Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting the DAM (Denver Art Museum).  For those of you who haven’t had a chance or inclination to check the location out, the most striking aspect of the museum on first glance is the exterior design:

Denver Art Museum exterior

Denver Art Museum exterior

 The Fredrick Hamilton building, located in the heart of downtown Denver, is defined by extreme non-traditional angles and glossy thin metal siding.  This angular design is carried over to the inside of the building, in a truly vertigo-inspiring layout:

Denver Art Museum interior

Denver Art Museum interior

The museum hosts a staggering number of cultural and historically significant works spread over several floors (around five or six).  If you plan on viewing most of each collection, give yourself at least two or more days to really take everything in.  I blitzed through the various floors in three or four hours with a peer, and definitely plan on going back in the near future to view everything at a more leisurely pace (~ a day per floor). 

Fox Games - Sandy Skoglund

Fox Games - Sandy Skoglund

Walking through the museum is like going on a veritable treasure hunt – among the more notable (relatively) recent works I stumbled across were a few images by Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Picasso, and Lichtenstein.  I was absolutely jazzed to come across a painting by Kay Sage, whose Surrealist work I never anticipated viewing in my lifetime.  The museum also hosts outstanding and extensive collections of the mid-America’s (Mesoamerica), Native America, Renaissance, Pacific, Asia (including India, Nepal, Korea and Japan), Early Spanish, and on and on.  Shown above is an installation created by Sandy Skoglund – the scene (which can be walked through) is both whimsical and slightly disturbing in its use of saturated color, and is like something out of a dream.

Definitely make time to go visit the DAM.  The experience will change your perspective on the human experience.

Nothing interesting to convey from last week.  Looking forward to the end of the semester.  The following… is a collection of various works from modern printmakers, if you have some time to waste.

Throughout the last couple of semesters, I’ve come to question art in terms of meaning and intention.  This is (so I’ve been told) a positive thing.  Picking a work apart gives us a greater understanding of the artist and hopefully of the work itself.  On a superficial level, the idea of meaning within art seems reasonable.  Meaning (or content) is what gives something depth and value or justification for being.  Unfortunately, by forcing myself to look for meaning in the works of other individuals, I (and my peers suffering through our various critiques, I’m sure) have hit a wall looking for meaning in personal work.  We’ve been told that the things we produce should have some significance, some meaning, to make our efforts legitimate.  Anything else is simply artistic masturbation.

My brain can’t wrap itself around this idea.  I believe that artistic expression in any form, regardless of intention or meaning, is valid.  For some, art can provide catharsis – bringing about the exploration of unresolved issues.  For others, the art making processes themselves -rather than the final product- are what manner most.  To stop belaboring my point, the value and meaning of art is entirely subjective.  Without actually talking with the artist behind a work, how does one derive intention objectively?  Whether we realize it or not, aren’t we just projecting our own set of values, experiences, and expectations on a piece?  Setting aside intention of the artist, I might venture that the subjective interaction between art and the viewer is what makes the work worthwhile.

I absolutely reject the biases of these ‘intentionalists’.  Why is it that art must automatically have meaning assigned to it?  Because it originated from a person?  What if people have no meaning?  I think this is starting to sound like nihilism.

After poking around a little bit, I was very happy to discover that other people have had the same philosophical considerations – I stumbled across an article by Denis Dutton that looks extremely interesting given my own stance on the issue, but I haven’t had a chance to read through the whole text yet – located at http://www.denisdutton.com/intentionalism.htm

I’d be curious to see what you all think about this topic as well.

Using black ink for printing is absolutely fine, however adding one or more colors into a printed image can create visual interest and allow you to achieve certain results not possible with black ink alone.  As with the other processes discussed previously, specific consideration must be given in performing each step correctly.  If you look at Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (1826; woodblock print), you’ll notice the use of several colors:

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" - Hokusai

Every color used in the image represents a separate and unique woodblock carved by the artist.  Registration marks used in alignment are added to each block and every piece of cut printing paper.  Matching the registration marks on the paper to the block, the first run will print only the black contours in the image.  The prints pulled are set aside to allow the ink to dry completely, and a second block will be carved.  In the second printing run, the new block will be inked with a different color (blue, white, whatever), and the now-dry image pulled from the first run will be re-aligned to the registration marks on the block and printed.  This same piece of paper is set aside to dry, and a third block is carved.  The process is repeated in this fashion until all desired colors are represented in the image.  Registration of the same image to each new block is crucial in ensuring that the colors do not overlap. 

Lithographic color printing works on the same types of principles used by Hokusai in his woodblock prints, with the major difference being the material used (drawing on stone instead of carving in wood).  As you can probably imagine, choosing to print in color is definitely an investment in time and effort.  The end result however is hopefully worth the trouble.

