Clarissa Explains: Gum Arabic Transfers

Hey everyone! I’ve decided to add a few tutorials to my blog. This will help people learn about cool printmaking techniques, and it will also serve as a reference for me in the future. I am teaching a workshop on transfer techniques, so I thought I’d start with gum transfer, something I became really good at a feTulips_gum2011w years ago. Let’s see if I can duplicate it at another shop! To the left, you’ll see my best gum transfer, a CMYK print of tulips.

Everyone does a gum transfer a little bit differently, and it takes a very delicate hand and a bit of luck. These Gum Arabic Instructions are borrowed from Lisa Greg-Whitman. I will be trying her method shortly. Here’s the process that I used to create my transfers.

1. Start with a high contrast image. In Photoshop, change the image mode to CMYK, then save each channel as a different grayscale file, labeled with the color name.

2. Using a laser printer or copier (something with toner- NOT INKJET), print onto regular copier paper. If you have super lightweight paper, it may break down very fast – thicker is better.

3. Preparation:  bowls, one with a mixture of gum arabic and water, one with fresh water, and an empty one for dirty water. Soft sponges, such as photographic or lithography sponges. You can use a regular sponge like O-cello.

4. Ink. I use oil-based lithography ink. Thin this down with setswell compound. It makes the ink buttery, not sticky, and a bit transparent, depending on how much you add. Other people use other stuff — I’ll post an update with how others (linseed oil, plate oil, easywipe) work.

5. Mix 1/3 water to 2/3 Gum Arabic in a bowl. On your inking glass, sponge on some water to stick down your copy. Using a sponge, dampen your image with an even layer and wipe off. Repeat. Don’t let too much sit on the surface. Then pour straight gum onto the image and rub it in gently. I like to use my fingers, because you can really feel the toner “grabbing on” to the gum. Now, rinse your sponge with fresh cold water, and wipe off the paper.

6. Ink up your paper. Use a soft brayer and a tight slab. (An even, thin layer of ink on the brayer – it should make a soft hissing sound when rolled, not a sloppy, sticky noise). Use a very light touch when inking up your paper, as it may roll onto the brayer, tear, and disintegrate. It helps to begin inking in the center of the image and work your way out, rolling away from the center until you ink up the image evenly. {Depending what color you use, it may be difficult to tell when the image is inked completely – you only need a few passes in one area to create a layer of ink. I’d recommend starting with a bright color such as red or blue, so you can see how the toner takes the ink. NOTE: if you are using CMYK, work from light to dark.} In between passes with the brayer, wipe the image with a freshly dampened sponge. This is similar to lithography – you don’t want your paper to dry out or the ink will stick to non-image areas. If you do get white paper starting to fill in, add a little more water to your sponge – the ink should lift off the paper and you can wipe it away. If your paper is over wet, it will start to break down, and you may need to start over.

6.Printing. Once your image is inked evenly and white areas are clean, position dampened paper on the press. You can use a registration system, but I just peel up the inked copy and place it face down on the paper. Put newsprint and blankets on top, and roll through with heavy pressure – since it’s just paper, it will require more pressure than an etching plate. Some people put the copy onto a piece of plexiglass, in which case the pressure would be similar to monotype. You can either use a piece of plexiglass the same size as your copy to get that embossed plate edge, or larger than your paper to simply back your copy.

Depending on the paper that you use, you may be able to get as many as three prints from one sheet of paper, but most likely it will break down after one print. So if you’re doing multiples of one image, you’ll need several copies (I’d recommend starting out with a bunch either way – some sheets of paper will tear or wrinkle.)

If you are doing a CMYK print, you would continue to ink up and print one copy of each separated channel – (I prefer to work from lightest, yellow, through magenta, cyan, and usually a dark brown instead of black.)

Here’s a slideshow of my gum arabic prints. Some are just one layer, others are CMYK or only two or three colored layers. The car has a layer of monotype on top. The water pump is a layer of gum arabic (the map) with silkscreen on top.


Your paper sticks to the brayer, or chunks of paper come off.
– your ink is too sticky. Use more setswell or other medium to loosen the ink. Make sure you roll from the center, the edges are more likely to come up and stick to the brayer. Also make sure you wet your slab so the paper will stick to it, rather than your brayer.

The whole sheet of paper rolls up with color.

-Your paper wasn’t dampened enough. Wipe with a sponge and water between every pass.

The paper wrinkles and tears and chunks come off.
-you used too much water or waited too long and your paper is saturated and breaking down. Try again with another copy, or heavier printer paper.

The image is streaky – some parts are lighter and others darker.
-you didn’t ink the copy evenly.

There are weird globs of ink on the copy, or little pills of ink that start to float on the white areas.
– You have over inked your copy. Try sponging, and rolling with your brayer without re-inking.

Where can I find the materials?
Try graphic chemical, renaissance graphics, daniel smith or dick blick. I’d recommend gum arabic for printmaking or photography – painter’s gum arabic is very expensive. Gum arabic may also be available from some food retailers.