Printmaking: traditions and new trends
A dialogue between Professors John Antoine Labadie and Ralph Lee Steeds
of the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke
as recorded and edited by Professor Labadie
BackgroundThis piece is based on an extended “interview” of graphic artist and painter Ralph Lee Steeds (RLS) on June 21, 2001 and John Antoine Labadie (JAL). Both are faculty members in the Art Department studios at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. This conversation took place in a context where Professor Steeds initially responded to questions about specific aspects of traditional printmaking and also shared his views regarding digital printmaking. Over time the dialogue began to flow back and forth, with questions being asked of and answered by both parties. What follows is a record of some of that dialogue.
Professor Steeds coordinates the traditional printmaking studio program at UNCP while Dr. Labadie coordinates the traditional digital art studio program and is the Director of the Media Integration Project at the same institution.
A conversation about printmaking traditions and new trends in printmaking:JAL: Many aspects of digital printmaking are, for many persons, relatively non-standardized at this time. This includes the numbering of prints – the so-called print record. How do you, as a practitioner of printmaking in the traditional, look at the numbering of prints?
Talking with Ralph Lee Steeds
by John Antoine Labadie
RS: Numbering prints is a fairly recent phenomenon. This has been brought about primarily by print publishers and has many variations. For example, the written form of “1/10" meaning number 1 of 10 might also be written as “10" on all the prints in an edition of 10 images. For the most part, the practice of numbering relates to printing processes that use a matrix (plate) that degrades during the process of making the prints. Consequently the lower numbers are more highly valued for the reason that they have been produced on a plate that has the capacity to allow for a more detailed and vibrant image.
JAL: It would seem that the numbering allows for the potential consumer, the collector, to be more aware of the process of making the print then?
RS: Well, both numbering specifically and the print record as a whole are almost entirely about the integrity of the printmaker and the print publisher. Moreover, this trail of information about the creative process of making prints is also a vehicle for establishing authenticity and, later, about assessing value of a work under consideration. I would also caution anyone looking into the processes of making the print record to be careful about keeping their definitions of how such things are done as open as possible in that there are many variations to every “rule” someone sets out to lay down.
JAL: This is very much what is happening in digital printmaking as well. From my reading and experience it seems that artists working in this newer media are looking to the traditional means of recording the printmaking process as a model for evolving a new print record methodology. For example, “metadata” (embedded information stored in digital files) can be included in the archival file structure and also printed discretely on images as well. In this way there is a printed print record on each print.
RS: I can see the value of that. It would seem something like the tradition in Japanese woodblock printing where the artist’s signature, the printer, and other significant information is actually visible, in “chops” or characters, on the print itself. Such information varies of course. This has often been useful in making sense of the specifics of the history of a print.
JAL: Let me ask you about something else related to traditional printmaking studio practices. I vividly recall my training in traditional printmaking techniques. Take lithography for example. In many cases there was talk of “accidents” and the incorporation of such “aesthetic happenings” into our work. In the museums we were shown many instances of “creative techniques” and the uses of “controlled accidents” by traditional printmakers. What are your thoughts on visual elements of a work that may have been generated less-than-deliberately?
RS: Well, I have always found that such happy accidents can generally enhance my work ... especially in monoprints. And actually we’re not really talking about “accidents” or “mistakes” as such are we? Rather than a situation where I had hoped for X and instead got Y what we refer to are simply choices an artist might make ... controlled possibilities that are less than completely controlled...John, I must admit that the realm of such “accidents” is something that sincerely concerns me with respect to digital images. I have often wondered if it is even possible to have something that approaches an accident or uncontrolled moment in the digital studios. I’m really very interested in finding out more about how specific techniques or situations can be employed in the digital studio so that digital artists can employ the art-making possibilities that are available to the traditional printmaker. Just how can a digital artist make some progress into this “accidental” territory? Is it through software or hardware ... or both?
JAL: From my experience, and this is what I will draw on in answering your question, it seems possible to locate this territory in nearly every aspect of the digital studio.
RS: Yes, I was fairly certain that this would be the case. What about a couple of examples?
JAL: From the input device side we have the possibilities of randomly tweaking settings on the scanner and then working with the resultant file ... or while working with a software tool, say one from Adobe Photoshop, one could, with the flick of a wrist, move the mouse in a certain direction and then pick up a (traditional) mouse and, while letting the ball spin, the tool “accidently” goes on to do whatever it is it does. I’ve done both of these things on many occasions and find it quite impossible to replicate the results of such relatively uncontrolled activities.
RS: What you’re saying then is that what you discover in the end is a possibility that was not in any way specifically planned but that is, as a result, a jumping off place towards further artistic investigations?
JAL: Yes ... and such investigations seem to be a source for many energetic experiments by my studio students as well. In most cases, once such an approach has been introduced into the digital studio I find many other mutations and what are, for me, new modes of discovery coming out in students’ work very quickly. This seems to be a never-ending thing – very exciting and almost never redundant.
RS: I’m also interested in comparing some of the vocabulary and the conceptual issues in printmaking in the sense of traditional versus digital.
JAL: For example?
RS: Well ... traditional artists, and this is what I consider myself to be, have, in my experience, a mind set about the traditions – that is to say the history and practice of their craft. Let me start with the term “print.” Traditionally for a work to be a print it must be made in some way that involves a press and/or a way of transferring pigmented material from one location, the plate or matrix, to the paper. Whatever the case, physical pressure is required as are a number of actions on the part of the printmaker such as preparing the paper and physically putting the pigment in place on the plate. Very little of this seems to be the case in digital printmaking but the result is still referred to as a “print,” is it not? A print seems to be an inadequate description of a work made through digital processes.