Up to this point, we’ve focused on using crayons, asphaultum, and ink blocks when applying an image to a drawing surface.  These materials are fine for those of us satisfied by line-based compositions, but restricting yourself to line alone can get boring rather quickly.  What recourse does the non line-based artist -namely the painters, ink washers, watercolourists, or anyone looking to move away from hard edges- have when attempting to work in the lithographic medium?  As it turns out, certain grease washes are manufactured to fill this very need.  Tusche is a type of grease wash that can be diluted by water (I’ve been told that distilled is best) or solvent, applied to a lithographic drawing surface in the same manner as an ink wash, and when drying can produce some really amazing and subtle textures not achievable with lithographic crayon.  When applied with a brush, the material behaves very similar to an ink wash or watercolour, and seems ideal for those of us accustomed to working in this way. 

I pulled a couple of images out of my sketchbook yesterday, and gave them a go using Tusche washes.  I ran out of time before getting a chance to actually print the images, however I was pretty happy with how the Tusche behaved.  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to post some of those images after I get around to printing them.  I believe that the material would also come across quite well when printing with colour inks, which is what we’ll be looking at next week.

If you’re looking to produce lithographic work and are less than enamored by traditional limestone, aluminum plate may provide a viable alternative printing surface for you.  While not an exact replica of the texture found on stone, aluminum plate does have some perks: it’s pretty cheap (around $7 per 18″ x 24″ sheet) and unlike stone is extremely portable, which opens up an unlimited range of observational work.  No longer is the artist restricted to depicting subject matter found in the studio; the light and durable nature of the material allows the printmaker to actually go anywhere and depict anything with a respectable amount of convenience.

I’ve only had the pleasure of printing from aluminum plate once and I did notice a few differences from the stone I normally work on.  Unlike stone, aluminum plate accepts a much smaller amount of grease – once saturated, the plate is basically unworkable.  This could be a real problem for those artists who prefer to work and rework an image.  The only other real concern is that if you’re using a leather ink roller, the edges of aluminum plate can be razor sharp and present the strong possibility of ruining your insanely expensive ink roller.  Unless you have time and money to burn on equipment, make sure that the plate used is bigger than your roller.

I would put up some prints pulled from aluminum plate, however they are virtually indistinguishable from work printed off of traditional stone.  I may run through a couple of additional compositions drawn on plate just to see if it grows on me, but I believe that I’ll continue to focus on stone lithography in the long run.

Movie poster for Metopolis

Movie poster for Metopolis

Researching for an assignment the other day, I unintentionally stumbled across the arts section of the CSU library.  Now I’ve been in the arts section more times than I can count, however in all of my previous visits had never come anything dealing with German Expressionism.  I must have been looking in the wrong place, as what I managed to find was a veritable cornucopia of this particular artistic movement.  While the term German Expressionism may not initially come to mind, you have probably seen some derivative of it at one point or another – be it F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or one of the many woodcuts from the early 20th century.  What interests me the most is how the movement is represented visually: strong contrasting values, heavy lines and stylized forms.  My goal is to try to incorporate some aspect of German Expressionism into my own lithographic work, however I have been so busy with everything lately that I haven’t had much of a chance to explore any real creative growth.

After preparation of the stone surface and completion of the drawing, you’re ready to etch the image, roll the ink on the stone, and pull the first set of trial images.

Asphaultum on stone - blurry image

Asphaultum on stone - blurry image

The strength of the etching solution required will depend on the greasiness of the drawing material used.  I find myself usually drawing with a number three (#3) grease pencil, which calls for something like five drops of nitric acid to one ounce of gum arabic with an etching time of seven to ten minutes.  On the other hand, a really greasy material like asphaultum can be etched on the stone with straight gum arabic.  The best way to replicate good results is to take notes at every step of the process; if you manage to produce something worth keeping, jot down a quick note regarding the specific stone used, drawing material, etching solution strength/duration and so on, for future reference.

Rosin

Rosin

Talc / baby powder

Talc / baby powder

Cover surface of stone

Cover surface of stone

Before applying the gum arabic and nitric acid solution to the image, rub a little baby powder and rosin into the stone surface.  This will act as a buffer between the stone and the etch.  Pure gum arabic can also be applied on top of the rosin/baby powder to effectively dilute the strength of the etching solution.

Applying gum arabic to stone with sponge

Applying gum arabic to stone with sponge

Wiping excess off

Wiping excess off

Use a sponge to evenly apply the etching solution to the stone surface, and keep moving the mixture around the stone for the duration of the etch.  A clean cheesecloth can then be used to wipe any excess solution from the stone and buff the gum arabic to a thin dry layer.

Buffing gum arabic to a thin layer

Buffing gum arabic to a thin layer

Ready to apply lithotene to stone surface

Ready to apply lithotene to stone surface - blurry

Once the gum arabic has had a chance to dry thoroughly, you will need to clean the stone surface of all grease by using Lithotene (I believe this removes everything except the gum arabic).  Wiping the drawing from your stone and watching it disappear can be both extremely terrifying and surprisingly cathartic.  Don’t worry – the drawing is now defined by the gum arabic on the stone.  Applying asphaultum over the stone surface will bring back the image.

