Director, Media Integration Project
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
(Editor’s note: Is digital art screen-oriented or print-oriented? The question bedevils
the digital artist and critic. Some artists create solely for the screen (or the Web),
some solely for output devices (i.e., printers and plotters), and some artists create
for both screen and print. Here Professor Labadie undertakes to explore the history and
practice of the printmaking process.)
Two basic printmaking questions of today:
1. Is that is an ‘Original Print’?
2. How has printmaking changed with the use of digital technologies?
A note about this essay: it is meant to be an overview of materials gathered in response to these questions and, relative to what could be constructed as a response, introductory and, perhaps, relatively cursory in nature. In terms of material covered, much of what is discussed here involves the construction of a basic definition of printmaking as is has been traditionally taught. In the end a comparison is made with digital printmaking, which I will operationally define as the making of prints through the interface of a digital computer and a peripheral device that outputs an image.
This two-part question has probably been asked of or discussed by nearly everyone who is currently involved in the making of fine art prints. In reorganizing my teaching files recently I came across an interesting folder of information that held several attempts to answer the question(s) posed in the title of this piece. One of the items, published in 1963, was written by D. Z. Meilach and entitled “Printmaking.” It was one of the “Selected Pitman $1.00 Art Books” and was written and illustrated in a style so as to introduce the reader to the world of traditional printmaking in forty-seven information-packed pages. After reviewing this text and cross-checking Meilach’s work with several other of several introductory texts on traditional printmaking I can affirm that what is shared here is solid, well-grounded information. That having been said, let’s get back to the Pitman Press text. This basic literature was developed for sharing with interested avocation adult artists or introductory college level students prior to the development of digital printmaking. After looking over this slim volume I found a number of the issues reviewed in this pre-digital teaching aide still relevant today in helping audiences deal with the questions that drive this essay.
Part I. The question: “Is that is an ‘original’ print?”
In order to begin in a clearly understood place let me share the definition of the term “print” as it is offered by Meilach when she writes that, ”... man discovered that when color was applied to a raised surface and pressed against another surface, a print of the original design remained.” By this author’s accounting a print is something that results when a primary surface has transferrable material (ink, paint, etc,) applied to it which is then transferred over to secondary surface (rock, skin, paper, etc.) The secondary surface is the print.
On the history of printmaking she also writes, “the origin of printmaking has not been positively identified. We know it was used by the ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, and later the Japanese. Centuries ago, a hand-carved relief design on a wood block was the only method available for the reproduction of a picture. Relief printing for textile designs was used in early Medieval times in Western Europe. In the thirteenth century the wood block print had become commonplace for printing greeting cards, book plates, calendars and playing cards.” Making prints has been something people in Western culture have done for a very long time. But what is the difference between a reproduction and an original print ... that is to say, an “original” work of print art?
As to what constitutes a print, Meilach’s introductory remarks presage a very open-ended definition of printmaking. For example, “printing principles are essentially the same today as they were centuries ago. Between the simple hand stamp and the elaborate etching press, however, experimentation with modern materials has brought about myriad techniques for making original prints. The proof of the success of any particular method is in the quality of the final print.” Here we seem to have support for a continually evolving field of art production called “printmaking” that encompasses the new while cherishing the older ways of working. Still, there are many question to pose and ponder.
Regarding question number 1. What is an ‘Original Print’? A good place to begin is with the concept of “original “ and what this term implies. The “Webster’s Unabridged” dictionary tells me that the root word here is “origin” which is a noun and that this term, by definition, has nine current levels of use. I will share the first four: 1. something from which anything arises or is derived; source; fountainhead: to follow a stream to its origin. 2. rise or derivation from a particular source: the origin of a word. 3. the first stage of existence; beginning: the origin of Quakerism in America. 4. ancestry, parentage, extraction: to be of Scottish origin. Seems clear enough. Origin means the starting point of something.
Alright. Now onto “original” for some clarification there. The same unabridged dictionary lists the term original as an adjective and lists twelve levels of meaning currently considered to be in use. Here also are the first four definitions: 1. belonging or pertaining to the origin or beginning of something, or to a thing at its beginning: the book still has its original binding. 2. New; fresh; inventive; novel: an original way of advertising. 3. arising or proceeding independently of anything else: an original view of history. 4. capable of or given to thinking or acting in an independent, creative, or individual manner: an original thinker. These definitions seem to be somewhat elastic and less clear than one might have hoped. Original seems to imply being associated with the beginning of something and/or perhaps even something that is considered a starting point itself.
