Monday, September 13, 2010

Adventures in letterpress printing

I was commissioned back in early summer to created 8 limited edition broadsides (posters, 11x14 in) using 8 poems from various religious traditions for an event in October hosted by the Religious Studies department at Claremont Graduate University. I would design the layout and create simple imagery, typeset the text, pick ink and paper, and print 100 copies each of the eight poems, which would be sold at the event as a fund-raiser. The eight religions are Islam, Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Coptic. I’ve printed 6 (except now only 5…more on that later) of the 8 poems so far, and it has been incredibly fun, not to mention a rich learning experience. I have run into numerous design and technical problems along the way, so much so that I feel the need to share them. Maybe someone out there will be able learn from my mistakes. :) I’ll organize the lessons around the specific poem I was working on when I learned them, in chronological order.
So, #1: “Birdsong from Inside the Egg”, Rumi (the Islamic poem)

This poem, being my first to design and print, was sort of the guinea pig. Here’s a bit of my decision making process: 1) I wanted to do one print run because it’s much faster that way (more on print runs later). 2) I wanted to use blue because of the egg (robin’s egg. I don’t know why. Artistic license, ok?) and river imagery. 3) There is also a lot of imagery with wind, spirit, river, song, breath, and dancing. I thought the best way to unite these themes would be with a spiral/wavy shape that flows upward, and mirrors the right edge of the text, which is itself very wavy.

The challenge: during printing, I had a hard time getting the image to print solid black. Often, linoleum blocks (which I use and love very much) are not “type-high”, meaning they sit lower (shorter) on the bed of the press than the metal type. If the image is lower, the paper won’t be pressed down hard enough on it and you’ll either get no image to print at all, or else it will be sort of faint, splotchy and yucky. You will have to add “packing” under the block- usually sheets of paper cut to the size of the block- to raise it to the height of the type. You have to experiment a bit (with scrap paper) to see how much paper you need- too little and you still have registration problems. Too much and you run the risk of damaging the block and the image will look like it’s been smashed into the paper. Not good. It’s all about finding the right amount of pressure. You can also increase pressure by lowering the rollers on the press, but since there was a good amount of impression on the text, it made more sense to raise the linoleum block. Here’s an example of too little pressure:
And of increased pressure: (you can also see that increasing the pressure may cause some of the linoleum block to appear- this, obviously, needs to be carved away)
Overall, I don’t think I got the pressure quite right on this one, but it still came out well (the image at top is an example of how they turned out).

I have a pretty good example of this process of building up enough sheets of paper with #3, the Catholic poem (stay tuned!!!).

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