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Archive for the ‘Fine Art Printing’ Category

Custom Printing: Art Print Lithography vs. Offset Lithography

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

What is the difference? How can you make sure that the old print you found at a thrift store is not from a huge print run of offset lithographic posters?

First of all, some backstory. I have a fine arts background that predates my 45 years in the commercial printing and publications field. So, early on, when I saw the artistry in the custom printing field, I became interested in the similarities and differences between fine arts lithography and offset lithography. I started going to estate sales and art auctions, and even now my fiancee and I always check out the art print section of our favorite thrift store.

The Lithographic Process in General

Here’s a recap of lithography in general. Water and oil do not mix. Therefore, if you first mark a flat printing plate with a greasy substance that will attract commercial printing ink to the image areas, and then dampen the plate with water, you can lay a sheet of paper on the plate (in either a commercial or fine art press) and apply pressure to the back of the paper, such that the ink will be transferred onto the paper in exactly the right places. The water will keep the ink away from the non-image areas. The image can be quite detailed and still remain separate from the non-image areas. In addition, keep in mind that the printing plate is absolutely flat (planographic). Only chemistry is keeping the water and ink apart.

(This is in contrast to relief printing, like letterpress, in which the image areas are raised from the surface of the plate. It is also in contrast to intaglio printing, like engraving, in which the image areas are recessed, or sunken below the surface of the plate.)

Traditional Lithography

As is the case with many inventions, traditional lithography was based on a happy accident in 1796. Alois Senefelder (according to my research) found that if he printed his literary works (scripts, actually) on limestone using a greasy crayon, he could roll ink onto the limestone, apply paper to the limestone (plate), and make multiple copies using pressure to transfer the ink from the stone to the paper. The printing ink would adhere only to the marks he had made with the greasy crayon.

Over the ensuing years, metal plates were used in the same way (aluminum or zinc) because they were easier to transport than blocks of limestone.

As lithography matured, the following processes were added. The printer rubbed a layer of powdered rosin onto the already marked (greasy) image area and then a layer of talc. Then the printer would brush on a layer of gum arabic (alone or with a mild acid). All of this “fixed” the already-drawn image area and allowed the non-image areas to absorb water (which would then repel the ink).

Then the drawing on the plate was washed down with lithotine (which left only a light image of the initial drawing), and asphaltum was rubbed into the entire image. At this point the plate was ready for printing.

And to go back to the general description of lithography, the plate was dampened with water, ink was applied (sticking only to the image area), moist printing paper was laid over the plate (along with a board that was used as padding, and the firm pressure of the printing press transferred the image from the plate to the paper. This had to be done an additional time for every additional color of ink used. (Things started out in black and white, and then printers began to incorporate color as this process was further developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Essentially, this is the process that’s still done today.

Offset Lithography

When you strip out all of the computerized and mechanized elements of offset lithography (the comparable process used for commercial printing), you have the same ink/water separation, flat printing plate—pretty much the same process as original, traditional lithography. It is an art as well as a science.

However, here are some differences:

  1. Offset lithography, as the name implies, involves offsetting the printed image. That is, the commercial printing plate first deposits the image on a rubber (i.e., compressible) blanket. From here the image is transferred to the press sheet. (That is, in offset lithography, the plate never comes in direct contact with the paper.) In contrast, in traditional lithography, the plate does come in direct contact with the paper.
  2. Offset presses can print one of the four transparent process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) or a PMS color—or not print it—but only as a solid color (without gradation). There is no “in-between.” It is not possible to create lighter or darker tones of a hue (tints and shades): that is, no lighter or darker cyan. Because of this limitation, as offset lithography developed, the concept of the halftone was created. Images were converted from gradations of continuous tones into halftone dot patterns. Larger dots in the equally spaced halftone grid gave the impression of darker tones. Smaller dots gave the impression of lighter tones. When halftone dot screens for the individual colors were tilted relative to each other (prior to platemaking), printers could achieve the visual approximation of tints, shades, and even full color when printing these overlaid, transparent process inks.

