The Art of the Hand-Pulled Print
The Rocket Science of the Art World
The Art of the Hand-Pulled Print
Stacey D. Miller
Woodblock, linocut, Imagon, hard ground etching, stone lithography, solarplate, polyester plate, lithography, Z'acryl, and serography a.k.a silkscreen are all different processes used in printmaking. Printmaking processes were originally developed to edition literature and have been around since the creation of the Illuminated Manuscripts in the mid fourteenth century. Those outside of the realm of visual arts often misunderstand the term printmaking. The mass majority equivalent the word “print” to a giclee, a digital print made on a mechanized printer. The prints I create are very different, and I always refer to them as “Hand-pulled prints.” I consider myself foremost a printmaker, but printmaking is only one of many different media in which I am highly adept. I love printmaking as a medium for many reasons, but my primary reason is that it is a medium which allows for endless possibilities; even today new processes are being created. There are so many processes that can be used to create a print, and many processes/techniques can be used in order to create a monoprint or an edition.
Often I get asked, “What is a hand-pulled print?” A hand-pulled print is any print that has been created using an etching press, lithography press, pin press, type-set press, relief press, or a silkscreen. While I have used many different types of printing presses, my primary focus in printmaking that requires the use of an etching press. Imagine 500 to 1000 pounds of steel that has changed little in centuries. The etching press I use stands on eight legs which support a large flat press bed leveled on rollers and sandwiched by two solid steel milled rollers, which are rotated by a hand crank. The top of the two steel milled rollers has an adjustable pressure system which allows for intricate adjustments to the force exerted on the press bed. An etching press utilizes a series of three blankets to control the movement of the bed and stabilize the printing plate that transfers the image to the paper.
There are several types of prints which can be created using an etching press, but to sum it up we will divide it into three different types of printable results. I focus in Monotype, which is a form of monoprint, but not all monoprints are monotypes. Monotype is a process, known as the painterly process, in which the result is one of a kind thus the word monoprint. A monoprint is any unique one of a kind print, and an edition is a series of prints which vary by less than one percent. Typically editioned prints are done in a series of 25 to 500 prints dependent upon the type of printing plate used. Different types of plates and processes deteriorate at different rates. A lithography stone, for instance, can create an edition of several hundred, where as a polyester plate wears down at about 25 prints. This deterioration happens for several reasons, and it is unique to each plate and process. You could write a book about printing processes; in fact, many people have. I have been fortunate enough to be able to study with a few of these writers and their proteges. Before I was introduced to modern non-toxic printing processes/techniques, I was trained in traditional printmaking methods. I have used many of these newer non-toxic processes and materials, but I find I still prefer the more toxic versions of the medium. When using non-toxic processes, I find limitations in what I am able to do in the creative process. It could be said that the science of non-toxic process is still hindered by many kinks that prevent an artist from creating effects and intense color saturation which is otherwise easily achievable using traditional methods. My “Evanescence” and “Natural Impressions” series prints are created using these traditional methods.
Monotype is typically a vary loose and free-form printing process where representational elements are most often collaged or chine colle'd onto the print. Usually this process leads the artist in the production of each piece. The approach to my Evanescence series is very different in that it requires me to take an extremely methodical approach, where I am the one in control of every result. Developing that control took me years of experimentation and understanding of oil-based inks and the pressures exerted on them. When I start on a monotype for my Evanescence series, I use my plate, a thin piece of plexiglass or lexan, as my sketch. I plan out my imagery on the plate by using a sharpie maker. If I don't like something I can always wipe it away with denatured alcohol and start over. Once, I am satisfied with the sketch, I start to determine the colors I will use. The palette of color I work from has been described as a rainbow of candy on a palette of glass; often having four to five shades of each color represented. First I determine the colors I will use for my background and sometimes I use a print that has already been started with ghost drops on them. What is a ghost? A ghost is the second transfer of ink from the printing plate to the paper. The ghost is often considered by printmakers to be an inferior print and is seldom used; I appreciate it's transparency. My backgrounds are the one spontaneously driven part of these prints, and it is usually the only part of the process where I don't paint the image with a brush; I use brayers (rollers) to ink the color on the plate. Using a brayer creates a different effect than using a brush, as it applies significantly less ink. Once I finish my background, the meticulous methodology comes into play. All of the details in my work are rendered on the plate as a mirror image of what I want to create. Additionally, to create the highly representational elements in my compositions requires numerous applications of color to the plate