I have difficulty imagining what my work today might be, or look like, if I had never made prints. I take for granted so much of the experience made possible by the printing process that subsequently circled back into my studio, that I find it impossible to sort it all out and remember, let alone understand, what comes from where.
All, or certainly most of the attributes that I value in printmaking cannot be replicated outside the print studio, yet they all color what I am doing, or attempting to do—or how I look at what I do in the studio, in exactly the same way (the mirror image?) as one takes with one into the print shop, the work being done in the studio.
The necessary attention to process; the discipline building an image through successive discrete steps; the ability through proofing plates to compare absolutely each step with one previously (ie, to “have one’s cake and to eat it too”); and the ability to separate drawing and color—to see an identically drawn plate realized in different colors: all these attributes are accentuated in printmaking but are likely to alter work habits in the studio.
For example: several years ago I was making marks on a lithography plate and then laboriously trying to have them recede, or in part undo them, when the printer I was working with suggested using toner suspended in alcohol as a means of drawing. The result was a revelation because (after exhaustive testing and many frustrating attempts, where we only persisted because we could gain better control of the process, and the prospective results were so enticing) we arrived at a way of making the marks where positive and negative strokes happened both spontaneously and simultaneously. So much so, that it became virtually impossible to distinguish between a positive and negative version of the resulting drawing to determine which was the “original” mylar and which the photographic negative. At some point, looking at recently finished work, Bill Goldston said laughing, “Well good luck in your studio trying to make your work without this.” Not knowing any better I replied a little disdainfully perhaps, “Oh that is irrelevant, this is here in the print shop and I won’t miss it in the studio where the work is different.” But of course, Bill was right and before long I was trying to make drawings using toner, then finally arriving at paintings which owed a great deal to striving for something approximating the result that had been realized in the print shop.
When I was first introduced to the power of Photoshop (once again, in the print shop) I know that my excitement in the possibilities it unleashed was informed by the experience of making prints and images in the “old fashioned” way using multiple plates in place of Photoshop’s layers. It was interesting to then be introduced to a technology that extended and enabled things I was already trying to accomplish, rather than being shown a seductive technology and then looking for things to do with it.
For me, Photoshop can compress weeks of trial proofing into a few hours, so that when I return to the printing press, it is possible to concentrate exclusively on those aspects of the process that cannot be realized through a computer’s printer.
A young artist today, being introduced to multiple printing techniques is likely to come to this with an already sophisticated understanding of Photoshop. I am confident this contemporary experience, so different to the one I had when I first made prints, leads to unexpected and beautiful results, once more confirming the fertile ground between printing and an artist’s practice in their own studio.