So What Do You Look for in a Print

Essentially, what makes an original fine art litho valuable is twofold. First, the artist did the handwork of preparing and inking the stone or aluminum plate, and participated directly in all other aspects of print creation. Even though there’s more than one original (unlike an oil painting), you know the artist made all of the design decisions.

Because of this, you will see the artist’s signature on the lithograph as well as the print number (let’s say 1/500, which means the first litho taken from a press run of 500 copies). If you find one that has an “AP” noted, that means “artist’s proof.”

Second, and very much related to the “1/500” notation above, is that there are only a limited number of prints. (Scarcity of good things makes them valuable.)

An offset printed poster is neither rare nor (usually) hand-signed by the artist. Hence, it is far less valuable than a true art lithograph.

Here’s what to look for to distinguish an art litho from an offset litho.

If you look at a fine art lithograph under a printer’s loupe (mine is 12-power), you will see a light and random dot pattern that indicates the texture or tooth of the rough press sheet. The key, however, is that the dots are random. Also, the different colors of ink overlap (as in offset lithography) and the films of ink are thick (unlike offset lithography).

But here’s the real key, and here’s why you might want to keep a loupe with you when you’re trolling the estate sales. If your print is an offset lithograph, the dot pattern (which was irregular in the traditional litho and was due to the roughness of the paper) is perfectly regular in the offset lithograph. In fact, in the color photos, you’ll also see the “rosettes” (they look like flowers) that are due to the halftone dot screens’ having been tilted slightly in relation to one another.

If you see the rosettes (for full color) or halftone dots (for a tint of an individual color), you may also notice that the offset printed ink layer is very thin and transparent.

Also, you probably won’t see an artist’s signature, and if you do, it was probably already on the art when the designer took the photograph to then print as a poster.

So here’s the key. A print at the thrift store with a halftone dot pattern is probably one of hundreds or thousands of similar copies, which were never touched by the artist. They were just reproduced using photography and commercial printing. Buy them only if you like the way they look, because they essentially have no intrinsic investment value.

In contrast, a print that you find in a thrift store—and they are there to be found—that has a random dot pattern, thicker inks, and the artist’s signature will be worth significantly more than the $3 to $10 you may have paid for it, and far more than the poster version produced via offset lithography.

But even more importantly, it’s kind of cool to find an original, signed piece at an estate sale. Since you know how it was made, and since you know how integral the artist was in its creation, you have far more of a bond with the artist than you do with a poster.

So keep your eyes open at the thrift store. And bring a loupe.

Custom Printing: Fish Printing for Art and Commerce

Sunday, February 9th, 2020

I’m always excited when the art therapy work my fiancee and I do with our autistic students overlaps with my work in the commercial printing industry. Recently, at my fiancee’s behest, we bought rubber fish to ink and then print, just as the Japanese fishermen did in the 1800s to record the fish they caught. What’s old is new again, so to speak.

The traditional term for this artform is “gyotaku.” Fishermen in Japan used to ink up their fish with sumi ink and then print them on rice paper. If you’ve seen any of these images online or in museums, you may also have noticed the red marks at the bottom right of the prints. These were the artists’ names and/or information about the prints.

Once the imprint had been made, the fishermen could rinse off the ink and then sell or eat the fish they had caught.

Preparation for Our Classes

Needless to say, we had no rice paper, sumi ink, or knowledge of the Kanji characters for writing names, and our fish were rubber (made from molds that resembled fish). But we had enthusiasm. We had a total of eight fish (which were essentially custom printing plates for relief printing) that ranged from a flounder to a starfish to a piranha.

Before the class we made a handful of test prints, first rolling out the Speedball printing ink on plastic mats with a rubber printing roller or brayer (also not traditional; presumably the fishermen in Japan had used some form of stuffed dauber to collect the ink and blot it onto the fish). Then we laid tissue paper (our version of rice paper) over the inked rubber plates.

