Each of the traditional methods making prints involve the artist in every step of the process. None of them are so mechanical that every print comes out the same. Each one is unique, although it is often difficult to discern the differences made by a skilled print maker.
The essential point is that these prints . . . each and every one of them . . . are originals.
The image did not exist before the print, unlike those made on modern printing presses that churn out color paintings and photographs by the thousands.
With the advent of modern printing the artist was removed from the process. “Prints” became copies of images created separately from the printing process, usually a reproduction of an oil painting or watercolor.
Descriptions of the printing processes
Serigraphs and wood block prints are easily the oldest methods of printing, dating back at least a couple of thousand years. Serigraphs are created by squeezing ink through a finely woven fabric that has some portions of it blocked or filled in so that ink can’t pass through it.
The advantages of the process are many. Once a stencil is applied to the fabric making prints is fairly easy. Thick, pigmented inks make the color long lasting and rich. The image can be applied to virtually any surface, flat or curved. The disadvantages for the artist is that it it very difficult to create fine detail. The inks are opaque and difficult to make transparent enough for underlying colors to blend predictably with overlaying colors.
Most people are familiar with wood or linoleum block printing and so have a good understanding of the relationship of the artist to the medium. The works of Japanese artist Hiroshige in his series of color wood block prints known as the “Stations on the road to Hokkaido” exemplifies the technique.
Etchings and intaglios use metal as the master for the print. Preparing an etching is a two-step process. The metal plate is covered with a ground, a dense oily mixture. When it hardens the artist uses a sharp instrument and scratches through the ground to expose the metal. The plate is then treated to an acid bath which eats away at the exposed metal.
The ground is then cleaned away and ink is pressed into the grooves the acid had eaten into the metal. The plate is then wiped clean except for the ink in the etched lines.
A press is then used to squeeze the paper so tightly against the plate that it retrieves the ink out of the etched lines and onto the paper.
Intaglio doesn’t involve either acid or a ground. The artist draws directly on the metal, scoring into it like a plow. It is the furrow, the turned part of the metal, that holds the ink, not the groove. The plates have a nasty habit of wearing out rather quickly because those tiny curly-cues of metal break away, so the number of prints that can be made is very limited.
Lithography is the forerunner of the modern offset press but it is done on stone. The process is based on the simple idea that oil and water doesn’t mix.
The artist draws directly on the stone with a grease crayon, then floods the stone with water which immediately moves away from the grease marks. While the stone is still saturated with water, ink is rolled onto it which sticks to the lines the artist has drawn but not to the watery surface.
Excess water is removed and paper is placed on the stone. When pressure is applied to the back of the paper the ink is transfered to the paper. The disadvantage for the artist is that the print image he or she draws on the stone will be a mirror image, flipped left to right, when it is transfered to paper.
That usually is not much of a disadvantage for an artist but it was a problem that was solved with the advent of the offset press that uses the “oil and water doesn’t mix principle.”
Offset printing solved several problems and ushered in the modern era that took printing out of the hands of artists and craftsmen and turned it into a factory-like business.
Up until the turn of the 20th century commercial printing was, for the most part, low volume and hand powered. Printing presses that were built up until then in many ways had not changed much from those used by Benjamin Franklin.
Typically commercial operations were referred to as letterpress or flat bed printing . . . both descriptive of the process.
Images were printed using “relief” type printing plates where the image or printing areas are raised above the non-printing areas.
Basically, ink was rolled onto a flat area (plate or platen) that was to be printed and then paper was pressed onto the inked area, two separate steps . . . inking and printing.
As high volume printing became more and more in demand a different approach was needed to speed up the mechanics. The solution was to put the plate on a cylinder so that the ink roller could be in constant contact.
For a time, the rotary plates were made from casts of flat plates and the printing area was still in relief. Type was still set backwards so that it would be readable when it was printed.
Rotary presses could print much faster than flat bed presses but they were still a mechanical nightmare.
Big improvements came with the introduction of offset presses. The plates were thin metal and the printing area was not in relief but worked using the principle of resistance of water to oil, just as the lithography process did.
The plates were created photographically and were now right-reading. Now instead of the plate printing to paper, it was “offset” and printed to another roller which in turn printed to the paper so that the image would again be right-reading.
These thin plates enabled printing presses run at very high speeds vibration free.
With each new improvement of the printing press artists and craftsmen were further removed from the process.
Paper selections, for instance, are now made on the basis of how well they will run through the presses rather than how long they will last.
However, in artists’ studios and in shops of quality book makers, aesthetic decisions are still being made having to do with inks and papers and textures and translations of images to papers that makes each print or book a little different and special.
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