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Making stencils for gel printing with a digital cutter – part 1

This is the first of a planned series of posts about making stencils for gel printing using a digital cutter. In my case it is a Cricut Maker, but the principles are general.

These stencils came out of some thoughts I had about making silk screen versions of my gel prints. I was hoping to use colour separations. This is the process by which original full-colour digital files are separated into individual colour components for four-colour process printing. Every element in the file is printed in a combination of four colours: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This is known as CMYK in the world of commercial printing and in silk screen printing. This isn’t an original idea, of course. Anyone familiar with Matisse will almost certainly be aware of his stunning cutouts, but may not be aware that they were also published in silk screen versions.

I began with a scan from one of my prints. I created the CMYK colour separations with Paint Shop Pro (from now on PSP). Unfortunately, I no longer have access to screen beds, so this is currently not an option. In practice, I don’t think I’m fit enough any more, to spend several hours pulling ink through the screens. However, having already used scans of pen drawings to make stencils, I decided to experiment with these separations. The print I’m using here is called ‘Area 52’, available from my shop.

The image below is an example of one of the colour separations. This is from the magenta colour channel. In this form, it clearly can’t be used directly to make a stencil suitable for gel printing.

Magenta colour separation from original image file. Not suitable for making stencils in this form.
Magenta colour separation from original image file

Simplifying the file

To create a version that can be cut as a stencil, it needs to be much simplified. I did this using various tools in PSP, which led to this. (More details of the process by which I did this, will be in later posts. If you can’t wait though, get in touch and I’ll try to help.)

Simplified magenta file suitable for making stencils
Simplified Magenta channel

PSP allows me to digitally recombine these simplified images, which led in turn to this image. This is closer to what you would get with screen printing, but is useful to visualise the outcome.

Digitally image from recombination of simplified image. Simulation of effect of using stencils made by digital cutter.
Digital image created from recombined and simplified channels

Be flexible

However, just because a file is called magenta, doesn’t mean that it has to be used that way. PSP allows me to digitally recombine the image files in any order. With four files to combine, there are 24 possible combinations, so this one below is just one. It helps to make a point though. When the stencils are cut and used to make gel prints, you have complete freedom in the colour you use.

Digital image created by shuffling colour separation files when recombining. Simulation of effect of using stencils made by digital cutter.
Image created by recombining channels in different order.

In the real, as opposed to the digital world, there are other variables. Varying the opacity of the paint used, and varying the order in which you use the stencil, will also give different results.

Finally, just as an experiment, here is a combination image using CYMK files from two different images. I’ve included it just to make the point that once you have the stencil you have complete freedom in their use.

Digital image created by incorporating data from more than one image. Simulation of effect of using stencils made by digital cutter.
Experiment in combining channels from separate image files.

In many ways, this last image is analogous to making a collagraph print from multiple plates. I have experimented with this many times in the past.

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Gel printing – my approach

Multi-layered Gel print

I’ve tried to record the process of making one of my gel prints several times, but without success. This is because my working methods mean I am usually working on perhaps a dozen prints at once, jumping between them. I build up each image over time by adding layer after layer of colour and texture. The closest I have come is a series of photographs of different stages. This post tries to fill some of that gap.

Applying the paint

All gel prints start with paint on the plate. This is the first big variable. I apply the paint with a brush, a roller and even my fingers. Rollers give the most even effect. Even then as the roller loses paint to the plate in one place it can start picking it up elsewhere. The basic aim is to create variations in the thickness of the paint sitting on the plate. This helps to create variations in colour and visual texture in the eventual gel print.

How much variation you want is a matter of choice. For me, early layers tend to have more or less complete coverage using a limited palette. For later layers I may only cover part of the plate, perhaps using a mask or stencil. On any layer, I can create textural variation by applying anything with texture to the paint as it sits on the plate. I use pill packets, bits of card, pieces of scrap plastic with interesting textures or just crumpled paper. I often remove paint completely with cotton buds.

How this will print depends on a range of factors – what colour is it going over, on the use of opaque or transparent paints and on how much is left in the thinnest areas. Using more than one colour at a time on the brush or roller also creates variations and colour blends. Adding acrylic medium also alters things.

Layering

I don’t clean down the plate between every layer. Because the transfer from plate to paper is not always 100% this can leave patches of paint behind. Rolling fresh colour over these patches often picks them up and transfers them to the print, adding texture.