We learned two things. First, regular paper didn’t work well because it was flat and could not be nestled into all the inked nooks and crannies of the rubber fish the way the more flexible tissue paper could. Also, it was nice to be able to see the ink through the tissue paper. We could make sure that all of the paper had come into contact with the inked rubber fish. This would yield a complete, intricate print.

We also learned that overinking was not ideal. After all, this is relief custom printing. The goal was to distinguish between the raised areas of the fish that would take the ink and the recessed areas that would not print. With practice, we could print very detailed ridges in the fish and even a number of the scales. Delicate inking worked best.

How the Project Went

We did this custom printing project with three classes. Some of the autistic members were more skilled, some less. However, everyone loved the tactile nature of the project and even the mess. They also liked the surprising, sometimes uncontrollable, outcomes (kind of like watercolor painting). Each student chose the best two prints they had done, which we then mounted. All images received the traditional red signature (called a “chop”) in the right-hand bottom portion of the print. Then we used glue sticks to mount the printed tissue paper on black or white bristol board backing.

While the autistic students worked on their projects, I explained the custom printing process. I distinguished between relief printing and intaglio printing. I told the students about such relief processes as letterpress, linoleum printing, and woodcut printing.

I also explained that intaglio printing allowed the press operator to print using ink in the recesses of the printing plate, while the ink on the raised areas would be wiped off before printing. In contrast, in relief printing I told the students that the raised areas alone carried the image to be printed.

My fiancee and I even contrasted these techniques to offset commercial printing, in which both the image area and non-image area are on the same level of the custom printing plate, with only the inability of oil (the ink) and water to mix allowing the image area to remain separate from the non-image area in the final print.

In short, my fiancee and I discussed the art project within the context of fine art printing and commercial printing throughout history. And since the original purpose of gyotaku or fish printing was as a recording device for commerce (printing the fish as a record of what had been caught), we even presented the context of economics in our background information.

The Inks We Used

We stuck with white and black ink, although the tissue paper ranged from black to white to orange to light blue and green. The backgrounds offered a second color in most cases.

Some of the members and their aides even found ways to print both black and white on a single fish, just by using a brush as well as a roller, adding white paint as a highlight color in certain areas.

Another Traditional Approach: Monoprints

I’ve written before in the PIE Blog about monotypes, in which no printing plate is used. You just paint a design onto a glass sheet and then lay a piece of custom printing paper over it and then rub the back of the sheet with a spoon to transfer the image. This makes only one unique print.

Similar to this is the monoprint, in which a simple (not blank like the glass sheet of monotypes but with some image in the metal “matrix”) plate is used repeatedly, but it is altered by adding ink in different ways (like painting ink onto the plate). When the students first inked up the fish with black ink and then added the white ink with a brush, this was closer to the traditional monoprint (that is, the consistent base of the printing plate with each image altered and doctored up differently).

What the Students Learned; What You Can Learn

  1. First of all, if you’re used to printing your jobs digitally on inkjet or laser equipment, it helps to see how printing has evolved over the centuries. (You may also want to read about Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 1400s, plus the ensuing democratization of printed materials and reading once books became available, supplanting the hand-lettered Bibles copied by the monks.)
  2. The more you know about traditional relief printing, intaglio printing, and offset printing, the more appreciation you will have for the art and craft of commercial printing. You will also understand why you do what you do. For example, the student who painted white highlights on the fish after rolling black ink onto the rubber plate with a brayer, could have done the same thing by making two passes with the same plate (one with black ink and one with white). In this way he would have learned how to print custom printing plates “in register.”
  3. Seeing the nuances of overinked and underinked plates will give you an appreciation for both graphic arts and fine arts. You will grow to both recognize and appreciate delicacy in these disciplines.
  4. You’ll understand right away what flexography is. After all, flexography is just inking up rubber relief plates, which is exactly what this kind of fish printing is. You’ll appreciate the process by which printers decorate everything from the plastic wrapping material used for loaves of bread to holiday wrapping paper to the cardboard packaging your frozen dinner comes in.
  5. You might even decide to cut a potato in half and then carve an image into one side and print it. This is the kind of relief printing I used to do as a kid.
  6. Also, if you go to a Renaissance Faire and watch a printing exhibition of letterpress work, you’ll understand the whole process of relief printing from having made your own fish prints.

