Sunday, 17 November 2013

Liquid emulsion (Decay)

This is a technique that I'd advise you to use at least a couple of times each year if not more within your projects. This is one of those techniques that you'll only really get a chance of seeing and using if you go to college and therefore if this technique is used and ends up in your portfolio is one that'll be noticed.

Using Liquid Emulsion (Paper Prep)

Initially you'll be introduced to this at a basic level - you'll be instructed to pre-prepare a number of different supports giving the impression that they are degraded/old. You may have already done this before at school, normally in conjunction with making a pirate map...

Get together a number of different types of supports for experimental reasons, make a note of the papers and where you sourced them from - mark the back of the paper with letters maybe and keep a record in your work-book/folders e.g...

a. Cartridge paper from sketchbook.
b. Bockingford water-colour paper.
c. Photo-copy paper.

*Note, it would probably be a good idea to put your name clearly on the back of the paper in a corner at this stage too.

Then at home or in college, prep the paper. Get a large dish and a number of tea bags, run hot water over the tea bags and or use stewed tea from a tea-pot and soak the paper in the tray. If you do several at the same time move them from the top to the bottom so those that are in the centre get a good soaking too.

When you've soaked the paper, screw it up and fold it as you get it ready to dry, as this'll add character and realism to the paper. Then place the paper somewhere where it can dry.

Additionally, once the paper has dried out, you can treat it further. Using vinegar, bi-carbonate of soda in some water, orange juice squeezed from an orange or lemon juice, flick and splash the solution on to the paper in a randon way to make it look like accidental spills.

Health & Safety warning.

This next stage is potentially dangerous and if you're a student you're advised to seek adult guidance when working on this next stage... Once you've treated the paper with one of the afore-mentioned liquids and it's been allowed to dry, the paper can be placed in an oven or beneath a grill on a very low setting so that the paper is heated and singed a little. Before the paper starts to singe, the liquids you've splattered/dripped on the paper should go dark brown, leaving some nice marks that make the paper look even more convincing as aged paper. The other thing that you can do is tear round the edges so that the paper is an irregular rectangle. This is optional.

Unibond (PVA Glue)

To massively increase the chance of your paper working first time, mix Unibond (PVA Glue) at a ratio of 1:4 (1 part PVA, 4 parts glue) and apply this to all of your papers. Allow this to dry fully before applying the liquid emulsion. What this does is seal the paper, the papers you've chosen will all have differing levels of absorbency and if the liquid emulsion is applied direct, the paper will absorb a great deal of the liquid emulsion diminishing its performance.

Once dried you should now have a handful of supports onto which you can apply your liquid emulsion.

Applying and Drying the paper.

As far as I'm aware all or most of the liquid emulsions solidify and become jelly-like under normal room or refrigerated conditions and prior to using them you need to warm the bottles up so that they chemical becomes a fluid again. I simply place the whole bottle in a large graduate (Measuring cylinder) full of hot water and leave it for 10 or 15 minutes.

While that's warming up, I take another graduate and two developing dishes, one of which is a 10"x8" and the other a 7"x5" into the darkroom. On a table set up in the darkroom specially for coating up the paper, I place the larger dish on the table and pour some hot water into the tray. The smaller tray sits in the larger tray resting at one end on something that raises one end up. Once under red light conditions the liquid emulsion is then poured into the smaller tray so that it collects at the warmer end that's partially submerged in to hot water. This keeps the liquid soluble and prevents it from solidifying and returning to its jelly state.

Using a Jaiban brush the pre-prepared paper is then treated with the liquid emulsion. I tend to use two light coats and try and leave an impression of the brush strokes at the top and bottom of the paper. This stage and the effect is something you learn through trial and error and it may take you a couple of attempts before you have a sense of how you like to treat the paper in your style.

Drying the prepped paper

Once the paper is coated, it then has to be dried and stored in a light-proof bag. At our college this is probably the most difficult stage as it takes a good hour or more to get the paper dried to the point where it can be bagged up. You need to liaise with the technician and the lecturers to establish a good time to get in the darkrooms and prep your paper and more importantly dry it without someone turning the lights on!

