is sealed. Although it may require more work, patience and care than other transfer processes, it is a wonderful variation and has its own unique aesthetic quality.
Many details have been left out in order to allow for exploration and experience with the process and the formulation of creative ideas.
- Inkjet Printer
- Typing Paper (for speed, other fine art papers take significantly longer to release)
- Acrylic Gel Medium (choice of transparent Matte or Gloss)
- Synthetic Bristle Brush
- Palette Knife (optional)
- Acrylic or Rubber Brayer
- Hair Dryer
- Tray or Plate to soak prints in
- Substrate Material (desired final surface for print)
- Razor knife (optional)
Surface substrate options:
Although it may seem redundant to transfer from paper to paper, with the wide variety of handmade and fine art papers available, this process can in fact produce dramatic results. As can be seen through the process, the acrylic skin can be folded, stretched and creased while being applied to the substrate of choice. These textures and anomalies of ink loss, creases, and bubbles can still be taken advantage of even if paper is the desired final substrate. This is a similar look to Polaroid emulsion lifts.
Because many printers cannot accept very thick canvas rolls, this technique can be utilized to apply images to canvas. Many painters and mixed media artists utilize similar techniques in their work.
Light colored woods will produce the highest contrast print, as the wood color and structure will show through the translucent areas. However, when using wood, it is best to use a higher contrast image to compensate. Darker woods tend to be more difficult to work with. The wood can be oriented in a way such that the striations of the grain support and enhance the image. This is a personal preference choice.
Suggested Species List: Pine (all varieties), Oak, Red Oak, Poplar, Cherry, Mulberry, Bradford Pear, Apple, Lilac, Maple (all varieties), Spalted Maple, Box Elder, Ash, Yellow Heart, Lati, and Birch.
Using glass allows for the option of back illumination. Also, additional substrate materials (such as gold leafing, glass beading, etc.) can be applied to the back of the glass and seen without altering the texture of the transfer itself. This can enhance the depth and dimension of the image.
Mounting to mirrors is similar to working with glass however the reflection on the underside of the skin provides additional depth, visual texture, and interest.
Sandstone tiles have a wonderful texture that, when paired with the transfer, add a unique surface difficult to reproduce otherwise. There are also many gel mediums containing various texture materials (such as sand, glass bead, fiber, etc.) to create varied textures on a number of surfaces.
Similar to wood, the striations within various rock formations can provide interesting patterns to be revealed underneath the transfer skin. The difference is that marble usually comes polished while most wood grain allows a relief to show through.
Essentially, just about any material can be used as a substrate, lamp shades, barn siding, cigar boxes, instruments, plastic and any other found object able to accept the application of the thin skin.
Variations of the transfer
One method makes use of transparency printer paper to transfer the ink into a gel-coated surface. Once pressed, the transparency paper is removed.
Another method uses gel on paper to suspend the ink. The paper is only partially removed via water and the transfer is placed with the ink side down on the blank surface producing no inversion or reversal.
The method developed for this instruction uses gel on paper to suspend the ink. The paper is removed via water and the transfer is placed with the image in reverse, ink side up. This is the process used to further manipulate and control the transfer and is the one described in detail for the instruction below.
1 Make a print
Using white typing paper, print the desired image using a plain paper profile with at least 720ppi photo quality resolution. The image should be fairly high contrast. It is important to note that regardless of the substrate being transferred onto, some details will be lost, especially in areas of shadow. This is simply a part of the process. The darker the substrate, the lower the contrast will be in the end due to the material showing through the highlights.
2 Coat and cure the print
a. There are many variations on coating the print. This stage is extremely important. In order to make the most of your transfer, it is important that this step is approached with patience, regardless of the coating method being employed.
b. The first method is to apply a thin coat of gel using a brush to apply gel in a single direction across the entire image. After applying this thin coat, it is advised to use a hairdryer on a cool or medium heat setting to accelerate drying and curing time. Do not use a high heat setting as it could damage the gel. However, this hot setting can be used to burn in, boil, and bubble the gel skin if that particular aesthetic is desired in the piece. Do this layering at least 4 to 8 times alternating brush stroke direction between layers.
c. The second method is to apply a few thick coats curing and drying between each coat. These thicker coats take a lot longer to dry and it is important to only use the cool setting on the hairdryer. Hot air could potentially damage and alter the gel with bubbles, cracks, and imperfect thicknesses. This may be the desired effect however is not as predictable as with thinner layers of gel.
