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Archive for the ‘Fine Art Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Using Commercial Printing Technology in the Fine Arts

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

When I’m not brokering commercial printing or writing about printing, I’m usually preparing for the art therapy classes my fiancee and I offer to autistic students. My fiancee is an art therapist, and I have a background in fine arts as well as graphic design and custom printing.

I am often surprised and pleased at how the principles of design and the techniques and materials of the visual arts pertain to both commercial design/printing and the fine arts (painting, drawing, collage, etc.).

Inkjet Printing for Fine Art Prints

That said, today my fiancee and I were looking at dog and cat drawings online to get inspiration for an upcoming art project. She showed me two prints of dogs that we had bought from a painter several years ago, and asked if one of them was a giclee.

I looked closely with my 12-power printer’s loupe. I saw the telltale spots of an inkjet printer. In contrast to halftone dots, the spots of an inkjet printer (in my experience) are all the same size. There are just more of them in dense areas of color. (That is, in contrast to the variable-sized halftone dots in traditional—“amplitude modulated”—halftones, these were “frequency modulated” dots: more or fewer of them based on the required ink density.)

Beyond the technical description, the giclee (which now refers to fine arts printing from all inkjet equipment but which once referred only to the Iris, a high quality continuous-tone inkjet proofing device used in the 1980s) democratized art ownership. Granted, my fiancee and I have a print by the artist (it is signed) that we know many, many others also have purchased. However, we at least get to see it daily and own it for substantially less than the cost of the original painting from which it was reproduced.

This wouldn’t be relevant if the print was of low quality. So the whole idea of a giclee is to maintain the extended color gamut, high resolution, and lack of color banding that high-end inkjet printers using between four and seven (usually) ink colors can achieve. When you print this quality on archival paper, you have affordable, lower-market-value, but highly attractive, prints. For the most part, anyone can own one, hence my use of the term “democratization.” Moreover, it’s a great example of the marriage of commercial printing and the fine arts.

Monotypes

Another technique I’ve been playing with to eventually bring to our autistic students is the monotype. In contrast to a monoprint, which is made using an already created printing plate, a monotype is basically made from paint or ink applied to a flat surface (like a metal or plastic sheet) that is then transferred to printing paper.

This is how it works (and if you do the research online, you’ll find that it is a very old technique used by the likes of William Blake, Edgar Degas, and Castiligone). First, you paint an image on a glass sheet, copper plate, or other material (called the “matrix”). Then you lay a piece of watercolor paper or other paper over the flat plate, and either run the two through a printing press or rub on the back of the paper with a spoon or other flat instrument (like a brayer) to provide sufficient pressure to transfer the image from the plate to the paper.

You may ask how this pertains to commercial printing. Interestingly enough, it is a planographic process just like offset lithography. Unlike relief printing, in which the image area rises above the surface of the printing plate (like letterpress), or intaglio printing, in which the image area is sunken below the surface of the plate (like engraving), both the offset printing done by the huge machines at commercial printing establishments and the monotype printing I did in my fiancee’s kitchen share one thing in common. Both the printing and non-printing area of the plate are on the same flat level. The only major difference is that in offset lithography, the ink is attracted to the image area and repelled by the non-image area. And this is because:

  1. Ink (which is oil-based) and water repel each other, and
  2. Ink is made to be attracted to the image area, while the non-image area attracts water.

So again, fine arts and the commercial arts overlap.

Why, you may ask, would someone make a monotype, which is essentially a single print from a temporarily inked plate (which, by the way, can be made with ink, watercolors, or presumably any other kind of paint) when they can just paint a painting? It is because of the fluid, dreamy lines created as the paper, ink, and plate are pressed together, as well as the lack of control that often leads to random and unexpected artistic successes. The results are a bit like wet on wet watercolor painting. You don’t always know what you’ll get, and sometimes there are happy accidents.

Creating an Additive Manufacturing Relief Plate

Another art project I’ve been considering for our autistic students involves first drawing on a substrate in pencil and then going over the lines with liquid white school glue. (I guess this would be a real relief printing plate, but it is also reminiscent of the digital process of 3D printing.) The liquid white school glue is essentially a raised layer (like the layers built up on an additive manufacturing “inkjet” press).

When you rub commercial printing ink or paint over the surface of the plate you have just made, the raised layer of dried liquid school glue will accept the ink because it is a raised surface (i.e., it is a relief plate). You can then lay a sheet of paper over the custom printing plate, and by rubbing the back of the sheet with a spoon, you can transfer the image from the plate to the paper.

In this case the ink that had adhered to the raised lines of hardened glue would print, so you would get what would essentially be a line drawing. You could then fill in the spaces between the lines with other colors.

Interestingly enough, this is very similar to the process I’ve read about that is used to create digital scoring dies. Based on computerized data, a printer can build up, layer upon layer, a rule in just the right place to score (or crease) the printing stock for folding. Prior to the invention of this additive manufacturing process, it was necessary to create a metal die, which would be used on a letterpress to add the necessary score that would allow thick paper to be folded evenly, without unsightly breaking or mashing of the paper fibers.

