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Acrylic Gloss Varnish Sealer on Mat Board Collagraphs

When you make a collagraph plate from mat board (also known as mount board), the front, back, and edges of the board should be sealed. Moisture from printmaking inks and modifiers would soak the mat board plate into cotton pulp. The sealed printable surface should be a barrier between the ink and the cotton paper. The sealer should also be slippery enough to release ink when paper is pressed against it.

For the past 15 years or so, I’ve use the same product to seal my plates: Liquitex Gloss Medium and Varnish. If you’ve followed any of my collagraph tutorial videos on YouTube, you’ve seen and heard me sing praises for the stuff.

I found out a couple of weeks ago that Liquitex has discontinued it. Mediums and Varnishes are in separate categories now.

After putting a ball point pen drawing on the back of the mat board, the plate is ready to seal
Comparing two acrylic gloss mediums - for use with collagraph prints

The old-version of acrylic sealer I’ve used on mat board collagraph plates on the left, and the new sealer I’m testing in the studio on the right.

Testing Acrylic Plate Sealers

According to the advice from the rep at Liquitex – my best bet was to try the Varnish products. When I looked for it on Amazon, Gloss Varnish (not high gloss) was the only type available.

Gloss varnish is described as brush on or spray, non-removable, archival varnish with a gloss finish. Sounds good, right?

I want to compare this with their line of High Gloss Varnish, which is described as Non-Removable, archival varnish with a high gloss finish. This version is even slipperier than the gloss version, which would imply that it will release ink quickly when transferred to paper. It just became available, so I haven’t tested it yet.

But I did test the Gloss Varnish on some mat board collagraph plates (see below).

Two collagraph plates, ready to be sealed before carving out incised areas around the drawings
After sealing the plate with a single coat of the gloss varnish, and giving it ample time to dry, begin carving and peeling

Seal the Plate Before You Carve

By sealing the mat board with a thin layer of acrylic varnish before you start carving – you can pull your cut-out shapes off with less risk of tearing.

After peeling shapes from the thin uppermost-layer off the back of the mat board (carve on the reverse, not the front, because its smoother), add another coat of acrylic varnish to seal the exposed cottony filler fiber.

The new Liquitex Gloss Varnish brushed on the plate similar to the previous version I’ve been using, but it was a bit thinner, and it seemed to soak into the paper fast. The surface had a shine, the same as the older version of the medium and varnish, but it felt thinner and a bit more fragile.

After all the carving is complete, add one more layer of gloss varnish, and let it dry completely before you begin inking the plate
After inking the plate in multiple colors, try wiping just the upper surface areas to lighten values and add some visible mark-making to the ink
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After a trip through the press, pulling a collagraph print. This was about the 5th print I pulled from the plate. The ink had to build up quite a bit in order to release from the plate and transfer to the paper.
Oh, Hi. I’m just putting my face in here too in case we haven’t met yet. Introduce yourself in the comments. I’ll be glad to know you came by for a visit.
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Close, But Not Quite the Same

The Gloss Liquitex Varnish is close to the previous Varnish and Medium, but thinner, and a bit “porous”. The ink penetrated through the two coats of varnish sealer, and stained the plate with more saturated inks than usual. Even after wiping the plate clean, it still looks inked. (See below)

I added a third coat of the gloss varnish and printed a few more the next day, which improved the ink release a little. It’s not quite the same product, but it’ll do for now. I’ll be ordering the high gloss varnish this week, and I’ll test it on another collagraph. Have you used it like this?

You can see here how much ink stayed on the plate, and how little transferred to the paper on the first few pulls.
The plate has been cleaned of all ink, but it’s clearly embedded into the mat board under the varnish.

Varnish for Painting, Used for Printing

I should be clear here, and confess that I’m using a product by Liquitex that wasn’t meant to seal printmaking plates.

This varnish is primarily a painting medium, for use with their line of acrylic paints, so it’s not fair to stamp my foot and demand ‘How Could You Change My Varnish!?’ I’m not using the stuff for what it was formulated for, so its best to roll with it.

Printmaking has always been a squirrelly art-making medium. It’s loaded with necessity for adjustments, tweaks and unconventional work-arounds.

Making prints honors ingenuity. I think it’ll always be that way, and if you’re a natural born problem solver, head scratcher, figure-it-outer, printmaking could be your spirit animal.

