Contemporary Prints from the Collection
This lesson plan will review the four primary techniques of printmaking with a particular focus on the linocut, a relief process. This lesson plan also concerns the relationship between printmaking and subject matter to think about the various reasons that artists turn to the medium of printmaking to convey a message.
First, students are introduced to the various printmaking processes and asked to consider the unique visual vocabulary of each method.
Then, students will take a close look at the relief printmaking process through Bill Fick’s Hypnotic Skull 2, part of Graphic Pull: Contemporary Prints from the Collection October 29, 2020 – June 05, 2021)..
The Technology & Social Functions of Printmaking
Overview of Printmaking
Printmaking, a centuries-old method of artmaking used by cultures around the globe, has evolved alongside technological advances. The surviving handprints of Paleolithic Era peoples found painted on cave walls can be thought of as printmaking’s earliest incarnation. Today, we are surrounded by examples of the printed image ranging from billboards and newspapers to the common dollar bill.
At its most basic level, a print is produced by transferring an image from an inked surface (called the matrix) to a piece of paper or other material. The transference of ink from a prepared surface to a piece of paper can occur either above the surface, below the surface, or on the surface.
Let’s look at Graphic Pull for examples of the four main printmaking techniques. Then, we’ll consider the possible social functions of printmaking that results from the relationship between process and subject matter.
The act of printmaking consists of four primary techniques: relief, intaglio, planographic and stencil.
1. Relief processes typically refer to woodcut or linoleum cut (also referred to as linocut) and involve the printed image being pulled from the woodblock or linoleum block’s surface onto the paper. An example of a woodcut is the print series from the three-part project The New World Climax by Barthélémy Toguo, a Cameroonian artist based in Paris and Bandjoun. Begun in 2000, The New World Climax combines sculpture, performance, printmaking, and installation. See these three prints in this series in the gallery above.
2. Intaglio processes, such as engraving, etching, drypoint and mezzotint, result from the carved lines inscribed beneath the plate’s surface filling with ink and then marking the paper upon contact. Intaglio is the opposite of the relief method. An example of an etching in Graphic Pull is U.S. artist Julie Mehretu’s (born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) Haka from the portfolio Artists for Obama 2012 (above).
3. Planographic processes include lithography and offset lithography in which the image is drawn on the surface. An example of a lithographic print in Graphic Pull is KKK Boutique by US artist Camille Billops (born in Los Angeles) as seen above.
4. Stencil processes include screenprinting in which the image is drawn on the surface, as is the case with planographic printmaking. One example of a screenprint is Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s The Wings Will Grow from their series American Dreams. Find out more about the work, produced in collaboration between the artists under the moniker Komar & Melamid (above).
Printmaking as a Democratic Mode of Art Production
A print is a singular work of art created through a transfer process, while a set of identical impressions (prints) made from an individual matrix is called an edition. The multiple nature of prints allows for wide dissemination, in contrast to a unique drawing or painting. As a result, printmaking is seen as the logical choice for the fast production and high distribution of images. Throughout modern history, then, many artists involved in social movements and political activism have turned to printmaking as a vehicle for communicating their message to a broader audience.
Amongst the various techniques, relief processes offer the simplest method of production, because a machine is not needed to produce the finished print. During the 20th century, artists turned to cheaper materials such as linoleum or rubber to create matrices, being drawn to the democratic possibilities of the relief print for conveying social and political messages.
However, as demonstrated in the included works in Graphic Pull, contemporary artists are not limited to any one printmaking process. Furthermore, the range of materials used, and unconventional approaches explored in printmaking have only led to more innovation.
Exercise & Questions
- Which prints would you categorize as having a social or political message?
- How is that message conveyed?
- Take note of the different printmaking techniques. Does the method used have any effect on your understanding of the work and its intended audience?
