Overview of Printmaking
Printmaking is a collection of artistic processes that have been used to create printed material and fine art prints for centuries. The basic principle of printmaking involves the transfer of an image from a matrix (block, plate, stencil, etc) onto another surface, most often paper. Traditional printmaking techniques such as woodcut, etching, and lithography are still used within contemporary printmaking as well as more modern techniques such as screen printing. The techniques used most often in the Tandem Press studio are introduced below.
Some printmaking studios focus on the use of only one or two printmaking techniques. One of the things that sets Tandem Press apart from other contemporary print publishers is our active use of multiple printmaking techniques, combined with various materials, in the creation of the final printed image or object. Each technique has its own method of application and set of visual qualities which is used to determine whether or not it would successfully suit the artist’s creative vision.
One of the benefits of working in the printmaking medium is that it is possible to create an edition, or multiple impressions, of an image. In most printmaking techniques, except for monotype, the matrices may be inked up and printed multiple times.
What is a print?
There are many kinds of prints in the world and many ways to define the word print. The simplest way to state what fine art prints are may be to state what fine art prints are not. They are not reproductions. The prints created at Tandem Press are not reproductions of paintings or other works or art. Artists come to Tandem Press to reimagine their work using printmaking techniques rather than using painting or sculpture or whatever their primary medium may be. There are times when an artist wants to undertake a print project based on an existing work. In these instances the printers collaborate with the artist to interpret the work graphically to achieve an entirely original work. The resulting prints are no more copies of the existing work than that work would be considered a copy of a preparatory sketch or study. Many times artists come to Tandem with sketches to use as a stepping off point for the prints they hope to make. Sometimes they come to the studio with only vague ideas or stacks of ephemera. In all of these instances, the artist engages with various printmaking techniques to create original work, resulting in fine art prints. One of the benefits of working with printmaking methods is that it is possible to create multiple impressions of an image. These multiple original prints are considered an edition and are works that exist in no other form. Once an edition is completed and has been signed by the artist, the matrices used to create it are destroyed, and no other impressions can ever be made.
A relief print is one that is printed from a matrix with a raised surface. Most of the relief prints we make at Tandem are printed from wood, MDF, or polymer plates but linoleum cut blocks are another commonly used material.
Wood is used when an artist wants to work directly and carve by hand. In this case a drawing is typically done on a sheet of plywood and the artist (and sometimes the printer) carves away the areas that will not carry ink. The block is inked with a roller/brayer and then paper is placed on the block and run through a press to transfer the ink. Alison Saar’s Cotton Eater II and Richard Bosman’s River Rising are good examples of this method.
We are fortunate to have a large format laser engraver at Tandem that can be used for precision carving, often on MDF. The key block for Robert Cottingham’s CORONA was made this way because it would not have been possible to achieve the precision or level of detail desired by carving it by hand. We also used it to cut blocks for Robert Kelly’s Onda I and Onda II for the same reason.
Genus by Maser was printed from polymer plates. Rather than physically carving away material from a block as described above, this process involves exposing a sheet of light sensitive polymer to a UV light source through a negative film. Areas of the polymer that are exposed to the UV light harden while the rest, which was blocked from the light by opaque areas of the film, remains soft and is washed away with water. This process produces a plate with a raised surface—a relief plate. Most of the time these plates are printed on our Vandercook presses.
Lithography is a planographic printmaking process in which an image is affixed to a flat stone or plate by means of a chemical reaction. Lithographs have traditionally been printed from stones, but the use of aluminum plates has gained popularity over the past century.
Stone lithography: For this technique, an artist begins by drawing an image, using greasy drawing materials, on a finely grained slab of Bavarian limestone. Through a careful series of steps, the drawing is then etched, removed, and replaced with a stable printing base. The printer then dampens the stone with a sponge and rolls up the image using a leather roller and oil based ink. During the printing process, the surface of the stone must be kept damp as the ink is applied to the stone with a roller. The blank areas of the stone will absorb water and repel the printing ink while the oil-based ink adheres to the greasy areas of the image.
