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Non-toxic: sense or non-sense?


Marnix Everaert - A Green Dream? March 8, 2019, Kanazawa, Japan.



Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

Minasama, konbanwa,


Thank you for having made the effort to come to this symposium in Kanazawa. I hope this effort will be worth to be here at this first symposium on non-toxic printmaking in Japan. A country where with the art of Moku Hanga, one of the oldest and complete non-toxic techniques, emerged and came to fruition. In this way, Japan plays an important role in our story.


In late December 1999 I met in Rochester, NY, USA a person who would forever change my view upon the way prints are made. That person was Keith Howard. I stayed precisely one day and night in Rochester but after these 24 hours I knew I was never going to think about printmaking and the techniques in the same way as before. That day I was converted and devoted to a safer way of printmaking.


A second important meeting came a couple of years later with someone from Denmark who had written a handbook of non-toxic intaglio from a European point of view. Henrik Bøegh opened this handbook with an “Open letter to a sceptic”, in which he is explaining what is so different between the traditional way of printmaking and a new way, a non-toxic way of printmaking.


Both were already researching safer ways of printmaking for nearly a decade, so I stepped late in the game.


We are now 20 years later and I must say to my two printmaking fathers, who I love and admire a lot, their son has been going his own path. As we all do, I suppose.


I know a lot of people, and probably also Keith and Henrik, will probably not have liked the tittle “A Green Dream?”  because of the words green, dream and obviously, the question mark on the end. These words are expressing doubt. Doubt about how green non-toxic, less-toxic, safer printmaking, acrylic resist etching, and so much other names that have the same goal, can be.


On top, the title of my talk “non-toxic: sense or non-sense” is expressing doubt. But let me put this straight forward from the start, I strongly believe and advocate a different way of printmaking without condemning other ways. Everybody has the right to do whatever she or he wants and this includes printmaking. But this also means that I do not have to close my eyes for things that, in my opinion, can go wrong within traditional and non-toxic.


Unfortunately, after all these years there is still a deep gap between non-toxic and traditional. I see this during workshops, I hear this in talks with other printmakers and notice educational institutions are not changing their way of working to a more contemporary view. In both groups, traditional and non-traditional, pretend they are right and the other is wrong. I think it is time to overcome this gap. We must understand that non-toxic is not an enemy of traditional ways of working. Tradition is on its turn not the devil in person. We should understand that non-toxic is built upon tradition and is part of the evolution printmaking has been going on since printmaking was invented. Without innovation there is stagnation, and where stagnation is around things eventually stop.


If we cannot fully compete with traditional products and techniques, non-toxic will not easy get the place it deserves. But I believe the problem with techniques is not the big one. For pro and contra, it is clear a lot of non-toxic intaglio techniques are a based on the same principles as traditional printmaking. Hard ground is just a layer in which we are scratching through to get to the metal, soft ground is a layer which must stay soft and aquatint is giving the same results sprayed with a liquid or dusted with rosin on a plate.

In the mind of a lot of people I meet who do not trust non-toxic, the products which are used in non-toxic are inferior. And in a certain way they have a point, albeit a half one. A lot of the products we are working with are, from their point of view, for amateurs, hobbyists but not professionals. It is true that we are working with products that do not have the history of traditional products that got the chance to be fine-tuned over hundreds of years…


The products we are working with have been around for already a while, but were not always used in printmaking. Working with a floor cleaner as a hard ground is not very convincing to much printmakers. When the company is changing its formula because of regulations and laws of countries they export to or simply because they got a better floor cleaner, and the formula works not anymore for printmaking then we move again to point zero. When with the death of a producer the formula for a printmaking product is lost, we have another problem. When a company decides to market a product that works so-so this gives a problem again. When products cannot be purchase in a lot of countries around the world, not even similar products, we have another problem. Can we in this case ask to printmakers to change and give up their traditional way of working? Can we ask them to go through the effort of learning how to work with new products and fail because of change in formula, companies giving up their product line or simply the product is not available in their country? I believe you need to be an inventive person to go through this all.


Of course, in Europe and the USA it is easy to inform ourselves and buy products in the art shop around the corner or through internet. But be a printmaker who wants to change to non-toxic living in a country where things are not as simple. We easily forget about them.


