Old-fashioned printing technology brought to life on the Web

Even as digital cameras are replacing film and CDs have replaced vinyl (vinyl?... what's vinyl?), digital alternatives are taking over in the fields of the printed word and the printed work(DRAWING?). Books and newspapers (once produced exclusively with hand-set type) are increasingly going straight from the computer to presses - or even directly from computer to paper. Meanwhile, artistic reproductions (the traditional territory of lithographs and silk screens) are shifting toward Iris prints and other forms of digital output. And yet, while the computer is pushing these well established methods to the fringe, it's also helping to preserve their story via the Web - and sites like What is a Print? and the Briar Press remind visitors that there were print media before desktop publishing.

The legacy of a 2001 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, What is a Print takes a Flash-based tour of the four most common methods of manually creating artistic prints - woodcut, etching, lithography, and screen print. While the opening line of the exhibition, "A print is a work of art made up of ink on paper and existing in multiple examples," could easily apply to output from the trusty inkjet sitting beside your computer, the methods covered here have a somewhat longer history.

Using Flash to do more than simply add a bit of glitter to the site, What is a Print draws on the application's interactive capabilities to pull viewers' attention to what they might otherwise consider a dry subject, and to help make sense of unfamiliar processes. (Woodcuts - or 'potato-cuts' as we knew them in elementary school - are fairly straightforward, but an understanding of lithography is made much clearer with a step-by-step explanation.)

After a brief introduction to the subject, visitors can choose any of the four printing methods and begin the tour - and at this point, interactivity takes center stage as visitors are invited to personally complete each stage of the printing process. Using woodcuts as an example, viewers are presented with a block of wood and text summary of each step of the procedure. First instructed to click and drag a chisel across the surface of the block in order to reveal the carved image, the virtual artist then uses a roller to place ink on the raised surface of the block, and applies a sheet of paper to create the finished print. Similar 'virtual hands-on' presentations are offered for the other three methods as well, and if you'd rather watch the site do all the dirty work, each step can be run automatically.

Having learned the techniques, visitors are also able to place each kind of printmaking into its artistic context, as each style's lessons are accompanied by a Gallery of famous prints. Examples range from the works of Gauguin and Munch for woodcuts, to Matisse's etchings and Picasso's lithographs, to Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Robert Indiana for screenprints. (You may not recognize Indiana's name, but you will remember his "Love" design if you lived during the late 60s.)

Of course, as Gutenburg would tell you (if he were alive ... and spoke English), manual mechanical reproduction has also had a rather profound impact on the dissemination of text, and the Briar Press hosts an online collection of just over 200 hand-operated printing presses - ranging from a reproduction of Gutenberg's own creation, circa 1400, to the 1972 "Heidelberg Windmill." (A machine that wouldn't look out of place in the underground laboratory of a B-movie mad scientist.)

This virtual shrine to hot type spans not only time, but size - as examples run the gamut from tabletop, and even 'palm-sized' models, to free-standing assemblies weighing in at over 1,000 pounds. Dedicated fans looking for specific artifacts can use a keyword search or browse through such classifications as product name, year of manufacture, and type of mechanism (lever, rail, platen, etc.). Each press is given its own page, a full-screen portrait, and whatever history is available on the model. Potentially unfamiliar terms are linked to a pop-up glossary.

Though for the most part, this site is more likely to hold the long-term attention of the letterpress enthusiast (an admittedly select group), even the mildly curious can find a shorter visit worthwhile. Some of the machines catalogued in the Museum section are works of art in their own right, and the Museum's collection of Eleven presses that made history demonstrates both how much and how little the practice has evolved over 500 or so years. If your visit leaves you feeling drawn to the world of manual typesetting, a Classifieds section might have just the starter unit you need to launch that traditional home-printing operation. And for those content to remain in the digital realm, Cuts and Caps offers more than 450 free downloadable printer's ornaments, borders, bookplates and decorative capital letters - just in case you might want to add a bit of class to that next interoffice memo.

While the convenience and efficiency of digital alternatives can't be denied (I know I've given up my darkroom for Photoshop), there's still an attraction to the traditional methods - a tactile component, and the feeling of a human rather than a machine producing the art. Regardless of the speed of progress, all the methods described in these sites are still widely used, and it seems likely that someone somewhere will always choose them over more modern alternatives. For the rest of us, the Web has preserved another morsel of history for the greater good.

What is a Print can be found at http://www.moma.org/whatisaprint, with the Briar Press at http://www.briarpress.org/briarpress/.

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