Knowledge is power. It also gives you an historical and economic perspective, and it helps you appreciate the intricacies of fine arts and commercial arts.

Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

In addition to my work in the commercial printing field, I do art therapy work with my fiancee. We teach autistic students to make art. We do everything from drawing to painting to sculpture to custom printing.

In past issues of the PIE Blog I have written about a number of the techniques of custom printing that we have brought to our students, and in the last week I have been studying one that we have not yet used: collography. I’d like to briefly describe this technique along with another one I just discovered in researching Andy Warhol for a recent painting class. His technique was called “the blotting line,” and this along with his tracing work developed into the Pop Art custom screen printing for which he was famous. Finally, I want to describe “monotyping,” a third technique I plan to share with my fiancee’s and my autistic students.

What makes all of these interesting to me is that all can be done with simple materials and no commercial printing press. These printing plates can be inked and printed by hand. What this means is that anyone with the interest can do any of these techniques with a fair amount of success. Moreover, there’s nothing that makes you understand the artistry in current, automated, commercial printing like a personal experience with one of the hand-printing techniques. After all, custom printing is both an art and a craft.


The word “collagraphy” (also spelled “collography”) is derived from the Greek words for “glue” and “writing.” The process was developed in 1955 by Glen Alps. Collagraphy starts with a printing plate made of wood or paperboard (bristol or perhaps chipboard, for instance). You add materials to build up texture (and/or subject matter). Then you paint ink or roll ink onto the raised areas of the plate (to produce a “relief” or raised print), or you use a roller or paint brush to flood the plate with printing ink, and then you wipe the ink off the raised areas. (This yields an “intaglio” print in which the recessed areas of the plate transfer the ink to the paper substrate.)

What makes this interesting is all the materials you can use. In addition to gluing down pieces of cardboard, you can build up texture with gesso or other acrylic media, or you can glue leaves or even banana peels, textiles, string, or sandpaper to the plate. In this way you can create patterns or textures.

Overall, this process will allow you to create dramatic tonal variations due to the depth (i.e., thickness) of the relief plate and the textures you can create.

(If you think about it, this is not that different from the raised areas that are built up for creasing and scoring paper using the Highcon Euclud digital machine. With this equipment, you can use digital data to produce raised areas on a plate that will then crease and score press sheets.)

One thing I have read about collagraphy in some art books is that once you make the plate, you can shellac it. This will seal the plate and provide an impermeable surface that you can more easily wipe clean as you change or add ink colors.

Once you have created the plate, you can print it. Since most of you (myself included, actually) won’t have access to an art printing press, you can just lay the printing paper on top of the inked plate and then burnish it with the back of a wooden spoon. When you peel off the printing paper, the image will transfer from the collagraph plate to your printing sheet.

(To refer back to the art therapy work my fiancee and I do, we once made tribal masks using the fluting of corrugated board for texture. Our students glued pieces of this fluting to flat corrugated liner board, creating relief sculptures of the masks. Although we didn’t have time to do any printing, we could easily have used these relief mask sculptures as collagraph plates and printed the masks onto press sheets. In fact I hope to do this same project again sometime and have the students not only make the masks but use them as custom printing plates as well.)

Andy Warhol’s Blotting Techniques

I studied Andy Warhol’s work for a recent art class with our autistic students so I could provide background information as the students drew and then painted shoes. Early in his career, Andy Warhol, who was actually born Andy Warhola, did illustrations for Glamour magazine. If you look him up online, you will find many of his drawings of high-fashion shoes. My fiancee and I used these shoe illustrations as a starting point for this week’s art therapy painting project.