Now I’m going to narrow down the focus of this defining process and look at the form of art traditionally termed printmaking. Here is the definition of the term “original” provided by the art teacher from the 1960's: “An original print is an image on paper or similar material made by one of more the processes used by fine arts print makers. Many of these processes have been adapted from the commercial printmaking industry. Original prints are those made by or under the direct supervision of the artist who is intending to make art works in the form of prints. An original print can be done as a ‘monotype’ (one of a kind) or as an edition of limited size. A ‘print record’ is commonly kept by fine artists during the printmaking process which can then serve as a record of all phases of the making of an edition.” This definition would seem to exclude objects made by some form of reproduction or imitation of the work first produced by the artist’s hand. (Although less valued for various reasons, copies and reproductions have had tremendous impact on our experience, reaching greater audience than originals ever could. But that is a subject for another essay altogether.)
Author Meilach goes even further to provide a definition of an original print that includes the deeply psychological, intellectual issue of one’s intentionality. For example, “The artist’s intention to create an original print is the key to the ‘originality’ of a finished work. For example, if an artist first executes a watercolor, then the resultant image is copied over by a technician as a woodcut, the result is not an ‘original’ but merely a reproduction; a copy of an original work.” An artist must be after an original work to make an original work ... copies will not do. Plainly, a reproduction or copy cannot, then, be termed an original print. In my experience most persons involved in printmaking would be very supportive of such an exclusive definition.
It seems that, with a little assistance, Meilach’s definition of the term “original” (as it refers to printmaking) can be qualified as follows: 1. Any product considered to be an authentic example of the work done by the mind and hand of an artist. 2. A product considered to be the first of its type; preceding all others. In this sense, it may refer to a prototype, a model after which other works are made; in this case each subsequent version bears great similarity to the first. In this way an artist’s proof is made so that it can serve as the model for an edition of multiple originals. 3. The artist must intend for the work to be a novel and personally expressive statement in a particular media (or combination thereof) and have direct involvement in the manipulation of the media and responsibility for the resultant art product. For example, the artist transferred her pencil drawing to a wood block and, after working the block, pulled a black ink edition of ten of her original images on rice paper.
Even so, in my experience of over twenty years of teaching and more than thirty years of being involved in art schools, I have found that there is (practically) no definition of any art term that will be unilaterally agreeable to all parties. That having been said, I will let this heavily qualified definition of “original” stand for now and move on a bit.
But what is a print anyway? What about the processes of making a print? And how does one keep track of what is done along the path of making such art? Again, let me return to the print making text from nearly 40 years ago and then invoke historical evidence here.
As to what constitutes a print, Meilach’s introductory remarks presage a very open-ended definition of printmaking. For example, “printing principles are essentially the same today as they were centuries ago. Between the simple hand stamp and the elaborate etching press, however, experimentation with modern materials has brought about myriad techniques for making original prints. The proof of the success of any particular method is in the quality of the final print.” Here we seem to have support for a continually evolving field of art production called “printmaking” that encompasses the new while cherishing the older ways of working. Still, there are many question to pose and ponder. I vividly recall one of the first times I was challenged by the myriad varieties of prints and printmaking techniques.
In 1969 I first studied printmaking was at college-level art institute. I was awestruck at the possibilities in that studio: etching, engraving, wood block, aquatint, drypoint, serigraphy and linocut prints were all offered as processes we could study. After class had begun, to my great disappointment one of the first things we were introduced to was not a tool or an ink ... not even some exotic paper. It was the “print documentation” record. In this simple, one-page document was the complete listing of the history of an art work.
My paperwork from that class has long since vanished. In order to fill this information gap so I went to my colleague, Professor Ralph Steeds <www.uncp.edu/home/steeds/>, in our University of North Carolina at Pembroke Art Department, who practices and teaches traditional printmaking and asked to review a copy of a “print documentation record” from one of his off-campus printing session at an atelier (a master printer’s printmaking workshop). From the top drawer of his file cabinet he pulled a single sheet of paper with the logo of “Winstone Press” (now closed I am told) and dated 1991. Here is what was recorded on the form: artist, title of work, size, paper, dates, hand printed by, location of stamps or chops (Winstone chop and printer’s chop), location of signature, explicit description of technique(s), documentation of the edition (record of printing), record of cancellation, artist’s signature, publisher’s signature, printer’s signature. To say the least, the form is densely packed with information of many types. A form similar to this is commonly utilized among professional printmakers who practice traditional techniques and should be available with the purchase of any well-documented original print from a reputable gallery.
