Collagraph printmaking is an artistic technique whereby items are pasted to a rigid substrate like paper, mount board, or wood. Then, they apply ink to the collagraph plates and run them through a printing press that carefully stamps the inked piece against the paper, creating printed artwork.
Artists worldwide make and sell their works or submit collagraph pieces to world-class art museums. Below, you’ll find the definition, history, process, and notable students of collagraph print creation.
Artist Glen Alps coined the name collagraph as a portmanteau of “collage” and “graph.” Originally, he used the skill to make collage-style artworks with varying shapes and colors. Today, many artists create collagraph works depicting more than collages, from natural scenes to negative-color patterns.
Along with lithography, engraving, and etching, collagraph art is a type of printmaking. Instead of applying artistic mediums to a canvas, each print involves affixing objects to a substrate, after which the artist often fills or covers the base with ink.
Collagraphs feature rigid substrates like wood, cardboard, and layered paper. Artists usually use shellac and PVA glue to harden the printing plate further so that it withstands the process firmly. Upon preparing the substrate, the artist uses many tools to create images, patterns, and designs.
Artists typically create depressions or place objects on the surface to create raised areas for printing. By manipulating the layers of collagraph plates, artists can make negative and positive spaces and works that look three-dimensional.
After the design, the next step is to cover it with ink. The artist can use any technique they like, such as intaglio or relief, to prepare the work for printing. Finally, the printer uses a machine to firmly press the inked substrate onto a sheet of paper, creating the finished artwork.
Collagraphy has murky origins in the 19th century. Historians and artists aren’t sure who invented the process, only that it began decades before getting an official name. Some of the earliest collagraph printmakers include Rolf Nesch and Edmond Casarella.
In 1957, artist and teacher Glen Alps coined the name “collagraph” and popularized the genre. Since then, many new printmakers have added to the legacy and concept, creating prints with new materials and for new purposes.
Early Collagraph Prints
The first collagraph prints likely arose in the late 19th century as artists experimented with various art forms. Lithography, or stone etchings, and ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, were popular in the latter half of the century. They inspired many artists to experiment with printing methods.
Eventually, an artist attempted to print a base with items pasted on it. Although nobody knows the genre’s exact genesis, artists still debate the nature of Pierre Roche’s 1893 work Algues Marines as the first example. He affixed items to a copper plate, which he then inked and stamped onto Japanese printing paper.
Pre-Alps Collagraph Printers
Collagraphs would stay under the umbrella of prints until Glen Alps made a distinction. Before then, many other artists following Roche made artworks that fit the category.
A Norwegian artist named Rolf Nesch made several metal collagraph artworks, including Skaugum, as a series of twenty prints. Nesch experimented with colored intaglio ink during the printing process rather than the typical monochrome early artists used.
Boris Margo is another artist integral to the modern collagraph. In the World War II era, he created the cellocut, an art form that used a plastic plate for printing. This technique pushed artists towards the rigid substrate preference of modern collagraphy. Reconstruction is a famous Margo print that uses his unique method.
Finally, Edmond Casarella’s collagraph techniques predated Glen Alps by only a few years. His work Reflections shows the advancement of the genre’s color and texture mastery. Casarella loved to mix inking and impression techniques, treating each part of the piece differently for a varied outcome.
Glen Alps and Popularization
In 1956, Glen Alps gave the collagraph genre its name by publishing Collagraph #1. He combined the genres of collage and printmaking to define the textured art form. As a professor, Alps shared the technique with his students to stimulate creativity.
In its time, Glen Alps’ collagraph was cheap to create, using readily-available materials like plywood and cardboard. As a way to repurpose and recycle materials, collagraphy grew popular as an upcycling art form. Artists after Glen Alps created more pieces with the genre’s newfound title.
Glen Alps continued to create and publish collagraphs to museums until he died in 1996.
Following Glen Alps, many modern artists have made their brands with collagraphs. Belkis Ayon brought her Cuban identity to the genre by creating ethereal black-and-white prints depicting mysterious figures. Estella Scholes demonstrated her unique love of coastal textures with collagraphy, printing the ocean waves on paper.
There are many reputable modern collagraph artists, each with their unique touches. Some create art professionally, while others are hobbyists on Instagram. It is one of the most accessible printing genres due to the ease of material access, and it continues to grow in popularity.
Children can create collagraphy with minimal adult assistance, and the genre gradually became a fun activity for classes of young students to engage with art. It doubles as a way to recycle and restore old materials like cardboard, tissue paper, and paper fingers. Classes are easy to teach with the proper materials, and many forms don’t require a printing press.
Collagraph Production: Step by Step
Creating a collagraph involves four steps: choosing your materials, making your collagraph plate, inking the base, and printing. Let’s go in-depth and examine each step of the printmaking process.
Choosing Your Materials
Any rigid substrate works as the base of a collagraph. Cardboard, wood, mount board, sandpaper, or carborundum are each firm enough and ideal for the artwork. Collagraphs can make beautiful designs from recycled or repurposed materials like plywood, so many artists use that to their advantage. You may need shellac for reinforcement.