d. The third method is to apply a single very thick coat using a palette knife to glop the gel down off to one side and distribute the gel across the image in 2-3 soft-handed strokes. The gel will even out slightly but this method could be used to get some heavy textures on the surface similar to encaustic / wax work. Typically, it will require 8-10 hours for thicker applications to dry minimum. When using this method, several images can be prepared for transfer and coated at once, letting them dry and cure overnight to full transparency. (drying times vary across regions due to humidity and temperature.)
e. Many other variations can be discovered through experimentation. A successful starting point would be 8 thin layers alternating brush stroke direction and fully curing between each coat.
f. Alterations – A small amount of pigment can be added to the gel medium but should be done sparingly in order to maintain transparency. Another alteration could be made by brushing in some texture and tracing elements of the image to produce depth and dimension. Using textured gel at this stage makes paper removal difficult but some textured gels work very well as a final coat.
g. Before moving to the soaking stage, the image may be trimmed if desired so that it becomes borderless, without paper edges.
*Note: When using a hair dryer, do not cure the gel with the paper lying flat on a stiff surface for too long as it could create moisture pockets or “sweat” on the underside of the paper. Instead, hold up one corner or side of the paper carefully while drying the print with a hair dryer. If this is not done, it could result in bubbling or a breakdown of the gel when soaked in water. Curing fully is the most important consideration before soaking.
3 Soak the print
Depending on the print size, a tray or container will be needed that can accommodate the full size of the image or more. When working small, a simple plate can be used with very little water.
Distilled water or most well water works best. A warm to mildly hot water temperature is best when removing the paper backing, as the fibers of the paper soften more easily. Using water that is too hot could damage the gel or cause it to bubble. This could be used creatively but the bubbles will remove most of the ink in those areas. Lukewarm water produces the best results. This ranges between 98 and 105° Fahrenheit.
Soak the print, gel side down. The water can be seen penetrating the paper backing. Before submerging the paper, fine-grain sandpaper can be used on the back to accelerate the water penetration but not needed with typing paper. If typing paper is used, the soaking time is very quick. If fine art paper is used, such as Somerset velvet or enhanced mat, soaking times will be much longer. Typing paper soaking times range from 1 to 5 minutes but some paper require hours of soaking. This process cannot be rushed.
4Release the paper backing
Once the print has soaked, leave it in the water and start to gently rub the paper side in an easy motion side-to-side starting in the center. You may consider changing the water to make it warm again. (Using cold water makes the gel act brittle and easily torn.) The fibers of the paper will begin to pill and roll away gently. Once the first layer of the paper is removed in the center start to work from the center out to the edges, holding the print down with one hand and gently rubbing with the other. This step is extremely delicate! Be careful not to rub too hard or too much or all of the ink can be lost.
The other methods don’t require the removal of all the paper. This process is a little more involved as the paper must be removed in several layers, rinsing the print and adding fresh water so the pulp doesn’t build up. If too much pulp is allowed to build up, it can slip under the gel layer. If this occurs, the pulp can easily remove ink from the surface of the image by incidental agitation. Again, this could be used in an intentional way for further distortions and loss of details.
Once the desired amount of paper has been removed, carefully rinse gel image, removing undesired pills and fibers from the surface.
5Dry the skin
Drape the gel skin over a drying rack or another smooth, non stick surface that will allows air to dry the film. Be careful not to allow the skin to become stuck to a surface or other paper materials as this could damage or alter the skin. Alternately, the gel skin may be dried with a hair dryer on a cool setting to accelerate the process. It may be draped across the hand or arm while drying, if small enough. The end result is not a thoroughly dried film, rather the acrylic side of the image should be mostly dry and the ink side should still be damp but not dripping.
*Note do not dry the ink side. Be sure only to dry the back side, the transfer must be finished while the ink side is still wet. This will allow the removal of any last bits of paper. While it is still wet, it will be difficult to tell if all of the paper has been removed. If any paper is left, it will eventually dry white. Again, this effect might be desired for a certain aesthetic quality.
6 Prepare the surface material
It is essential to work quickly so that the ink side isn’t completely dry before pressing it to the final surface. Coat the substrate surface with an even amount of gel medium. This layer should not be too thick or too thin. Do not allow this layer to dry as it acts as glue between the substrate and the gel transfer. The transfer will be applied at this time.
