A Suite of Methods: An Introduction

Any form of art which has a physical presence (which means I am excluding purely digital and electronic art) has, by its nature, texture and depth, and a world of technical information which lies beyond the image, but which can add to our appreciation of it. Once a work has been reproduced in another form, something is lost.

And so it is with a print, which is produced by physical, manual and/or mechanical means, using a matrix to print multiple images. In modern terms, printmaking is seen as a technical art process, but in historical terms, printing is arguably also the first mechanical art process, not just because of the machinery which may be involved, but because one is using a matrix to produce multiple images, instead of creating a unique state. The matrix can also be seen as an art object in its own right, as well as the images produced from it – or it can become a valuable tool or object which can be sold, bought, inherited, re-used in a different context, or even cut up into multiple matrices for re-use.

The physical process of printmaking is sometimes essential to, or sometimes influencing, the end result itself. Like painting, the technical process is there to be seen and appreciated, is limited by what it can physically be, can add to our knowledge and enjoyment. And like painting, this is lost in modern book printing, by necessity of course. We get the basic information and/or enjoyment we crave, but we lose the finer details.

It occurred to me last year (2013) that making a suite of the different methods that were developed prior to c1600 in Western Europe could serve a number of purposes. The obvious reasons for me was that it would expand my knowledge and enjoyment of an art form I’ve been studying and practicing for many years, on both an aesthetic and technical level.

Another reason would be that I would love to share what I’ve learned and continue to learn, and be able to talk with others about the historical methods of printmaking.

Finally, the vast majority of people who are interested in historical research and re-enactment are continually accessing prints (alongside other artistic methods) as primary sources, without much knowledge of what they are looking at, how it was produced, and how to place it into an artistic or historical context. While that may not be the primary reason for viewing the material, I believe it could add to their knowledge and enjoyment.

Having now shown the difference between the two methods of printing a matrix – they being Relief and Intaglio – there is now the scope to talk about the preparation of the matrix. The methods included in this suite will be those where the first extant print has been dated before 1600 in Europe.

To very briefly recap the two printing methods:

 

Relief printing is when the matrix holds ink on the surface of the block, while the background is carved away and remains free of ink. Ink is then transferred to paper by means of either hand rubbing or using a relief press, which applies downward pressure.

In pre-1600 Europe, the main method of producing a Relief matrix is the Woodcut.

 

Intaglio printing is when the matrix holds ink in lines which are incised into the surface. Ink is pushed into the incised lines, and the flat surface is cleaned. The ink is then transferred to dampened paper by means of an intaglio roller press. The roller forces the damp paper into the incised lines to pick the ink up and produce a print.

In pre-1600 Europe, the methods of producing an Intaglio matrix are Engraving, Drypoint, and Etching.

 

Finally, there is a method of producing and printing a matrix which is an interesting combination of both Intaglio and Relief, and this is the Metalcut.

 

The size of the works are all approximately 15cm high by 10cm wide. This is due to there being readily-available copper plates and woodblocks of approximately the same size in this dimension, so the suite can have a uniform appearance.

Deciding upon a theme of images initially caused some thought and delay. The point of the exercise is to produce a suite of methods which can sit, side by side, for the viewer to be able to discern the differences between them. It isn’t, in this instance, necessary for me to develop original images. Using a pre-1600 source for the subject matter can make the viewer immediately feel familiar with the image, and then be able to move onto the method. Once there is a dialogue about the different methods, my own work will not need to have a lengthy technical discourse on how it was produced, because that knowledge will already have been made available.

So with the image not being the primary motive, I was initially going to find one image and reproduce it for all of the methods. Even though this would be the ‘perfect’ way to clearly show the differences, it’s also a pleasant idea to have a series of images, so they form a suite in a visual sense as well a methodical sense.

The artist chosen was Sebald Beham (1500 – 1550), a German artist who produced engravings, woodcuts, paintings and miniatures. His work encompassed many subjects, ranging from religious to secular to erotic, and he produced many series of figural images, such as the Planets, the Saints, the Virtues, and so on. These are appealing works and well suited to the goal, as I hope will be revealed.

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