Grind-your-own graphite pigment for April

For Silkscreen of the Month: April with Molly Crabapple, we chose an image of a woman walking a fish in celebration of Poisson de Avril. For Americans, it’s April Fool’s, but instead of the fool, it involves placing a fish on one’s back. Or something.

I originally planned to do it strictly in a series of greys, but then it was suggested that if I wanted a shimmery grey that looked like graphite I should just USE graphite. Which is apparently a thing you can do and I will explain how. Please feel free to use this gallery for reference:

Basically, if you didn’t run out to the art store in a timely and prepared manner to just buy a jar of powdered graphite, nor did you wander over to a hardware store where you can also find powdered graphite (it’s used for locks) then you can take one of your spare sticks of pure graphite (not your regular wood pencils, but one that’s JUST graphite and a protective plastic sleeve or piece of paper), remove its wrapping, hit it with a hammer to break it up into smaller chunks and then dump it into an electric coffee grinder.

Don’t ever expect to use the coffee grinder for coffee after that, unless the coffee is also being mixed into an ink for screenprinting/painting.

Once you have your soft powdered graphite, you then begin to mix it into the tiniest bit of water. You want to minimally saturate it, so don’t go overboard with the water or else you’ll have to add more pigment. It helps if you have a pigment additive, which is basically a soapy mixture to help the powder become suspended in the water. Do this until you have a thick near mud. If you add too much water, you can pour it out onto a sheet of glass and use a heat gun to evaporate the water until it is a better consistency. Or, if you have time, leave it on a sunny windowsill.

Once you’re ready with your pigment muck, you’ll want to add transparent base. Just enough to make it flow well through your screen.

If you add very little base, you’re more likely to be able to smudge the graphite after it’s printed. It is similar to placing down pencil lines and you might require some fixative if you plan on having them stacked together and rubbing against things. Too much base and you lose that graphite sheen and it becomes a flatter, less interesting grey. Additionally, if you use a whole lot, the graphite becomes so minimally suspended in the base that it no longer goes down as a flat colour but you instead get streaky bits as your squeegee pushes the grains against the paper. You can alternate the direction you’re printing in to get slight cross hatching effects. Or you can go in one direction and have an interesting faux wood grain appearance.

Other things of note is that as you’re pushing your homemade ink across the screen, you’ll be grinding up the pigment, which can result in a slight discolouration where the pigment gets darker and darker.

This was my first experimentation with mixing pigments, and making my own pigments! In theory, you can add any colouring agent (powdered pigments, raw squid ink, human blood) to base and turn it into a longer lasting homemade ink for printing. I’m excited for what to try to print with next.

3 Responses to “Grind-your-own graphite pigment for April”

  1. […] I love soft graphite – my favourite pencil to bring around is a 9B. I used 9B when I made the April Silkscreen since I knew I could get a fantastic colour range. Most standard pencil leads are either HB or 2B, […]

  2. […] When mixing, you add pigment to a transparent base and mix and mix and mix until it is evenly dispersed in the base. You can add this disperse water additive to help it blend in a lot better. I don’t know how it works, but it does! I used it when mixing the graphite ink back in the April silkscreen. […]

  3. […] April 4 colour silkscreen. I made my own pigment by grinding up a stick of 9B graphite. The frame is a silver ink, the background being first the pigment mixed lightly into a transparent base, then printed on top of that is a halftone in the pigment with slightly less base, then the outlines are straight graphite pigment. […]

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