One of the most significant sections of this document is the “documentation of the edition” in that it provides, by specific number produced, an accounting of all phases of the work produced in developing an edition. The print record is made to show, in significant detail, the steps involved in producing the edition as the process is moved from ideation through production. After the edition has been produced the prints must be signed and numbered. The common terminology used in the signing and numbering phase of producing an edition is as follows:
1. The “trial proof” or proofs (written as “TP”) which are traditionally the first series of test prints the artist or printer makes as the print progresses toward the final work. There can be many trial proofs made including color trial proofs (written as “CTP”) or even state proofs. There are many variations of trial proofs and proof markings.
2. The “Bon a’ Trier” (written as “BAT”) is made to signify for the printer that the artist has approved this state as a guide to completing the edition under the supervision of the artist. If the artist is doing the printing the term used is artist’s proof (written as “AP”). Traditionally this is the last print made prior to the pulling of the edition. The image, color, paper, or ink should not be changed after the print marked “AP” is pulled and signed as such. The “AP” image may function as the printing or press guide.
3. The “Presentation Proof” prints which are sometimes pulled on special occasions, either before of after the edition, and are later inscribed by the artist to a friend or collaborator. These images are identical to the edition but are not designated as part of the group of numbered prints.
4. The “numbered edition” (written as X/Y ... where X stands for the number of the print and Y for the number of total prints, as in 3/25 which can be read as “number 3 of 25 prints in this edition.”). Here is where the prints are signed or designated as proofs of some description. Careful record keeping during the printing process is necessary so that accuracy of these designations can be assured. Numbered prints, also sometimes called impressions, are marked from the lowest number to the highest with 1/25 through 25/25 covering an entire numbered edition of 25 prints. All numbered impressions should be as close to the “BAT” or “AP” prints as possible. Traditionally it is considered a matter of personal integrity and artistic tradition that these numbers are correct.
5. The “cancellation proof” is the record made after the full edition has been printed in order to provide evidence that defacement or permanent alteration of the image or print matrix (substrate) has been accomplished. Most often a single cancellation proof is made which clearly reveals that the printing image has been permanently altered and that no further impressions identical with the edition can be taken from it. Furthermore, at this point all unsigned, or unused images resulting form the proofing and edition process are traditionally destroyed as completely as possible.
6. The “Chop” or “Blind Stamp” is an ancient way of identifying who was involved in making a print. These unique stamps are applied by the printer or the print shop (atelier) after the impressions have been numbered. These chops identify the artist, printer and/or the shop where the edition was produced. All of this information is listed, with the number of each type of proof, on the print record which is then signed by the artist, printers and sometimes the publisher after step number “6" above has been accomplished.
Before moving on let’s take a brief look at what constitutes printmaking practice in traditional printmaking. In this way it will, perhaps, be more clear how the traditional in printmaking has fed the new age of digital printmaking. Here is a description, from D. Z. Meilach, of the basic categories of printmaking in the pre-digital era. I have also added some information to clarify how these processes differ from one another.
Type 1. Intaglio/etching The collective term for several graphic processes in which prints are made from ink trapped in the grooves in an incised (cut into) metal plate. Zinc and copper are the most common metals although aluminum and steel are also used. Etchings and engravings are the most typical examples. Paper money is the most commonly seen example of engraving. Here the area that prints is what is below the surface of the plate; those cuts that have been made by the artist by hand and/or by acids. The type of press most commonly used in these processes is an “etching” (or clothes wringer) where a mechanism pulls the plate, resting on a bed (a lifter), through a press which then places down force on the plate transferring the ink to the paper. In addition to the plate, basic tools include: etching needles and burins (to make marks), acids (to cut) and grounds (to protect the plate).
Type 2. Planographic A process for printing from a smooth (unaltered) surface. Some form of ink is applied to and then lifted from the smooth surface of the stone, metal, glass or plastic plate. Lithography and offset are both planographic printing processes. Both these process are commonly used for producing printed materials form newspapers to magazines. Here the area that prints is what was drawn (or placed) on the surface. The most common type of press is a “litho” press where a mechanism that pulls the plate, resting on a bed (a lifter), through a press which then places sliding or scraping pressure on the plate transferring the ink to the paper. In addition to a smooth working surface, basic tools include: Litho crayons, tusche (for making marks) and litho rubbing ink.
