Don Messec: Making Art Safely, Part 1
23 May, 2011 by
Don Messec: Making Art Safely, Part 1
Jon Cone

Last week I was working with Don Messec at his amazing and healthy printmaking studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Don has dedicated the last two decades to making art safer for printmakers and artists. I am a classic example of a printmaker that had been made terribly ill from decades of chemicals, solvents and body-migrating pigments. I went cold turkey about 1993. 

Luckily, I had been making prints digitally since 1985 – so I had an active venue to pursue and a way to continue moving forward in a more healthy environment. Also, having recently moved to Vermont in 1988, I had access to good naturopathy medicine which totally cleaned me out. But, I had to give up my aquatint-photogravure, steelfacing, intaglio, relief print, silkscreen and monoprint.

Don invited me out for a collaboration of efforts. We are both curious if we can marry some Piezography inks and or process with his photopolmer gravure process.

Not a bad landscape in which to make prints!

My plan with Don was to learn about his safe photopolymer gravure process, and hopefully develop or co-develop some Piezography ink process as a way to improve or gain some other control of it. This first trip to Santa Fe was to meet Don, learn some bits of his process, and hopefully establish a baseline for further work together. And if the process would prove safe for my own studio I plan to setup my intaglio equipment again. What I want is to print my own work in photogravure (again).

I met Don at breakfast at Counter Culture in Santa Fe where we discussed politics and everything else other than printmaking. I had my first hit of green chili, and realized that politics in the Southwest are more systemic than they are in Vermont. Don is an interesting man who vets nearly all his information. I could tell immediately that this was going to be a great experience.

When we arrived at Don’s property it was apparent immediately that this man can not only devise methods to keep generations of artists and printmakers safe in the studio – but he can build anything. He built both his house and his studio. Santa Fe is a land of contrasts. There is abundant sun but sparse water. Collecting it, managing it, and using it sparingly is critical for both survival and good studio management. Vermont is so wet and so lush this time of year. Don’s landscape is a semi-arid climate.

The studio is fabulously equipped. I expected to see an Amergraph exposing unit but found instead a huge production UV exposing unit that had two vacuum tables. There were two etching presses and enough workspace to accomodate up to 12 attendees for his “making art safely” printmaking workshops. If you are thinking about either cleaning up your printmaking act, or wanting to learn safe printmaking process, or how to get your digital images or hand painted images into etching ink – then you need to check out Making Art Safely.

The one thing that was missing however, was that familiar (if not silently deadly) aroma and smell of solvents and drying oils. Don had not cleaned up for me. It’s just how a modern, safe and clean printmaking environment can be today. Don cleans up with things like baby wipes, water, a little dish soap. There are no solvents because there is no need for them. Even the well pigment laden inks (they are incredibly dense) are safely ensconsed in a soy based oil formulation that cleans up with simple water.

Jon Cone: Don, when did you first begin to investigate safer practices?


Don Messec: As I was leaving meeting in which I accepted position to start a printmaking center at College of Santa Fe, already having been told there was no budget, not much equipment and little collegial support, literally from behind, the department chair said, “oh, by the way, it also has to be non-toxic.” Like that had ever been done before. I was up for that, but had no idea how up for it I was until I started. I have that knack for contrary behavior, no Sisyphus I like success – pissed a lot of printmakers off in the early years. What locked it in place though was the number of artists who would tell me quietly that they were getting sick from their process and materials. Over the first decade, every artist who came to me but refused to change, came back; sick. That really effected me. I have to give Dick Cook, the above mentioned chair, credit for his vision and Monona Rossol credit for a long friendship and lots of science.

Jon Cone: How long have you been making prints?

Don Messec: Hard to say exactly, 1984-85. Think I was at Bob Blackburn’s in 1985. Wasn’t that serious about printmaking at first.

Jon Cone: How long photography?