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


P.S. Have you seen Nell Smith’s Collagraph Printmaking demo video using plain cardboard and a variety of tapes, with no press?

P.P.S. In a printmaking group that meets every Thursday morning at 8:00am (California time) on the audio app Clubhouse, I asked what other printmakers seal their plates with. Wood glue and Mod Podge came up. What do you think about other water-washable plate sealer options?

Art Quote

A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.

Malcolm Gladwell
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8 thoughts on “Making a Collagraph from Mat Board with Acrylic Gloss Varnish”

  1. Hi Belinda. On vacation, I was going to make some collagraphs. It was soon apparent that Liquitex no longer made the Gloss Medium & Varnish. (In a odd turn of events , I am no where near a Michaels, but close to a Blick’s. Michael’s (and Amazon) have a product, DecoArt’s Decou-page Matte, a glue, sealer, and finish coat which is my go-to on collages with paper and wooden substrates. It is quick dry, light and non-sticky, soap and water clean up, doesn’t effect color or transparency and has a nice “waxed” matte finish . It also comes in a “Brilliant Gloss” finish which may or may not serve your purposes here.

    This is posted a year after the other comments, but whenever you see this, it might be worth a try….

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtfully notated experience. I’ll tune into your You-Tubes videos and to Etsy – I need a cat’s nine lives……

    1. Hello, Em –
      Thanks very much for taking the time to relay that glossy alternative by DecoArt… if you happen to give it a try, under the pressure of a press, and with a variety of papers, and oil and soy-based printmaking inks, I’d be grateful to hear how it goes for you. I wonder if the matte finish would release inks, or wipe clean where you want lighter values…
      The Liquitex folks have assured me that they didn’t stop making the Gloss Medium and Varnish, but they *have* re-labeled it to “Professional High Gloss Varnish” – like this: https://amzn.to/3HiOKHA. I’m happy to report that I’ve tried that newly packaged product to seal collagraph plates printed with soy-based (Akua), linseed-oil-based (Cranfield Caligo Safewash), and traditional oil-based (Graphic Chemical) printmaking inks and both the seal and release of inks from that Liquitex varnish works well, so far. You and I will keep experimenting, and documenting these tips for any other printmakers looking for them. Happy vacation and printing adventures to you, B.

  2. Henrietta Brooks

    Hi Belinda. Absolutely love your posts and read with great interest about the Liquitex medium. It is really hard to get hold of over here in the UK. I have seen lots of people using shellac or button polish. I wondered what your thoughts were on this. It looks like it is quite a successful way to seal a plate although I haven’t personally used it yet.

    1. Good morning, Henrietta,
      I wasn’t aware that finding acrylic varnish was difficult in the UK. That’s really unfortunate. So, European-based acrylic paint companies don’t sell gloss varnish modifiers?
      I do know printmakers who make/use/prefer button polish or shellac, but it requires denatured alcohol (methylated spirits) to clean up. I really enjoy using soap and water to clean-up in my studio, and almost all of my art supplies have been chosen with that in mind. I have a few oil-based etching inks that I break down with safflower oil before using soap and water. I’ve never used shellac.
      The Liquitex acrylic HIGH gloss varnish is due to arrive today from amazon, and I hope to test it side by side with the gloss varnish on a test-plate this week. We shall see!

  3. Hi Sally – You’re right about the plates becoming works of art themselves… they get stained with ink, and almost sculptural, in a bas-relief style. If you’re hand printing, be sure your incised lines are super shallow, and preferably skinny. A plate with wide and narrow line-work, and a ton of topography (high, mid and low points of height) will be best suited for a press. Hand transfer blooms best with simpler designs, single-story houses (no skyscrapers or multiplexes on the plate), and shallow, skinny cutting. Good luck with it, and I hope you keep at it!

  4. Hi Belinda, Thanks for sharing your experimentation. The print and plate came out well in the end. When I tried this technique after watching your other video on this topic, I ended up liking the plate more than the print. A new artform: printmaking plates! Anyway, I see now that it may have been the amount of ink build up on the plate, or the paper wasn’t damp enough (hand printing), or well…something else. It’s definitely true that printmakers need to be problem solvers. 🙂

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