Type 3. Stencil In this process stiff paper (or other sheet material) with a design cut into it. Ink or paint forced through the design openings will produce a print on a flat surface placed beneath. Also, the image produced, and the process of making it. Serigraphy (aka: silkscreen) is the most common example of this process. Here the area that prints is any open part of the stencil. Serigraphs made for fine arts purposes are commonly had screened rather than machine screened. The most commonly used method used in this process is a hinged screen through which the artist forces the silkscreen inks. Generally speaking, there is a separate stencil for each color in a silkscreen print. In addition to the silk and the stenciling material, basic tools include: squeegee (to spread ink), glue and tusche (to block out the screen).
Type 4. Relief printing Relief printing methods in which a block of wood, linoleum or some other material's surface is carved so that an image can be printed from it -- areas which are not carved receive ink which transfers to another surface when the block is pressed against it. Two of the more common examples of this process are the woodcut and the linoleum cut. Here the area that prints is the remainder of the surface that has not been carved away by the artist. The type of press most commonly used in these processes is a smooth tools that is rubbed on the back side of the paper or a letter press that applies the pressure to the protected paper surface vertically transferring the ink to the paper. Generally speaking, there is a separate block or plate for each color in a relief print. In addition to the block or plate which is carved, basic tools include: knives, gouges (for cutting) and burins (for mark making and working the surface).
Certainly, there are some forms of printmaking are not covered here. Some examples are: the “collograph” where materials are layered to build a relief surface which can also be incised and that is then used to make a print or series of prints; the “vitreograph” where what is essentially a painting is developed on a glass surface and this is then transferred over to a paper surface. There are other examples. It should also be noted that, as all serious students of printmaking already realize, it is common to combine and elaborate many of these process with and sometimes combine the results with other processes that are essentially painting of drawing process can be brought into the a work to develop what is often termed a “mixed media” print/work.
At this point at least one thing is clear: a brief and clear definition of a term is very difficult to generate. What we must look toward building then is a working, or “operational”, definition of the terms discussed. In trying to do this even for traditional printmaking the process of defining the architecture of the terms “original print” and “traditional printmaking” has proved less than completely successful. Even so, we can say what these things are not and such efforts bring us closer to being able to have a dialogue using agreed-upon terminology.
In this regard, it can be suggested that, at the very least, traditional printmaking processes appear to have several things in common. These are: 1. Traditional prints are original works and are accomplished through the intercession of an artist who may, or may not, use assistants, or a master printer, in accomplishing a work or an edition of original images. 2. Traditional prints are the result of one, or more, of a number of processes that require plates, blocks, or surfaces that are manipulated or altered to allow for the transfer of applied inks (pigments) to a paper (or other) surface which is the actual print. It is not uncommon for printmakers using traditional techniques to use two, or perhaps many, different techniques on a single image or series. Nor is it uncommon for printmakers using traditional techniques to also use materials more commonly associated with drawing or painting to alter and/or make prints “unique” – the formal terms for a monotype 3. Traditional prints can be made as a single images or in editions – multiple originals produced in a signed and numbered series. There are “rules” for recording the process of making prints and the plate is always “cancelled” or “struck” or somehow altered or destroyed so that no more “original” images can be made after the artist’s work process is concluded. 4. It is at least foolhardy, if not impossible, to make a comprehensive statement of what traditional printmaking is in the sense that there are perhaps as many ways of working as there are artists. It might be most useful to suggest that traditional printmaking is not only the use of well-tried and formalized ways of making prints; it is also, in many cases, the incorporation, or invention of, new techniques and ways of working which can then be merged or experimented with what is already known.
Thus far we have constructed a statement that includes many things while it excludes others. It must be said again that this is a working set of definitions that is necessarily qualified both in terms of space requirements and depth of content. We can do better, but this is a well-informed, although somewhat conservative, position to take at this point.
Part II. The question: “How has printmaking changed with the use of digital technologies?”
All that having been said, just what about traditional printmaking has changed as a result of the incorporation of digital technologies into this historically esoteric art-making community? In order to posit an answer to this thorny question let me use the points made in defining the terms addressed in this essay as a gentle way of making some simple comparisons and defining relatively obvious contrasts – as a thorough analysis of the relationship of the newer versus the older printmaking technologies is not possible in this space.
