Ok, well, what IS a gum bichromate print??

Gum Bichromate photography is one of the many "alternative processes" or "historical processes" once replaced and forgotten by the evolution of photography. It is, perhaps, the most versatile of these old processes which allows the photographer to print with color and tonal values in anyway he or she desire. It is a blend of the mechanical constraints imposed by light and lens with the freedom of tactile expression found in painting or drawing. This expressive potential and adaptability of gum bichromate printing has allowed for the technique to survive some 160 years among artists interested in printmaking and photography.

    Gum Printing is deceptively easy

  1. Make a photographic emulsion by mixing watercolor paint with a light-sensitive chemical.
  2. Coat that emulsion onto paper and let it dry.
  3. Expose the dry emulsion to sunlight for a few minutes beneath a transparency.
  4. Soak the paper in water until an image develops.

There are many methods to making gum prints, each producing a different result. If you are new to the process, it is imperative to not bite off more than you can chew! Although the process at first sounds simple, many people have tremendous difficulties in their first attempts, just getting it to work is a challenge enough. Take a look at my first gum bichromate print!

One Layer First!

Chain And Locks
A typical single layer gum bichromate print

Printing multiple layers on top of one another is an important part of gum bichromate printing process. This allows the artist to employ various techniques of blending tones and color for a rich final print.

However, most students begin with single-layer prints. Printing one layer can be difficult enough and overprinting multiple layers is certainly not any easier! When I was learning the gum bichromate process, my simple goal was to get it to work. After a few failed attempts I was more than thrilled with the results of my first single-layer gum prints. Featured here is "Chain and Locks" one of my first successful single-layer prints.

Of course after one masters single-layer printing, there are several other avenues to explore. Some methods are quite technical and require tremendous patience, but do provide remarkable results. Other methods are very free and experimental. Of course many methods fit somewhere between these two extremes. I enjoy working in them all from time to time.

Multiple Layers

NYC Water Tanks
Many layers are over printed to render smooth values from dark to light

Overprinting multiple layers allows one to print a rich and full tonal scale from subtle light grays right down to black. Color can be printed into a monochromatic image to 'cool' shadowy areas or 'warm' highlights.

Typically gum printers seem to use various hues of browns, reds, and blacks in their prints, although any colors can be used. Some layers are printed opaque while others are printed as a translucent glaze depending on the amount of pigment you use. Most full color gum prints that I make have anywhere from 5-12 layers overprinted.

Color Separations

Wheelbarrow Backyard
A color separation gum print

A color separation is a multi-layer printing method that is often explored by new gum printers to render full color photographs in gum bichromate. One separates the reds, blues, and yellows from a full color photograph into several transparencies. Each transparency is used to expose a separate layer of color onto the print. Color separation transparencies can be made easily on the computer in image editing programs such as Photoshop.

For a more hands-on classical approach, color separations can be made in camera using different colored glass filters over the lens.

In either case, the color separations are recombined in the print using layers of cyan, yellow, magenta, and sometimes black or gray pigments. If done carefully, one can achieve rather remarkable full color gum bichromate prints.

Free-Form Printing and Beyond

Uptown Evening
A free-form gum print made by brushing away colors

Free-form gum printing takes full advantage of gum printing's hands on nature. Freshly exposed layers are very delicate while they are developing in the water. This allows the artist to use a brush, finger, or some other tool to wipe or scrape away areas of the image. Working subtractively, one can brush out colors in certain areas, revealing the layers beneath. For example, brushing away part of a yellow layer would make that area appear lighter and more blue.

The Gum Bichromate process is difficult to master because there is no final destination and no certain path to get there. In other words there is no correct way to make a gum bichromate print. Every artist has a unique perspective of the world and that will lead every student on a different path to their own 'mastery' of the medium. Gum printing can be used to make photo-realistic images, or abstractions of reality. In fact, there is no requirement that a gum print has to be a photograph. It is merely a versatile medium of the artist's tool box. An artist may strive for replicating the old look and feel of 19th century prints. Or an artist might seek their own vision of a 21st century gum print.

Making a gum print requires a meticulous balance of many variables. This balancing act of pigment choice, exposure times, etc. will require great patience and craft. It is next to impossible to have complete control over every aspect of printing that you will encounter. The best part about gum printing is the accidents and imperfections that can occur, will occur! Although quite discouraging at first, in time you can learn from the accidents, to steer them however you desire and use them effectively in your prints. Soon, the accidents become tools in your hands. Like any other artistic endeavor, learning this process takes utmost patience, plenty of mishaps and mistakes, experimentation, and an artist's drive to create!