We, and I am speaking about the whole printmaking world, need products that are great for hobbyists, amateurs and professionals. That would be an important change.


But there is more.


The first years I was working with non-toxic I was mainly focussed upon the fact that it would be better for my health. Non-toxic has become nearly became a synonym for health. As Henrik Bøegh already stated in his “Open letter to a sceptic” none of what we use is completely non-toxic or good for your health. One should be aware of what is used and take precautions. This is the same for traditional and non-toxic. We are still working with chemical components and should be aware of this matter.


Non-toxic, and in a larger view the whole concept of printmaking, is knowing your products, know what you are working with, learn about them, know how to handle them. A lot of health issues could already be reduced by showing interest in what you are working with. It is obvious that products which do hold hazardous solvents, products that produce fumes when heated, which produce acidic fumes should not be used anymore. The idea of using extraction units to reduce these fumes and vapours is something which can be OK for schools and larger studios but what message do we give to students and studio members? A bad one since most of the students after finishing their studies do not have the money and place to set up a studio themselves. They do their art still with dangerous products in mostly bad ventilated spaces unaware of what they are using since they were never learned how to handle these products properly. If they are lucky they have a membership studio around where they can work, hopefully in good conditions. However, in a long career as a professor I noticed that most students give up printmaking since they do not want to work in a space that stinks and feels unhealthy. What is the point of teaching printmaking when most of your students stop printmaking after their studies and turn to other ways of producing art?


Both schools and membership studios have a big responsibility when it comes to health issues. They should be the reference and starting point in educating a safer way of printmaking. The change has already started, but I notice still a negative and sometimes even aggressive reaction when I speak about non-toxic. I notice this is mostly related to not being familiar with non-toxic, not getting correct information, not being open for change, not being open for learning, thinking non-toxic will erase the noble art of traditional printmaking. I have a warm call to all of us, have an open view and discuss… We are not only talking about techniques and views upon non-toxic but also about the future of printmaking.


I live in a country where young people are protesting for already nine weeks on a row by skipping classes every Thursday in the hope that governments will act to do something about climate change. This protest is not organized by political parties, nor other organized movements but started with Greta Thurnberg, a young Swedish girl from16, who decided to protest on the steps of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. This by skipping classes in an act of civil disobedience until the Swedish government will act doing something about climate change. Her protest inspired two Flemish girls to do the same but in a larger way. Their call to skip classes every Thursday until the Belgian government comes with propositions and laws to act against climate change is heard by over 10.000 youngsters between 16 and 18. Young people who skip classes every Thursday for the last ten weeks and who come to Brussels and other cities in Belgium to protest.


To say there is a big group of young people on its way who are not only seeing the health issues but who are also aware of environmental issues. Also in my classes I get more and more students (young and old) who are aware of the environmental problems related to printmaking.


Of course, you can extract all solvent fumes, acidic fumes out of a studio by using an extraction system which gets these fumes out of one space and pushes it in to the environment. This is putting the problem from exactly one place to another. You can wear a mask and gloves when working with rosin but what do we do with the contamination of rosin particles which spread all around the rosin box?


The impact on the environment is less with non-toxic. But is it completely gone? What to do with the immense small particles of acrylics and polymers when washed away with water? What to do with the water used after rinsing a plate which was submerged in ferric chloride? What to do with worn out ferric chloride and copper sulphate that contain copper ions? What with the plastics we use for backing the plates?  Of course, one can say these problems and the amounts of materials used in non-toxic are small in comparison with industrial size. For most of these problems there is a kind of answer but much is related to the good will of the user not to just throw it out nor pour it directly in the sink.


Education is in this part very important.  If we have professors at schools and universities or instructors in studios/workshops who are aware of the risks with non-toxic materials we are on the way to a better approach of working which is connecting health and environment.


The environmental part brings us to the next one: sustainability.


We all want a system that is social, in which every printmaker gets the opportunity to work with products that are available nearby. A system that is ecological, which doesn’t put pressure on the environment we live in.  A system that is economical, in which one can work with products that are available everywhere on this world.


