Tim testing the tack of the ink drying on the paper.
Tim takes out the large roller . It is about 8 inches in diameter. He brings a piece of paper that has already been solidly printed in one color over to the table next to the press. Usually he leaves it to dry over night, but we don’t have time. It has been drying about three hours. He touches the paper with his forearm and the heel of his hand. Then he leans over and touches it with his cheek.
Tim testing the paper with his cheek.
“I think its OK,” he says. The dampness registers on his cheek, not too wet, just dry enough. A myriad of calculations run through his mind. The plate we will be printing on top of this will be double inked to bring out the darkness in one area. Too much ink and the paper may reject the ink. But if the paper is too dry, it won’t hold the ink either. Its all a matter of tack. And that is what Tim is feeling for with his cheek.
Tim uses the large roller to fill in the spidery lines of my drawing. In areas where I thought I had covered the plate in rich black, the ink fooled me and the area appears too mottled. Tim is trying to fill in the areas that I object to. But then he points out that modulation of the line and color is a desirable thing in printmaking. It is evidence of the artist’s hand and prevents the process from appearing mechanical.
He runs a burnisher around the deckle edge of the paper, pressing it into the ink.
Tim squeezes his sponge onto the plate. It deposits just enough water for him to wipe the whole surface — up and down, back and forth. He runs his fingers around the perimeter of the printed area and picks up any errant ink. He inks the plate one more time and wipes it down again. Then he picks up a sheet of paper with another sheet of newsprint on the back and he snaps the holes he has punched at one end of the paper into the grommets that are imbedded in the plate, and lets the newsprint drop over the join.
A plastic sheet with slight slicks of grease on it, is laid over the paper. Tim pushes a button and the plexiglass, newsprint, inked paper, metal plate and supporting litho-stone, slide through the press; the small amount of grease easing the way. He presses the button again and the pressure on the scrapper bar releases; the print and supporting surfaces slide out from under its pressure. Tim lifts the plexi-glass and pulls the print off of the registration pins and peals it back from the plate. He flips the print over so that the newsprint is on the bottom and walks it to the wire drying rack, where it will remain until another plate in another color is printed over it.
I had drawn four different plates, each was intended to be printed in a different color. But today, I selected two that we will print in black. Each has areas of half-tone, some of these overlap with the other plate. This creates a sense of depth. The solid background color now appears to have many different values. The areas with no black are popping forward.
Tomorrow we will print another plate, this time in white, to further bring out the highlights in the print. While I don’t want or expect the prints to be just like the original painting, I do want it to have the same feel. In an effort to get that quality, I have already redrawn the plates once. I ran through two completely different approaches to the prints and the way the colors were used. Once I saw all of them hanging together, I felt that I hadn’t quite achieved the quality I was after. Each print was interesting in its own right, but there was a quality in the original painting that I felt could still be teased out of the prints. What I want, as with the painting, is for the image, which came originally from an almond tree, to appear both realistic and completely abstract. I don’t want them to look like the painting, but I do want them to have a similar feel.
In my effort to make the image look realistic, the most important thing was to bring light into the print. Prints, like watercolors, achieve light through completely different means than painting. Today was my chance to learn that.
Below is a continuation of my experience of working with Master Printer Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press in Otego, New York. You can read Part I by clickinghere.
Tim in his spot.
I believe that one of the reasons we were able to accomplish so much in a short period of time was due, in part, to my planning, but in a larger part due to Tim’s organization and economy of movement. His studio is set up, just as with a short order cook, with everything at hand. Tim stands in one spot in the studio with two glass slabs in front of him, his inks to his right next to an old Uline catalog that serves as paper on which to clean his palette knives, rags below him, solvent to his right, the press behind him, and printing paper to his far left. He didn’t move more than three feet all day.
Old Uline catalog used as scrap paper.
I, on the other hand, walked miles, as I found a spot across from him to watch as he mixed colors and then moved to the other side of the room to watch the print being rolled with ink.
Tim Inking Plate
Tim and I worked through all the color permutations. There were several points where we would have loved to have stopped, because the results were so beautiful. It was time to add the black that depicts the branches. This was the final step, the last layer of color. He pulled the first print and THUD! Disaster! Worst print of the day.
Tom looked worried and disappointed. I think he was afraid that I’d be devastated. Instead, I felt that the print confirmed what I had felt ever since seeing the first tentative proofs weeks earlier — the black just didn’t work. In paint and even in the computer generated image, the black acted like a gestalt – stunning and integrated into the overall image. In the print, the black sat on top of the page both dwarfing and destroying the colors beneath. It might as well have been a black and white print. Tim and I both thought that switching to a middle gray would accomplish what I was after. Even within the gray you can have a range of color, and I wanted the gray skewed toward lavender.
Pantone book, oil paint sample and computer generated image.
This is when Tim finally pulled out the Pantone book. This is the printer’s Bible. It contains every color he can mix with his inks, and gives him the formula to do so. I flipped through the color samples and pointed to the color I wanted. The improvement was immediate and dramatic. It quickly became apparent that the other color versions of the print could also use gray, but the value of the gray would have to be adjusted to work with the other color versions.
Getting exactly the right shade of gray (don’t even go there) was as much work as determining the other color combinations.
As we printed each layer we were both delighting in the detail. But here is the truly confounding result: it seemed that the print would have to be viewed from about 18 inches for them to be appreciated. That is exactly the opposite effect of my paintings, which look best when viewed from across the room. The paintings look painterly close up (down right messy, in fact), but at a certain distance they snap into focus and look almost photo realistic.
When we added the gray to the print Tim and I found ourselves backing up across the studio. The prints were still reading well from twenty five feet away. We managed to produce the same effect in the print as in my paintings.