While Warhol was drawing and painting shoes, he came up with a technique called the “blotting line” technique which involved drawing a line in ink and then blotting it while it was still wet. This changed the texture of the line and was in a very basic way a printing technique (transferring an image from one flat surface to another by blotting). As simple as this sounds, it developed over time into not only Warhol’s signature style of advertising art but also the photo-silkscreen printing for which he is so well known. In both cases (and in his use of photocopy machines and tracing), Warhol explored the artistic effects of repeated images. (You may have seen Warhol’s multiple images of Campbell’s Soup Cans or multiple images of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face.) All of this, plus the initial “printing” quality of the “blotting line” technique, was incorporated into Warhol’s artistic style.

Monotype Printing

Here’s another technique you can do at home without a commercial printing press. It’s called monotyping, and you can do it in a number of ways. You can paint an image onto a non-porous plate (such as a plexiglass, glass, or—as was done historically—copper plate). Then you place the printing paper over the inked plate, and you burnish it with even pressure all across the back of the sheet using the back of a wooden spoon to press the paper into the ink. You can do this with a printing press as well, but in this case, you can’t use a glass plate, or it will shatter from the pressure.

Another way to make a monotype (in this case called a transfer monotype) is to first ink the plate completely in a single color. Then you lay the printing sheet over the ink and carefully draw an image on the back of the sheet with a pencil or stylus. (If your fingers touch the paper, even slight pressure will transfer ink from the plate to the printing paper.) When you peel the press sheet off the plate, the areas you have drawn will be in color (the pressure of the pencil picks up ink from the printing plate), and everything else will be the unprinted paper.

A third way to approach monotypes is to ink the plate completely and then use paintbrushes, rags, and/or a stylus to remove ink selectively from the solid background prior to printing.

Monotyping yields one good print. However, the transfer from the plate to the substrate changes the nature of the lines and solids in subtle ways (the pressure does this to the ink film). Therefore, you wind up with a single, somewhat uncontrolled but nevertheless unique image. If you try to print the plate again, you will usually get only a faint image.

(If you do some research, you’ll find that the British Romantic poet William Blake made monotypes to illustrate his poetry.)

Choosing the ink is an important step. I have read about printing with watercolors, but I have had more success with actual oil-based printing inks. If you choose oil-based inks you can print the substrate either wet or dry. If the printing stock is dry, there will be more contrast in the print. If the paper is wet, you’ll get a greater range of tones.

Once you have printed the plate, you can go back into the image with watercolor, ink, or any other medium to embellish the work.

What you get out of this is the serendipitous accidents akin to watercolor painting. Since you can’t control every element of monotyping, you incorporate the elements of chance and irregularity into your work, and this often makes the art print more unique.

How Does This Pertain to Commercial Printing?

Even though some artists consider fine arts to be superior to commercial art, if you do the research you’ll find that such famous artists as Toulouse Lautrec (posters), Piet Mondrain (Mondrain layout grids for graphic design), Andy Warhol (screen printing and illustration), and N.C. Wyeth (magazine illustrations) all worked in both the fine arts and graphic (or commercial) arts. After all, the principles of good design cross over from one discipline to the other.

If you are a graphic designer or a printer, it can only enhance your appreciation of your craft to see how famous artists have approached custom printing. Understanding the history of the arts broadens and deepens your own knowledge and skill in your craft.

As noted before, learning to hand-print images will help you understand the art and craft that underlie the automation of contemporary commercial printing. You will understand, for instance, what it means for images to be “in register.” This concept comes into play whether you’re using a million dollar press or printing colors from a glass printing plate, using a wooden spoon to rub the image from the plate onto the paper.

So the short answer is that nothing empowers us like knowledge and personal experience. Moreover, knowledge and experience can enhance our love for our craft.

Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

Monday, September 16th, 2019

I’ve been looking for new art projects my fiancee and I can share with our autistic students. Having been in the field of custom printing for over 40 years, I’m particularly drawn to hand-crafted approaches to what have become the super-automated technologies of commercial printing.

