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Printing in the Fine Arts / the Fine Art of Printing

As I may have mentioned before, my fiancee and I do art therapy with autistic students as one of our gigs. Over the past few days as I've prepared lessons for our students, I have been working with a number of manual printing techniques, and I have been surprised and pleased by their similarity to, and relevance to, commercial printing techniques such as letterpress and offset lithography.

Relief Printing in the Fine Arts

I had wanted to do a mask-making exercise with our students, so after drawing twelve thumbnail sketches of African, Native American, and Asian masks, I settled on one for a larger prototype. It was a simple African mask, narrow and tall with stylized features and a head dress.

Over the course of our house fire and the subsequent return to our rebuilt house, we have collected multiple stacks of flattened corrugated boxes. I thought it would be interesting to do a collage with our students using corrugated board, stripping off the top and bottom laminated sheets from the fluting, and adding back pieces to contrast the ribbed texture of the fluting with the flat, brown covering paper.

Using the African mask drawings I had made, I built up a relief on a flat piece of cardboard. I used the fluting with the ribs going horizontally to create the long oval head. I then added two curved ears, also using the fluting.

To build up the almond shaped eyes, the elongated nose, and lips, I then used the flat, laminated cardboard again. I also cut out simple shapes of laminated cardboard for the head dress. The flatness of these pieces created a contrast with the surrounding, ribbed fluting.

By itself, this will be a subtle relief project for our students (since it will be a monochromatic construction of brown, layered, sulfate paperboard). It will be simple enough for the autistic students as well as their aides and parents to do successfully, with each person at a different skill level creating their own art.

We could stop here, but the plan is to go further (during the second or third class) and use the relief images as printing plates, to be inked up and printed on paper.

If the students wish, they can use sponges dipped in printing ink to further embellish their prints. And afterwards, our students will have not only the prints but also the artistically intriguing printing plates colored with bright inks.

How This Relates to Commercial Printing: This is exactly the same as letterpress, which has been making a comeback as a response to the overly digital world. Letterpress involves type and images that are raised above the printing surface, inked, and then forced into close contact with the paper substrate using the pressure of the printing press. The only significant difference in the case of our students will be the manual nature of using a spoon or roller (brayer) to press the paper onto the inked plates.

Monotypes and Ink Tack

The second project I've been working on is a “monotype.” A monotype is a single print made from an inked glass plate. The image on the plate is neither raised nor recessed. It is basically drawn or painted on the glass with printing ink. Then paper is laid across the plate, and a brayer is rolled across the back of the paper to ensure close contact with the glass and the ink. This yields a single, soft-edged print. (Actually, I made two impressions, but the ink on the glass had been moved around enough by the first impression to make for a very different, and much lighter, second print—called a “ghost print.”)

How This Relates to Commercial Printing: I started with tempera paint instead of ink because I initially couldn't find the block printing ink, and I wanted to see what would happen.

The tempera paint is watery compared to printing ink, which is more oily in texture (even though our particular inks are water based). To use an offset printing term, this viscosity (thickness) and tackiness (stickiness, or the force required to split a film of ink between two surfaces during printing) made the block printing ink work much better than the tempera paint in producing the monotype print.

When I used the tempera paint, my image did not retain the fineness of its lines. The tempera paint spread out on the paper. In contrast, when I used the more tacky printing ink, the outline of my image kept its form, even within the fluid nature of the monotype.

Keep in mind that unlike letterpress or even offset printing, the monotype does not have a static, raised or recessed plate (i.e., the ink image on the plate moves around during the printing process). So being able to make two impressions, albeit slightly different ones, still reflects the sturdiness of printing ink relative to tempera paint.

What this means in terms of offset printing is that your commercial pressman must formulate inks with specific tack and viscosity to be able to successfully print four process colors over one another in tight register without having the inks all smear together. It takes skill and knowledge, as well as an awareness of the properties of printing inks.

Wax Resist Printing

The third project I've been preparing for our art therapy classes involves the chemical propensity of wax to resist water, in much the same way as offset printing ink and the water in a printing press repel one another.

More specifically, for the art project I drew an image outline on wax paper. (I could have used tracing paper if I had had some.) Then I flipped the wax paper over, placed it on the printing substrate, and drew over the lines once more. (I could have used a stylus instead of a pencil because all I needed was the pressure on the graphite line.) Pressing down on the wax paper drawing transferred a mirror image to the substrate (i.e., the pressure transferred the graphite to the paper).

The next step was the wax resist. I used a candle because I didn't have a crayon, but either would have worked. In all of the areas of my drawing (a woman's face) that were to be highlights (the cheeks, for instance), I rubbed the edge of the wax candle.

Then I mixed up some guache (a water-based paint similar to watercolor) and thinned it considerably with water to create a transparent wash. When I brushed this over the paper, all areas covered with wax rejected the water-based paint (which I then wiped away with a paper towel). So I had created a highlight (blank, white paper) in these areas. Where I had drawn the contour and shadows with a graphite pencil, I still had shadows. And everywhere else I had a mid-tone, the burnt umber wash I had just painted.

How This Relates to Commercial Printing: In my case, the wax rejected the watercolors. In the case of offset printing, the printing plate is specially treated such that the image areas (type and photos) are receptive to the greasy printing ink. The non-image areas of the printing plate accept the fountain solution of the press (a solution of water and other chemicals) but resist the oily printing ink. Each keeps the other away, allowing for the flat printing plate to be used for both the image areas and non-image areas. (Of course, if the precise balance of the water and ink is disturbed, then the text and images will not have the crisp edges and lines you would expect from showcase offset printing.)

In General: Fine Arts and Commercial Printing

There are a number of good reasons for the student of commercial printing to understand the manual versions of what he or she is used to seeing on a huge offset press, letterpress, screen printing press, or digital press.

First of all, in most cases the central process is the same. It has just been mechanized and computerized. To understand a complex process, it always helps to understand its core operation.

Secondly, commercial printing is a fine art as well as a craft. It can be used to produce aesthetically intriguing printed pieces. If you understand the underlying technology, you can make the best use of its strengths as a design tool.

The more a graphic designer or print buyer understands the technology, the better able he or she will be to choose the most appropriate technology, communicate effectively with the pressman, articulate his/her design goals, and achieve the most aesthetically appealing and effective results.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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