Relief Printing: Past and Present
For centuries, wood was the most popular medium for relief matrices, making the woodcut one of the oldest printmaking techniques. The woodcut dates back to 9th-century Asia, where it was used primarily for religious purposes. Scholars believe that the woodcut illustrations of the Diamond Sutra produced in 868 AD (currently in the collection of the British Library in London) are the earliest known examples of the woodcut technique).
In the Nasher’s collection, the oldest example of a woodcut is German artist Albert Dürer’s Ex-Libris of Wilibald Pirckheimer dated 1503. According to Western Art History developed primarily by Anglo-European scholars, Dürer is credited with the woodcut being recognized as a legitimate artistic medium in its own right. The distinction between artistic and non-artistic forms of expression concerns itself with the object’s purpose or why it was made in the first place. Whereas before the 16th century the worth of printed imagery depended upon its usage serving the devotional needs of the religious, starting in the 16th century it became valued for its intrinsic value as a collectible form of art. With the elevation of the print medium, its most skilled practitioners gained esteem and notoriety, as well as becoming known for their originality and innovation. This gives rise to the mythos of the artist as genius, a concept prized in the West. Over time, art historians have erected and maintained this artificial divide separating works created by inferior anonymous craftsman from those by celebrated printmaker-artist, implicitly creating hierarchies in value.
Now, let’s consider how an artist’s decision to use the relief technique of linocut affects the appearance of the produced work. Before closely examining Bill Fick’s Hypnotic Skull 2, let’s delve into the relief processes of woodcut and linocut. The linocut is a type of relief process that emerged in the 20th century due to linoleum’s affordability and usability as a material. By way of contrast, wood blocks, although the traditional material of relief printing, are expensive to maintain and difficult to source.
Woodcut & Linocut Activity
Search in the Nasher’s permanent collection to find other examples of artwork produced through relief. In the search field, type in the terms “woodcut” or “linocut.” Although woodcut and linocut are categorized separately, both processes are part of the same technical family called relief. As you look at the various images, consider the following:
- What kinds of images are produced using woodcut and linocut? Read any labels: date, artist, medium, label text, provenance (the history of the sale of the artwork over time), credit line (how the piece entered the museum’s collection. Was it a donation or a purchase?) Think about time period (is the work from the 16th century, 19th century, 21st century?) as well as culture and region.
- What is the content of the images? What meaning is being conveyed?
- Are some images easier to understand? Why do you think that is?
- To your 21st-century eyes, which images are most legible? Why?
- Which images are most relevant to today’s society and culture in your opinion? Why or why not?
Now, let’s examine the work Hypnotic Skull 2 by Bill Fick, assistant director for visual and studio arts at the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke and lecturing fellow of Art, Art History & Visual Studies. Born in Indonesia, Fick is an artist and educator based in Durham.
Hypnotic Skull 2 was installed as 63 mixed-media prints in Graphic Pull, taking up an entire wall of the exhibition’s pavilion. The image of the skull often appears in Fick’s printmaking, a theme the artist has returned to repeatedly since the 1990s. In addition to the skulls on display, screenprints of the skull are available to exhibition visitors as a take-away. Hypnotic Skull 2 is thus dispersed, depleted and replenished over time. This multi-component installation is simultaneously permanent and ephemeral. The presence of the replenished takeaways alludes to screenprinting’s ease of distribution, a key characteristic of the technical process that makes it appealing to artists.
Watch the video (below) of Fick in conversation with exhibition curator Molly Boarati about his artistic practice and the significance of the skull imagery in Hypnotic Skull 2, among other topics.
At 1 minute and 48 seconds, the video captures the installation of the monumental artwork within the show’s pavilion at the Nasher. In the opening minutes of the interview, Fick explains why he is drawn to printmaking as an artform, specifically the medium’s reproducibility. Listen to the artist’s own words and then answer the following questions.
THINK & ANSWER (~ 5 mins)
- What are some reasons for making this print available to visitors to take?
- How has the COVID-19 global pandemic affected the dispersal of the print? Although the printed image of the skull can still be endlessly reproduced and distributed digitally in the virtual space of the internet, the physical interaction of the viewer removing a takeaway from the gallery space was severely limited to who currently has access to the museum.
