Thursday, April 21, 2016

Handmade History: Printmaking

By Kate McCreight, guest blogger

This post is the first in a series exploring the intersection of history and modern Minnesota makers. Is there a craft or technique you want to explore? Let me know in the comments! 

Printmaking is one of the great developments in art, enabling production of art and literature for the masses. Before printing, art and books were one-off creations, inaccessible to many, kept in churches, monasteries, and in the possession of the wealthy.

Artwork by Jackie Lehmann, A Bird and a Hot Air Ballon

Printmaking has a long history, dating back to 1st century China and the 8th century Japanese woodcut - a relief process where the image to be printed is raised and negative space is cut around it. In the Western world, printing for the masses began in the 15th century, quickly followed by the invention of moveable type and the Guttenberg Press (c. 1440), and the establishment of the first paper mills. Combined, these three innovations made it possible for the masses to gain access to printed words and images for the first time. Woodcuts were used alongside moveable typeface to illustrate books on printing presses, making it possible to print and illustrate single pages in one process. 

Vandalia Street Press, Love From Minnesota letterpress printed notecards

Printing grew more sophisticated, as artists sought to create more elaborate print works that could emulate pen and ink drawings. Color and depth of shade are introduced gradually, beginning in the 16th century with the chiaroscuro woodcut, which used layers of tone blocks to create a print identical to chiaroscuro pen and ink drawings, with dramatic shading. 

Amative Art, Let It Shine inverted print

As the 16th century progressed, intaglio (or, engraving) became the preferred medium for book illustrations and for artists' printed works. The opposite of woodblock reliefs, intaglio prints are created by printing the image created by the lines etched into a metal plate. Thick ink is rolled over the plate and pressed into the lines, then the flat surface is wiped clean. Paper is pressed over the etched plate to create the printed image. Intaglio prints have sharply defined images and the ink is slightly raised from the paper. Artists such as Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) incorporated printmaking into their artistic oeuvre.  

Lithography (1798) differed from intaglio and woodblock printing in that the image to be printed was neither etched into or carved from the plates surface. Instead, a completely flat plate was used and the artist drew a mirror image of what would be printed directly on the plate surface. Almost immediately, artists began working with ways to make color lithographs. Color lithography requires multiple printings, one pass through the press for each color used. 

Kelly Newcomer, Spring is Coming

Screen-printing, or serigraphy, was developed in the 20th century, and first introduced as an art form at the 1939 World's Fair. Thick ink is forced through a stencil attached to a silk or mesh screen frame onto paper or fabric. Separate screens are used for each color, and multiple reprints can be made from the same screen. Andy Warhol’s (1928-1987) Pop Art pieces are some of the most famous examples of screen-printing.

East Ashley Studio, Vintage Camera watercolor giclee art print

Giclee printing is the most recent development in printing, and frequently used by artists today. Giclee (pronounced zee-clay) translates as "that which is sprayed" - referring to the ink as it is sprayed through a computer printer onto the paper. The printer is used alongside the computer as a tool by the artist, and the computer is not necessarily the source of the original piece, although it can be.

Lisa Rydin Erickson, Gunflint Borealis Sailing Print

Photographs are also reproduced as giclee prints. 

Chased by Beauty, Tea Ceremony Tray

Giclee prints are also used to reproduce artworks originally created in another medium. 

Smirking Tiger, Spoonbridge and Cherry

Despite the increased accessibility and availability of prints, they have retained their value as works of art in their own right. While many prints are available in open editions (unlimited number of a single image), others are restricted to signed and numbered limited editions. Regardless of their open or limited edition status, each print requires hands on labor from the artist: inking plates, selecting paper, and the creation of the original piece that is being printed. 

By virtue of a print’s accessibility and affordability, it is easier than ever before to add unique pieces of art to your home. The images shown here are merely a sampling of what the talented HandmadeMN artists have to offer. 

Cindy Lindgren, Conservatory Entrance

Further Resources: 
Minneapolis Institute of Art, Prints and Processes video series,

Minneapolis Institute of Art, Prints and Drawings,