Sorry! I shot images of the rest of this process, however my camera decided to evidentally not retain any of them – isn’t technology fun?  Hopefully I can get back into the print studio next weekend to print another stone and grab pictures for the rest of the process.

Due to the numerous steps involved, Lithography definitely has the ability to overwhelm the uninitiated.  Each part of the process does actually exist for a reason, and if your end goal is to produce a quality print, you would be well served to slow down and perform each step correctly.  Fortunately, the process involved in this type of printing is not as complicated as you might think.  Like any seemingly difficult task, practice makes perfect.  I will try to images of each step posted in the near future, but you’ll have to bear with the text for now.  With that said, let’s get to the first half of this process!

Litho stone ready for surface prep

Litho stone ready for surface prep

1.   Get your hands on a substrate (flat printable surface) of some kind.  So far, I’ve only had the pleasure of working with limestone, so this outlline will be applicable only to that specific material.  From what I understand, quality Lithography stones are expensive – an 8″ by 12″ block can run upwards of several hundred dollars.  If you manage to get a quality stone, take care of it!

2.   Prepare the surface of the stone for printing.  Before you even think about drawing an image on your substrate, you will want to first verify that the surface of the material is flat and free of any markings or artifacts that could potentially interfere with the image when printing.  This can be easily accomplished by grinding the surface of the stone with carborundum grit (I like to think of it as sandpaper without the paper;  the powder also comes in various grit sizes) and a metal tool called a levigator, which is basically just a heavy round piece of metal with a handle affixed.

Litho stone ready to go

Between grinding

Place the stone on a flat surface that you don’t mind getting wet,  and dampen it with water.  Sprinkle a small amount of the coarse carborundum grit (80 or 100 grit) on the now slightly moist stone surface, and dampen the bottom of the Levigator with water.   Gently rest the Levigator on top of the stone, and start grinding!  Spin the Levigator in a clockwise direction and traverse the entire surface of the stone, making sure not to spend an inordinate amount of time in any one place.  Every couple of minutes, remove the levigator from the stone, and use some water to clean away the ground material from the stone and levigator.  Apply an additional small amount of the same grit size carborundum, and repeat the process.  I prefer to grind the stone in this fashion three times for each size grit size, rinse the stone and levigator a final time, and use a straight edge to check for flatness by placing a small strip of paper between the stone and the straight edge.  A flat stone should be flush with the straight edge and allow no room for the paper to move.

Additional levigation residue

Levigator on stone

3. Establish a border around the edge of the stone surface, using a non greasy material like conte-pencil, and fill in the border with gum arabic.

After drying, the gum arabic will act as a masking agent and prevent grease from encroaching into the border area, effectively avoiding printing in this area.  I usually measure out a one-inch border, however this entirely depends on the size of the stone and personal preference.

Post grind

Post grind

All finished!

Done

4.  Draw!  Once the gum arabic has had a chance to dry thoroughly, you are ready to start marking on the stone.  The final print will show exactly what you draw on the stone.  Keep in mind, any marks that are made on the gum arabic border will not transfer to paper when printing.  Any greasy / oily material will suffice for drawing on the unmasked portion of the stone: graphite, grease-pencil, and asphaultum are just a few of the many viable options available.

Conte border

Conte border

Gum Arabic border

Gum Arabic border

Using asphaultum to 'draw'

Using asphaultum to draw - blurry

For those unfamiliar with printmaking, Lithography can seem at first an exceptionally convoluted method of producing an image.  Both Intaglio and Lithography are printmaking processes that make use of etching acids; when applied to a receptive flat surface, the acid will etch any unprotected / unmasked portion of the substrate.  In many Intaglio methods (hard ground, soft ground, etc.), this etching creates a recession in the material (usually a zinc or copper plate) capable of retaining printing ink.  By controlling where the surface is etched, an artist can build up an image which can be rolled with ink and transferred to a piece of paper.

Lithography differs from Intaglio slightly in that the process operates on the concept of oil versus water, rather than solely on etching.  The artist uses an oil-based material to lay out an image on a flat surface (usually a piece of limestone or aluminum plate) and etches the image into the surface with a combination of gum arabic and nitric acid.  The gum arabic also seals the non-greasy areas on the substrate.  After etching, the surface is cleaned thoroughly and re-oiled with asphaultum.  When the substrate is ready to be printed, non-greasy areas will reject the printing ink and accept water (hydrophillic) while those areas initially drawn in oil / grease will reject water (hydrophobic) and accept the printing ink.  Running the inked substrate through a Lithography printing press will transfer the reverse image from the surface of the material to a piece of paper.

The end result, if the surface is properly prepared, is an image that can be reliably re-printed numerous times.  Despite every print being pulled from the same master image, no two prints are absolutely identical.