You are here: Home » Grad School » Five Reasons to attend Making Art Safely’s Direct-to-Plate Gravure Workshop

Five Reasons to attend Making Art Safely’s Direct-to-Plate Gravure Workshop

Direct-to-plate gravures made during a Making Art Safely workshop, led by Don Messec.

Direct-to-plate gravures made during a Making Art Safely workshop, led by Don Messec.

No running water flows through the Making Art Safely studio near Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are no toxic solvents languishing on shelves alongside oil-based inks. In fact, all of the inks are soy oil-based. These are all part of Don Messec’s plan to share best practices in safe printmaking with his workshop participants.

During my five of my eight days in the desert, I spent hours at this studio and learned the direct-to-plate method (dtp) of using photopolymer plates to create photogravures.

If you just blinked and thought about leaving this page because the last sentence made little sense, let me explain the process as concisely as I can.

Let’s start with photogravure. This is where photography and printmaking merge. It started out as a way to mass-produce photographic images in publications. With the help of Edward Stieglitz around the turn of the 20th century, it became an art form.

It involves transferring a photographic image onto a metal plate (originally and still in use are copperplates, which require acid baths to etch the image). The image is etched into the plate, and then using ink along with the pressure of a press, the image is transferred to paper.

To make this short, there is a new form of gravure printing plates developed by Dan Weldon called solarplate. These are made of steel sheets that have a thin coating of photopolymer adhered to them, which is light sensitive. The image is transferred to this surface either using a digital negative or the dtp method and then the plate is exposed to UV light. From there, the plate is developed in water, which causes the plate to become etched. From here it is dried, hardened and printed. At this latter point, the plate is treated like an intaglio etching plate (inked) and printed.

It’s more complicated than I have represented, so I recommend taking a class. A few years ago, I took an amazing workshop from Paul Taylor at Renaissance Press in Digital Precision Negatives and photopolymer gravures. I loved it, but it involved a lot of technical details. And for the sake of transparency, I do recommend it, but since I have recently returned from Don’s and am doing a new series using this medium, I am centering on the dtp process.

Five reasons to take Don’s Direct-to-Plate Workshop

  1. You’ll learn doable and affordable safe practices. Don is a guru on this topic. Once upon a time, while teaching at a university, his challenge was to create a printmaking program that required little monetary expenditure to bring in safe practices. He succeeded. For many of us who grew up before the years of the greening movement, we never wore gloves when inking plates, dipping the plates in acid baths, and we stood over the latter, agitating it, breathing in all the fumes…
  2. You’ll become more environmentally aware. You’ll discover why I use words like best practices in safe printmaking rather than nontoxic or green. Through this, you’ll use less water than ever (none of it running from the tap to the sink drain). You’ll watch your paper towel consumption and find that baby wipes and denatured alcohol are your friends. You’ll never wash pigments down the drain again.
  3. There is no digital negative or aquatint screen needed in this process. Your image goes straight from Adobe Photoshop to the printer that prints the image onto your plate (this takes away any etching one does in traditional intaglio work). There is less room for error (darn those newton rings) from making a digital negative and exposing it to the plate. The finish print is one generation closer to the original.
  4. The sun is an exposure unit. An option for exposing your plate involves putting your plate in direct sunlight (somewhere around a minute). The light sensitive photopolymer causes the image to burn into the plate.
  5. Don, even when tired and seeming a bit crusty, knows the ins and outs of the process – he is one of the inventors of the dtp process. He is passionate about dtp and safe practices, and very good at explaining it all in an understandable way.

And did I mention, he’s got a special knack for cooking and making up his own recipes. He may just surprise you with a dinner one night during the workshop – a foodie delight.

For more information about Don, his company Making Art Safely, and workshops, visit


The Unwinding Path is the blog of L.S. King – photographer, want-to-be printmaker and sometimes hypnotist. By day she is an arts communications officer at a rural university (translation: photographer, writer, and media content provider), and most of the rest of her time she is an MFA graduate student at Radford University.


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