Jes Lee

Sometimes the baby steps seem boring

It has been awhile again since I have posted, but I have been hard at work on this project since the last update.

All along I knew this series would involve a lot of experimenting. I am far from an expert at this medium, but I am in love with it. I have learned to use new equipment, work in a different environment that what I have in the past…

All of these lead to much trial and error. When it comes to trying to keep up a blog about a project, it often seems like all the trials, and especially the failures, are boring to talk about. But they have their place in this journey as well, and it is time some of them are acknowledged here.

Nikki Schneider, the printmaking professor at ARCC, the studios where I am creating this work, encouraged me to test out a bit of the graphite color ink we have in our supply. Her words were “try it, I bet you fall in love, and then you’ll buy your own 1-pound can of it”. She was right! I tried one of the not-so-successful prints with it, and fell in love with the tones. Off I went to buy ink.

I have heard so many people love the Akua soy based inks. Doing anything in a way that is somehow better for the environment is always on my mind, and I felt I should give them a try. So I bought two colors, one of course being graphite, and headed back to the studios. I never posted any of those results here, because they are not good. The inks are very runny, and very light. I tried modifying them, but could see right away that it was going to take a lot more work than what I had time for. I was discouraged, and after many conversations with the other artists around me, I went back to using oil based inks. I’m not giving up completely on the soy inks, but I can’t dedicate that much research time to this series on ink alone.

The last print I posted here was one of the best plates and prints I had made so far. There were still parts of the image that were not quite right though, and needed adjusting. Part of the back ground was a bit too blown out, and the layer with the street signs was showing through too dark. Now the challenge of making those fine adjustments, and making another plate.


I like how this print turned out better, and I am thrilled that I am getting the hang of adjusting the image to what I need to make a plate that I want. This has been the hardest (and possibly the most expensive!) lesson to learn through all of this, but it is encouraging to see the progress.

Last week I also did some experiments with color. My earlier work has been full of bright colors, and while I don’t expect (or want) this medium to take on the same qualities as my earlier work, I am very curious about how color choices will play into this series of images. Most of all, I wanted to know how possible it would be to ink and wipe a plate with two colors of ink on it. How much control would I have over the edges where the colors met? Or would everything just mix together to be an ugly brown blob?

It turns out, inking a plate with two colors is not that hard. What is harder is feeling that I have mixed the right colors, and that the colors are actually adding to the feeling of the image. I still have a lot of research to do on that piece of the puzzle.


The first image I made with a much harder edge between the two colors, and I was surprised at how easy it was to control where that edge would be, and how I could control what blended and what didn’t.


The last print I made in that short run, I blended the edge a lot more, letting the colors bleed in to one another. I know I have a lot more questions and challenges to work out with this, but it is exciting to see that the potential is there.

So far all the images I am working with are double images. This is a challenge with this process as it is very easy for areas to get too dense, or to not have enough detail. I have not yet mastered it, but from my first many trials, I am learning a lot about what type of image I am looking for and what the transparency should look like.

I have a long way to go still before this work is displayed this summer, but I am feeling perhaps a bit more sure about myself with this. Every time I make a plate, and pull a print, I am thrilled to be working in this way, and letting myself run wild with future possibilities and projects. And that is something I can not give up on.

I know I have jumped with both feet into the deep end. Thank goodness for all that taught me how to swim!

The successful print

Thursday I went in to the studio before my work shift started, intent on making one large plate. Maybe a print too, but for sure a plate.

I cleaned the plate maker, clean glass, new transparency.

Deep breath.

Light coating of baby powder on the plate and giving the vacuum table time to run and settle before flipping it over for exposure.

62 light units for the aquatint screen.

3.7 light units for the image.

One of the students followed me into the darkroom to watch the plate develop.

15 seconds of just water swishing. 40 seconds of brush washing. Blotted dry with smooth newsprint.

“I’m so excited!!”, the student watching said.

Yeah, me too.

I dried the plate. Time for post exposure. This time I taped it to the outside of the glass so nothing could stick to it.

“Are you going to print it!?”, I’m asked. Looking at the clock, I have just enough time.

I ink it, and pull one print before I am scheduled to work.

It is the best print I have gotten since starting this project with this medium and this plate burner. No, it isn’t perfect, there are areas I want to tweak, and make a new transparency and a new plate and try again. But this is the first that doesn’t have the spots, the splotchy-ness, the fuzzy edges, the uneven exposure. I know the steps, I know what I have to do. Now I just need to work on the images.

Stay tuned! Those are coming!

Progress! Sweet progress!

There was a lot of testing done. And over the last two weeks I have spent a lot of time with this little machine.

After spending many hours one Sunday making test strips out of polymer plates, I knew I was close with the exposure times.

Results like this kept me going. Not perfect, but better. I started testing plates that were just a little larger. I know that this series will have layered images. But I was uncertain how that would translate to this medium. I realized there were two approaches I could use. 1. To make the layered image in Photoshop and print a transparency with them layered like I want, and make a plate from that. Though I figured that would be challenging due to the fact that layering images in Photoshop can make some areas very dense, making a difficult image to make a plate from. Option 2. would be to split up the two images, make a separate transparency and separate plate of each and do the image layering on the press. I knew this would be a challenge to get the images to blend together smoothly, and registration of plates so they lined up during printing could be a night mare.

I started playing with images, and trying both ideas. It also gave me a chance to play with ink tones and colors a bit. Everything was helping, and getting me closer to what I wanted. I could see that. But nothing was “it”.  The exposures were decent, but the images were fuzzy, and spotty. I started doing more research through blogs to troubleshoot what was happening.

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Once I had learned more about what could be going wrong, and after a pretty rough week, I decided to try one more plate. I was somewhat confident that I knew what was happening, that my aquatint screen and my image transparency were not making good enough contact, due in part to the fact that I was using a smaller plate to test, but not necessarily using a smaller screen or image. I was trying to save money in plate material to test, but it wasn’t necessarily giving me proper tests.

So I took a deep breath, and jumped in. Stay tuned for how that turned out!

A new project start

It has been a bit quiet around here lately.

For good reason this time. In May my artwork was on display at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts along with photography by Eileen Cohen. I am really happy with how the work for that show turned out. We had a blast at the reception, and I am thrilled that I was part of that!

Right away after that show opened, I started focusing on the next project. This one is a doozy!

I have been accepted to have a solo show at the Octagon Center for the Arts in Ames, Iowa next summer!

This series will be a departure from my recent work. Instead of ink jet prints, the final print version of these images will be made using a technique called ‘photo polymer photogravure’. It is a modern version of a very old printmaking technique, being much like copperplate photo etching, but using polymer plates that are developed in water instead of acid.

I am very lucky that between local artists I admire that let me ask hundreds of questions, and many blog posts by many other practitioners of this medium, I have been able to make a lot of progress. I have used this printmaking medium before, but it has been awhile. But when I used it before, it was not my primary medium to work in. So of course there are many people who know more than me.

I am also very lucky that I work at a community college in the art department, and my coworkers have given me permission to use the equipment at school to work on this project. Of course this means that I have to become very proficient with using the NuArc exposure unit that no one else has had time to become proficient with. This has involved a lot of testing, note taking, and trial and error.


Thanks to one blog post, I learned about making a test strip on a polymer plate. This is a technique I had suspected might be possible, but wasn’t 100% certain if I was on the right track. After a long session of going in to test on my day off, I am much closer to a good baseline exposure. Next is test printing.

Those test prints will be done on one of these beautiful presses. You can see two of the three (!!!) amazing etching presses we have in our art department. I’m almost giddy!


More soon!