Using transparent paints in a layer will shift the colour underneath depending on the two colours used. If the upper layer is partial this will leave the underlying colour untouched in some areas. Removing part of a layer also allows the underlying colour to come through. The effect will vary between transparent and opaque colours.

I also restrict the area to which I’m applying the paint using masks or stencils. I usually cut or tear these from newsprint. Opaque paint will obscure what is underneath. I do this to simplify messy areas or perhaps to combine separate blocks of colour. Using transparent or semi-transparent paint can subdue contrast between adjacent areas or shift colours by mixing through layering. Acrylic medium can create translucent effects if you mix it with opaque colours.

Eventually the build up of paint on a plate makes the transfer of paint to the print too unpredictable. This is my cue it needs cleaning. The paint left on the plate won’t be wasted however, even if it has dried completely. Start by rolling out an even coat of colour over everything. Then start to take the print as normal, but leave the paper on the plate longer than usual before you lift it. If everything goes well the last layer has bonded with the residue on the plate and most of it will transfer to the paper. You are unlikely to get a print this way that stand in its own right. The idea is just to use it as the first layer for a subsequent gel print.

As the layers of paint build up I look for the happy accidents and try to reinforce them. It is the way that successive layers show through that creates the subtle colours and textures which I think are the defining characteristic of gel prints. Some paints are opaque, other transparent. It is very rare for me to plan out an image. Even when I do that plan is often quickly abandoned when I see something unanticipated but which works! Eventually I get to a point where, as I look at an image it says Stop! That is something I can’t define. IT seems to be a combination of visual balance in terms of shapes and colours and overall cohesion/balance of the image as a whole.

Composition

Building up the image in layer after layer makes adhering to a specific composition difficult. I rarely have a fully planned composition in mind. Even when I do, that can be derailed when something unexpected happens which I like. The closest I usually come is the use of very simple structures like this crib sheet of mine. The artist Bob Burridge produces a rather more refined version you can buy.

Compositional diagrams
Set of compositional diagrams

A final thought on colour

As you add layers to your gel prints, you need to consider not just the area to be printed but the colour you will use. Careful thought here will give you more control over the final image. The first thing to do is to get a colour wheel. If your first layer is pretty much all cadmium yellows, look on the wheel at the colours either side of yellow. Using these colours for subsequent layers will give you a final image which is harmonious and balanced.

Alternatively look on the wheel at the colour opposite yellow – the complementary colours. Don’t just look at the direct complementary, look at the colours on either side of it which form the so-called split complementary. Some wheels also include markings for colour triads and for four colours. Try them. Using these colours will add drama and intensity to your work.

Don’t make the assumption that you need equal areas of complementary colours. Sometimes a large area of a relatively low-key colour can be balanced by a small intense area of its complementary. Think also about the effects of using transparent layers of one colour over its complementary. Think about how the effect differs from using opaques colours side by side. This can have an impact on your composition too.

Examples of my gel prints

There are lots of examples in the shop in the Lockdown Series 2020 and many more in my Instagram feed.

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Original and Reproduction

Many years ago, I had an Irish friend who would in conversation refer to the people he was talking about as “yer man”. Unfortunately, “yer man” might in the course of even a single statement refer to several different people, so it became very difficult to follow what he was saying.

I sometimes feel the same frustration when talking about printmaking with words like ‘print’ replacing ‘yer man’ and being used inconsistently – and without any thought or recognition given to the meanings that might be attached to the word by others.

My last post, about the Wiltshire Print Creatives web site mentioned the goal of promoting the art of the print. This is necessary because a mixture of sloppy use of language and marketing hype has corrupted the meaning of the word in art almost beyond recovery.

By sloppy language I don’t mean slang – I mean where people simply use the first word that comes to mind without thinking of whether it is the right one for the circumstances. I know I’m picky about this but when the marketing men exploit such sloppiness with vague terms like ‘Art Print’ I get angry. I know this can get me into trouble from time to time, as for example when I comment on various fora about the way in which even established artists are happy to use of the word ‘print’ to mean ‘reproduction’.

