If you are reading this essay, chances are that you already have some connection to printmaking and do not need to be convinced yourself of its importance, but have you ever thought about why you are making prints and why this matters to anyone else outside of the microcosm of printmakers? It is passed time to do so….

People in the western world are inundated with printed pictures: the Internet, magazines, newspapers, and billboards, all placing compellingly crafted images into our collective visual culture. What is to say that these images are of lesser worth than a hand-made print, which took an educated printmaker months to achieve? Somehow as printmakers, and two-dimensional images makers at large, we find ourselves in a sort-of competition with precisely this other kind of commercial media. Do not kid yourselves, for what we do as printmaker has and always must be tied into the same economic realities which govern the Media. Read on for a reflection on our past.

When I teach printmaking to 11-year olds, I ask them first if they know what a “print” is. Intuitively, most retort intuitively either “footprint” or “photograph”. It is in this response where I will first point out the concept of analogue, the footprint, and digital, the photograph (read: “digital photograph”, because 11 year-olds are not even aware anything existed previously), returning to this later on. I tell them of the oldest print, 117 thousand years old, a human footprint preserved in mud. Other evidence of human’s recognition of their own body-parts as effective repetitive mark-making tools exist elsewhere: often considered the least evolved form of printmaking through stamping happens to be one of the most physically direct and humanist forms of printmaking. Stamping handprints in the caves of Lascaux from 18,000 years ago also serve as evidence of human presence, hunting skill and perhaps testimony of the pure creative process.

To quickly sum up large chunks of time and developments, it is important to note that printmaking developed solely because of its commercial applications. Asians involved in the textile trade came up with the first woodblock printing over 2000 years ago as an effective way to reproduce pattern quickly over fabrics. Printmaking’s evolution sped up in Europe in 1455 when Gutenberg realized he could develop a system that could speed up producing Bibles. Undoubtedly thanks to Gutenberg, the increased dissemination of the printed word paved the way for the Protestant Reformation and its aims to share the interpretation of the Bible with everyday believers, allowing more people than ever to publish their ideas and pictures.

In a relative sense, the various printmaking techniques we hold dear evolved amazingly fast, each technique offering a different product. First, humans wanted to spread the word, then came the necessity to spread images to tell the stories most were unable to read due to their illiteracy. Workshops of printers developed many ways to print images and words, the perfect print as an eternal goal. Pioneer printmakers in the Western tradition first printed using wood, then metals and stone as the materials for producing commercial works for their customers. The revolutionary empowerment of the individual in the Enlightenment allowed artists in general to make art for reasons other than Religion. The subjects that artists aimed to represent in their work opened up, the market for their work broadening, with the increased desire to own a handmade artwork. Fast-forward a few hundred years to the early 1900’s when most people in Western Civilization already owned an array of printed books and now sought to decorate their homes with the most affordable and contemporary hand made art, the fine art print. Printmakers had to prove their validity in the art market as a response to the exclusivity of the singular painting, the abundance of fine art prints from the middle of the last century serves as evidence of printmaking’s past glory.

In our minds, the quest for a more perfect print is still the driving force behind developments in printmaking, and there will never be a limit to the developments possible with its techniques. However, the processes that represent the state of the art have all but left us printmakers behind as customers recognized the emerging technology of the computer as the tool for the future for an attractive, quick and cheap product. With the emergence of the digital print, traditional printmakers were quick to cling to this new form of art in order to acknowledge the similarities between creating images in layers by hand and on a computer screen. Simultaneously, we have clearly passed the epoch where analogue printmaking can serve as the right-hand of the Media-beast. We must recognize a definitive break from the Fine Art Print and that of the digital-commercial print.

Alas, there is often a big difference in both cost and appearance between a hand made print and a slick digital printout on canvas, available for a pittance at any IKEA worldwide. Perhaps printmakers have been distracted for too long by seeking technical mastery of their individual processes, like Star Trek’s Trekkies who speak Clingon but remain unable to hold a conversation with one another about everyday life. Similarly today, the handmade print is all but cast aside as an esoteric relic of technologies passed, and maybe rightfully so. To the masses, it seems that walls can be decorated more easily and cheaply than by seeking out a handmade print. Why should everyday people seek out a handmade print or work of art when those who make these things have all but failed to convince of their importance to humankind?

With this depressing viewpoint, what reason is left for why anyone should continue to make prints “the old fashioned way”? Return to the 18,000 year-old-handprint on the cave wall to put things back into perspective, in terms of the importance of the creative process available to everyday people, with little or no background in art and technical facilities. In producing a unique, hand-made work of art, the cave man’s handprint and other forms of mark making on the walls was an appropriate foreshadow of Enlightenment’s mission of placing power into the hand of an individual’s ability to reason, in turn paving the way for Modernism. Of course contemporary people should know how to work this way, the process of generating an image digitally can be an extremely innovative and rewarding process, but it seems there will always be something lacking and alien about this practice because it will always be so far withdrawn from the physical world.

When weighed against humankind’s evolution and history of Western civilization’s visual culture, the creative process has involved physical materials until quite recently. Shut down the power, take away the computer and the human is still left with their hands, physical materials and creative impulses: the humankind collective suffers without a connection to the creative process. Evidence of this fact can be found easily when considering how people spend their time today: building social online networks, sports, home decoration, scrap-booking, shopping for fun, etc. Such activities seem to be bastardized forms of creative expression and individual authorship, which has slowly eroded thousands of years of creativity under the guise of efficiency and simplifying our lives, leaving us with comparatively under-complicated, unrewarding and hollow lives.

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