I had to answer the question, “Why Printmaking” for myself, as why this is an artform that I prefer. I knew I enjoyed it, but it was important for me to define why.
I like all art forms, such as drawing, photography, sculpture, etc, but when it came to something that I wanted to focus on, printmaking stuck. When I pulled my first drypoint in middle school, it was love at first site. Back then it was the aesthetic, but now it has come to mean much more; and I will try to explain this.
The Aesthetic of Prints
Prints just look cool. Some people think they look like drawings, and some people think they look like paintings. The idea that you can make it look like one or the other or a little bit of each is exciting. For me, I believe it is the limited nature of the print that makes them appealing.
Back when printmaking started to be a viable communication method, it provided huge possibilities of new technology and mass distribution (I will get to this later). Now in the age of photo-mechanical processes, and digital processes, prints can look archaic; but archaic in a bad ass sense. The limitations that the matrix can provide appeal to our aesthetic sense of being able to see the use of the human hand. I believe this is deep in our proto-brains and part of our evolution.
For example, a relief wood block carving; an artist can only get so many tones from it, and we have to relinquish some of our control to the wood. That is not to say that masterful things can’t be done in wood, but it is the visible touch of the human hand that makes it so admirable. At the point where people start to get their woodcuts looking like photographs (I see this being done), it loses something; je ne sais quoi. If I read “wood relief block” on the didactic, I say “wow” to myself and to anyone I’m with, but I really want to say “let’s not forget the gritty, graphic look and love that too”.
The process of making a print is also a thing of wonder. There can be a lot of planning and preparing and documenting of steps. This is something that most printmakers love. I do. There is craft that is involved that some of us really enjoy.
This makes me seem like some sort of anachronist or luddite. Indeed, I probably am much of both of these, but let it be known, that I do admire digital art and photo-mechanical processes or anything pushing the boundaries of what a print can be. I am simply explaining why I think people find printmaking beautiful; moreover, why I find it beautiful.
Going further into my anachronistic streak; I do find old things wonderful. So I always gravitated to making my etchings on paper that was off-white to tan, as if it were aged, and using sepia and earth-toned inks. I also classify this as a nostalgic sensibility of mine. I collect old material culture, especially antique works on paper so this fits right in with that. Printmaking is just the old-fashioned way of mass-production of the works on paper that I enjoy.
The idea that I could make many copies and iterations of my artwork was appealing. Not only could I make more and get more in the hands of art lovers, but I could make a few of one state make some changes, and print off a few more. These states of the evolution of a print are wonderful; and something that other mediums don’t have. These states are connected and have a genealogy of their own. The plate has a history and this story can come out in the artwork.
This allows me to give copies to my grandma, my friends, and still hang the same print to an art gallery. Prints transcend the boundaries, of fine art, low art, graphic art, commercial art, illustration, works on paper, and craft. And still these objects are unique works of art. Art and objects and messages that I can get before more eyeballs.
Now one could say the same thing about a digital art that is on a screen. There is no way to get more views than on a screen (for now). This is true. The mass distributing nature of messages over bits and bytes is powerful; however, when one holds a print in their hands, and can see and touch the texture and see the ink pressed into, or rising up off the page, there is truly no substitute. The experience of the hand touch cannot be simulated on the screen. Us printmakers are calling for a slowing down of enjoying art; where the viewer must come in person and have a truly authentic and intimate experience with the artwork and a connection to the artist.
The concept of the multiple is also revolution. The history of printmaking is the history of disruption. In fact the first modern printmaking; the Gutenburg movable type printing press, kicked off the upheaval of the strongest institution in our history: The Catholic Church. The Church in 16th Century was going through some rough times of their own doing, something that many people were upset about, and which many people were killed over. The distribution of tracts and posters; of images that the illiterate could understand, all helped bring about this change. This new graphic medium is something that everybody could understand.
This is why printmaking is the Everyman’s Medium. It gave a voice to those that didn’t have one at that time. The power of the pen was only so good if you could not get the message out to a mass audience. This is why Northern Europe prevailed over the Italian regime. It was able to capitalize on this idea. The images were simple and to the point; they could be “read” by everyone. This vernacular messaging is still alive today.
Printmaking has a similar story of disruption in the centuries since. It has represented the voice of the people. Goya’s “Disasters of War” are seen as a protest to the violence of the Spanish Civil War. Otto Dix vividly portrayed the horrors of The War to End all Wars. In some cases printmaking was instrumental in changing the tide towards the revolution, in other cases it provided awareness of the inequities that were happening. The people were made aware and brought together to form upheaval against intolerant regimes.
Of course in the 20th Century, advertising caught wind of this powerful tool and the aftermath is still filling our mail boxes to this day. The shift of the disruptive power has moved to the Internet. I feel that the Internet is the new printmaking and is the most powerful democratic movement thus far in our history. Printmaking was the forebearer. Both mediums have been, and are being, co-opted by strong and wealthy messaging agents, but this is where I feel artists can step in to keep messaging in the hands of The People. It is this tradition that I am proud to be a part of.
If you have not tried printmaking yet, I encourage you to do it. Making things with your hands is empowering; something that I am a big advocate of. I hope I have made that clear in the above statements. Please leave a comment if I can be of assistance in any way.