silk aquatint print portrait of a girl in a bandana

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.

Note: Did you know you can subscribe to this blog and get updates via email? Every new post will be sent to your inbox, for free. Sign up here.

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,


P.S. You can subscribe to get each new post as an email by signing up here (free)

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Silk Aquatint Printmaking: Library Cat

Silk Aquatint Portrait

This post features another silk aquatint , with colored pencil, based on a quick cell phone snapshot of my trusty studio assistant, Scout.  

He’s all about being helpful, especially if you need things like fur in the paint, shoe laces untied while carving details on a block, or paint brushes scattered to the floor.

He’s house-renowned as an expert in his field of Bothersome-but-Cute. Do you have a studio assistant?

sigining small editions - a hand holding the print after it's been signed and numbered
Signing a small edition of ten silk aquatint prints
Applying printmaking ink to the plate with scrap mat board to get ready to print a small edition of silk aquatints

How Do You Make a Silk Aquatint?

If you’re unfamiliar with silk aquatint, visit this post to read an explanation of the process and the concept.

After you read about how a silk aquatint is made, come back here, and let’s look at this version of a silk aquatint, made from a sheet of mat board and synthetic silk.

This was an experiment in plate-making; I wanted to see if the plate substrate could be made from mat board (also called press board or gray board, depending on the continent you live on). For flexibility, I wanted to understand if the plate material would work best when made from mat board, masonite or plexiglass.

You can see in the post I referred to above that I made quite a few test plates on different surfaces, with different forms of silk. I’ll go into more details on that in a video later, to help demystify this beautiful process.

Pushing ink into the silk adhered to a sealed mat board plate, and painted with acrylic and medium gloss gel
Wiping ink away from the plate with tarlatan (starched cheesecloth)
After a trip through the press, where the paper was pressed into the ink-holding mesh of the silk, the print is pulled

No Press, No Problem

Silk Aquatint is a beautiful option for detailed, and subtly shaded printmaking. It does require a press, but don’t let that stop you.

For the first decade or two after my introduction to printmaking, I continued to make blocks and plates, and then begged and borrowed time on other people’s presses everywhere I went.

Search your town for printmakers, printing labs, print workshops, junior colleges and Universities with print programs till you find resources. Access to print labs will also acquaint you with various presses.

Your hands-on experiences will inform your decision later, if you plan to buy a press of your own.

And if you enjoy working small, research the movement of altering embossing machines and pasta makers to print intaglio style printmaking (drypoint, silk aquatint, collagraph) at home.

a small aquatint of a cat's face getting a little colored pencil tinting, next to a sleeping cat with his back to the artwork
The model, napping through his modeling session for added color and detail, as usual.

Keep Your Experimenter’s Hat On

Like Most printmaking, silk aquatint takes a couple of tweaks and a spattering of tries before you get the hang of it, so don’t be deterred. It’s loads of fun, and the plates are sturdy and beautiful.

If you run into issues, leave the details in the comments below, and we can all chip in as a community to answer the questions. We get much better at this stuff when we work on it together. Don’t you think?

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


Art Quote

There is no such thing as talent. What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way.

Winslow Homer
two monkeys and a crow discuss painting more often
Click the crow to take a free mini course via video….

6 thoughts on “Silk Aquatint Printmaking: Library Cat”

  1. Mary Barousse

    I receive your emails and enjoyed reading up on silk aquatint today. Your information was so helpful. I can’t wait to experiment in the future!!! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. I have a studio dog, Border Terrier Tessa, 4 years old and very impatient. 18 lbs of mischief. I enjoy your posts and thank you for sharing your techniques. Great blog.

    1. Hi Jan, 18 pounds of mischief gave me pause! Now THAT would be a studio-interruption! But I bet your Tessa is cute enough to make each visitor to your studio empty their pockets of all treats for her! Thanks so much for your visit, and compliments! Happy creating!

  3. Hi Sue, My studio cat Scout sends a hello to your studio cat Pipkin. Paw-High-Five. I’m glad Susan is teaching silk aquatint – it’s a beautiful and painterly printmaking method more people should know about. I do have the Library Cat print – it’s an edition of 10. I’ll have to add one to my Etsy Shop. Thanks for your interest. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *