Print and Refractory Concrete:

New opportunities in scale, surface and durability.


This is an on-going collaboration between myself and my colleague ceramic researcher Dr Alasdair Bremner and was presented at this years Impact 08 conference in Dundee.

The aim of this interdisciplinary investigation was to explore the potential of printmaking techniques in the production of large innovative intaglio prints made in refractory concrete.

This project represents one area of research within the wider on-going research projects of both Alasdair and myself and as the title of the conference suggested it is a true 'journey across disciplines'.

Working usually with combinations of paper based prints and installation works I have been investigating the idea that we are constantly considering our personal worlds within a wider world of data and reference points created through modern mapping technologies.  All of these new capabilities encourage us to move through our day as efficiently as possible changing our perceptions of understanding and access to our wild spaces and the stories they hold. Through my work I explore my relationship to the land and to a sense of place experienced during walking.

I have for a number of years also been interested in working with alternative surfaces to paper on which to print , in particular I have been developing a way of translating the marks from etched metal plates and silkscreen images onto the surface of cast plaster.  The direct interaction with the plaster surface and the relationship which resulted between the transferred ink of the etched plate and the layer of ink laid down by the silk screen offered many potential combinations creating a versatile and unique medium that was printed, yet was capable of a relief surface. This also allowed me to produce works that could be presented outside of a frame and conventional display restrictions.  

Unfortunately the disadvantage of this process was the fragility of the resulting works when transported and used in exhibition situations. Footnotes was my last floor-based installation and consisted of 30 cast plaster tiles.  During the time it was exhibited at 3 separate venues I lost 1/3 of the tiles to breakage some through transportation damage and inappropriate handling of the pieces during wrapping and storing but mostly due to the public standing on them.  A potential solution was to translate the process into ceramic to create pieces capable of being shown as floor installations and or in public spaces without the worry of damage.

  I knew of Alasdair’s experimental research at The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) using Refractory concrete to create large format architectural ceramics and hoped that this would present a way to achieve pieces that would have the scale and durability that was required for future installation works.

Initially Alasdair took on the role of technical consultant and believed that he would simply act as facilitator to the project.   However as the project took shape it became clear that the collaboration would allow new opportunities to explore depth of surface and print qualities in refractory concrete that had not been anticipated. 
Refractory concrete are high temperature concretes that behave in much the same way as conventional cement and can be cast into large durable shapes, however crucially they can be glazed and therefore are able to make use of a wide range of ceramic surfaces.  Refractory concretes have been used extensively in high temperature industrial applications for over 60 years and are commonly used in the steel, glass and chemical industries where large scale monolithic products are cast to very high specifications.  They are designed specifically to deal with very harsh environments and at very high temperatures.

However their unique properties have rarely been employed beyond their intended industrial sphere and their use in design and certainly in Fine Art print is very limited.
At UCLan, Aasdair and other academics and students have been exploring the use of Refractory concrete for a number of years mainly for applications in architectural features and design and sculpture applications where they seek to make use of the various unique properties and advantages Refractory concrete can offer over conventional clay.

These include:
Rcs will typically shrink less than 0.5% compared with upto 12% for some clays.  This means they will not suffer from warping due to uneven drying and firing.
Clay is brittle and easily damaged at a dry or green state making handling difficult, particularly on a large scale.
Ceramic is inherently weak in tension, Refractory Concretes (RC) are substantially stronger in tension and can be used for wide spans, impossible with conventional ceramics.
They can be decorated using ceramic oxides and glazes.
While Alasdair was confident that the properties of RC would enable us to produce the scale and durability of pieces that were needed he was unsure if we could replicate the surface qualities and print effects that I had achieved during casting plaster.

Initially the idea was perceived as a year long project, funded by the research group at UCLan .  The aim was to explore the practical, technical and aesthetic considerations necessary for the combination of the worlds of contemporary print and the silicate research unit.   The collaboration would produce a series of printed concrete panels which were to be shown as part of the Liverpool Biennial Independents 2012 and later at 'Impressit' at The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston 2013.

I created a set of 9 steel etching plates based on archived navigation and geological maps as well as current sonar and satellite mapping information in the Mersey Esturary.  Through the application of oxides and glazes the structure of the concrete pieces were created to resonate with the hidden geological and historical elements of the river Mersey.
Both printmaking and ceramics are diverse, founded on tradition and employing techniques and methods which are hundreds of years old, even thousands in the case of ceramics.  However, both thrive on new technologies and the change and innovation that these can bring.