Regarding question number 2, “How has printmaking changed with the use of digital technologies?” Taken one-by-one, just as listed above, let’s look at all four points describing traditional prints given the background information and operational definitions proposed in this essay. Given these points I will now make comparisons with my sense of current digital fine art printmaking in order to draw conclusions about the latter in terms of the former as it has been defined herein:
1. “Traditional prints are original works and are most often accomplished through the intercession of an artist who may, or may not, use assistants in accomplishing a work or an edition of original images.”
Given my definition of “original” many of the works we look at today labeled as “digital” prints are actually very fine, perhaps archival, reproductions. By the definition used herein, a work made in its initial form as an oil, a watercolor, or a collage of physical materials that is then photographed and/or scanned, and then output on a high end printer would not seem to qualify as an original digital print.
Another example, one of my students asked me about the “originality” of her digital prints made as a result of her own efforts at digital photography. The images were captured digitally, downloaded into a computer, then modified and proofed in a software “digital darkroom” and then printed, with my assistance, on a medium format inkjet printer. “Are these original photographs?” she asked. “Yes, I think they are” was my response. She printed a small edition of five images after doing two trial proofs, tore up the other prints done during other “trials” and then signed the edition. The “original” digital files were tagged with metadata (technical and circumstantial information about the image) and the archived with the embedded “print record” data included.
But what if a work is created by one person and then turned over to another person at a remote location for production? For example, what can we say of a digitally printed piece where the print was not “accomplished by the artist.” What for example, are we to make of this situation: a final edition of prints was printed by professionals in a digital atelier from a file sent on a CD-ROM after “proofs” have been sent to the client through overnight delivery and then approved by the client via electronic means. Certainly this sort of relationship is common among commercial clients and “service bureaus” for the production of printed materials. But what of “art” prints? Should the artist, the producer of the original image, be present and oversee the production of the work? Traditional practices are not absolute in this regard. Even so, and all sophisticated RIP and color space management software aside, it would seem to add another dimension of connectivity and creative decision making to the process of making prints if the artist and the printmaker worked in the same physical space, at the time the edition was printed, and approved all subsequent work after that final digital “BAT” was approved as a guide.
Are all digital prints originals? No, I do not think that anyone would say this is so. Does the quality of the materials or the expertise of the producer of the image make a digital print an original? No, I do not think it does. In fact, these factors are neither sufficient to produce an original digital print nor are they necessary. An original print can be made at home using inexpensive equipment and whatever materials the artist wishes to include in the work(s). Perhaps archival questions are another issue altogether too.
2. “ Traditional prints are the result of one, or more, of a number of processes that require plates, blocks, or surfaces that are manipulated or altered to allow for the transfer of applied inks (pigments) to a paper (or other) surface which is the actual print. It is not uncommon for print-makers using traditional techniques to use two, or perhaps many, different techniques on a single image or series. Nor is it uncommon for print makers using traditional techniques to also use materials more commonly associated with drawing or painting to alter and/or make prints “unique” – the formal terms for a monotype”
The description of traditional printmaking processes given here is, as noted, cursory, and leaves much to the imagination (and further reading) of the reader regarding the ways in which these process can each be modified and combined, not to mention the deeply significant factors of inks and papers which were mentioned but not discussed. What is the status quo with respect to digital output of prints?
What about digital artists using “one, or more, of a number of processes” to make original digital prints? I can draw on some familiarity with such possibilities and can list some of the means of making digitally-based images we have used (thus far) in my teaching studios to output, or contribute to, works originally developed through a computer interface: photographic processes like Cibachrome and Ilfachrome as well as Polaroid transfers; inkjet prints made from the common desktop units up to the refrigerator-sized Iris units and large-format “plotters” used by architects; dye-sublimation prints from very small format units used by dentists up through medium format; wax thermal transfer process prints; and combinations thereof.
