Many people are mystified by printmaking. What’s the process? How many processes are there? How do I label this process? Is it a drawing? Is it a painting? Are these copies? How? How? How? What? What? What? How the artwork is created can be by using a number or just one of these methods that are considered different types of printmaking: collograph, monoprint, monotype, etching (mezzotint, aquatint, and/or drypoint), lithography, silk-screen, relief (multi-block, linocut, woodcut, and/or reduction), papermaking, and bookmaking/bookbinding. In my work, I typically use three methods of printmaking: color-reduction relief, lithography and monotype. When I use lithography or color-reduction relief, I will edition my work. People often confuse the word “edition” with the word “copy”. When I make an addition of 5 for instance, I’m not making five copies of a piece of work. A “copy” is always generated from an “original.” To look at it another way, when a photographer prints 5 of a photo taken, she didn’t make “5 copies” of that photo. She printed 5 photos, making it so that there is an edition of 5. When I etch a litho stone, and ink that stone, and pull a print from that stone, every print is an original. I pull 10 originals, so I now have an edition of 10. No addition number more important than the other, and every edition identical to the one printed before it. Art buyers, galleries, and collectors put an arbitrary level of importance on the edition number. There is no significance. How I differ from a photographer or even an artist who prints relief using the multi-block method, is that they can “re-edition” their work. If a photographer for instance (I’m not picking on photographers, I promise! They’re just the most easily related artists to use for this purpose), creates an edition of 100 photographs for sale (so an edition of 100), as long as they still have the film/file the photo was created from (think of the film/file as the same as a block of wood that is inked and used to pull a print), they can, down the road or whenever, decide to re-edition that photograph for sale. It would be typically labeled so that the buyer knows it’s a re-edition, and what re-edition number as well as the edition number it is.
In my practice, I can’t re-edition my work. When I carve an image into a block of birch-ply, I only use one block of wood to create the image. I don’t use several blocks of wood, like a multi-block woodcut, to create an image. When I start out, I sketch onto the wood my composition with sumi ink. I then shellac the wood and use a sharp razor to take away the grain that is lifted once I shellac the wood. I do that several times. I then register all my paper/canvas to the woodblock for that edition (say 5 sheets of paper). After that, I carve away everything that I want to be white (or the color of the paper), and I print my first color. Let’s say, orange. I then carve away everything I want to stay orange, and print my second color…let’s say, blue. I do this with every color until I’m done. If I use black to add definition to the image, then my woodblock will only have the key-line, which is the last color printed. Every other color that I’ve printed, I would have carved away as I continued to print the image. Therefore, since I carve as I go, I can never re-edition the image. This method is also called, “killing the block”, or a “suicide print”. I essentially render the block useless when I’m done. If I had chosen to create an image using the multi-block method, I would’ve for instance had 4 blocks in front of me that are the same size. I would’ve sketched my final color (typically the black outline) onto one of the blocks, and carved that block only. I would’ve printed that block, using black ink, onto a piece of paper (likely craft paper of some sort), and then I would’ve laid that piece of paper face down onto one of the 4 blocks and ran it through the etching/monotype press to transfer the image onto that block as a reference. I would’ve done that to all 4 blocks so that the key-line is on every one as a reference. I then would’ve chosen which color each block will be printed. Let’s say I chose cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. I take the block that will be printed yellow, and I carve away everything except for what needs to be yellow OR also except for what I need to stay in order to create another color such as green when the blue block is printed on top of it in the process. I do this to every block, always considering how another color will look printed over it or under it as part of the design. I can proof the blocks, change the colors, carve away as I proof, scrap a block and start over if I made a mistake, etc. Once I’ve used all 4 blocks to print onto one piece of paper to create the image I’m looking for, I would edition that image. But since I used multiple blocks to create one image, I didn’t carve away colors as I printed, so I can re-edition the image down the road if I chose to do so.
I hope this post has helped to demystify how I create my work, and at least two different printmaking processes and the difference between them. I also hope that this helps to explain why printmaking is printmaking and not painting or drawing, or anything else but printmaking. And most of all, I hope this puts to rest this misconception that prints are “copies”. The lie that a print is a copy devalues the work of printmakers. There’s a lot of technical skill, alchemy, and patience that goes into all forms of printmaking. Printmakers can paint. Printmakers can draw. But we chose to print.