At the moment I’m still considering monoprinting (painting a design on a flat glass, metal, or plastic surface, and then burnishing damp printing paper against the plate to pull a single impression), but just recently I came upon another approach to custom printing that may also have promise for our art therapy work. That is collagraphy.

Collagraphy, also spelled collography, is relatively new, having been invented in 1955 by Glen Alps (according to Wikipedia). In fact, the description I read in Wikipedia makes it sound very much like a fine arts version of an offset “paper plate” or “polyester plate.” Granted, offset plates are flat. They have the image area and the non-image area on the same surface, and the ability of the image area to attract the greasy custom printing ink and the ability of the water-covered non-image area to repel the oily printing ink are what make offset printing “work.” That is, you can effectively (and definitively) separate the image areas from the non-image areas.

Not so with collagraphy. Collagraphy is either a relief process or an intaglio process (unlike offset printing). These are different from one another, but you can use a single collagraphic plate to produce either a relief print or intaglio print or both on the same substrate.

First of all, a relief printing process (which would include such techniques as woodcut printing and linoleum cut printing) involves creating a printing plate with a raised image area. The plate is inked and then brought into contact with printing paper, transferring the image from the plate to the substrate.

This image transfer is achieved with pressure (between the paper and the printing plate), but the pressure can be applied either with a printing press or with a burnisher of some type (such as the back of a spoon) rubbed across the back of the printing paper when it is in contact with the inked plate surface.

This pressure transfers the image. That is what makes this a custom printing process. And that is also what makes this process—at its most rudimentary level—akin to a more developed printing technology called letterpress (and another one called flexography). If you find a commercial printing vendor with a letterpress or flexographic press, this is exactly what he is doing with his equipment.

In contrast to relief printing, intaglio printing involves wiping the thick commercial printing ink across the surface of the printing plate (which has recessed image areas cut into the base substrate of the plate). When you then wipe the surface of the printing plate clean, the only ink left on the plate is in the recesses cut into the substrate. When you place printing paper (damp but not actually wet) onto the inked plate and then run it through a press, the damp paper (combined with the pressure of the process) pulls the ink out of the recessed image areas on the plate and deposits it on the paper.

What makes collagraphy unique is that you create a paper plate with multiple textures in the image areas, and then you either apply printer’s ink onto the relief areas of the plate (anything that sticks up above the flat printing surface), or you ink the entire plate and then remove (wipe off) any ink on the plate’s surface, leaving ink only in the recessed areas of the paper plate. (All of this is prior to the printing step.)

Or you can do both relief and intaglio printing with the same plate. In this case you would just print one version intaglio (recessed image areas) and one version relief (anything that rises above the surface). Presumably you would print both images in register (alignment).

What Makes Collagraphy Different?

So far, anything I have just described can refer to any relief or intaglio process. If, however, you are doing collagraphy, you start with a paper (or actually sometimes wood) substrate, and then you build up its surface in a number of different ways.

Wikipedia notes that you can use “acrylic texture mediums, sandpapers, textiles, bubble wrap, string or other fibers, cut card, leaves, and grass” (Wikipedia, Collagraphy). You affix these to the printing plate surface with glue. Other articles I have read suggest using wallpaper (since it has depth and texture). These articles also mention carborundum (since it is a powder that you can sprinkle over glue to create a rough texture that holds a lot of printing ink). Even thick glue-drenched threads can be used to create depth on the printing plate.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word “koll” or “kolla” means glue, and “graph” means drawing, so you are effectively drawing with glue. Or, more specifically, in making the collagraphic plate, you are creating a custom printing plate on a paper board (or sometimes wood) using glue and all manner of other items to create raised image areas that will accept ink from a “brayer” (a roller made for applying ink) or brush. And even the glue itself can be used to build up raised areas such as lines and curves that will accept ink and print it on the substrate.

