Three printmaking techniques
Printmaking in various forms has been popular in western art since the late 15th century. By making various impressions, artists were able to produce multiple versions of one work.
From the 1960s onwards, printmaking transformed the American art scene. Artists from Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg to Jim Dine, Kara Walker and Ed Ruscha embraced techniques and experimented with different materials to create extraordinary works of art.
Printmaking brought their work to a much wider and more diverse audience. Their sheer inventiveness and technical ingenuity reflects America’s power and influence during this period. Until 18 June 2017, you can see a selection on display in the exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present.
But how do artists actually create these astonishing pieces? Below you can watch three key printing processes, demonstrated by students from University of the Arts (UAL), London.
Screenprint (also called silkscreen)
In screenprinting, a mesh is attached to a frame to form a screen, and a stencil, made of cut paper or film, or a photographically developed film of gelatine, is fixed to the mesh, masking it in some places and leaving it open elsewhere for the passage of ink. To make a print, a sheet of paper is placed underneath the frame, and ink is forced through the screen with a rubber blade known as a squeegee. Most screenprints use multiple screens to build up colour.
Screenprinting is one of the most popular forms of printmaking techniques. Andy Warhol (1928–1987) famously used the process. He said: ‘I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do.’
To create an etching a needle is used to draw freely through a hard, waxy acid-resistant ground covering the metal plate. The exposed metal is then ‘bitten’ by acid, creating the lines. This is done by immersing the plate in an acid bath. The longer the acid bites, the deeper the lines become. The paper is then pressed onto the plate and absorbs the image in reverse.
When Jim Dine began to explore etching in 1964, the subject he chose was the bathrobe, a motif which served as a surrogate of the artist’s persona. This representation of the self through various motifs – bathrobes, hearts, brushes – is echoed in his feelings on the practice: ‘I have a real romance with printing. The passion I feel for the way printers can wipe a plate and use ink in the sensitive way to illuminate what I’ve drawn is really a privilege.’
An image is drawn on the printing surface, usually stone or zinc plates, with a greasy medium (‘lithography’ literally means ‘stone writing’). The printing surface is then dampened so that when greasy ink is applied it will stick only to the drawn image and will be repelled by water covering the rest of the stone or plate. The ink is transferred to a sheet of paper by passing paper and printing surface together through a flat-bed scraper press.
Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), initially sceptical about printmaking, produced some of the most important lithographs ever made, including the remarkable Stoned Moon series (1969–1970), on display in the exhibition.
Today, artists continue to experiment with the expressive potential of printmaking to respond to the world around them. Whether it’s the physical process, the feeling of being part of a long tradition, or the aesthetic end result that attracts artists, printmaking continues to flourish in its many forms.
The exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present runs at the Museum until 18 June 2017.
Sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Buy the book to explore the unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition of American printmaking since the 1960s.
You can also browse a range of products inspired by the works in the exhibition, including a range of prints.
UAL, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is a global top 6 university for Art and Design made up of six world-renowned colleges: Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Arts, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon College of Arts.