During a trip to South Africa, where (together with other printmakers) I had a project to set up a small studio in an orphanage in Cato Ridge, KwaZulu-Natal. There I started thinking about the fact we live in very privileged areas of the world. Where products are available through a simple click on the button on your computer. We easily forget that’s not everywhere this way. Imagine working in an area where the products we normally use are simply not available. Where there are nearly no materials to work with, materials which we take for granted.  Where people also want to work in a safer way, but cannot do this because of lack of knowledge and materials. I started to think how they can do things themselves with safe materials available in their country and region.


What is the point of doing a workshop with materials that are not available or can’t be shipped to the country you are demonstrating your way of working. What’s the point of working with materials that are made for another field and on which there is no guarantee the producer will keep the same formula?


People like Liz Chalfin, Keith Howard, Friedhard Kiekeben, Henrik Bøegh, Andrew Baldwin, Shichio Minato and all others (in which I may include myself) who are trying to find a safer way of printmaking have researched and made recipes for different products which you can produce yourselves. Sharing your formulas, techniques and knowledge is a way to bring printmaking further. Keeping them yourselves is not a good thing to do if you want to change the future of printmaking. It makes people dependent from the products they use and is taking away the adventure in printmaking.


But shouldn’t we even go one more step further? Products and techniques accessible for everybody who wants to work with them is great, but I have the personal feeling that a lot of safer products which we use or produce ourselves using D.I.Y. formulas are going different directions. You have ink based methods (like B.I.G. and GC relief ink), acrylic based methods (like Lascaux or other D.I.Y. acrylic resits formulas), wax based (the asphalt based soft and hard ball ground) and methods that use industrial made products like floor cleaners, a kind of non-toxic bitumen rubber and probably other ones which we do not know about. Some of these products are fine, other ones appear and disappear since they do not give the quality we are used to.


The strong point with traditional however is everybody uses products made with the same basic components one can get (nearly) everywhere. A traditional soft or hard ground is all over the world made with the same, mostly easy to get, components. You just need beeswax, fat, powdered rosin and asphalt and solvents. Unfortunately, the solvents, the asphalt and rosin used in this mix are not exactly what one can call non-toxic. But they give an excellent ground to work in. Using ball grounds in comparison with their liquid version is already better since they don’t give the fumes from solvents anymore, if used at the correct temperature. They can be easily removed with using the same temperature as the one you needed to bring them on and still cleaned on the hotplate in the lines with just a rag and canola oil. They have a long history and are reliable.


We are fuelling the people who question non-toxic by the fact that a lot of what we do and the range of material and products we use seems shattered. They look at non-toxic as amateur, a hobby thing and not working as well as traditional. If we do not get universities, contract printmakers, printmaking studios and others with us I foresee a long way before things will really change.


The role of schools and studios cannot be underestimated. If professors and teachers are maybe interested but not willing to learn how to work with non-toxic, if studios do not want to change, if people just stick to the old methods they learned at school how can one expect their students or studio members will learn the skills for working in a safer way?


There is a big role for academic research. For professors teaching their students how to work with safe products and who believe in this way of working,


Maybe we should search for products that work as well as the traditional, but do not contain their harmful ingredients. Products made with ingredients that are locally produced and/or easily found so everywhere on this world people can enjoy printmaking. Products you can alter yourselves to the point you like. Products that are removed without the use of harmful liquids or liquids at all. Products that have the same qualities as traditional ones. Products that do the work they’re produced for or maybe even better. Products which are as non-toxic as possible. Products which formula is open source. Products that will reflect the world we live in, a society that cares more and more about health, environment and sustainability.


Is this all just a green dream? I believe and I am sure it’s not. I believe the idea of non-toxic is a very positive one. Even if people stick to traditional ways of working at least they know non-toxic exists and is bringing a discussion about the nature of printmaking. A discussion which has not been done over the last hundreds of years. The society we are living in and the earth we are living on has changed enormously the last 20, 30 years. Non-toxic is still in its cradle but I am sure this will change.  Change is a thing which is hard to cope with for a lot of people, but in the end, we will all understand this change is for the better and will give a lot of opportunities for the survival of printmaking as an art.

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