Obscure Allure- Keeping Traditional Printmaking Real and Relevant

StoriesJune 7, 2023

If you had the chance to attend an art institution at any point in your life, chances are you’ve had exposure to the world of printmaking, even if only peripherally. If you haven’t, you may not be able to place your finger on what exactly making prints means- how would you define a “print” in the first place? 

Taught in art schools across the globe, the medium persists as a stepping stone, akin to drawing, painting or darkroom photography. Traditional printmaking has, in a commercial sense, been redundant for many, many years- obviously, printing technology has advanced. Nowadays, the art form inhabits a number of spaces both within and outside of the academic context, most of them small and largely unknown. These include shops that specialize in printing artist editions, community print shops that focus on education and small-scale projects, and entire college programs offering degrees in printmaking. The medium’s long, utilitarian history, coupled with its fine arts connotation and its connection to DIY, accessible ways of making, makes it a versatile part of today’s creative narrative. 

So, what is it?

As a whole, printmaking entails four main processes, each having its own nuances, technical differences and varieties. You likely already know what screen printing is- most people associate it with poster and t-shirt design. Commercial screen printing is a huge industry, but in the context of printmaking, it has become more of a hands-on process. After exposing an image to light sensitive emulsion, a screen printer will transfer it to a surface by pushing ink through the stencil with a squeegee. This is the process that is easiest to equate with print, thanks to its prevalence in today’s commercial spaces. 

Relief is another printmaking method you might recognize the look of, if not its official name. Using carving as a way to make marks, relief printers most often work on wood or linoleum blocks, manipulating the surfaces by hand to create negative spaces. Ink is then rolled over the block, where it sits on the uncut parts of the surface. The final image is printed using a press, after which the ink can be re-applied.

Intaglio, or the art of etching copper and zinc plates, is less known, yet produces results of an irreplaceable quality that is nearly impossible to reproduce in any other medium. Generally, intaglio printmakers rely on acid to bite through parts of their plate, creating a height difference in its surface. The bitten parts then receive ink, which is wiped into the plate. The plate then goes through a press and ink can be applied again. Intaglio is complex, as it offers a number of ways to manipulate the printing surface with different tools. 

Lithography is another process that teeters on the edge of obscurity yet never quite loses its crucial relevance. Rendered on limestones from a handful of German quarries, lithographs are often drawn by hand, then manipulated chemically to achieve the desired effect. After graining (or, essentially, sanding) their stone down to ensure its level, a lithographer will apply greasy materials to its smooth surface to create an image. That image is then chemically “etched” into the stone, after which it can be rolled up in ink, run through a lithographic press, and printed on paper. Everything about this particular medium requires absolute patience, from stone graining to processing your image step by step. However, there is nothing like watching your image come to life on an actual stone, let alone printing a full color scene off of its porous surface. 

While it’s easy to appreciate the labor and feverish dedication that goes into pursuing any of the above, you might still be asking yourself why printmaking would remain relevant in a world that has moved on? Not unlike painting or illustration, the medium has a niche in fine arts circles- prints are rarely valued in the same way that a work on canvas may be, but the medium definitely has its enthusiasts. Looking at the other end of the spectrum, print also has a unique ability to exist outside of institutions both in a commercial, utilitarian sense, but also in an accessible one. Community print shops are able to open up their spaces to makers, students, and others because processes like screen printing and relief can be forgiving when it comes to equipment. There are various ways to prepare printing surfaces outside of an official, well stocked environment, and in that sense, print becomes a communal venture. 

At the same time, deeper knowledge of these processes lies mostly within art school curriculums and the instructors who themselves likely gained their print skills while pursuing a degree in fine art. For that reason, it’s especially important to pay attention to artists continuing on print tradition in their own ways, long after they’ve left the insulation provided by schools. Whether the medium is being worked entirely by hand and calling viewers back to the labor involved or merging age-old techniques with digital processes and new approaches to material, printmaking remains relevant because of its uncanny tendency to adapt while remembering its roots. This is what sets it apart from more ubiquitous processes- remember that printed matter is everywhere you look. Derived from the original processes, today’s commercially printed images and texts fade into the fabric of our landscapes. Incorporating traditional print techniques into art, activism, and education is a way to reclaim their appeal without being limited to one standard of space. 

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