Alternative Printmaking Techniques: Chemigrams


Before the world of Instagram, photographers around the world knew about another gram - chemigrams. We are happy to introduce a new tipster series dedicated to printmaking. Today we'll start with a simple yet rewarding technique first established in the 1950s by Belgian artist Pierre Cordier.

Simply made by drawing with a developer and fixer on photosensitive paper, it can't be called a photograph, however it is encompassed in the realm of experimentation and visual art. This practice can be a good exercise to work on your composition skills and to get creative.

Prints by Elisa Parrino

What You Need

To create abstract compositions, you just need simple tools that you probably already have in your studio: developer and fixing solutions.

As we are working on printing for this tipster, be careful to use the right chemistry. Developer for printing and developer for film are not the same unless it says so on the packaging. Keep in mind that you will have to re-store both the fixer and developer so have a bottle ready. (We used the same developer a few times, unlike for film development when it must be discarded.)

We worked with two different solutions. The purplish examples were achieved with standard Ilford following a standard print developer formula 1:9. For fixing we used Ilford rapid fixer diluted 1:9 (100ml fixing solution with 900 ml of water) at 20°.

Step 1, coat the paper with resistant mixture of choice. Step 2, compose your objects and create either a negative image or a positive image. Here we show a positive image: dip in developer and leave a blank the background. Step 3, place under direct sunlight to expose the image as long as it needs to be.

However for this experiment we wanted to peak your curiosity a bit and work with some homemade developer. A more natural solution of soda crystals, vitamin C and instant coffee works just as well. We already used this recipe when we used Caffenol to develop black and white film. This solution can work perfectly for these kinds of prints too.

Paper and Objects

As for which paper to use, expired paper works wonders and you don't need to waste fresh and expensive paper. However, if you feel like using a new batch it's absolutely fine. We got our hands on expired Kodak paper from the 80s and some Slavich Photographic paper, as well as unexpired Rolley paper. The Kodak and Slavich photographic paper was already a small size and we used the whole surface to draw; while for the Rolley paper, we used previously cut sheets that were intended to be used as testing stripes and one sheet cut in half.

Step 4, wash in water bath. Step 5, agitate your paper in the fixing bath. Step 6, remove and wash in water again. Let it dry.

Lastly, collect some material to compose your image. This could be flowers, leaves, tape or anything that can make a shape. It is also good to paint on some substances that can resist the action of the chemicals such as honey, toothpaste or sunscreen. For our experiment we used flowers, leaves, honey and hand-cream. We also used small spray bottles to distribute the chemicals as well as brushes. This allows for a variety of different compositions. Brush strokes of resistant substances can create interesting patterns. Do not be afraid to work with the light on as it is fine to subject your paper to light.

Prints by Elisa Parrino


Natural developing formula:

  • Soda crystals 25 gr
  • Vitamin C 12.6 gr
  • Instant coffee 50 gr
  • Water 900 ml

Once you have your solution ready to be used, pour it into your tray. Like you would do with paint, apply the developer on whatever object you want to use, or directly on to your paper and draw. Now expose it to the light. It can be directly in the sun or under the light of an enlarger. To stop the chemical reaction, put your print onto the stop bath then proceed to fix your image. The time is subjective, so when you see the shape forming, based on the intensity of the dark area you want to achieve, then move accordingly to the next step.

Prints by Elisa Parrino

When we work with printmaking, it is best to be organized and keep a safe distance between your trays. Developer and fixer should always be separated by the stop bath tray in between. This will avoid cross contamination.

When we work on Chemigrams we must keep the concept of negative and positive images in mind. For example, if we are going to paint the paper with a developer first, then, once exposed to the sun, the wet surface will turn dark, hence our shape should be dipped in a fixer to leave a positive space. Do not forget to use the stop bath in between.

Vice versa, if you want to achieve a positive image then you must dip your designated shape in developer, expose it to the sun, then the stop bath and lastly fixer. The fixer will wash away all the unexposed chemicals. Since your sheet has been exposed to light the whole time, the different intensity of the light will be seen through contrasting shades of darkness across your print.

Prints by Elisa Parrino

Different shades of colors can also come from the photosensitive paper. If you try to protect parts of the treated paper, the untouched chemistry will react to the sun exposure. However, if we don't apply developers or fixers, that portion will continue reacting to the light. You can see this with the vivid blue hue from the Rolley unexpired paper and the tones of brown from the expired Kodak.

Once you find your groove this technique can be highly rewarding. It is normal to try a few times before you get something you like. After all, when we approach a new technique we must become accustomed to it, get familiar with our tools, figure out what we like and then decide which direction we want to go. This is what experimenting is all about.

Are you familiar with printmaking techniques? Have you ever tried printing your negatives? Is there any print procedure that you'd like to see on our Magazine? Leave a comment below.

written by eparrino on 2022-05-18 #tutorials #videos #printmaking #chemigrams #photosensitive-paper-print

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