Aluminum plate lithography: As litho stones can be difficult to store due to their size and weight, aluminum plates have become a popular alternative for lithographic printing. For this technique, rather than drawing the image with greasy materials, a commercially made presensitized plate is exposed to a light source. Anything that blocks the light during the exposure—a photo positive film, an artist’s drawing on mylar, or a hand cut rubylith—protects the light sensitive coating on the aluminum plate. Once the exposure is made the plate is developed and given a mild etch. At this stage the plate functions on the same simple principle as stone lithography—that water and oil don’t mix. The plate is dampened and oil based ink is rolled across the surface to charge or stabilize the image.
Unlike lithographic printing—which is planographic and relies on the principle of grease repelling water—etching plates are quite physical. In this process an image is etched into a metal plate—most commonly copper—through a ground or aquatint. In the Tandem Press studio, we generally use ferric chloride to bite copper.
To create a line etching, an artist starts with a sheet of copper that has been coated with an acid resistant varnish or what is called a ground. The artist uses an etching needle to draw through the ground, exposing the metal plate. When the drawing is complete, the plate is placed in the etching solution which bites the exposed lines into the plate.
Once the etching process is complete and the ground is removed, the plate is ready to be printed. The printer inks the plate by spreading a layer of ink over the entire surface with a stiff card, forcing the ink into the incised lines. Using tarlatan (starched cheesecloth) the printer then carefully wipes the unbitten surface of the plate clean, leaving ink undisturbed in the lines. A damp sheet of paper is then placed on the plate and it is run through a press under felt blankets, forcing the paper into the inked lines. The pressure required of this printing process also embosses a platemark into the paper, characteristic of this process.
Screen printing (also referred to as silkscreen or serigraphy) is a stencil based printing technique in which ink is forced through a mesh screen onto a surface. The printing screen is tightly stretched, like a drum, and attached to a frame. A variety of types of stencils may be applied to the screen in order to create the image. Stencils may be applied directly onto the screen, but they are more commonly created by exposing a design onto a screen that has been coated with a photo-sensitive emulsion. The areas of the emulsion that are exposed to the light harden while unexposed areas remain soft and are washed out with water.
Once the screen is prepared, it is affixed with hinges, flat side down, to a screen printing table. A thick bead of ink is applied to the inside of the screen and a squeegee is used to pull the ink evenly across the image in the mesh. This action, known as “flooding the screen” primes the image to be printed. A sheet of paper is placed beneath the screen, and the squeegee is again used to pull the ink across the image, this time pushing the ink through the areas of the screen that are not blocked by a stencil onto the paper below.
Monoprints and Monotypes
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between a monoprint and a monotype. Both monoprints and monotypes are one-of-a-kind prints that are not editioned, however the creation of a monoprint includes the use of a repeatable matrix (such as an intaglio plate or a relief block) while monotypes do not have any reproducible elements.
Monotypes are essentially a printed transfer of an image. To create a monotype, the artist paints on glass or another smooth substrate to create a unique image which is then transferred onto paper using a printing press. After printing, some residual ink is left on the printing surface which could be printed again resulting in a faint impression of the image; this is referred to as a ghost or cognate impression. The residual ink on the printing surface could also serve as the basis for the next monotype as the artist could add more ink and rework it before printing another impression. This process of reworking an image between printings can support the production of an evolving series of individual, unique prints.
Monoprints are approached in a similar manner to monotypes except that at least one repeatable matrix will be used during the printing process. Instead of inking the matrix the same way each time, as you would when creating an edition, the matrix is inked in a unique manner each time to create a one-of-a-kind print. The process of creating a monoprint can include changing ink colors, adding a la poupée (selective wiping) techniques, hand painting, or incorporating collage elements.