What about a comparison of the “ink” and the “paper” of traditional printmaking to digital printmaking? In a traditional studio much care is taken in the selection of both and the archival nature of these materials is of paramount importance. In terms of digital studio, let me use my university inkjet printmaking studio as an example. In experimenting with inks and papers, our Media Integration project has been fortunate to obtain a number of grants which have been applied the to the purchase of printers and various products to put in them and run through them. As far as papers or “substrates” go, well, if we have been able to get material to pass through a printer in an attempt to make a print or find a paper that can be used to transfer a digital image to another surface, we have done just that. For example: leather, etched aluminum plates, many types of plastics, and just about all papers we have been able to locate. Numerous processes have also been combined, modified with solvents, used to make a collage, transferred through various means, or used in other experimental ways to make printed output in the form of either monoprints or editions. Moreover, in my building, prints from the traditional studio down the hall form my digital studio have been making their way back and forth for some years now. It is also not uncommon to see prints made in the digital studio be worked “more” with traditional tools from the drawing and painting studios further down the hall. In this way our students’ works are many times a combination of drawing, painting, printmaking and digital techniques that are sometimes mounted in multiples on a surface, or hung in groups and presented as a single work. Students have also been known to work on “digital works” that have included original efforts by two or more individuals who then exhibit the product as co-made. Yes, digital can be as experimental and rule-breaking as any medium which has come before it. Materials used, both inks and substrates, can be common and ephemeral or expensive and archival ... anything that can be done is done. This is simply a description of work in one place. Considering the possibilities of the work done in so many other places is mind-numbing. Do digital prints come in a variety of forms? Yes, certainly. Can processes be combined? Absolutely. Is it possible to experiment and/or carefully define which inks and papers can be used in digital printmaking? Yes ... a whole industry is built on providing such materials. The materials are offered to digital printmakers have changed frequently and often profoundly over just the last few years.
3. “Traditional prints can be made a single images or in editions, consisting of multiple originals, which are produced in a signed and numbered series. There are ‘rules’ (the print record) for recording the process of making prints and the plate (or matrix) is always ‘cancelled’ or ‘struck’ or somehow altered or destroyed so that no more ‘original’ images can be made after the artist’s work process is concluded.”
Most of us who have been involved in producing art through print-based digital technologies have surely produced images in both the “monoprint (single) and the edition (multiple) forms. So we can certainly look to digital printmaking as a form of making art prints that does continue in the tradition of producing both single, unique, images and editions of multiple originals.
What of the more personal touch of signing one’s prints? Do artists sign digital prints? Everybody I know who is producing digital printed work they intend to exhibit and/or see as their original art signs their work. A review of art publications (Art News, artbyte, Art Papers) and numerous online artists’ catalogues reveals the same: it appears to be commonplace for digital artists who make prints to sign and number their work. That much seems to be clear.
What of the adherence to the general standards set by traditional printmaking in terms of the print record? Are such standards commonplace in the world of digital printmaking? For a clear answer, one provided by a source that is both expert and widely connected, I looked online and used one of the popular search engines to look for various versions of terms such as “digital printmaking records” and “standards for digital printmaking” and other combinations of these and similar terms. I wanted to take a look, on that day, at who was using such terms to define the work they were publishing on the web. The organization that came up referenced most often was the International Association of Digital Fine Arts Printmakers which has a very informative site. I perused and located a page that dealt with Standards for digital print makers.
Even though this page is under construction, the author, Jack Duganne, has some sage thoughts to share with visitors regarding the “Standards” we might be able to expect from fine arts digital print makers. For example, regarding the history of the “print record” (aka: standards) Duganne suggests that, “the rules of engagement for artists, dealers, printers, print makers and all others involved in the creation, production and sales of fine art prints, multiples and collectibles for sale. The rules and regulations have in many cases been around for centuries. Some have been around for decades and some are brand spanking new. These standards were created by artists, dealers, and collectors to protect themselves against forgeries and other illegal acts which would compromise the originality and integrity of works created in multiple form.” Here we have a well-stated sense of the evolutionary quality of such standards. As the author Duganne explains, it is simply not correct to assume there is a single governing body, nor has there been in the past, that sets such standards for artists in the practice of their craft and the making of their art. What have become rather widely-held practices in the traditional forms of printmaking are gaining momentum in digital ateliers and seem to be both useful to the artist and a bonus to patrons of the arts as well.
