Christmas, Lino printing and growing bacterial colonies

Thankfully, this won’t be another post about the rampant infections in our tissue culture labs: the hope on that front is that we’ve narrowed down the culprit to a misbehaving laminar flow cabinet, which should be getting serviced this week. Instead, this is an excited post about my first project in my new studio, and a surprising sense of déjà vu I experienced.

From an early age, continuing through school and throughout my Fine Art degree, I was intensely creative. I learnt many skills in drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking, eventually focussing on painting as my main form of artistic expression. However, this practice almost completely came to a halt while I studied science. Now, as a postdoc, I am returning to making artwork, and the old methods I am using are presenting unexpected similarities with my now-familiar scientific methods.

For the past couple of years, my husband has taken charge of making the Christmas cards. Being technologically minded, his cards are an amazing feat of engineering, requiring both electronics and printmaking skills. This year he’s focussing on work for his first solo exhibition, and since my PhD thesis is bound and comfortably shelved, I thought I’d take on the mantle of making the Christmas cards.

A few years ago, in search of a ‘white Christmas’, we rented a cottage for five days in Blaenau Ffestiniog in Snowdonia National Park. We certainly got our wish: on the morning of our journey from London to north Wales, we had several conversations with the cottage owner, who in turn was communicating with some of the local villagers, as to whether the roads in that area had been closed due to snow drifts. We took a chance and plenty of blankets in the car, and eventually made it to the cottage long after dark. In the morning, we awoke to an incredible snowy view of the mountains; all along the overhangs of the roof and windows hung huge icicles.

I have taken the photograph of the view out of the cottage bedroom window as the basis for my card design. I made two lino cuts, one for the white of the snow, clouds and where the icicles caught the light, and the other for the darks of the foreground, printed in burnt umber ink. Preferably, I’d have chosen a less turquoise blue for the background, but unfortunately I had to work with what I could find in the local shops. (How I miss working close to the huge Paperchase on Tottenham Court Road!)

Christmas Cards (2012). Lino printing on 240gsm card
Christmas Cards (2012). Lino printing on 240gsm blue card

In the technique of Lino printing itself, the first aim is to evenly cover the roller in ink, before rolling the ink onto the cut Lino block. The inked Lino can then be pressed face-down onto the (blue) card. It is important that the layer of ink on the roller isn’t too thick, because much of the detail of the lino cut could be lost, nor should it be too thin, because the design might not translate properly onto the card. I delivered a long line of printing ink from the tube onto a piece of hardboard, which I used as the ‘ink reservoir’. Some of this ink was then rolled horizontally left with the roller, and then vertically, creating an even film of ink on both the roller and the board (see section (a) of the diagram below).

Spreading ink onto a non-porous surface for lino printing (a) or
Spreading techniques for ink and bacteria. (a) Spreading ink onto a non-porous surface for Lino printing. Lino roller shown on the right. (b) Spreading bacteria onto an agar plate. Glass rod (shown right) is first sterilised using ethanol and a Bunsen flame close by, then cooled on the agar, before being used to spread the colonies evenly across the Petri dish. There are obviously many ways that each can be carried out, but the goal of an even spread (of ink or bacterial colonies) is the same

As I spread the printing ink over the board, I felt a curious familiarity for the process. It wasn’t the memory of printmaking itself – my main recollection of printmaking at university was of dissolving an etching plate in an acid bath, and of being faintly irritated that all this was taking me away from painting – rather, it was the memory of spreading bacterial colonies onto an agar plate during my PhD (diagram above, section (b)). Agar plates with antibiotics, such as ampicillin, allow for the selection of bacteria containing the appropriate antibiotic resistance gene. For example, if I was interested in mutating a gene at a particular point in its DNA sequence, I would use a plasmid (piece of circular, double-stranded DNA) containing my gene of interest together with the ampicillin resistance gene. I would then transform a particular strain of bacteria with my plasmid, spread the bacteria onto an agar plate containing ampicillin, and leave it at 37°c overnight. I would know that any colonies that had successfully grown on the plate would contain the plasmid containing my gene of interest, since it was able to survive the toxic ampicillin. From here, a single colony can be picked from the plate and grown in a larger volume in suspension for purification of the DNA. As for the spreading of ink using the roller, the bacterial colonies need to be evenly spread across the agar plate for ease of picking a single colony the following day.

Although the Lino itself took some time to cut, the printing was relatively fast and allowed me to produce multiple cards very rapidly. Due to the way the Lino takes up the ink into the crevices, together with the pressure of my hands firming the inked block down onto the paper, each card looks slightly different and individual. I’m considering making a variety of designs next year to sell at one of the local Christmas markets – although that would require thinking about Christmas before November…

Merry Christmas all!

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