serpent factory

emulsion lift

An emulsion lift is the process of separating the image emulsion from certain Polaroid peel-apart films by soaking the film in hot water and then transferring it to another substrate. Emulsion lifts are usually done with Polaroid color films (Types 669, 59, 559, 809) but can also be done with black-and-white films (Types 664, 54, 554, and 804). Black-and-white emulsion lifts require the use of boiling water. I usually make my lifts on watercolor paper, but a variety of substrates can be used, like canvas, wood, or glass.

The Process

The print must be dry before trying to lift. Drying can be helped along with a blow-dryer, but it is best to let them dry overnight. Older prints work fine, though they may need to soak for a longer period of time to separate the emulsion. I’ve successfully lifted ten-year-old prints.

Cover the back of the print with contact paper to keep the paper backing from disintegrating in the water.

Cut off the white edges of the print, or leave them on to have a translucent border around the image.

Set up two trays, one with at least 160¬?F water and the second with room temperature water.

Soak your receptor paper in the room temperature water for a minute, move to a flat surface, and squeegee off excess water.

Place the print in the hot water, and agitate the tray to keep the print covered. After four or five minutes, the emulsion should start to separate from the paper backing (soaking too long in the hot water can cause the emulsion to fall apart). Black-and-white lifts take up to fifteen minutes in boiling water to separate, and they can withstand more force.

At this point, transfer the print to the room temperature water tray. Using your fingers, gently separate the emulsion from the backing. Work from the outside edges toward the center. Try not to use too much force, since the emulsion is easy to damage. There is a thin gel layer in between the emulsion and the backing. Pressing your finger down into the gel and sliding under the emulsion can help separate difficult areas. After the emulsion is free, leave it floating in the water, and discard the paper backing.

Using a sheet of Mylar or acetate cut several inches larger than the emulsion you are lifting, slip the sheet under the emulsion, and use your fingers to catch one of the emulsion corners. Dip the Mylar in and out of the water, and use the action of the water to spread out the emulsion so that two corners can be held. Holding onto the top two corners, continue using the dipping action to spread out the entire image, working around all four sides. Make sure the gel side of emulsion separated from the backing is facing up, so that the image is correct when placed on the receptor paper. If not, flip over the Mylar in the water, remove the emulsion, slip the Mylar under the emulsion, and start the process again.

After the emulsion is spread out on the Mylar, you can push and stretch it to further manipulate the image.

Flip the Mylar over and place the emulsion side down on the receptor paper. Working from the center out to the edges, use your fingers to work out air bubbles. A rubber roller can be used to gently roll out the emulsion, but I find it distorts the emulsion more than I want.

Carefully remove the Mylar. I find that rubbing a corner of the emulsion until it sticks to the substrate and pulling up the Mylar at that corner works the best. If the emulsion comes off the paper, use the water dipping procedure to spread it back out, or remove the emulsion entirely and start the process over with the Mylar.

The emulsion can be further manipulated on the paper. After you are satisfied with the image, set it aside to dry. The dry image can be spray-coated with a UV sealer to protect it. Black-and-white lifts need to be spray-coated to ensure that they stick to the substrate.