7 Apply the gel skin
Lay the gel skin gently on the surface. At this stage, purposeful stretching, folding, creasing, ripping, etc. may be carefully done. Depending on the original coating method the skin might be very delicate and brittle.
Use the brayer to roll out the air bubbles starting in the center and working up, then starting in the center and working down. Do this until all the air bubbles are out unless those effects are preferred. Once the gel skin has been applied over the surface and rolled out, fold the excess over the edge of the substrate and spread some of the excess gel around the edges to act as glue.
At this stage, if desired, more of the remaining paper backing can be removed from the surface carefully with a wet finger, but be extremely cautious to not remove too much ink. Once this process has been completed, apply several thin coats of gel as was done with the original coating, brushing each layer in a different direction and curing between coats to finish the process. If there is any creasing, folding, tears, or bubbles excess gel will build up in those areas. Three things can be done to remedy this issue. First the thin areas can first be cured with a hairdryer then the excess in the areas can be rubbed out. Second, the brush can be cleaned and used to wipe up the excess in those areas. If using the brush method, be sure that the direction of the strokes is not changed or it will be evident once the gel is cured. Third, a single thick coat can be applied and allowed to dry overnight.
*Note, if a high heat setting is used, air pockets and bubbles may be produced due to expansion. This is an interesting effect but not always desired. To avoid them, use a very low heat or cool setting on your hair dryer.
The finishing of your work is full of options. The most important being finishing coats of acrylic gel medium, applied similarly to original print before transfer, alternating direction and curing in between layers. Trimming and folding edges provides a clean presentation. Painting the sides or framing the work would provide a gallery ready presentation. Bee’s wax or synthetic wax (encaustic) can be used to encase the print and offer added levels of dimension to the lift.
Problems and solutions
Some common issues occur within the process. This section will explain why it happened, how to fix it if possible, and how to prevent it in the future. You may also choose to do some of these problems on purpose for a particular aesthetic.
- IMPORTANT: There is a lot of paper left on the surface after it dried.
This is the most common issue and many will have this problem first starting. If the piece dries and too much paper is left on, the surface will dry white. While the print is wet it will be hard to tell if enough paper is removed because the paper becomes translucent and less white while damp. Take extra steps in removing the paper, changing the water and removing more paper 4 to 5 times. Be very delicate as not to remove too much ink. Another option is to remove the last bits of paper with after it has been applied it to the substrate. Carefully rub off the extra paper while the ink side is still damp with a finger, gently pilling the paper up and off in a circular motion. Brush off the excess pills and repeat until the texture is mostly smooth. Again, part of the aesthetic is leaving a little texture and paper in certain areas to enhance the image. If this type of transfer does not work for you then try only removing 2 layers of paper and doing the ink side down method which is much simpler and produces more detail.
Gel dissolves during soaking:
If the print was not cured properly before the soaking stage the water will mix with the gel and turn it to paste. This causes the print to be destroyed when attempting to remove the paper. To avoid this, first let the print dry thoroughly before applying gel (allow the ink to cure from the original print). Second, apply very thin coats of gel, using the hair dryer to thoroughly cure each layer. Once again, be careful not to allow moisture to build up underneath the print. It is not uncommon for some sweat to occur, so a piece of cardboard or other absorbent material can be placed underneath the print to help absorb the moisture. Alternatively, the print may simply be handheld while drying. If a single thick coat of gel is applied, wait several hours (usually overnight or longer) for the gel to fully cure.
Gel bubbles suring soaking
If the print is placed into water that is too hot, expansion bubbling may occur between the thin coats of gel. To avoid this, use luke-warm water.
Air bubbles and air pockets
If a brayer is not used to roll out the transfer, there is a risk of air bubbles and pockets being left behind. Later, as the gel is heated during the curing of the finishing layers, the heat of the hair dryer makes the air and moisture expand disallowing that area to stick to the surface resulting in a bubble. This can be remedied by using a needle to carefully puncture the smallest hole possible and remove the air. This small puncture can then be covered with a small amount of gel medium. To prevent this problem in the future, a harder brayer may be used and proper pressure applied. Be patient and spend a few extra moments rolling out the bubbles.
Micro bubbles during cure times
Small heat-bubbles can appear when the gel medium is applied too thin and the heat setting of the hair dryer is too high. The gel can be heated to a point of boiling expansion if not monitored carefully. This problem is not easily fixed and involves scraping off the gel before applying fresh coats. This can lead to damage of the image itself. It’s also used as a creative tool for added texture, depth and dimension.