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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: Hand-Printing Your Holiday Cards

It’s the holidays again, and whatever holiday you celebrate, it’s always nice to receive a physical, paper card with a handwritten note. It goes miles beyond a virtual card. I really do believe that.

I’ve given thought recently to ways you can produce individual works of art if your card list is manageably short. Some of these methods I’d like to try in the next year with the autistic students my fiancee and I work with, since they lend themselves to fine art printing as well as greeting card printing.

Monotype Printing

You will find this referred to as both “monoprinting” and “monotyping,” but the more accurate term for what I’m describing is monotyping: that is, painting an image on a flat plate (it was originally a copper plate, but you can use anything from glass to plastic as long as it’s flat), and then printing this plate on finely made paper.

This is custom printing, since you’re transferring an image from a plate to a substrate, but you only get one “truly” original print each time you do it.

These are the steps:

  1. You use commercial printing ink, oil-based artist’s paint, or even water-based paint to prepare your image on the glass or plastic printing plate. Then you lay either dry or damp paper over the plate, and using a spoon, a roller, a Japanese baren, or even the drying rollers of an old washing machine, you apply even pressure to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper.
  2. Since you have neither a raised nor a recessed image on the plate, your first image is the only original. If you try to print again, you will get a “ghost” image, which may actually be to your liking. It just won’t be exactly like the original, and it will be lighter.
  3. You can add ink to the plate with a brush and then print again (but it will be a slightly different version).
  4. You can also go back into the original print with brushes and paint (or ink) to add to, or adjust, the image.
  5. Even though you only get one original image this way, you can combine the brush strokes of painting with some of the characteristics of printing (such as the dense, rich tones). What you often get is a happy accident, a combination of spontaneity and experimentation that you might not be able to otherwise consciously create.
  6. You have both an additive and subtractive approach to monotyping. The additive option is what I just described (adding ink to an otherwise blank custom printing plate). The subtractive option involves inking the glass or plastic plate entirely and then using a rag, brush, stylus, or other implement to remove the ink you don’t want to print. You can even use your fingers.
  7. Another option involves rolling out commercial printing ink onto one sheet of printing paper (or onto a printing plate), laying another piece of paper over it, and then drawing on the back of the second sheet with a pencil or other implement. When you peel off the second sheet from the first (or from the printing plate), what you have is a line drawing made from the ink that has been pulled up off the plate onto the back of the sheet by the pressure of the pencil.
  8. In addition to painting or drawing further on the final print with ink and a brush, you can also wipe the plate clean and then paint a different color image onto the “matrix” (i.e., the image area of the plate). If these two different color images are in register (the same meaning as in commercial printing), you will have a coherent, multi-colored print.
  9. Giovanni Castiligone is credited with having invented the monotype, but Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and William Blake also used this technique extensively.
  10. The term “monoprint,” while often used interchangeably with “monotype,” really refers to a plate (called a matrix) that has one or several permanent features but that you still alter in some way from print to print. You can have some consistent lines and tones but change the rest of the overall image from impression to impression (in terms of color, line, tone, etc.).

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

In this world of digital media, where everything is evanescent, temporary and without physical form, a hand-printed holiday card will make a distinctive impression on your clients, your friends, or your family. Each image of a monotype is unique, plus you have the tactile qualities of the paper that set these cards apart from digital-only holiday greetings.

Relief Printing, Easier Than Monotype Printing

As an alternative, the relief print is a much easier to create when you need multiple copies. However, it still yields a hand-designed and hand-printed card. If your list of recipients is long, this might work better for you than a monotype.

Anything that can be cut away to expose an upper level and a lower level will work. I’d suggest wood, which was the traditional medium for woodcuts, but it is often hard to cut, depending on the particular variety and its density. A good alternative would be a linoleum block, which is a block of wood with a sheet of linoleum on one side (this is called linocut printing).

You use knives and gouges from an art supply store to carve away any part of the image that will not print. Once you ink the plate, only the raised image areas will accept ink. The non-image areas will be far enough below the surface of the plate to not receive any printer’s ink.

Once the plate has been cut, ink it with a brayer (a roller that applies an even film of printer’s ink). Then lay a sheet of custom printing paper across the surface of the plate, and rub the back of the paper with a wooden spoon or a roller, or run the plate and paper through a printing press (an art press, not a commercial printing press).

The linocut printing plate will not have the characteristic grain of a woodcut, and it won’t last for as many impressions, but the overall process will be much easier to master than woodcut printing.

In addition, if you use more than one custom printing plate (in register with the others), you can produce multi-color prints (one color per plate).

Alternatively, you can print one color, clean the plate, then cut away sections of the linoleum that will not print in the successive color, and ink the plate with another color of ink. (This is called “reductive printing,” since you are reducing the linoleum plate for each successive color.)

You can even do this kind of relief printing with softer materials. For instance, my fiancee and I have used styrofoam plates from grocery store meat departments (the plates under the shrink-wrapped cuts of beef, pork, or lamb). These are easy to cut with a stylus such as a pen or pencil, or even the point of a pair of scissors.

Or you can even cut a potato in half and then use a kitchen knife to carve relief areas (image areas and non-image areas). Or you can take a bar of soap and cut it into a relief plate.

On an entirely different note, we have even done Japanese fish printing with our autistic students. Granted, we used rubber fish, unlike the traditional Japanese method, but this was still relief printing, since the raised parts of the fish (such as the scales and side fins) printed while the recessed areas like the eyes did not.

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

Going back to the oldest methods of printing by hand will increase your understanding of modern commercial printing because, at its deepest levels, even computer-controlled offset printing has a direct link to the original custom printing techniques.

Creating your holiday cards by hand will also yield a printed product that is personal, unique, and a joy to hold in the hand. You can’t say this about an e-card. Make a special impression on your family and friends with the techniques of old-school printing.

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