Again, this is an overlap between the fine arts and commercial printing technology.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. If you look closely, you will see a lot of similarities between the commercial arts and the fine arts. Study the work of Ben Shahn (a painter as well as an illustrator of posters), Piet Mondrian (when you learn page layout for graphic design, you study Mondrian’s contributions), and even the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Or look at the Pop Art of Andy Warhol. I think you will find it rewarding and intriguing to discover the similarities between these two apparently different art forms.
  2. Pay close attention, and you will see many of the new commercial printing technologies being used in the creation of fine art products. Either they are used directly (for example, Photoshop is used to create works of art on the computer, or to alter them), or they are used to produce multiple copies of a single work of art (a giclee print of a painting, for instance), allowing much wider distribution of an artist’s work.
  3. If you look closely, you will see the same principles of design used in both fine art paintings and commercial printing, including symmetric and asymmetric balance, rhythm, texture, and the application of color theory.

Custom Printing: Where the Art Meets the Craft

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I love it when my work as a commercial printing broker and designer overlaps with the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with the autistic. Granted there’s always room in our class to discuss principles of design, which I am increasingly aware pertain to both the fine arts and the graphic arts. But most recently my fiancee came up with an art project that involved incising and then printing styrofoam plates made from the packages used to wrap food in the grocery store.

The Styrofoam Printing Project

Relief printing has been around for a long time. Probably at some time in your life, most of you have cut designs into half a potato and then inked up the raised portions and then pressed this printing block onto paper. In art class some of you have done the same with linoleum blocks or wood blocks.

Everything raised above the surface of the plate accepts ink and then transfers it to the paper. Everything you have gouged out of the potato, linoleum block, or wood block sits below the surface and therefore takes no ink and therefore does not print.

To apply this to our project for the autistic, we had the students plan a drawing (conceived with the help of numerous samples printed out from Google Images) and then transfer it to the front of the styrofoam sheet (an approximately 4” x 6” area once the edges of the food trays had been cut off).

The autistic members first drew the images on the styrofoam with pencils or markers, and then used styli of various kinds to deepen and widen the lines of the drawings. For this purpose we used pencils (for their points, not their colors), skewers intended for making chicken sate and shish kebab (for their pointed end), and other implements for leather working, cooking (including forks), and working with clay (metal scoops with sawlike edges to create texture, for instance).

I repeated a number of times throughout the project that anything cut into the plate would not accept a film of ink when we spread custom printing ink over the styrofoam using a brayer (a rubber roller that lays down an even film of ink on wood printing blocks, linoleum blocks, or in our case styrofoam printing plates).

The autistic members and their aides (parents or professional caregivers) developed their drawings and then incised their plates. Some made light cuts in the styrofoam (which when printed provided a subtle or ghostlike image). Others cut deeply into the styrofoam, and their final prints were coarser, more blocky, and in many ways similar to wood block prints.

I noted that the ink (whether blue or orange or black) would either print or not print, but that the members and aides could not make a dark blue print as a light blue. I taught the members and aides how to do hatching (patterns of parallel lines) and cross-hatching to create lighter areas of ink. I noted that the human eye would read hatching and cross-hatching as a light screen, much as a halftone screen in commercial printing can make areas printed only in black ink look like various shades of gray.

When the autistic members and their aides had finished inscribing the designs into their styrofoam plates, my fiancee and I came around with ink and a brayer, and inked up the member’s printing plates. We showed them how to cover only the raised parts of the design with ink while avoiding letting the ink seep into the lines they had cut into the plates. (For the most part this was easy, since the ink is thick and tacky, so the brayer will deposit it evenly on the topmost raised portions of the styrofoam plates without its seeping into the incised designs.)

The next step was to have each autistic member choose custom printing paper and then place the plate ink-side down on the sheet. Then we flipped the plate and paper over, and taught the members how to use a spoon to provide even pressure across the plate by rubbing back and forth on the back of the sheet. In this way each member could transfer the image from the styrofoam plate onto the printing paper.

When we peeled back the paper to release it from the styrofoam printing plates, so many of the people in the room fell in love with the process. Many wanted to go home and do more of this work immediately. There was something almost primal about gouging an image into a plate, inking it up, and then transferring the image onto paper.

To complete the project we provided large shoebox tops (we had collected multiple boxes donated for the purpose by a shoestore) to the members. Autistic members then glued both the custom printing plate and the printed sheet side by side into the boxtop “frames.”

Seeing the prints and the plates from which they had been produced side by side reminded me (and I mentioned this to the students) that custom printing is an art as well as a craft, and that seeing the inked-up plates along with their prints put the focus on printing as a process, not just a final art piece. The process of cutting the design into the styrofoam, inking up the plate, and making a print was at least as important as the final print itself.