In one of the Darkrooms you may have noticed there's a piece of string above the enlarger bays, this is there to hang your prepped paper from, using pegs. I would advise that you bring in your own pegs. Speak to the technician and ask him/her if you can have a large fan or a air-con unit to circulate the air in the darkroom, once you're ready, they should come in with the fan and turn it on blowing air around the room. This is a far quicker technique and in some cases, your paper will be dried and ready to bag up in 20 minutes or so.

The paper needs to be completely dry otherwise it'll stick to the next piece of paper when bagged up. Make sure you have two light-proof black bags and double bag the treated and dry paper. I would then put it somewhere dark like a box or cupboard. If your paper is very buckled and un-even at this point maybe consider putting it beneath something very heavy to flatten it.


Printing is done in exactly the same way as you would with normal photo-paper, test strips etc. The only added time might be at the fixing stage 5 minutes and washing might be good for 6 minutes. The only other factor you need to consider at the processing stage is that some of the papers because they are so fibrous may tear very easily. It's advised to make your prints fairly small to combat this eventuality - "7 x "5. The larger the prints are, the more difficult it is to handle the paper without it disintegrating as it's moved from one tray to the next at the processing stage.

Drying the prints

You guessed it, this bits not easy either! This is a lot more difficult than the drying stage in the darkroom (In different ways). One thing you cannot do is dry the paper using a method that puts the paper in direct contact with metal, so metal drying cabinets with metal racks are of no use to you, your drying rack needs to be a wooden one like the ones we use in the prep room.

There are a number of approaches at this stage and things can go wrong, so you need to watch your paper and monitor it at the initial stages. The main thing you need to do is get the excess moisture out off the paper.
(1). Carefully put the paper on a window, place it vertically on the glass, the fact that it is wet will mean that it'll stick. The excess water will then drip off the print and you can move the paper from one place to another and each time you do so, some of the excess is left on the glass (Clean this as you go - so that the window is left clean).
(2). Get together sufficient sheets of paper A3 copy paper for instance, and lay the prints out flat on the paper, so that the paper absorbs the excess water. With this technique you need to move the prints every now and then otherwise they fuse together (Stick) to the paper beneath.

Once the paper is relatively dry and less likely to fall apart and tear, it can then be put in the drying cabinet on a low heat to dry either hanging up using pegs/clips or lying flat in the wooden racks.

At this stage the paper when it dries, tends to screw up badly and may need ironing/flattening out at home.

That's how you do it, the more you do it and the more you experiment the better you'll get at it, as with all things photographic. It is tricky and it is a palava, but if you persevere with it, it produces unique images that are beautiful and allows you as an A-Level photography student to identify experimentation at a very high level and the fact that it will take a couple or more stages to get it right identifies 'Development'. Record what you do and how you do it, using images and a diary approach to identify the 'Recording' aspect of your work.

If it's gone wrong...

Don't worry, in photography and especially with A-Levels a degree of experimentation that doesn't yield results is good, it allows for development of practice and skills. If it has gone wrong it'll probably be due to the choice of paper

Top tip

If you read this all the way through before under-taking the project this bit is going to be helpful. Not all papers work that well with these techniques and you have to go through a process of experimentation/trial and error before arriving at a point where you know what papers do actually produce consistent and reasonable results. Two that do work are... Mount board card; which is thick, but despite this, works really well. The other is Colorama background roll, used in photographic studios. If treated with Unibond before applying the liquid emulsion these are almost guaranteed to produce good quality results.

Another thing you can do to massively improve your chances with all papers is to treat the paper before coating it with the liquid emulsion is to coat it with Unibond/PVA glue this seals the paper and means that far less of the liquid emulsion is absorbed into the support and works better as a light responsive emulsion.

If you don't like the degraded paper approach, try it on the paper without staining it?

If you need to see work that is produced by contemporary photographers using liquid emulsion and other experimental approaches check out and search using  CRTL F and then typing in 'Liquid emulsion'.

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