Dazed and confused: Lithographs vs. digital prints – II

Peter Webb, my lithographer in Austin, pulling Roadrunner.

Peter Webb, my lithographer in Austin, pulling Roadrunner.

In traditional lithography there is a kind of magic when all the elements come together. There is no original image (as many people think or assume there to be) that is reproduced. The image is achieved when all the plates are printed – one on top of the other – and all the colors come together.

And this IS the big difference between a digital print and a traditional lithograph – as well as the primary difference from an off-set lithograph – the standard, for years, for posters and other reproductions – a lithograph is not a reproduction; it is the result of a series of hand-made drawings transferred onto light sensitive aluminum plates that are hand-printedone at a time. Lithographs are printed in editions so they are multiples but due to the hand inking and hand-printing; each print is, in a very real way, a one-of-a-kind – no two are exactly alike.

My color lithographs are produced in collaboration with a master printmaker, Peter Webb, whose shop is in Austin, Texas. I plan to write a blog soon for my website that will go into more detail about our process of working together but essentially what I do is – I make a separate drawing on mylar for almost every color that I intend to use in the final print (the one exception being drawing for plates with large areas of flat, solid color intended for blended color rolls). These are the color separations – figured out in my head and drawn manually.

Inking the blue plate of Pelican.

Inking the blue plate of Brown Pelican, Turbulent Sea (Blue).

Then, each mylar (which is essentially a black drawing made with black Stabilo brand pencils… the kind intended for drawing on glass or plastic … you may be familiar with them, they are very black and a little greasy – like traditional litho crayons – but hard enough to sharpen in a standard pencil sharpener so I can get relatively detailed with my drawing) is exposed or “burned” onto a light sensitive aluminum plate (a plate treated with a photographic emulsion). For large flat areas I use black gesso – which sticks very well to the smooth mylar – applied with a soft bristle brush; for more subtle gradations I use a more textured mylar.

I use two kinds of mylars for the drawings – one kind that is smooth and almost completely transparent (for the “flats”) and one kind that has a slightly “pebbly” texture that is very similar to a traditional litho stone and is more translucent than transparent. The drawings on the mylars are all black even though they will eventually be printed in a color (or in a blend of colors) so that they can be used like photographic negatives (except in this case they are photographic  positives) so that they can be transferred onto a light sensitive aluminum plate.

Both types of mylar are transparent enough to “burn” onto a light sensitive plate either upside-down or right-side-up so they can be placed on the plate burner so the printed image is not reversed as it is in traditional stone lithography; the printed image can be – and IS for me – in the same orientation as my drawing instead of a mirror image (only another printmaker would appreciate this).

Pulling a proof of Roadrunner.

Pulling a proof of Brown Pelican, Turbulent Sea (Blue).

The burning of the plates is the only photographic element of the entire process; everything else is hand-made, hand-drawn and hand-printed … like traditional stone lithography. The big advantage of this, besides saving time and reducing the labor-intensive chemistry involved in etching the stone, is a reduction in health hazardous chemicals.

Once I have all the mylars drawn out I number them according the order I think they should be printed in and assign them a color or a blend of colors and I give my printer (my collaborator), a numbered, color chart to work from as a guide. This process involves the same kind of intuition the color separating requires and usually I am pretty close in terms of the sequence but frequently my printer will switch the order of one color or another for a sometimes subtle, sometimes fairly dramatic shift in color. The litho inks, unless intentionally made opaque in order to cover up or tone down another color, are transparent but it still makes a big difference which one is printed first and on top of what.

The mylars are all punched with registration holes that fit into a registration bar with pins that line up with the holes and that match holes punched into the paper the image will be printed on so everything, at least theoretically, stays in registration.

Peter Webb in his shop in Austin.

Peter Webb, master print maker, in his shop in Austin.

All kinds of factors can interfere, air temperature and humidity, for example, on the days the editions are printed – which usually takes between 3 or 4 days and up to a week depending upon the number of plates involved. Only about two colors, maybe three, can be printed in one day because of the drying time involved after each color is printed. Most of my color lithographs involve at least 9 plates and sometimes as many as 12.

Most good printmaking papers expand and contract according to the relative climate conditions thwarting even the best efforts to maintain precise registration. Experience helps to anticipate and avoid some of these occurrences and I make every effort in my drawings to maintain enough “overlap” of edges to account and compensate for such shifts but some “out-of-registration” is unavoidable but I consider this part of the process – part of the “hand-made” look. You know it’s not a digital print.

Ink is rolled onto the dampened surface of an etched aluminum plate with an18″ wide to 30″ wide roller and printed on a large 42″ x 70″ Takach litho press. Most of my editions are between 15 or 30, sometimes 20, but typically they are 30. I consider 30 to be a good, modest number for an edition… big enough to be a multiple run but small enough to truly be called “limited” … to call an edition of 10,000 (or even 1,000) limited is ludicrous.

In the end, there really is a kind of magic when it all comes together. There is no original image – just an image in my head and the faith of my printer. The image is achieved when all the colors come together.

— Billy Hassell