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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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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Custom Printing: Using Commercial Printing Technology in the Fine Arts

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.

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