A recent comment on Amie Roman’s blog makes the claim that printmaking, as an art form ‘is dead’. This was in response to an entry where she discussed reproductions vs. original prints. I have written on this topic myself.
This got me thinking. Why am I a printmaker? Other than the investment in presses I mean. What was it about the print medium that I found (and find) attractive? Several reasons I think (these are in no particular order).
- Printmaking is contemplative
You typically do not make a print in a hurry. There are exceptions to this, of course, especially in the case of monotypes, but by an large the creation of a print is a matter of days, rather than hours. This gives you a lot of time to think about what you are doing and how the image is coming together. There is also a lot of ‘busy’ time associated with making prints. When you are pulling an edition, you are inking and wiping with one part of your mind while contemplating the other images you have in process with another. I get some of my best ideas while I am working on something else. And I always have at least three or four images actively in process, (four at the moment) with at least as many in the back of my mind or at some stage of development. For me, printmaking is a thinking art… I spend a lot of time thinking about the decisions I have to make. And for me, that is a good thing.
- I have a huge array of marks available to me
Like drawing, printmaking is about mark making. I work in several different print processes (relief, intaglio and lithography) and each brings its own unique universe of marks. Drypoint, engraving, aquatint, line etch, mezzotint and carborundum are all intaglio processes, yet each has its own set of distinctive and characteristic marks. The other processes have a similar range of possibilities. Then there is the way ink layers (wet on wet, wet on dry) the impacts of viscosity, transparency etc. It all adds up to a nearly infinite range of possibilities. And the medium fights back. There is always a measure of surprise when you peel the paper back from the plate and see the result.
- I love paper and ink
There is something sensual about the feel of heavy 100% cotton rag paper. It has a crisp body as single sheets and a pliable mass when working with multiple sheets. It tears beautifully along a straightedge when it is damp, leaving a lovely false deckle. When you pull the blankets back after running a plate through the press, you can see the embossing of the image on the versa, hinting at the beautiful surprise when you pull the paper up and reveal the image. My wife sometimes helps me in the studio, and, although she is not an artist, she also feels the pull of the paper and the wonder of the transformation when you pull up that last color.
I also appreciate the tactile joys of working with ink. Pulling some from the can and working it on the slab with a knife to loosen it up gets my creative juices going. There is magic in the slow transformation that occurs as you work two colors and they slowly mix to become something new. Ink is stiffer than paint, and it resists while you are mixing it, and some how or other, that is part of the pleasure. I also love the hiss that the roller makes on the slab when you are picking up more ink. There is also a methodical concentration when rolling up a litho or woodcut, your eyes and your ears weighing the state of the ink and the image.
- Prints are infinitely mutable
You can transform an image in the print mediums, and change it, and rework it. You can send a plate back to the etch, you can scrape it back, you can pick up a needle and scrape some more lines, counter etch a stone and work back into the image, add another plate, spread on some more gel and grit, tweak a color, do a surface roll, change the color of the paper, and on and on and on. Master the basic processes, and they can be combined in infinite variety.
- Printmaking is connected with tradition
Many of the great artists in history have worked in one of the print media. I once had the opportunity to copy, on a plate, an original Rembrandt etching. I wouldn’t claim to have done it justice, but I really studied that image. You could see the incredible delicacy of line that really is only possible in an etching. You could feel his sure hand at work. In other prints in that exhibition, you could almost feel darkness in the deep velvety blacks, and the figures emerging from the shadows into the light. The processes that Dutch man used so many years ago have come down to me nearly unchanged. It is still about scratching, carving, scraping and biting.