But who does set such standards of printmaking practice? Especially with the introduction of digital technologies into the area of art making and art selling we are in need of guidance and leadership to make clear what sorts of practices are beneficial and useful to those who inhabit the art world (artists, patrons, collectors, galleries and museums, critics, historians, the art public at large). In the past such things in the world of print making have, as Duganne suggests, been left to those who were actively involved in making and selling fine arts prints: “Since the beginning of modern printmaking and the generation of multiples from a 'master', artists and collectors have attempted to delineate the ground rules which, when followed, would help to preserve the posterity of an artist's work. Guilds in Europe and fine art printmaking societies in the United States have addressed these issues in many ways.” From this, and many other sources, we can gather that what is now the case in printmaking standards was not arrived at overnight or by some individual, or small group somewhere regardless of their resources of connections. The making of art evolves along cultures and technologies and so do practices and standards.
Those who would attempt to write about quickly-evolving issues in art-making such as standards and practices in digital fine arts printmaking must be prepared to look deeply into the past as they seek out reliable sources of contemporary information. Moreover, such well-grounded thinking and writing is often most useful as it allows us to peer toward the technological and philosophical horizons in the world of art. In this way making sense of the history of practice in an area can inform the present and enliven the future. Again, Jack Duganne proves to be a realist when he says that it is not possible to describe what is currently in the making, yet we can still offer readers as clear and accurate view of the status quo as possible. In this regard, Mr. Duganne describes the worthy goals of his IADFAP page as follows, “I will attempt in the following months to describe, illuminate and spell out many of the standards which have existed for many years and those which are changing to adapt to the new media. I will also be covering the literature of the many Fine Art Guilds and print societies here and abroad. This forum will be robust, informative, and stimulating. It is intended to do what was offered by those who originally created these standards - namely, to protect the artists, print makers, dealers and collectors who make this medium, and the media within it, creative, exciting and fruitful.” <> Such investigations, dissemination, and discussion of current practice and efforts to establish forums for positive, progressive activity in the digital arts should be lauded. Only after thorough investigations of the “New” practices and the adoption of well-supported “standards” will digital print making move toward achieving equivalent status among more than those few enlightened and adventurous collectors who have already added digital images to their traditional portfolios of images.
4. “It is at least foolhardy, if not impossible, to make a comprehensive statement of what traditional printmaking is in the sense that there are perhaps as many ways-of-working as there are artists working. It might be most useful to suggest that traditional printmaking is not only the use of well-tried and formalized ways of making prints but it is also, in many cases, the incorporation, or invention of, new techniques and ways of working which can then be merged or experimented with what is already known .”
Here it has been suggested that coming to a comprehensive and easily agreed upon definition of what composes the practice of digital printmaking is a very difficult undertaking. This still seems so to me. Entire libraries at places like the Tamarind Institute are devoted to traditional practices and works
with new volumes added daily. We just cannot know all that is out there to know. Even so, we can come to some understand the basic ways, by category, of how artists make traditional prints. Can this be done for the digital printmaking arts? Certainly this is possible and the IAFADP has some information online in this regard at this time. Here too the qualifying admission is made regarding the knowledge base provided, “Throughout history artists have made work using an enormous range of materials and processes. Artists working today using digital tools are also using a wide variety of methods. The print processes listed here are the most popular digital printing methods for artists. This list is by no means all‑inclusive since both artists and print makers will continue to push the envelope, discovering new, innovative methods by which fine art prints may be created.”
Perhaps we are a bit premature in attempting to make a definitive statement of “Standards” (print record) practice that are common to current fine arts digital printmaking. From my experience the foremost ateliers such as Cone Editions Press. Ltd. practice the highest form of such record keeping and their standards and practices have attracted artists of international standing, as well as many others, to their studios. I was involved in a work shop with Master Printer Jon Cone in his rural Vermont studio in 1999 and can personally attest to the remarkable merging of the foremost digital practices together with the highest standards of traditional printmaking activities and standards. In a studio of this level, the best practices of the past and the inventive uses of the possibilities of the present flow together, sometimes almost seamlessly, to take us elegantly into the future of printed works of art.
In the very beginning of her short volume, D. Z. Meilach wrote, “The ancient art of printmaking is rapidly expanding with the continual development of new techniques. New materials and methods, opening vast creative channels for the amateur and professional artist, now accompany the classic wood block and limestone used by print makers for centuries.” All things considered, perhaps this is a fitting place to stop – for the moment. To me the sense of what is, or is not, an “original” print can be, and clearly should be, defined and practiced. On the other hand, I will leave it to the reader to conclude how the history of fine arts printmaking is informing the present practice of making prints through digital interfaces. As to the future ... it is ours to imprint as we will.