What Makes a Print a Print?
A print is created when ink is applied to one surface and then transferred, by pressure, to another surface. The surface to which the ink is first applied, known as the “plate,” can be composed of a variety of materials, including wood, metal, linoleum, or acrylic. The pressure used to transfer the image may be provided by hand or by machine. I print on a hand-turned Griffin press made in nearby Oakland. Printmaking was originally developed to produce multiple copies of text or images; however, the process of printmaking creates distinctive visual qualities quite different from those of an image directly drawn or painted. The way ink is absorbed by paper in a monotype, for example, is quite different from the way paint applied with a brush lies on paper. And a process like linocut produces an image with characteristic marks — the result of gouges made in the plate — that create unique movement and vitality.
A linocut is a print created from a smooth linoleum plate. Linoleum is composed of renewable resources, primarily cork and linseed oil (which is compressed from flaxseed). Linoleum used by artists is backed with burlap and considerably softer than the linoleum used for kitchen floors. I draw my image directly on the linoleum plate and carve it by hand. Before printing, I soak and blot my paper to make it more supple, so that it absorbs ink deeply and embosses when pressed into the recessed areas of the plate. Matisse and Picasso made extensive use of linocut.
A monotype is, as its name implies, a one-of-a-kind image. Ink is applied in any of a multitude of ways to a smooth surface and then transferred to paper. Unlike most printmaking processes, a monotype image is not reproducible: each print is a unique impression. Monotypes have been called the most painterly of prints, because if ink is applied to the plate with a brush, the resulting print may display brushmarks quite similar to those of a painting.
The terms monotype and monoprint are frequently used interchangeably. There is, however, a technical difference between the two: while a monotype is a unique impression produced from a plate without any kind of reproducible image, a monoprint is a unique impression pulled from a plate that bears an incised, and therefore reproducible, image. Monoprints can be, in a sense, a fusion of linocut and monotype: they are printed on a carved plate, but the ink is applied in a one-of-a-kind way.
This is a technique generally employed in intaglio or monotype printmaking, but I apply it to linocut for the velvety textures and luscious shading it creates. The word “viscosity” simply refers to the thickness of a fluid. Fluids with different viscosities tend to separate, or “resist,” each other. You can see this effect in cocktails like the B52, in which the ingredients form distinct layers of color. Mixing different amounts of oil into inks produces inks with differing viscosities. When mixed properly, these inks will resist each other, making it possible to roll one color over another with minimal intermixing.
In order to create a three-color viscosity print, I mix considerable oil into the first color, to make it quite runny. Less oil is added to the second color to make it moderately thick, and a very small amount is mixed into the third, so it is almost sludgy. I roll the thinnest of the three onto the plate first, then wipe the plate by hand, with fabric and other implements, removing ink only in the areas where I want the second color to settle. By varying the pressure when wiping, I can create subtle blending between the colors. When the wiping is complete, I roll the second color onto the plate. This color adheres wherever the first was wiped away, but leaves the first color intact. Then I carefully wipe the plate again, this time removing ink in any areas where I intend the third color to settle. When I roll the third color onto the plate, it adheres only in these wiped areas, leaving the first two colors intact.
The plate must be hand-wiped in this way for each print created. While the carved image remains the same from one print to the next, the hand-wiping creates subtle color variations, so that each and every viscosity print is unique. For this reason, viscosity prints are generally not numbered. They are limited edition prints, because a limited number of prints (about one hundred) can be pulled from a plate before the physical wear and tear of the printing process begins to degrade the plate.
I love the way viscosity creates soft, blurred borders between colors, and subtle shadowy effects. The viscosity process is very finicky, especially when three or more colors are involved: the results vary greatly depending on how the inks are mixed, how much ink is applied with each roll, whether pressure is applied in rolling, how precisely and evenly the inks are wiped, and — most precariously — whether the printmaker removes the small flecks of linoleum or lint that inevitably settle in the inks while working. Every stage affects the final result, so the process demands the printmaker’s full attention. The result, for me, is that the experience of viscosity printmaking is a kind of deep meditation.
Generally printmakers ink a plate and pull one print from it. However, after being printed once a plate still has some residual ink left on it. If a second print is pulled using only this residual ink, the resulting image has a wonderfully smoky, ghostly quality, and is therefore called a ghost.
Because printmaking can produce multiple copies of the same image, a method of numbering has been devised to identify each print individually. The number is usually written as a fraction, with the number on the bottom being the total number of prints to be pulled from that plate (also called the edition), and the number on top the number of that particular print. For example, 5/50 would be the fifth print out of a total edition of fifty. Because monotypes and monoprints are unique images, they are either left unnumbered or numbered 1/1 – that is, one out of a total edition of one, no other print being exactly the same.
What’s this about “Pulling” a Print?
The ink that transfers from plate to paper in the printmaking process tends to make the paper stick to the plate. Removing the paper often requires a bit of pulling – so printmakers tend to talk about “pulling” a print, rather than “making” a print. In any case, as I warn new students, pulling prints can be a wonderfully addictive creative process: I’ve heard of a printmaker who didn’t have access to a press, but who had a driveway, a car, and two pieces of plywood…