Silk Aquatint Printmaking

Silk Aquatint Printmaking Explained

What is a silk aquatint?

A silk aquatint is a form of non-toxic printmaking, in the intaglio style, that uses silkscreen fabric adhered to a sturdy plate (usually made from metal or acrylic) to create a printmaking surface capable of printing imagery resembling traditional aquatint.

The silkscreen fabric is adhered to the plate with diluted black acrylic paint, creating a dark field.

The fabric acts as a matrix of tiny wells in the weave of the threads that will hold ink. If the entire plate were daubed with black ink at this stage, and then wiped and printed on a press, it would print a solid, rich black image in the shape of the plate.

Building a Silk Aquatint Plate

To create a painting on the plate, an artist uses diluted mix of white acrylic paint and acrylic gloss medium and gel to paint a monochrome image on the black screen.

The white paint fills the spaces between the threads – the ‘wells’ of the screen – blocking the painted areas from holding printmaking ink. As the image is painted in layers on the black field of the screen, varying levels of white acrylic fill the spaces between the threads to create halftones and transparencies in the image.

After the white acrylic image dries, the plate is inked and wiped intaglio style, and pressed against soaked and blotted printmaking paper on a press. The printed silk aquatint looks very much like the painting on the plate, only in reverse. See the images in this post for examples.

Pulling a silk aquatint portrait after a trip through the press.

Printing a Silk Aquatint with a Press

Still trying to picture a Silk Aquatint print?  Have a look at a previous post covering the mechanics of how silk aquatint prints work, and some of the materials used. 

Silk Aquatint is a form of printmaking that’s considered an intaglio print – that is – you’re printing from the recessed areas of the plate’s matrix, where ink is hunkered down, after wiping the uppermost surface of the plate clear. Using a press, or a press alternative is preferable.

Silk Aquatints are an Intaglio Print Process

In order to get paper to dip down into those tiny spaces in the screen of the silk where it will pick up your ink, printing via an etching press is your best bet.

Or check out the alternative presses in this excellent Facebook Group on Craft Presses (former embossing or stenciling machines, laundry manglers and pasta presses!).

Hand burnishing this sort of print would be challenging, at best.

This is 55T (or 12xx) Polyester screening silk, hovered over a plexiglass plate. I purchased the silk by the yard here. When you get yours, be sure to unfold and hang it, to remove any creases or ripples resulting from being folded in the packaging.

Preparing Mat Board to make a Silk Aquatint

Before I adhered the polyester screen fabric to the mat board used for this print,  I coated the entire surface and all the edges of the mat board with Acrylic Medium, twice, to seal it. (You don’t have to do this is you’re using plexiglass.)

Various silk aquatint instructions I found online suggest avoiding cardboard as a plate, because it’s too absorbent, and it’ll crush under the pressure of a press.

I have a lot of scrap mat board leftover from framing my watercolors.  I use the mat board to make collagraphs and now, silk aquatints. It’s sturdier than cardboard, and I’m blocking the absorbency with acrylic gel as the first step to preparing the plates.

New silk screen polyester being adhered to plates with thinned black acrylic paint to make silk aquatints

Silk Aquatint made from Screening Polyester 12-14XX (or 55T)

The photo above shows a batch of silk aquatint plates in process on a table in my art studio. I was testing different plate materials, so these are either plexiglass, with the edges beveled at an angle (<– here is a link to a tutorial video on that), or scrap mat board (also known as press board and mount board in other parts of the world), coated first with two layers on all sides and edges of Liquitex Gloss Medium and Varnish. This step (above) shows polyester silk cut about an inch larger than each plate, and laid on the surface, adhered with black acrylic paint thinned with water.

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Adhering polyester silk to matboard and plexiglass plates with thinned black acrylic paint– you can see here why folds and creases in the silk can be a problem on the plate towards the right

Painting Your Silk Aquatint

Using a foam applicator brush, I spread a layer of black acrylic paint, thinned one part paint to five parts water – on each square of polyester silk so it would adhere to the plate with no air bubbles or wrinkles. I let these dry overnight, and trimmed the excess fabric the next morning. For some other “found” instructions on making plates for silk aquatints, see the description at the bottom of this page in the Art Quote.

Using white acrylic paint, blended with either acrylic gel (for thicker application) or acrylic medium (for thinner application), I painted this little interior bedroom scene on a prepared silk and mat board plate, and let it dry completely.
On the Takach press bed, inked and wiped, with a soaked u0026amp; blotted piece of BFK Rives paper, ready to print.

Reduced Pigment Printmaking Inks for Silk Aquatints

Above, I’ve inked and wiped the plate, intaglio style, with a blend of Akua Intaglio water based ink in Paynes Gray, cut 50/50 with Akua Transparent Base. I find that this reduced pigment blend prints silk aquatints with more subtle halftones, compared to full pigment inks.

Silk Aquatint prints are often referred to as WYSIWYG – What You See is What You Get. Unlike other forms of printmaking, where there is a certain amount of guessing about how your finished print will look – silk aquatints print a copy of just what you see on the plate, only in reverse.

