Photo Fusion Wizardry

by Barbara Smith

Bonny Lhotka

32 x 32 inches, HP Z3200 pigment inkjet transfer to Baltic birch boxes. The image is then covered with several layers of opaque paint. The top layer of paint is 24K gold.

July 01, 2010 — In my mind’s eye, Bonny Pierce Lhotka is dressed in the fanciful swirling robe of a wizard, an alchemist mixing mysterious potions and secret concoctions that enable us to transform our humble photographs into stunning works of art with dimension and depth. No longer must our images be constrained and relegated to the flat realm of paper and ink—our world has been rocked by the possibilities inherent to mixed media.

I first became acquainted with Bonny’s work when I stumbled upon the groundbreaking book she co-authored with Karin Schminke and Dorothy Simpson Krause. First published in 2004, Digital Art Studio: Techniques for Combining Inkjet Printing with Traditional Art Materials, was exactly what I needed. My passion as a photographer lay in alternative processes and, aside from manipulating Polaroids, methods for getting a print onto anything other than standard photographic paper were arduous and almost always involved (gasp!) a darkroom. This book provided step-by-step instructions on one technique after another for using an inkjet printer to create imagery on both flexible and non-flexible substrates: from delicate rice paper to the heaviest (300 lb.) watercolor paper to wood and even metal. After reading this book, I knew things would never be the same.

A visionary and pioneer, Lhotka (pronounced La-HO-ta) foresaw a trend, ushered it in and, in 2008, launched her own line of Digital Art Studio Seminars (DASS) products. Her first DVD, Inkjet Transfer Techniques, details processes for transferring inkjet prints to other surfaces using gelatin and gels; easy-to-follow “recipes” include common ingredients such as Purell hand sanitizer, Knox Unflavored Gelatin, and distilled water, as well as a few not so common but easily found elements (e.g., marble powder). Her second DVD, Printing on Metal, addresses significantly more advanced processes for inkjet printing on metal, metal leaf, and non-porous surfaces using custom pre-coats and gelatin transfers. At the heart of each process is her DASS Classic Transfer Film, which only works in conjunction with pigment inks (now standard on most  professional-grade inkjet printers). The film is available through her Web site store in both 8½ x 11- and 13 x 19-inch sheets, as well as rolls of three different widths: 24, 36 and 42 inches. By using the film in tandem with her new “SuperSauce,” one could conceivably transform a standard door into an impressive work of art in about an hour.

I felt sure Bonny must have some type of chemical training, but this is not the case. In her own words: “I have no background in chemistry. My family has been in the restaurant business since 1932. I have many memories of my mom and dad telling stories of inventing ways to get food and supplies during the Depression and World War II.

“Growing up I was taught that if you did not have what you needed, then you invented solutions. I have gone through life creating solutions to problems I did not have. The DVDs I have produced are the result of thinking of ways to do things, but many I don’t necessarily use myself. I decided to share these digital solutions with other artists. Many are based on common sense and observation of what happens with products we all have in the kitchen. The idea for the hand sanitizer transfer came from reading the ingredients on stuff in my purse when I was stuck in a plane on the tarmac during a storm in Chicago. One of the contents rang a bell, and I connected it to what was in inkjet ink. As soon as I got home I tried it. This process is as close to a digital print with a Polaroid transfer look as one can get. It is cheap, easy and safe.” 

Bonny’s techniques are not only visually compelling, but they also have a tactile quality that is best appreciated firsthand. Whether it’s a single gel transfer or a more complex process of building up layers via multiple transfers, the first comment upon viewing is usually something along the lines of, “This can’t be a photograph!” Sure, you can create the illusion of depth via Photoshop layers, but once the file is printed traditionally, it’s still flat, inert. I’m a big proponent of what I call “photo fusion,” where dimension is achieved not only by the creation of Photoshop layers, but by real layers built up through the inclusion of mixed media—transfers, paint, collage, and even encaustic.

A simple gel transfer onto a braced wood frame provides the perfect foundation for further work.
Bonny is first and foremost an artist, and she brings an intriguing duality to her own work—an obvious passion for both nature and technology. Rich with symbolism and an underlying sense of spirituality, her art often appears to reflect the passage of time and its effect upon objects and surfaces—be it real or implied—through her use of images and mixed media. But no matter what your style is, no matter your focus (wedding photography, portrait, seniors, still life, scenic, advertising), if you’re eager to experiment in a hands-on kind of way, turned on by the prospect of rolling up your sleeves and experiencing the process of making art in all its glory, then there’s a wealth of inspiration to be found in these exciting new techniques.

Ever on the cutting edge of technological experimentation, Bonny’s latest work involves lenticular art, laser engraving and “phantograms,” which require 3-D glasses for proper viewing. She has also developed a glass transfer she calls a “Pearloid™.”

To learn more about Bonny and her work, visit www.lhotka.com and www.digitalartstudioseminars.com.


Barbara Smith is an innovative photographer/author/instructor. Her books, The Art & Craft of Keepsake Photography and Baby Face, were published by Watson-Guptill. Barbara developed the Auratone print process (kits are available on her Web site), and she teaches both personal and online video workshops. To learn more about her work, please visit www.bsmithphotography.com.

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