For the initial testing Alasdair and I adapted traditional techniques and processes, developing a way of working which aimed to facilitate experimental use of fine print and contemporary ceramics.  The tests were very positive and provided enormous scope for the development of both mediums through further experimentation and exploration.
My idea of casting the concrete from large etched steel plates which had been inked using a mixture of oxides and copper plate oil was an enormous challenge both physically and technically.  It was decided that batches of 3 plates would be cast at a time, these would be glazed together to give continuity to the pieces before being fired.
Alasdair's expertise and knowledge of ceramics and glazes guided and informed the casting and firing of the pieces.  However neither of us had any true reference points for how the final pieces would look, needing to draw instead on instinct and tacit knowledge built up in each of our specialist areas.  In order for this collaboration to succeed there had to be a willingness to go beyond our own personal knowledge and a willingness to pursue something innovative and challenging. Also there had to an acceptance and acknowledgement particularly on my part that the pieces may not work.

Basic things like timing and space were our major consideration when casting was taking place.  Moulds were constructed and prepared and laid out before plates were inked and carried through to the studio where the concrete was to be mixed. 

This had to be done swiftly as once the concrete begins to set there is little time for manipulation in the moulds.  The concrete had to be pressed down into the moulds and air bubbles had to be encouraged to the surface before the concrete set to firmly.

After casting the first set of plates it became apparent that in the areas where the concrete had begun to set before it had been pushed down onto the plate its ability to transfer the mixture of oxide and plate oil from the etching plate diminished significantly leaving at times only the cast relief surface.  Also the first estimates of the quantity needed to fill the moulds were not correct which caused a difference in thickness between panels.

These first panels were used as a test bed for the glazes and firing so that we had an idea of the finished surface.  The screen printed layer was applied after the cast panels were removed from the mould.  This proved hugely successful with the layer of oxide sitting perfectly on the surface of the relief panel. 

  Some of the problems encountered with these first castings were easily resolved with subsequent castings.  Mixtures and quantities were adjusted to ensure that a level panel was cast.  I became more confident with the application of the oxide ink mixture but still we had problems with the transfer of the intaglio surface in some areas. 
Through experimentation with surface rolling and hand rubbing oxide into areas of the panels after a first firing it was possible to achieve definition of the relief surface left from the etched plate.  The final glaze layer pulled both oxide layers together and transformed the surface into a combination of form and pattern.

From a possible 12 cast panels 7 were selected to be exhibited in Liverpool.  Due to restrictions of the gallery these had to be shown on the floor.  Laid on kiln feet the panels hovered slightly off the floor of the gallery extending gently out into the gallery space.  The cut edges of the finished pieces revealed the aggregates contained within the body of the panel encouraging the viewers to move around the pieces and look at both the surface and the edges. 
 After considering the finished panels it was decided that I would re-etch the plates to create deeper surfaces in the hope that this would hold more oxide during the first inking.  It was hoped that this would solve the problem of areas of the image not transferring during the casting.

One of the main qualities I wanted to replicate from the earlier plaster pieces were the unique marks created by the intaglio surface which were unfortunately being partly lost in this casting process.
Personally I had not appreciated when beginning this project how different it would be working with refractory concrete compared to plaster.  The immediacy of inking and printing from metal plates is something that artists working with print rely on.  We learn to read the surface of the plate when etching and respond  to that surface when printing accordingly to how the ink lies.

The very properties that attracted me to this new process were also the main reasons for compromise as I had been warned about at the beginning of the project. Any alterations needed to be made to the panels were time consuming as the time between making and inking the plate, casting, glazing and then re-firing took days.  
Instinctively I work in a very direct and responsive way to my plates when making prints, the process of casting and firing with the refractory concrete was a huge challenge.  The oxide ink moved very differently to traditional ink, it was hard to wipe and see on the steel surface.  It was necessary to ignore the visual appearance of both the oxides and the cast refractory concrete before firing as both required the heat of the kiln to interact and produce their true forms and colours. Without the experience of working with these materials it made it nearly impossible for me to predict the outcome of how layers would work together.  

However without any expectations we found a freedom to experiment with this process and to respond to the materials in a way that would not have been possible if working in a more traditional way. 
Within the world of printmaking there has always been a sense of innovation and discovery, adaptation and experimentation. Both Contemporary print and Ceramics strive to go beyond their perceived limitations and continue to challenge their respective traditions. 

Using this method of casting refractory concrete off etched plates it will be possible in the future to create large scale installation artworks which can offer the unique surface of the fine art print but which carry the strength and finish surface of ceramics. 

It is our intention to continue to work together to develop this process in the hope that we can create and install further printed large scale installations as part of future projects.