Don Messec: Tis my first love. No telling how long. Can remember joining my father in his basement darkroom as a young child, maybe 6 or 7 years old. Was really a hack at snap shots until I started study with David Scheinbaum in Santa Fe in 1984. He very generously introduced me to Beaumont Newhall, Willard Van Dyke and had me assist John Sexton for a darkroom printing workshop. With that said, I have been more of a media agnostic where my own work is concerned.

Jon Cone: When did you build your studio here?

Don Messec: 2000-to-eternity. Confucius say “man finish home, man die.”

Jon Cone: Any other interesting tidbits?

Don Messec: I like food and canyons! Sound familiar!?

Don walked me through his process. Well, we actually made a few plates over the next few days. Let me show you in pictures…

Don Messec of Making Art Safely – notice the clean hands!

Don built his own studio in Santa Fe, NM.

These inks are soy based. They work like oil based inks but are miscible in water.

If you haven’t seen one before, this is typical of a print flattener that is designed to dry prints.

Don had a place for me to lay my hat…right by the door. Santa Fe UV is pretty brutal.

Don starts off the process by applying his standard curve to a grayscale image. He prints the image using ConeColor matte black ink on a special clear film. He prefers ConeColor matte black to the Epson matte black. 🙂

Don is able to work in daylight as long as know UV is present. His exposing room is bright but the UV is absent.

Don’s dual vacuum frame upright UV exposure unit is the object of envy…although it needs a forklift to install it.

The development room is the same as the exposure room. No UV in this bright daylight. Don has filtered that out and the plates do not fog.

After exposing the polymer plate to the film positive, it is developed in water and agitated by means of a soft Japanese brush.

The plate is then rinsed and the amount of water used is incredibly minimal.

A quick blot on dry newsprint to remove the surface water…

The edges are wiped clean. I remember doing this with a paper towel on my bare finger wetted with a keytone solvent…no wonder I got sick! Don only and always practices 100% non-toxic printmaking.

Don dries his plates and hardens them under the intense Santa Fe sunshine…I will have to use my Amergraph at my studio. Vermont is not so blessed with such intense daylight like NM.

The excess plate is carefully trimmed.

The finished plate carries the latent image exposed and developed in water and now ready for inking.

Don prepared the press bed. He cleans up the ink with baby wipes. What a difference from the Solvesso 100 solvent that made me so sick decades ago.

The water miscible soy-based ink is extraordinarily pigment laden. Some transparency is actually required to get a wider tonal latitude.

Hand wiping the plate after it is inked is very much in the traditional method of wiping aquatint plates. But, Don will not use his palms – always adhering to safe methods. Smart man!

Don patiently worked on my hot spot highlight that actually had quite a bit of tone. It turns out we could just make a Photoshop adjustment and another plate in about 30 minutes!

The finished plate now inked and ready to print.

The paper is pre-dampened the night before so that the moisture is evenly distributed throughout the sheet. It also makes it very convenient.

The paper is calendared prior to printing in order to remove most the moisture.

The inked plate is registered to the press.

The dampened paper is then registered to the press over the inked plate…

The blankets are positioned in preparation for printing…

Don cranks the press…

My print is pulled from the inked plate!!!

I worked with two images while at Don’s studio. These are images which I have been printing recently with my own process. Photopolymner-gravure has a much more limited range of tone than Piezography. I will shoot differently for this process.

The entire process is overseen and directed by Don’s dog Camas, who is named after a white root from Don’s wife Charlene Teter’s Spokane tribe. The root is used in a variety of ways.

Don inspects his work. Gravure is an amazing process. The way Don uses his film process, the tone is rendered as if with aquatint. There is no discernible mechanical screen and the Epson dither produces a pleasing result.

Don also produced a plate for Jim Hamstra while I was there. Jim is a talented photographer and printmaker who has attended quite a few workshops at Making Art Safely.

Unexpectedly (to me), Don cleaned everything up with water and a touch of dish detergent. We were never exposed to any toxic materials. What a change a few decades makes…

All this in one single day occurred. The following day we planned to crack out the Piezography inks to see what they bring to the table. Look soon for Making Art Safely, Part 2.

Don Messec: Making Art Safely, Part 1
Jon Cone
23 May, 2011
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