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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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: Printing Is More Than You May Think

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.


    1. 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.


    1. 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.


  1. 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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