And if a passage is darker than you meant it to be, you can clean the plate and go back in to add sheer veils of thinned white acrylic to adjust halftones. Then, print again.

See the print compared to the plate below.

Pulling the print, after a trip through the press, using Akua Intaglio ink in Paynes Gray, cut 50/50 with Akua transparent base

Pulling a Silk Aquatint Print

After a trip through the press, I’m pulling the silk aquatint print, and you can see (above) the variations in tone and value – from deep darks, to brighter passages, and some nice gradations in between.

If you have access to a press, I highly recommend experimenting with this lovely, non toxic printmaking method. You can find more about it in the Art Quote below, and by searching the web for ‘silk aquatint’.

Cleaning the plate after printing. Only do this ‘in sink’ washing if you’ve read about plate materials below. You should not submerge or wet a plate made from press board or mat board, unless it’s totally sealed with multiple coats of acrylic varnish, or something as sturdy that will block water entry into the plate material.

Silk Aquatint Clean Up

In the photos above, I’m rinsing the plate after scrubbing the printmaking ink off with Dawn soap. [NOTE: If you’re using mat board as your plate, and you haven’t sealed it first – front, back u0026amp; all four edges , TWICE – with Acrylic Medium before building the plate, don’t run it under water, or you’ll turn your plate into a handful of paper pulp. Really.

Tips from Takach Press

The fine folks at Takach Press gave me a good tip: when cleaning Akua Inks from plates, hands or work surfaces, straight Dawn dish soap (no water at first) works fast. I used more than I needed here to illustrate the point, but a dime sized dollop and a scrub brush or old rag works great to clean all the ink from the polyester screen on my plate.

So there you have it! The basics for making a silk aquatint plate with silk screen polyester, and either a plexiglass plate or a sheet of mat board. Are you going to make one? Do you have any questions about the process? Leave any questions in the comments section below, and I’ll get right back to you.

Thanks for stopping by today, and I’ll see you in the next post!

Make something soon,


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silk aquatint portrait
Bandana, Silk Aquatint with watercolor

Art Quote

To prepare a silk aquatint plate, you will need a substrate or backing board, some black and some white acrylic paint and fabric.

Caraccio prefers to use high impact polystyrene because it comes in large sheets, has the thickness of a zinc plate and cuts easily, even curved shapes with just a mat knife. Other choices are Plexiglas, rigid wood or metal. Avoid cardboard as it is too soft and absorbent.

For black paint, use any kind, even inexpensive house paint as long as it is acrylic. The acrylic white paint should be artist’s quality. Acrylic medium or gel are needed too, but do not use gesso or modeling paste as they both have a sandy texture.

For a brush to make the plate, use a sponge brush if possible.

For the image making, some artists use trowels, spatulas and squeegees as well as painting brushes. Caraccio’s favorite fabric is silk screening polyester 12xx or 14xx. Real silk organdy will work as well; other fabrics can be experimented with. Wrinkles are a potential problem. Roll the fabric and do not let it touch the floor to avoid dust.

First, sand the backing material lightly to give it tooth.
Next, clean the board of all dust with water and a rag and let dry. The black paint is then applied to the board after first thinning it to the consistency of light cream. If you are getting obvious brush strokes, thin the paint even more.

After the black is dry, inspect the surface for any lumps and remove them. Next cut your fabric on the bias and cut the fabric larger than the backing by one half inch. The bias cut prevents fraying around the edges. Lay the fabric over the painted backing. It is helpful for the next step to lay your backing plate on a surface into which tacks or push-pins can be used. Tack around the edges only if there are wrinkles to be pulled out. Now with a brush, flood paint the fabric with more black paint. Make this a fluid application to drench the pores of the weave. This colors the silk and adheres it to the backing.

Let dry completely, about three hours.

Now prepare the white paint by mixing 1/5 acrylic white paint with 4/5 acrylic medium (for smooth coating) or gel (for impasto effect).

Now begin to make your image. If you do not wish to see brush strokes in the print, water down the white paint and use more layers (letting the paint dry before adding to the layers).

You can wet the silk for watercolor effects. Let your plate dry and trim the edges. Ink with a square of cardboard or plastic ink spreader.

Wipe the plate with tarlatan u0026amp; print.

~ Maryland Printmakers InPrint article,  Sue Anne Bottomley visits the New York City studio of Kathy Caraccio, March 1998

Silk Aquatint Print Examples

The Captain’s Cabin – Silk Aquatint Print

Library Cat – Silk Aquatint with colored pencil
Dusk – Silk Aquatint with colored pencil
Reflecting – Silk Aquatint with colored pencil

Silk Aquatint Supplies and Resources

4 thoughts on “Silk Aquatint Printmaking”

  1. Is there any way to transfer your image onto the black ground before you paint it in, or is it necessary to just use freehand?


    I love this way to make aquatints, I would like to know if we can use the regular old graphic inks (oil) kind

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