Once we saw these qualities in one print, it was a matter of bringing that effect to all the prints. Sometimes remarkably small adjustments made the difference between reading the print as color and reading it as light. This is where the skill and integrity of a Master Printer makes all the difference. The work is demanding and exhausting. At the eleventh hour, Tim was still willing to mix one more color and make one more adjustment so that I could see if we could perfect the print.
A great Master Printer hangs in there with you to the end. When your energy flags, he shores you up, so that you can produce the best work possible. Tim told me over and over that it was about my vision, and he did everything in his power to make that happen.
In early December I spent two days at Corridor Press in Otego, New York, working with Master Printer, Tim Sheesley. In two twelve hour sessions we were able to put together proofs for a suite of four prints that were inspired by my painting “Almond Tree – Biot”.
I was blessed with beginner’s hubris. Creating a print with just the right color, using four plates would have been project enough for one day. To get four of them completed in two days was an insane proposition. This is where the experience of a Master Printer made all the difference.
I had worked out all of my color combinations ahead of time. With the help of graphic designer Chelsea Nye, I made a virtual print in Photoshop. We generated computer swatches of color for each plate, which I then converted into color samples made in oil paint. I sent my color swatches, along with the names of the oil colors I used, to Tim and he made a sample print from these instructions.
What I did not know was that a printmaker’s palette of litho-inks is not the same as a painter’s palette of oil colors. Lithography inks must be transparent. Some of my oil color pigments are opaque and cannot be used in lithography ink. For example, none of his blues approximate ultramarine blue, a color I use extensively. He was able to mix a blue that looked very much like ultramarine blue, but it didn’t have the purity or brightness of my blue. The mixture of colors had dulled the effect.
Tim is not only a print master, he is a color master. He mixed any color I gave him perfectly. However, as with the blue, occasionally there was a limitation inherent in the pigments available.
Palette of Lithographic Inks
Tim is used to working with artists who have a concept in mind and the expectation that they will be able to produce that concept exactly. In Tim’s experience, watercolor artists are the most insistent in this regard. Tim was very concerned I would blow a gasket when I came up against the limitations of his palette. What he didn’t know, was that secretly I was hoping to use this project to expand my experience — to find new and unexpected ways to interpret my work. This road block was just the sign I was looking for to head off-road and see what adventures awaited me in the woods.
The first step was a tiny one — abandoning my concept of ultramarine blue for one in his palette that could give me the quality of light I was after. But changing one color has a domino effect — all the other colors had to be changed to work with that color. If it is the 3rd color you have added to the print, it can cause mayhem.
Tim Mixing Ink
In this process you start with one color, then try to make the next one work with it. The third color has to work with the first two and so forth. This is a tightrope walk, especially when everything about your print is an expression of color.
Tim folds the mixed wet ink into aluminum foil with my name, print version name, plates number, and color mixture listed on the outside. At the same time he makes a running list with the same information on a pad. This way, when he remixes the color he can compare wet color to wet color and not wet to dry, which would be different.
As a painter I noodle and adjust colors all the time, sometimes scraping up a color from a palette of a previous painting and using it in a new one. That can’t happen in print making, because you have to be able to replicate the color perfectly for each print. Each color you use must be recorded with a formula and connected with that specific print, as well as with a certain plate from that print. You have to record all of this information for each mixed color, whether or not that color is ultimately used. This is because you may make several versions and compare them before you settle on the perfect color combination.
We were not doing this for one print, we were doing this for four! But we did not do one print at a time. Since the prints shared colors on certain plates, we were doing all four versions at once. That we both didn’t get a migraine is a small miracle, although I noticed that at the end of the day, we were both unable to put a sentence together, as simple words escaped our memory.
I talked to some friends who have been following The Print Project, and I seem to have managed to completely confuse them.
I brought one friend to the studio and walked her through my process and that seemed to help. I am hoping that this little video will do the same for you. In it I show how I am preparing four “films”, or plastic layers, that will later be converted into metal plates. These plastic layers are used very much like a film negative. Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press will use them to burn the image to a metal plate.
For now, all I need to do is put the image of a single color on a single plastic “film”: red, yellow, blue and black.
Its decided, my first lithograph is going to be of “Almond Tree – Biot”. There is some method to this madness. Since this is my first attempt at lithography, I want to learn as much as I can from the process.
If I could do anything in lithography, I would like to do a print of the Almond Tree close to the size of the original painting. The painting is 60 inches by 70 inches. It seems to me that I could do this by putting together nine sheets of paper 22 inches by 30 inches, which is a standard size. It could be printed with the image running off the edge of the paper and then either hung together or in nine separate frames. But it might be a tad ambitious to start with that.
So, how do I get there from here. There are several questions I need to answer to go forward. One of the main ones has to do with the method I would use to create the colors. Should I use what printers call “process color”: cyan, magenta, yellow and black; or should I use “index colors” — colors selected from the painting itself, such as beige, pink, yellow, and black. The only way I can know for sure would be to do a print of the same image using these two approaches and see which one I prefer. Once I know that, I would know which version to use on the 9-part print.
Since this image is so complex I couldn’t draw out the different color layers just by looking at it. So I asked artist Chelsea Nye, who has lots of experience with photoshop to work with me to separate out the different layers for both color versions. Here is a sample of one of those layers:
In order to make the two versions of this print, I will be creating ten different plates that look something like the above. Each of these plates will be about 22 inches by 24 inches. I bought a magnifying glass with a light and look forward to drawing these plates. Could I have made this any more difficult? I hope that I will be able to show you the proofs sometime before the next millennium. I will be interested to find out which version you prefer. This piece is so complex I feel as though I am heading full speed toward black ice. I think that this project will either be great or it won’t work at all. Fingers crossed.