Here’s a step-by-step of my new favorite technique, the instant film emulsion lift. It’s a lot easier than it looks, so bust out some of your not-so-favorite instant film pictures and practice until you’re proficient. My instructions are modified from eggzalky’s blog No Such Thing as a Wasted Polaroid. Go check it out because it’s really, really cool and filled with creative images and ideas.
This technique doesn’t work with all films. It will NOT work with the new Fuji Instax format (it’s integral film) and I haven’t had any luck with Polaroid 600 film either, although you can do negative transfers with this film (that’s a process I haven’t tried yet). I’ve used TIP’s Color and Monochrome films for my projcets because I’m saving my last packs of Polaroid SX-70 for manipulation.
I have used all kinds of images for this process from pictures with well-defined subjects to abstract, badly-exposed, crystallized shots. I’m waiting to use my best pictures until I get better at doing this.
Gather your supplies. You’ll need a pan to hold some hot water, scissors, watercolor paper and a paintbrush. Pretty simple.
Fill your pan with the hottest water you dare to dip your fingers in to. This is key to getting a good lift. Then prepare your picture for the process by trimming the sides and peeling it apart, like this
Some sites recommend trimming the sides off so that there’s no white left. I prefer to leave a little bit of white on because your emulsion will have a distinct edge to it that makes a nice border. That edge is also tougher and less apt to rip apart during the manipulation process.
Very fresh instant pictures do not peel very well because the layer of chemicals (the white stuff) is still wet so make sure your pictures are dry before peeling. Twenty-four hours usually does the trick. If you’re having trouble getting the layers to part cleanly, it’s probably still wet.
Next, take the piece with the image on the front and the white chemically stuff on the back and submerge it in your hot water.
Gently, using your paintbrush, swish the area above the white layer around so that it begins flaking off.
If your pictures are too old, the white layer will stubbornly refuse to budge. I tried this once with a picture I had taken last year and all I succeeded in doing was getting the picture wet. Bummer. The fresher the picture, the easier these chemicals will release. The water temperature is also very important. It doesn’t matter how fresh your photo, if the water isn’t hot enough, you’re going to run into trouble.
When most of the white stuff is gone you’ll be left with the emulsion stuck to the clear mylar coating that normally separates the outside world from the guts of the Polaroid.
Using your paintbrush, a toothpick or your fingernail, gently coax the edges of the emulsion away from the mylar.
When the two pieces are separated you can remove the mylar from the water and toss it. Now you have an undulating blob of emulsion. It’s fragile but easily manipulated by swirling the water around it. It’s like a photographic jellyfish. Don’t forget to flip the image over before placing your paper in the water because it’s been sitting face down through out the process.
Introduce your watercolor paper to the water by gently sliding it in below the emulsion.
You can see in this shot that I ripped this photo but that’s cool. I’ll work around it and make it part of the image. From this point you can manipulate the shape of your emulsion on the paper underwater. Use your trusty paintbrush or handy-dandy fingers. When you get the lift generally where you want it, slowly slide the paper from the water. It’s going to move around when you take it out so be prepared, but you can hold down the two sides of the emulsion with your thumbs to keep it somewhat in place.
Here it is fresh out of the water. At this point you can continue to manipulate the emulsion with your paintbrush, use your fingers to smooth the surface and create texture by gently tracing circles or lines on top of the image. If at any time you don’t like what’s going on, simply immerse your photo and paper in the water and reposition it.
Here’s the finished product. I decided to pucker the ripped areas. I also smoothed and stretched the image then gently swirled the surface to create a little bit of whirlpool-like texture.
That’s it! Hang it to dry then put it under a big, heavy book to flatten it out afterwards. You can transfer your emulsion onto almost anything, again, check out No Such Thing As A Wasted Polaroid for a look at some beautiful artwork featuring this technique.