Next comes the collage materials and affixing substances. There are no rules for this part. Artists use string, hand-cut metal pieces, and all other items at their disposal for the collage to achieve their desired effect. They use whatever type of PVA glue or putty they prefer to stabilize them on the substrate.
The last materials to choose are your printmaking ink and preferred medium. Intaglio ink is the most popular, and some artists combine it with linseed jelly to reduce stickiness.
Pick what type of printmaking paper you want to use. Artists do not need a printing press to make collagraphy, but it does make the process easier.
Making Collagraph Plates
In this step, the artist prepares the collagraph plate for inking. They arrange and affix the materials however they wish. Many collagraph artists use varied textures and sizes to give the piece asymmetry and intrigue. Affixing pieces at different elevations creates positive and negative space after printing.
You’ll need adhesives and shellac to attach and reinforce the plate’s objects. Pick your favorite glue or putty and let the base dry. Once it’s ready, the next step is to ink it thoroughly.
Inking Your Plate
You can use any process you like to cover the surface of the plate in ink. Intaglio printing is the most common, but artists use relief and other techniques. Tools for inking a collagraph vary from brushes to paint rollers to ink pens. Typically, a creator will cover the entire surface in ink until it looks pure black.
The next step is to wipe off the excess. Too much ink can mar the piece. Artists ensure that the ink fills the crevices on the collagraph plate without overflowing the rest of the piece. Using materials like newsprint, artists carefully wipe the surface with medium pressure until the design is filled but visible. They often repeat the process with different materials for the proper effect.
Printing Your Collagraph
The last step is to print the image. There are two main methods for this step, depending on whether the artist uses a printing press. Both start by moistening the canvas paper so that ink clings to it during stamping. They may use newsprint or other materials to remove excess water.
In the machine method, an artist places their desired paper flat on the press bed. They then delicately put the collagraph plate face-down on the paper, smoothing out the edges gently. Then, using the crank, the machine feeds both the plate and canvas through, where it is firmly stamped onto the surface of the paper.
Making a collagraph without a printing press is slightly more laborious. An artist places a protective non-skid layer or glass slab on a surface and delicately puts their collagraph plate on it, facing up. Then, they place the moistened paper on top and protect it with another thin layer of newsprint.
Once everything is in place, an artist must firmly press on the stack of materials using a spoon, broad utensil, or another device. Circular motions make the artwork come out clean, but this often takes up to twenty minutes of pressing. Artists often make multiple “throw-away” prints with excess ink before the definitive result is ready.
Once you have your finished collagraph, you can display it as a black-and-white print or color it after it dries. Watercolor is a great way to add color without marring the inherent texture of the piece. Gouache and acrylic are bolder choices that can transform a print. As an artist, it’s up to your discretion how you finish the piece.
Famous Collagraph Artwork
Below are three examples of famous collagraphy spanning the genre’s early, middle, and modern stages.
Collagraph Artwork #1 by Glen Alps
Alps’ Collagraph #1 was history’s first artwork to use the genre’s new name. This 1956 piece depicts a grid of shapes, lines, and colors in blue, purple, and yellow. The artwork’s primary drive was showing off the different textural effects the medium can accomplish. Each ‘square’ of the grid features a unique visual sensation of overlap with other regions of the piece.
Glen Alps believed that collagraph was a fantastic medium for expression and creativity, and that shines through in his work. Collagraph #1 has the zany colors and shapes typical of a collage, similar to a scrapbook or a child’s artwork. Today, it hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Elbe Bridge I by Rolf Nesch
Although they weren’t called collagraphs at the time, Rolf Nesch is primarily famous for his prints of bridges. Elbe Bridge I is among his most notable pieces, depicting a glimmering gold and black suspension bridge from an onward angle. Several more of Nesch’s bridge prints wound up in museums, like Elevated Bridge I at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Rolf Nesch ultimately used collagraph techniques to portray the texture, complexity, and depth of architecture. Elbe Bridge I premiered in 1932, serving as one of many proofs that the genre predated Glen Alps.
The Supper by Belkis Ayon
Belkis Ayon is one of many famous modern collagraph printers, and The Supper is her most prominent work. In it, she depicts oblong humanoid figures that mimic the composition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Ayon’s works depict a certain covert group in her home country of Cuba, and the collagraph permits her expert use of light and dark tones.
Ayon’s humanoid figures have original patterns, helping the viewer imagine their tactile sensation. The Supper shows people with scale-like bodies, rigid-looking skin, and more, all accomplished with a collagraph’s unique talent for depth and texture.
Famous Collagraph Artists
Since the 18th century, many reputable collagraph artists have made their mark on the genre and art history as a whole. Since the medium has only had a name since the mid-1950s, there are more modern self-proclaiming collagraph makers than older ones. Let’s look in-depth at six of the most prominent creators in this category.