I practice what I preach on this. I have an online shop called Panchromatica Designs where I sell reproductions of out of copyright vintage graphics in the form of maps, posters, photographs, postcards etc. I make sure that every time it is clear the item for sale is a copy, a reproduction. Most of the items I sell in that shop were in any case originally designed to be reproduced in large numbers.

  1. I have no problem with other people producing reproductions of their own work, even though I don’t wish to do so myself.
  2. A reproduction of a painting is not, OF ITSELF, a work of art – it is a copy of a work of art.
  3. A reproduction of a painting is a print yes, but it is a reproduction print. Describing it as a print is a marketing tool, the acceptability of which will vary with your opinions on marketing. However when marketing to less knowledgeable members of the public accurate description is essential.
  4. Reproductions sold as limited edition ink-jet or giclée prints are sold this way for marketing purposes. It has nothing to do with art and everything to do with creating artificial value.
  5. Creating a limited edition reproduction print does not create genuine value. The true value of such a print depends not on the marketing hype of the original sellers but on the willingness of others to buy and sell that print. For 99% of such prints that secondary market does not exist. To be fair this probably applies also to the market in traditional ‘handpulled’ prints, although the numbers will be much smaller.
  6. An original print is printed from a matrix on which the design was created by hand and issued as part of the original publishing venture or as part of a connected, subsequent publishing venture. An original print should be distinguished from a reproduction, which is produced photomechanically, and from a restrike, which is produced as part of a later, unconnected publishing venture.

The wide spread availability of so-called giclee prints probably won’t have escaped your attention. I say ‘so-called’ because my understanding of giclee is that the the term originally only applied to prints produced on IRIS printers that were capable of producing dots in a range of sizes. Then under commercial pressure, it came to mean any inkjet print made with archival inks then, largely in the US at least, to mean a reproduction. Like the word print itself, it has become so broad in its use as to be almost meaningless.

One problem, of course is that when a term becomes too broad, it loses its ability to describe a specific thing. At that point, it stops being a good marketing label–and make no mistake about it, “giclée” is a marketing term. When everything is a giclée, the art world gets confused, and the process starts all over again with people coming up with new labels.

Setting that aside for the moment however, the widespread availability of these printers has lead to a massive growth in reproductions of paintings and other artworks. Although a giclee print is much more expensive than the offset it has replaced, the ability to produce only one at a time places the opportunity to make and sell reproductions into the hands of even minor artists. (And because this always proves a sensitive topic every time I raise it on art forums, by minor, I simply mean unknown or less well known artists, often outside the gallery system and I am not implying any judgement on their work.)

…there are now many tens of thousands of individual photographers and artists, from amateurs to pros, who are able to print high-quality images in their own studios, homes, and offices. No longer constrained by the high costs of traditional printing methods, the production of “artistic” prints has been put in the hands of the greatest number of people–the artists and the imagemakers themselves. [originally a quote from a web site covering these issues, www.dpandi.com which is now defunct]

This easy availability, this democratisation of the process of making reproductions is an example of the ‘accelerated intensity’ of the means of reproduction referred to by Walter Benjamin in his early paper, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”

In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new. Historically, it advanced intermittently and in leaps at long intervals, but with accelerated intensity. The Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping. Bronzes, terra cottas, and coins were the only art works which they could produce in quantity. All others were unique and could not be mechanically reproduced. With the woodcut graphic art became mechanically reproducible for the first time, long before script became reproducible by print. The enormous changes which printing, the mechanical reproduction of writing, has brought about in literature are a familiar story. However, within the phenomenon which we are here examining from the perspective of world history, print is merely a special, though particularly important, case. During the Middle Ages engraving and etching were added to the woodcut; at the beginning of the nineteenth century lithography made its appearance. With lithography the technique of reproduction reached an essentially new stage. This much more direct process was distinguished by the tracing of the design on a stone rather than its incision on a block of wood or its etching on a copperplate and permitted graphic art for the first time to put its products on the market, not only in large numbers as hitherto, but also in daily changing forms. Lithography enabled graphic art to illustrate everyday life, and it began to keep pace with printing. But only a few decades after its invention, lithography was surpassed by photography. For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens.

The rest of this post is an attempt to unscramble things by using neutral language as an exercise in logic not art. It is an edited version of something that began as a post in an Etsy forum about 6 or 7 years ago, then became a blog post on my now lost Arts Blog and now reposted with further editing here.

