PrintmakerThe name says it all. I make of prints. That's very simple.
What's a print? Well, of course, lots of things are prints. It's easy to make the definition broad enough to include from newspapers to computer chips. Pictures, my concern, are a very small part of that spectrum.
But if you just look at the picture part of that spectrum, and expand it to fill your whole view, you see that pictures that are prints make a spectrum of their own. There are many many ways of making prints, and within each way, there are many many techniques. There is in fact an infinity of possibility. So what happens is an artist stumbles into this infinity and starts making pictures within it. Every action leads to new wonders that lead further and further in. Presently, one loses consciousness of technique; there is no figuring out what to do, there is just doing and doing and doing. Thus us the printmaker born.
In Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" there is a wonderful passage where the travellers are lost in a maze of crystal caves. Lost, but lost among wonders. There was no escape, but why escape such riches? Surely, each artist, as they grow, will stumble into such a crystal cave. Some will find places to sing and dance. Others will find stories to tell. I found a place to make pictures.
But "Print"? Why not draw, or paint? Well one does, right? I mean, if one can print, then one certainly has the skills to draw or paint, and one draws and paints. But printing is different, and special, and the printer thinks in "printese" and that makes it easy to just keep on making prints.
So, to a printmaker, printing is this process of making a picture by applying colour to a prepared surface, and then transferring the ink to a reciever material, like paper or cloth or whatever. Colour is just paint specially formulated for transfer, called ink. The "prepare" in "prepared surface" means "apply an image by various methods that physically or chemically modify the surface". Transfer is accomplished by pressing the reviever against the ink on the prepared surface, often by hand, but also often with mechanical aids of various sorts.
If you take a board and gouge a groove in it. Say you gouge a thin groove makes the outline of a face. You've prepared a surface.
Now if you take the board and apply ink to the surface and then press a piece of paper against the surface before the ink dries, the face will show up as a non-inked area in the middle of the ink on the paper. If you used black ink and white paper, you'd get a white line face on a black background. This is a relief print.
If you took the same board, and instead of applying ink to the surface, you used it instead to fill up the grooves. You could, say, flood the whole surface with ink, and then mop it off the surface, just leaving it in the grooves. If you polished the top surface clean, but left ink in the grooves, and then pressed paper against the board, you'd get black lines of ink showing up on the white paper. This would be an intaglio print.
Now think about these face pictures that you've made here. You defined the picture by making the groove on the board, but the picture didn't exist until you applied ink to the board, and then pressed paper onto that. So in a very real sense, the picture on paper is the "original", not the image on the board, because the picture doesn't actually look like the image on the board. (It's a mirror image of it for one thing.) So our face on paper is an "original print". And and "original print" is as much an "original" work of art as an "original" drawing or an "original" painting, or a "live" musical performance.
So we put our original print aside, and turn back to the board, ink it up again, and make another print. The next day, we can't remember which print was made first. Now we're in trouble! We've got two identical prints, but which one is the "original"? Hmmm. . .if they are so identical, why not just call them both "original" and say it doesn't matter which one was made first. Being practical folk, this is what printmakers have done. So this is one of the special pleasures of being a printmaker; you get multiple originals. As many as you like, but in practice the "edition" (the number of original prints made) is limited and is often numbered.
By making the groove in the board, you've fixed one element of your composition and can now try out variations of the other elements. You can try printing with different colours of ink. You can print different colour from many boards onto one sheet of paper. You can put the board away for awhile and pick it up when you're in a different state of mind and continue your creation from there. So the printmaker works by making physical objects that transfer the picture elements to paper. Thus the elements of the imagination are made concrete and available for consideration before they are placed on to paper.
It is this element, this ability to consider and reconsider the elements of imagination before they are put onto paper, while preserving the spontaneity of the artist's hand and eye, that distinguishes prints from paintings and drawings.
There are other ways that the surface of our board can be prepared so that we can print. We could dampen a part of it with a sponge. Then, when we roll over the board with oily ink on our roller, the ink won't stick to the dampness. So if we dampen the board with a brush we could use it to make a white outline of a face in black ink on paper. We compare this print to the first two, and say Whoa! Neat! Add that to our bag of tricks! This is the principle of lithography.
You can prepare the surface of a board by cutting holes right through it. Then, you can put the board on top of the paper and just spray ink through the holes to make the image. This is the principle behind stencils and screen printing.
Here's the sneakiest method. You can take an unprepared board, and just paint on it with wet paint. Now, if you're quick about pressing the paper onto the board, you'll get a print. But no multiples here. As soon as the paint is transfered to the paper, the board is unprepared again. Here's the cool part - if you don't apply paper to the board, and let it dry, you've made a painting. Now if you're a philosopher like me, you've got to wonder: have I made a print here or a painting? Printmakers aren't philosophers. They'll just tell you: "That's a monoprint" but if you use the board with the groove in it, they'll say "Hey! That's not a monoprint! That's a monotype!" It's not just philophers who can be picky.
The newest method of printing is to use machines that make dots. It's a kind of printing that can't be done with a board. You need a computer. Instead of preparing the surface of a board, one prepares the memory of a computer, and uses that to control the transfer of colour to a reciever.
Another boardless printing method is photography. The prepared surface is the negative that goes into the enlarger to make prints. Of course, if you're a printmaker who makes photographs who really really wants to use a board, you could always use it to make a pinhole camera.
My examples, though they all work, give no idea of the depth of possibility these simple techniques provide. Each one is, literally, the basis for a global industry.
I'm a printmaker. I've stumbled into this wonderful universe and I don't want to get out.