Glen Alps was born in Loveland, Colorado, in 1914. He attended the University of Northern Colorado but gained most of his art expertise at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and began teaching while he was still a graduate student. While teaching, he coined the name of the collagraph and made them with his classes.
Glen Alps taught at various universities and schools throughout his lifetime, and he learned new techniques from contemporaries on the side. He developed a unique printing press model and a few public sculptures. Alps died on November 3rd, 1996, in his home in Seattle, Washington.
Today, Alps’s works hang in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Library of Congress, the Yale University Art Gallery, and many more locations.
Belkis Ayon was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1967. She attended the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, earning a bachelor’s degree in engraving. Most of Ayon’s works depict the Abakua, which is a mythological group significant to religions in Cuba, Haiti, and Niageria. The secret all-male group shows up in her prints as oblong, humanoid, alien-like creatures.
After the Soviet Union dissolved, art materials were difficult to source in Cuba. Ayon used everything at her disposal from vegetable peelings to tissue paper for her pieces. She made collagraphs until her suicide in Havana in September 1999.
Belkis Ayon’s collagraphy garnered critical acclaim worldwide, showing in the New York Museum of Modern Art, El Museo de Barrio, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, among others.
Estella Scholes has a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Manchester Academy of Fine Art. She has been working with collagraphy since her graduation in 2003 and has had works in galleries since at least 2012. Scholes is passionate about the geography and architecture of coastal areas, as seen in her work, which features water ripples and sand-like textures.
Scholes uses the print medium to show her ideas of the man-made erosion of natural spaces and the increase in plastics. As of 2023, she is still active in art communities in the United Kingdom and is still showing her art in galleries across Europe.
Clare Maria Wood
Clare Maria Wood is another famous modern collagraph artist who makes strides in Europe. After achieving a degree from the Wimbledon School of Art in the 1980s, she began painting and making collagraph pieces for exhibitions. Wood’s work depicts foggy, abstract landscapes and seascapes inspired by real locations around the many coasts of Europe.
Clare Maria Wood owns and operates her art store online, through which she sells collagraph pieces. Each features a contrast of light and dark colors and variable textures. Her works are on display in the US, Australia, and Europe, and have taken part in shows at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She is still an active artist as of 2023.
Suzie MacKenzie studied at the University of Longborough and works at the Highland Print Studio in Inverness, Scotland. As a member of the Society of Scottish Artists, MacKenzie’s medium of choice is the collagraph. She pays particular attention to contrasts of light and dark that depict the natural world and the depth of woodland life.
MacKenzie’s works often come with a splash of color and three-dimensionality that make the composition pop. By using the collagraph’s texture capabilities, she can emulate the fur or feathers of a wild animal beautifully. Her works are on display in institutions throughout Scotland and northern Europe, and she is still active as of 2023.
Hester Cox is another renowned European printmaker from Horton in Ribblesdale. She salvages the natural color, texture, and light of her rural parish community, imbuing it into her collagraphy. With a bachelor’s degree in illustration, Cox’s works spread throughout England, Sweden, Finland, and Scotland.
Each Hester Cox collagraph print is part of a series designed to fit harmoniously next to one another. For example, her series The View from the Fells features a group of works that tracks a common mountain skyline while every collagraph in the set has a splash of originality. The flora and fauna of her home parish and areas across Europe heavily inspire her work.
As of 2023, Hester Cox is still actively creating art for display and sale.
Collagraph Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are some common questions people ask about collagraph ink printing? Below are two of the most asked queries with detailed answers.
What is the difference between lithography and collagraph?
Lithography and collagraphy are similar but have a few differentiating points.
First, lithography typically uses substrates like metal plates, stone, polyester, or mylar. An artist uses photographic emulsion and hydrophobic ink to create the image on the base rather than “stamping” it like a collagraph.
Artists draw images on the substrate before printing, whereas with a collagraph, they affix objects to the plate with PVA glue or other adhesives. Lithography can create images in stark, pure colors, but they lack the inherent textuality of collagraphy.
Lithography is an excellent method for the mass production of artwork, but collagraphs are usually restricted to only one or two definitive prints. Collagraph artists produce “throw-away copies” as they experiment with several ink depths and tones.
How do you identify a collagraph?
If the medium of a piece of art isn’t listed, examine it closely for texture and three-dimensionality. Some areas of the artwork may not be as heavily inked as others, and un-inked areas appear extremely clean, lacking any mistakes.
You may find textures similar to real-life objects as you scan the piece. The patterns of leaves, for instance, may prove the artist used them in the collage process—something only a collagraph print can accomplish.
Now you know the origin of collagraph printing, its process, and some main contributors to its history. It is an accessible medium for creativity and expression, and it doesn’t require heavy-duty tools to enjoy. Artists all over the world are bringing their unique passions to the craft and creating one-of-a-kind prints. As they achieve, the world of collagraphs is sure to evolve.