which are each printed individually, creating the layers that printmakers refer to as drops or runs. I often use the reference of building an image in photoshop. If you were to take a photo and break it down into it's individual four colors (yellow, blue, red, and black), you would see how those layers build the image. The way I print is similar. I have to think about the individual layers of drops and how the colors are going to effect each other. Most of these prints take me anywhere from 20 to 30 drops/runs through the press to get the finished product; some of my print murals require in excess of 50 drops. The average monotype takes no more than 3 drops. I have many tools in my studio which are used in order to create the compositions I envision. Creating the background is the first step and it takes time because I have to wipe away areas on the plate where I do not want those layers to affect important imagery that comes later (i.e. hummingbird, flowers, etc.); those areas must be maintained as negative space. I usually paint my images of the hummingbirds and the flowers on the plate much like painting on a canvas, but it takes a lot of control and patience when working with oil-based inks. To get these representational elements requires a great deal of blending on the plate using a series of very fine liner brushes. This requires so much time that often I have to paint each image in sections and make sure the registration of my plate and paper are a perfect match each time I run it through the press. I also change the pressure each time I run a drop through the press to get specific effects, create translucence, or to simply keep my ink from bleeding beyond the subject's borders. I paint in sections because the ink has a limited open time and becomes almost like glue; because I print using a wet method, when ran through the press it can cause damage to the paper. I used to print with dry paper, but it is my belief that when printing wet you are able to get more saturation of color and more information from off the plate. In short, my Evanescence prints are not easily achieved. The smallest ones may take 24 hours, the largest ones have exceeded 100 hours. I consider this series of prints my hallmark, and I have attempted to teach many this particular method but after observing me, most run from the opportunity.
I started my “Natural Impressions” series, so I could give myself a break from the methodical process required in the Evanescence series. I also wanted to enjoy moments of spontaneity, expression, and the freedom to explore the possibilities of what can be created through an alla prima approach. The only determined element of these prints are my hummingbirds which are created as drypoint etchings. I use a sharpened drypoint needle to incise the surface of a plexiglass plate in order to create my etching of the hummingbird. I am able to use that same plate for several prints. If I am lucky, I can get up to 20 impressions from each etched plate before the image it produces deteriorates. When I am in the studio working on these prints I just have fun; typically working on several prints at the same time. I use multiple plates on these prints, and I do not worry as much about registration. It is all about creating the layers of color which add a sense of space and dimension. During the process of adding layers, I take natural elements such as leaves, flowers, grasses, etc, and in different layers of the print I will sandwich them between the inked plate and paper to run through the press. This is a form of embossment which is relative to the collagraphy technique. By doing this, I can either gain an embossed impression of the natural element I choose, or I can use the second run, the “ghost,” to gain a more detailed impression of that element. As I work, if I find a ghost image on the plate that I think would look fabulous on another print, I will run it. This series is all about having fun and being spontaneous; just letting the monotype process take me where it wants too. I let it lead the way instead of trying to control it as I do in my “Evanescence” series. Once I get to a point where I am content with the layers on an individual print in progress, I start to approach it more methodically, and I determine where I want to place the hummingbird etching. Once I have made a decision, I will ink and run the etching plate. After that it is all about finishing and balancing the image. Sometimes I will add little details of information directly onto the paper with ink, or I may even decide to add a little embellishment of ink to the plate to highlight the finished image. All in all, this series is a way to get in touch with my subconscious self, and let it lead the way.
As someone who painted for many years, the monotype process affords me the ability to continue working with the skills I gained as a painter, while evolving new techniques which can not be created on canvas. I have always been very process oriented in the creation of my art. Printmaking has allowed me the opportunity to swim deep into the process while forging new frontiers in an age old medium. Having had the opportunity to print using over thirty different print processes, I have found that monotype retains the technical basis for understanding how to produce exceptional prints in mostany printing process. Printmaking is an often communal art form where many printmakers work in a single studio. These studios can be found in select spaces across the globe and harbor interesting individuals rooted in an old world industry. If you ever have the chance to visit one of these studios, you should take it. It is an other worldly experience, often misunderstood, yet never easily dismissed.
Artist, Stacey D. Miller, in Open Printing Studio at the [Press] at Untitled
One of Two Active Glass Palettes of
Oil Etching Inks in Use by the Artist