Recently a new Tamarind Institute student doing research for a paper around the topic of technology and printmaking specifically focusing on how today's advances in digital technology have affected the fine art printmaking world interviewed our very own Elaine LeVasseur on the subject. Here is the interview:
How did you get started in printmaking?
I TOOK AN ART SURVEY COURSE MY LAST YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL WHICH INCLUDED MAKING ONE LINOCUT.
What printmaking processes are you familiar with? STONE AND PLATE LITHOGRAPHY; ACID ETCHING WITH HARD GROUND, AQUATINT, SOFTGROUND, SUGAR LIFT, in intaglio, relief, four color process, viscosity, with chine colle', dye resist, a' la poupee'; DRYPOINT AND ENGRAVING BY HAND IN METAL, WITH ROTARY TOOLS; SAND BLASTING AND HOT TOOLS IN ACRYLIC; COLLAGRAPH; WOODCUT; LINOCUT; SCREEN PRINTING & POCHOIR; PHOTOPOLYMER PLATES; NATURE PRINTING; GUM BICHROMATE; MONOPRINTING. (Specifically, I do not know paper plate lithography, letterpress or photogravure.)
As an educator and collaborative printer (correct me if I'm wrong, I thought Jason said you were a collaborative printer), have you seen interest in printmaking rise and fall through the years? Yes, in 1990, the art market and the print market had gone to hell and all my artists clients were emotionally and financially wrecked. There was no work. At the same time, it seemed as though most of my students at Santa Barbara City College were more flakey and mostly wanted to learn printmaking to silkscreen T-shirts of their favorite bands for the local black market (predecessor to the practice of up and downloading pirated music and video) or, at best, corner the local market on handmade greeting cards via bland linocuts. By '91, all the art dealers who sold my prints all over the US, had gone out of business and one cheated me out of payment for nine large works. (This was a black time for many artists I knew in Los Angeles, at least. I personally know several whose gallerists did not pay, or who repeatedly reported sale prices lower than actual, in order to pay a smaller fee to the consigning artist.) I got back into printmaking in 97 when I attended two solid weeks of a 8 week program in Boston that was a Contemporary Printmaking Symposium. It involved 22 institutions in and around Boston and there has never been anything like it since. It connected me with printmakers all over the world and I realized that my experience of there being no interest in printmaking was more about California. I realized at that time that printmaking had to be reintroduced regionally and generationally due to the high level of technique required to master it. Glassblowing and fine furniture making are other arts that require this regeneration, otherwise the craft dies with the teacher or atelier owner. Printmaking and other process and equipment-heavy arts require a very enthusiastic, outgoing artist who is capable of drawing in students and artist-clients over a period of decades. Talented printmakers can be self-taught and solitary, but this is rare, and does not inspire new collectors.
What sort of changes have you witnessed with printmaking during your time involved with it? Either in the process or how printmaking is perceived. I have witnessed the rise and fall of popularity of stone lithography. It's rise with Tamarind's success in luring famous artists to printmaking in Los Angeles in the 60's, its quick spread to New York, Florida, Texas, Kansas and Canada, the race to make the biggest and most technically difficult prints by both Ken Tyler, Gemini GEL and others, then and its precipitous fall during the financial disaster of the early '90's, due to its expensive, laborious, unwieldy and unforgiving processes. Finally, I have seen the disappearance of printmaking studios in large universities across the US, along with the abandonment of dark room photography. I have seen the invention of the photocopy machine, pre-sensitized photo etching plates from Japan; Ball aluminum plates for lithography and their pre-sensitized plates. And finally, the arrival of the first good digital imaging machines, the Iris printers in Boston and other major cities. Tons of prints from the first 10 years of digital printing have been lost due to fugitive ink colors, including blacks.
Do you think there have been any technological advancements that have had a significant impact on printmaking? Please explain.
Yes, the availability of pre-coated metal plates enabled photo images to be made more easily in etching and lithography. Before these materials were available, a printmaker had to have a good darkroom with oversized trays and sinks, correctly store expensive toxic chemicals and spend long periods getting coatings to be smooth and adhere well. This was backbreaking work and generally only rich artists or commercial (chain galleries) artists could afford to do them. Now, excellent photo images, including fine text, are quite easy to achieve, even in larger formats. The second great technical advance for printmakers was popularity of the silk-screened T-shirt. This drove the opening of screen printing shops and also meant that even smaller cities had shops with large exposure lamps and vacuum tables that could be accessed for making photo silk screens, and photo zinc and copper, etc. I don't think the photo films such as Imag-On made much impact compared to the screen print shops.
What are your takes on the rise of digital techniques in art making and digital printing? Do you think these new techniques are harmful to traditional printmaking techniques such as lithography? Or helpful? Neither?
The good and bad of digital imaging has been heavily discussed in every arts journal and school for the past 15 years and we all realize that controlling the use of anything that can be transmitted digitally will soon be impossible and ultimately a non-issue. On the positive side, it's now easier and more fun to use computers to do things that only geniuses with a budget or special access used to be able to do. Of course, computers and the Web are quite democratic and allow the truly talented to be more productive, more widely appreciated and their work better documented and preserved than ever before. On the "dark side", everyone knows that currently, in every creative endeavor from writing, to music and visual art, it is difficult for those without great talent to avoid the temptation of digitally copying and re-using the work of others without permission. It is now called re-mixing in music and collage or re-visioning in the visual arts, but is still considered lying and stealing in fiction and non fiction writing. Dance and theater are actually about reproduction, so perhaps only pirated videos of performances appear to be an issue there. Computers, the Internet and digital output devices, I think, result in lots more people with arts degrees and a far smaller percentage of those graduates able to understand, much less master drawing, design and color use. That many artists and art consumers think that being able to use a computer to make art is an artistic achievement in and of itself is another issue. This should disappear as a problem within the next 10 years when everyone is using computer devices to invent their own art and billions of images will be available to anyone.
Do you find that there is more experimentation with digital techniques in combination with traditional printmaking?
It is very common to use digital technology in printmaking. It replaces dark room photography in all its forms. I have offered a popular photo polymer class through Santa Barbara City College since 1998. There are few printmakers within a 100 mile radius who have not used digital processes by now, at least to document their prints for catalogs and websites. I personally use the web to do research for my own art and to document the works. I do a substantial amount of collaborative art projects, most of which use digital imaging.
What do you see in the future for printmaking processes as we continue to make the shift to a more digital culture?
Hand processes will continue to be sought out and mastered by artists who desire to work directly with materials and equipment. However, printmaking training and equipment will become more difficult to access. Artists are already finding that they must travel farther, pay more, and rely on personal networks to learn processes or arrange for editions. Hand pulled prints will become more rare for the non-famous or non-rich, as it used to be prior to the 1960's.