How This Relates to Printing (What You Can Learn from This Case Study)

If you are a graphic designer or print buyer, it doesn’t hurt to know a little about the history of custom printing. It can help you to understand the ways technology has improved upon (or made easier) the original printing processes and also shed light on the art behind the craft of commercial printing.

The earliest printing presses (as well as the ones you often see in use at Renaissance Festivals) are based on the relief printing process. Printing plates with raised images (type and later halftone images) are inked up, paper is placed over the type and image, and intense weight is brought down upon the custom printing plate and paper. This yields a single printed sheet. Then the process is repeated.

Such a “relief” printing process is exactly the paradigm for “letterpress,” the printing process that preceded offset printing. In fact, due to the beauty of the process, many designers are going back to letterpress for specialty work such as invitations and printed envelopes because both the process and the product of letterpress relief printing hold such artistic merit.

So in your own work (much of which is divided between offset printing and digital printing), be mindful of the alternatives. For some of your projects, the texture letterpress can provide (the raised letters and shapes of the printing plate will actually sink into the custom printing paper and leave indentations) will make your printed pieces unique and special, in a way that gives pleasure to the touch and that also hearkens back to an earlier and perhaps simpler time.

Custom Printing: Printing Is More Than You May Think

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

How many of you, as children, cut a potato in half, cut a design into one half of the potato, and then inked up the relief image you had just carved and pressed it onto paper? That’s printing. Even though it bears little resemblance to the five- and six-color presses in a commercial printing shop, it’s still printing. (Actually, as a relief process, it bears more of a resemblance to letterpress.)

How many of you have taken a leaf, smeared ink on its surface, covered it with a flat sheet of paper, and run it through a manual printing press, only to find the veins on the leaf had printed an exact replica of the leaf on the surface of the paper?

Printing Is More Than You Might Imagine

The preceding examples illustrate the simplicity and elegance that can be found in printing images by hand. Sponge printing and fish printing provide still more examples.

My fiancee and I do art therapy with autistic students. This week, one of the members took a fragment of cellulose sponge we had provided, stuck it onto the back wooden tip of a paintbrush, dipped it in paint, and used it to make multiple impressions of the texture of the sponge on his acrylic painting.

The ink was a little watery and transparent, so it added a new layer to his painting, and the repeated pattern of the sponge differed from the brush strokes comprising the rest of his image, creating an interesting contrast. The student had combined a painting technique with a custom printing technique to create a new, mixed media art piece.

Printing With Real Fish and Rubber Fish

Long before photography, Japanese fishermen used to smear ink on the side of the fish they had caught and then place rice paper over them to create fish prints. This is called “Gyotaku,” and it was common practice in the mid-1800s. It provided a record of the kinds of fish they had caught as well as their size and markings. Since then, Gyotaku has become an art form used to reflect the natural beauty of fish.

In this case one side of the surface of the fish is inked, rice paper is placed over the fish, and the surface of the paper is rubbed to produce a single print, called a “monotype.” Each print in this case is unique. The process differs from what we commonly think of as custom printing (one plate imaging multiple copies), but it is still printing, in that an image is transferred from an inked surface to a receptive substrate.

In a similar vein to Gyotaku (but with a slightly different kind of fish), my fiancee and I once used rubber fish of various kinds to help autistic students make fish prints. The set of molded fish we used included both fish (such as flounder) and other ocean creatures such as starfish and seahorses. Once inked, the scales and other markings on the rubber fish produced a version of the Gyotaku prints that the autistic members could then add to with other colors.

Each time the members changed a color, they had to wash off the rubber fish, removing the custom screen printing ink we were using (we had chosen this particular ink since it was thick, vibrant, and fluid) in preparation for the next color application. In some cases, the autistic students painted on the prints; in other cases, the students printed successive colors using the rubber fish additional times.

What Can We Learn from This?

This is what I learned, at least, from a number of custom printing sessions with our students:

  1. Printing is far more than what we normally think of as a mechanical process for duplicating text and images. It goes back far beyond even Johannes Gutenberg and movable type in the 1400s. It even goes back to a more primitive time, when people ground up berries, insects, and rocks to make colors, which they then used to print images. Personally, I think that the only absolutely common theme among these custom printing techniques is that they all involve transferring an image from a “plate” of some kind to a “substrate” of some kind.
  2. Printing is as much an art form as a method of communication or persuasion. Editorial and promotional printing, and even the functional or industrial printing used on machinery, have their place, but so does the purely aesthetic printing hung in art museums.
  3. It is both possible and beneficial to bring natural elements into the process of printing, such as the printing of fish in Gyotaku. Furthermore, this brings a renewed appreciation of natural forms both to the printer and to those who see the print. Printing leaves and other natural objects echoes this approach, but this is just a beginning.
  4. It is possible to broaden one’s understanding of a culture, as well as the history of a culture, by understanding the kinds of custom printing done by its members. For instance, one can learn about both the history and economy of Japan (its dependence on fishing and its orientation toward the surrounding ocean) as well as the aesthetics of the Japanese by closely observing Gyotaku fish printing. The same holds true for other cultures and their printed artwork.

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