WATCH & THINK (~ 5 mins) Now, let’s consider the process of creating a linocut and a screenprint. Hypnotic Skull 2 is part of an ongoing series that primarily features linocuts. In the past, Fick turned to screenprinting to add color to his linocuts. For the 63 mixed-media prints, Fick first created the black lines of the skull through linocut and then added color to the final image through screenprint. For the printed take-away, Fick screenprinted a photographic image of the skull. We’ll first consider the relief process of the linocut and then walk through the steps for screenprinting.
Watch this 7-minute video (below), Anatomy of a Linocut, to see the labor-intensive process of creating a linocut. Although the image (that of a devil) of the linocut produced in Anatomy of a Linocut is different than Hypnotic Skull 2, the process of production is the same.
Watch during the opening seconds, as Fick prepares a matrix (i.e., linoleum) by covering the surface of the linoleum with gesso, a paint mixture that provides a base for the application of paint, inks and other material. After cutting down to the desired size of his matrix, Fick then proceeds to draw the image onto the gessoed linoleum, applying three different substances with three different implements: graphite from a No. 2 pencil; black, permanent ink from a Sharpie pen; and India ink applied with a slender paint brush.
- How are the different implements used?
- What effect does each drawing implement have on the final image?
Starting at 1 minute and 54 seconds, Fick begins to carve the image with linocut carving gauges, tools specific to printmaking. The image of the devil emerges from carving around the drawn lines and brushing away the carved chips. As a result, a raised surface is created by excising the untouched linoleum surrounding the drawn lines. At times, Fick extemporaneously carves details to add a level of randomness and spontaneity to the work. For the print in the video, carving took four days. For Hypnotic Skull 2, carving took two days with an additional three days for printing.
- Why do you think there is a difference in carving times between the two prints?
Fick prepares the machine by setting the height and pressure of the roller and then applies an oil-based printing ink to the matrix. The ink on the loaded rollers only adhere to the raised carving. At 4 minutes and 33 seconds, watch and listen as the roller is loaded by Fick, who goes by feel and experience to know when the roller is adequately inked. The printing ink used here is dense with pigment and tackier than oil paint. As a result, it has a unique look and sound as noted in the video.
Before putting the carved image through the press, a piece of paper is laid on top of the inked linocut followed by a stiff board, which provides rigidity, and a blanket, which provides a cushion. Once passed through the press, the paper’s surface reveals the finished print. The matrix can then be re-inked and printed again as many times as the artist desires.
- After watching the video Anatomy of a Linocut, does anything surprise you about the final print?
- What are possible connections between the process of the linocut and the imagery of the skull?
- If you wanted to find out more about the significance of the imagery, what steps would you take?
- In your opinion, what relevance, if any, does Hypnotic Skull 2 have in relation to our current moment?
To create the screenprint takeaways of Hypnotic Skull 2, Fick photographed the original linocut of the skull and then transferred the image to a photographic film. The transferred image of the black lines of the skull was thus transformed into an indirect stencil, one of the key materials of the screenprinting process. A stencil is a thin piece of material with a pattern or letters cut out of it, used to produce the cut design on the surface below by the application of ink.
Stencils can either be direct in which the image is made directly on the screen, or, indirect in which the image is created separately from the screen. Indirect stencils include both hand-cut paper and photo emulsion. Along with stencil material, common materials for the screenprinting process include a screen, squeegee used to push ink through the screenprint frame, printing table with hinges, and water-based screenprinting inks and paper.
Watch the video, below, created by Speedball, an arts material company that demonstrates photo emulsion screenprinting, the same technique used by Fick to create the skull take-aways.
- What are the differences between the linocut and screenprint processes?
What effect does the photographic representations of the linocut process have on the screenprinted image?
- Could the same effects appear without the additional first step of the relief printing process?
- What, if anything, is gained by using both linocut and screenprinting to create the work?