Once you have created the plate, you coat it with shellac to seal everything so it does not degrade as you add the ink, print the plate, and then wipe off the ink to clean the plate. The shellac acts as a sealant and protective coating while also strengthening the plate.

But it doesn’t stop here. You can actually build up areas of the plate with wall filler. You can then shape the wall filler with tools or press textured items into the wall filler before it dries to transfer the texture from the items (such as the fabric) onto the printing plate.

Printing the Plate

Once you have crafted the plate to your satisfaction, and the wall fill and shellac coating have dried, you can wet the printing paper in a tray of water. The paper has to be of sufficient thickness to not come apart with the pressure applied by the raised areas of the plate (which actually embosses the paper).

Articles I read suggested using brushes (such as toothbrushes) to work the thick ink into all recesses of the printing plate. You can also use scrim material to work the ink into the plate or to clean off excess ink. (Scrim is a gauzy textile with a dominant weave pattern that will help in either applying or removing ink.) Paper or fabric can be used to “polish” the plate, ensuring that those areas you want to be white (highlights) will retain no ink.

When the plate is ready, you place it in the bed of the press, check its alignment with a registration sheet, ink the plate, take a piece of printing paper out of the tray in which it has been soaking in water, place it between sheets of blotter paper to remove some of the water (to make it damp but not actually wet), put the paper in the press, and pull a proof.

If the ink is muddy, dark, and/or sticky, you need to back off on the ink. If your print is too light, you may need to increase the pressure of the press.

If you want to use more than one color, you can wipe the plate clean with the tissue and scrim, and then apply different colors of ink to different areas of the plate before pulling your next proof.

How Does This Relate to Commercial Printing?

If you actually go through the process of hand printing anything, you will better understand the computerized and mechanized technology currently in use. The huge, multi-unit presses in commercial printing establishments still apply ink to paper substrates, even if they are run by computers and even if they use closed-loop electric eye mechanisms to control the color. The better you understand the core custom printing process (intaglio and relief printing in the case of collagraphy), the better able you will be to create the printing nuances you need in order to achieve the precise effects you desire.

Custom Printing: Reproducing Fine Art Prints

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Purely by chance today, while waiting while my fiancee had her teeth cleaned and scaled, I found two new potential commercial printing clients.

Both are fine artists. I had commented on a painting on the dentist’s wall, which depicted the very block on which I had lived as a child, and I was told the artist was in the waiting room. I couldn’t help myself. I gushed. The conversation turned from art to custom printing, and to her need for multiple copies of her work. It turns out that she is well known around the world, and that she had received multiple commissions to do murals and paintings over the years.

What this meant in terms of commercial printing, as she and I discussed, was that she needed copies of her art in vibrant color on archival art paper. Based on the press run, she would probably need offset printing rather than digital printing.

So we exchanged contact information and agreed to meet at her studio to discuss the job further after the holidays.

Interestingly enough, not two minutes later I learned that the dentist’s office manager also needed commercial printing and potentially photographic reproductions of her art. She was a close friend of the first woman. She showed me her business card, which she had bought online. She was not happy with the results.

How I Plan to Proceed with Both Clients

In short, I am overjoyed with the serendipity of the moment, and even more so with the opportunity, given my background in the fine arts as well as commercial printing.

Here are my initial thoughts, starting with the second prospective client’s work:

  1. The business card my prospective client showed me will never look as good as the image on her phone. A back-lit cellphone screen will make the colors look much brighter (as a transmissive technology) than will a printed piece that depends on reflected light to be seen (as a reflective technology). That said, there are ways to improve the printed card.
  2. Her current business card from an online vendor has probably been gang-printed with a large number of other cards. In such a case, overall ink density will be chosen to benefit the overall multiple print run, not the individual business cards. I explained this to my potential client, and she understood. For her business card to receive superior treatment, it would need to be printed on a small press by itself. Then the ink density could be tailored to her specific image, her painting as reproduced on the back of her card.
  3. Although we did not discuss this, she could choose a brilliant, blue-white press sheet, and she could add fluorescent inks to the traditional CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) inkset to make the colors “pop.”
  4. Along these lines, when this particuler client is ready to reproduce her artwork as full-size art prints rather than as the back of her business card, my assumption is that she will produce a shorter run than the first potential client. This is because she is a relative newcomer to fine arts compared to her friend. After my fiancee and I had left the dentist’s office, I called one of the commercial printers to which I broker custom printing work and discussed their capabilities. This particular printer has an HP Indigo digital press with a B2 format (20” x 29”). This would be large enough for art prints. It would accept textured, archival paper and even canvas substrates (although these would need to be certified for this particular press, so there would be a limited number of available papers). Finally, the HP Indigo has an extended inkset. In addition to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, you can add orange, violet, and green (among other colors) to significantly expand the available color range (and produce jaw-dropping color images).

So I’m keeping all of this information for my fiancee’s next teeth cleaning in six months. This will give the dental office manager time to develop her artwork and decide what to print (without putting pressure on her). Since she has my card, she can contact me if she needs to print business cards. After all, she now has an idea of the cost (relative to the online printer).

Back to the First Client

The first client has an immediate need. We will meet in her studio in about a month. I will look closely at the reproductions she has produced to date (with a particular eye to color reproduction and paper), and we can decide how to proceed. Today I also discussed this client with the printer who has the HP Indigo. These were the issues that arose:

  1. Apparently, this printer can produce up to 5,000 copies on the HP Indigo and still be cost-effective. To be sure, I’ll have them price out the job once I know the client’s requested quantity.
  2. The HP Indigo has an extended color set, as noted above. However, it will depend on the specific colors in my client’s painting as to whether this extra capacity (expanded color gamut) will be visible (i.e., necessary). It will depend on the colors in the original art.
  3. If my client’s press run will be longer than the cost-effective digital press run on the HP Indigo, this same printer can do the same job on a six-color offset press. With the two extra press units, the printer could add two of the following: an orange, a green, and a violet. This would also expand the color gamut, but only if the artwork would benefit from the extra colors.
  4. Both the offset press and the digital press can accept textured, archival papers. These papers would have two benefits: they would last a very long time due to their alkaline (as opposed to acidic) nature; and they would have a “tooth,” a texture that usually sets art papers above the comparatively smooth offset and digital press sheets.
  5. If my client wanted a number of different formats (some smaller than the approximately 20” x 29” image I saw in the dentist’s office), these could actually be printed on a canvas substrate (on the digital press but not the offset press). According to the printer, the ideal size for such a canvas print would be about 10” x 13” (largest), which could then be matted and framed to produce a larger piece.
  6. Scanning (or, rather, digitizing) the image would be an important issue to consider. If the canvas will fit the format of the flatbed scanner, this would produce the best digitized image (the sharpest and most color faithful). If not, the painted canvas would need to be shot with a digital camera. This would require specialized camera equipment, specialized lighting, and skill. The goal would be to add nothing to the art, while capturing all the colors.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

A skilled printer can create a beautiful photographic rendition of an art print (as opposed to an individual painting or a short-run, hand-made lithographic run of an art print). While it does not have the same value as an original, it has beauty, and it is affordable by most people.

What enhances the beauty of an art print is the extent of the color gamut (how many colors can be reproduced and with what intensity and brilliance). In addition, the brightness, whiteness, and longevity of the paper (its light-fastness, for instance) enhances its beauty. It should be archival to last a long time. It can also have texture (referred to by artists as a paper’s “tooth”).

A good starting point for such a reproduction is the run-length and trim size of the final press run. This will determine if the press run is short enough for digital or long enough for offset lithography.

Of all possible jobs, if you’re printing copies of fine art, this is the time to pay for good proofs and to do a press check to make sure you get exactly what you want and expect.

After all, printing is an art as well as a craft, and the marriage of fine art prints with the art and craft of custom printing can yield remarkable results.

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.


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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