I’m alright at printmaking. I’m alright at hard ground etching, linocut, and monoprint. Then I did a letterpress and solar plate course and hot damn, it was hard. I learned a lot, mind, so here’s some learning to share.
Letterpress involves the setting of pre-made type and images, then inking, then printing. This Printing Is Hard print shows the joys of using old type: some of it’s all sharp and perfect, some of it is worn and interesting, some of it is worn and warped to near uselessness. Example: all locked up well, all inked well, some too worn to print evenly. There are tricks to pad the press to compensate for this, but still: old type is a beast.
It’s also possible to create an image, scan it, invert the colours (black is white and white is black), print it on to acetate, put a solar plate behind it, expose it to bright bright light, scrub off the solar plate gel, dry the solar plate, fix it to a type-high printing block, ink it, and print it. I sincerely hope this blog post conveys quite how much preparatory work is involved in this process. Like, lots.
Solar plate is more temperamental than I’d hoped. The edges of the solar plate need to be perfectly clean and flat, else there’s a raised edge that holds ink. The solar plate needs to be perfectly aligned with the wooden printing block, else there’s a border of wood that absorbs ink and prints an unwanted border. The solar plate needs testing to find the appropriate length of exposure to light for that image on that batch of solar plate, else bits of the image won’t transfer. Example: these fan-holding ladies had arms, noses, and fans in the acetate image, but these details didn’t transfer to the solar plate.
So, misery guts, the positives. When done right, letterpress offers a great mix of the ART and REPRODUCTION aspects of printmaking. It’s a technique that’s particularly well suited to layering with other printmaking methods. It’s an opportunity to make something new using old, or old and new, elements. It’s possible to adjust how strongly the image is indented (debossed) into the paper. It’s pretty as all hell.
Letterpress and solar plate require persistence, preparation, and precision. I’ll be back on the horse when I can book some quiet time in the studio.
Note: this is a pile of offcuts, not angry ripping up of work. I’m using print offcuts as business cards: the textures are awesome and I enjoy giving people permission to handle prints.