It’s just about squishing things onto paper, isn’t it?*
Well…yes, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
Printmaking is one of those specialisms which seem arcane, geeky and irrelevant all at the same time. Perhaps that is why I love it and I hope to share my enthusiasm about it with you in this short article.
If you don’t know anything about printmaking then this might be a good place to start.
First of all, printmaking can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.
Probably the simplest form of printmaking that you know is the potato print but before that, about 1800 years ago, Chinese scholars were printing Buddhist prayers onto cloth using carved woodblock images. So it’s been around for a long time.
Ever since people found they could carve things such as stone, bone and wood, they then realised they could take rubbings of those carvings, and then discovered if they put some kind of sooty, greasy muck onto the carving they could take a print off it. Pretty cool, yes?
From carving reliefs (hence the name relief printing), came playing cards and gambling, Gutenberg and moveable type, Albrecht Durer’s Apocalypse, newspapers, propaganda, German Expressionism, Picasso’s reduction linocuts, and using steam rollers to print long pieces of cut lino.
You only needed a screwy-down kind of press to print these kinds of prints, like a wine-press or just someone stomping down really hard onto it. Simple technology.
The second kind of printmaking that developed took longer to emerge as the technology was a bit trickier. This required metal, a very heavy press and nitric acid (nasty). People who made fancy armour discovered that if they wanted a record of their work they could rub greasy soot into the little lines and decorations that they carved into breastplates and cuirasses and then carefully wiped the surface, leaving the ink in the carved bits, they could then press paper onto it. They would then have a nice sample image to show other prospective customers.
Carving or engraving metal, however, was hard work. Metalworkers found they could use acids to etch the lines ino the metal, as long as they protected most of the surface with wax to resist the acid.
To get an image from this kind of surface required a different kind of press, one that rolled over the metal and pushed damp paper down into the grooves. And, as you can imagine, it required a lot more technical knowledge but the end results were finer and more detailed than the finest woodblock or potato carving.
This kind of printmaking is called ‘intaglio’ because you carve (or etch) into the surface and then ink sits in the lines. Taglio means ‘to cut’ in Italian.
So, there you have it. Two kinds of printmaking: relief and intaglio.
(And then there’s monoprinting, monotype, screenprinting, lithography…)
So why should I bother with printmaking? Why not just use a photocopier? Or for that matter, a digital drawing on a computer/tablet and then just email it to people?
Well now, there’s the tactility of the medium. It’s all about an intense engagement with materials. The ink, the paper, the metal, the lino, the woodblock, the lead type…
I learn best when I’m moving things about with my hands. I learn by observing the changes and problem-solving each step but then it’s a leap of faith. You never know what is going to happen when you peel the paper away from the block/metal/plastic.
You also get to play with crazy machinery that is people-powered. Some of it is very old, some of it more modern, but, regardless, you can start to feel a connection with all that history and knowledge that went into developing the making of reproducible images and text.
And you can make lots of things. It’s a bit like being God, in a way. And each thing you create is special, hand-made, but sort of not, too.
Printmaking is good, dirty fun. But if you want to just email people, go ahead. I’ll fall asleep in a corner.
Emails don’t last.
*or whatever substrate you choose.