So – to begin:

It is generally accepted by most people that there is a class or category of objects called prints. Because there are various types of prints let us call this overall category Prints(cat).

It is argued by a very large group of people that terms like silkscreen print, woodblock print etc represent a class of objects also called prints, sometimes qualified as ‘hand-pulled’ prints. So, if we have a single category Prints(cat), that would logically include ‘hand-pulled’ prints. For clarity let’s call this sub-class, Prints(h).

It is argued by a significant number of people that what I think of as a reproduction is validly called a print. So, Prints(cat) would logically contain what I call reproductions. Let’s call this sub-class Prints(r).

Finally, it is also argued by perhaps a smaller but still significant number that the output from photomanipulations made using packages like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro or originated using packages like Corel Painter, Bryce etc – are also validly called prints, perhaps qualified in this case as ‘digital prints’. So again, Prints(cat) would logically include ‘digital’ prints. Lets call these Prints(d).

So – we have a generic class of objects called Prints(cat).

We also have various sub-classes described in various ways but generally as ‘x’ prints or in the form I have adopted here Prints(x).

If we keep these logical labels it is clear what is going on. In other words:

Prints(cat) contains Prints(r), Prints(h) and Prints(d).                    {1}

When we remove the suffixes and state this proposition in plain English we get:

Prints as a category contains Reproduction Prints, Handpulled Prints and Digital Prints.          {2}

However REMOVE the qualifier and what happens – we are immediately unsure whether a tag ‘Print’ is referring to the top level category or the sub-category.

Prints contains Prints, Prints and Prints                           {3}

Not very helpful. That confusion could be removed easily if we used the terminology in the plain English statement at {2} above. It is further complicated in that the terms Reproduction Print and Digital Print are unacceptable to many people, although those who object to the first may not object to the second – and vice versa. Others argue that they are in fact the same thing and should not be differentiated.

There are indeed of course similarities between the two sub-classes, but those similarities relate to the form of the output, usually but not exclusively ink jet/giclee printing. (Setting aside for the moment the uncertainties inherent also in those terms). The similarities do not extend to the question of artistic input.

In the case of Prints(r) the artistic endeavour has gone into the creation of the source image. Some judgements have to be made in creating the print file in terms of issues like fidelity of colours to the source image etc, but in comparison to the artistic input to the source image proper that is minimal and the work to achieve it often delegated to print technicians or others.

In the case of Prints(d), the artistic endeavour has gone directly into the creation of the digital file. Other issues like colour fidelity are of course relevant, but are incorporated in the whole process of making the image on-screen.

The argument that Prints(d) are in fact equivalent to Prints(r) is specious. It depends on a definition of the computer file as the original. This is false for two reasons.

  1. We are talking about a visual medium and the computer file is not a visual artefact.
  2. The argument conflates two uses of digital technology – as tool in the creation of the physical print and as medium in the creation of artwork like net installations, animation, virtual reality etc.

It would be possible I suppose to argue that the original of a digital work is the version seen on screen and that physical prints are reproductions of that screen display. That ignores the intention of the artist however. If I make a digital print with the intention from the outset of producing physical objects – ie the print, than I could argue (and to a degree I do so argue) that the reproduction is in fact the screen image.

So where does that leave us? I would say that so long as any terms used are defined or clear from the context and are not used to confuse or obfuscate there isn’t an issue. The problems so far as it exists is back to the the two problems I raised at the beginning – sloppy language and marketing hype. I don’t think either of them are going away any time soon, so printmakers will have to take the initiative and defend their corner.

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Still here…

At the edge of the known universe - gel print
At the edge of the known universe – gel print

Health issues again have prevented me from doing much work. Nothing life threatening, but chronic nagging issues really drain your enthusiasm! In particular I haven’t been able to stand at the press very much. As an experiment I’ve been trying gel printing.

If you are not sure what that is have a look on YouTube where there are lots of ‘how to’ videos. If you want to avoid 45 minutes of umms and ahhs, look for videos by Ruth Alice Kosnik, Jane Davies and Gerda Lipski. There are also many examples from the main manufacturers of these plates, Gel Press and Gelli Arts. He doesn’t have many up yet, but this video from Canadian artist Bob Pennycook is also worth a look for his ingenious jig to enable precise registration.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNQgxzHF6mU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]