JAL: Atoms versus electrons. Physical versus virtual. Pressure versus atomization and/or other methods of digital imaging. In virtual studio work there is likely to be less chance to get covered in ink than in a traditional situation where one is working with pigments from a can that must then be applied to a surface with a spatula. What one does with virtual studio techniques and software-controlled “printers” is just very much different from traditional printmaking. Even so, the products produced in both studios can have tremendous visual power and impact and, in some cases, be almost indistinguishable from each other.
RS: The uniformity of digital imaging is also troublesome to me. What I mean is that traditional prints always have some variation due to the human actions used to make them. Digital prints on the other hand seem to be identical due to the nature of the machines.
JAL: Perhaps. But with most of us involved in digital printmaking of original digital art the task of moving from the monitor-based (RGB/light colors) to a print (CMYK/pigment colors) can be less than simple and not always so predictable. A lot of control must be exercised over both software and hardware as well as the inkset and the paper one has chosen. Additionally, as the various types of output devices collectively called printers have evolved over time they have been in the service of some sort of industrial purpose or other. In many of these industrial contexts, for example print media such as newspapers and magazines and service bureaus that produce advertising materials, the uniformity you mention is highly sought after with respect to the products such technologies produce. Just as lithography and silkscreen were originally designed and developed for more industrial purposes, so digital imagining is also now well involved in this process of evolving a more aesthetic and customizable side for artists and those who simply wish to experiment. Certainly digital output on an Epson 9500 can be more finitely controlled than in chromolithography, but I would suggest that it is simply in the nature of one set of technologies versus another and not a “good” versus “better” situation one way or the other.
RS: Another thing that I sense about a digital studio is that there is a great deal more physical separation between the maker of a work and the work in progress in a digital studio. This seems so much different from traditional printmaking. Doesn’t this seem so to you as well?
JAL: Yes, I know this is the case in the physical sense. But again this seems, to me anyway, just a difference in the nature of one context versus another. Atoms of “stuff” are just quite different things than electrons coursing through wires and equipment. There is, undeniably, a difference in type and kind of involvement in one studio compared with the other... but again, I see this as just “what it is” and not a case of better or worse – not that you implied such a value judgment.
RS: Fair enough. But let me make this observation then ... in a traditional studio the artist may choose to adjust and the perhaps readjust to his/her standards on a given day. For example, I my adjust the pressure of the press many times during the proofing process. This is a very nuanced interaction of the artist and his/her materials and tools. There is a “feel” to this process that would seem, to me anyway, absent in digital imaging and art making. This may be another aspect of the issue of “distance” we talked about earlier ... I am just not sure. What do you think?
JAL: Ah ... yes, I too see a disparity. As you know my undergraduate degree is in painting (University of Dayton – 1973) and I still see work in terms of that studio mode. What I mean is that in my artwork I feel that I am working with physical materials and even today, almost 30 years later, I see what we do in the digital studio as “painting with pixels” rather than computer graphics as such.
RS: What of the “touch” we all experience with traditional media? I mean that sensation of the physical environment where one touches, feels, experiences the paper, ink, metal, tools and press in the traditional studio? Is there something equivalent in digital?
JAL: Well, in my digital experience there is very much an equivalent sense of this physicality. What I refer to is the virtual experience of pushing, pulling, moving with more or less force, scrubbing, erasing and drawing or painting that is very “real” in terms of how one can set up an application and experience the resultant way-of-working. I very honestly forget that a digitizing tablet, or even a mouse, is my way of making marks. Sure ... there is a difference. But I can and do virtually experience painting. This is what I have seen in my students also.
JAL: Let me change directions a bit and delve into the subject of modes of studio experience, that is to say ... how it is to actually do a thing.
RS: OK. But let me say that traditional printmakers, as with artists, I must assume, begin to build a lifetime of studio experiences from first involvement in a media on through their terminal degree. I wonder about how, and in what ways, those of us who have spent a lifetime becoming competent, even masterful, in our traditional arts are, or might be, willing to learn (re-learn) a working environment. I have wondered about this for years: “Do we (artists) need others to accomplish work when a media is unfamiliar?”
JAL: Can you share some examples of persons who you know to have been challenged in this way?
RS: Certainly. Let’s look at one of the pre-eminent artists of the last century, Pablo Picasso. Picasso engaged many master craftsmen with projects. He provided the idea(s) and they produced, for example, ceramics or prints under his supervision. This is not an isolated case. There is a long history, a tradition, of artists who have regularly had others prepare, accomplish some, or all, of their artistic output. Artists sometimes wish to re-learn new ways of making work ... sometimes not.
JAL: What of this re-learning you just spoke of?
RS: Well, as I said, I really wonder whether or not artists would want, or perhaps would even consider, re-orienting their way of working. What about you? You were trained as a painter and worked as a photographer and scientific illustrator for many years. I recall your portfolio presentation to the faculty in 1994 and it was primarily archaeological illustrations photographs. Seven years later your work is primarily digital. How does it seem to you that artists might take the steps toward the migration from traditional image making toward digital?
JAL: Well, I think it’s much the same as with your output, Ralph. You work in drawing, prints, painting and mixed media. You’ve expanded your ways of working and your modes of output over the years, haven’t you? Moreover, I wonder if this migration of your work over time was entirely planned or something more to do with opportunities – or maybe lack of them.
RS: Yes ... yes I have made many changes in my work and in the way I work over the years. For example, I have recently moved over to metal plate lithography and rarely do the silkscreens at all anymore. That way of working was once very popular and has seen a decline in recent years in some ways just simply due to the restrictions placed on how we use potentially toxic materials in the studio. This has been a gradual process though. One that was not entirely something I might have evolved on my own by the way.
JAL: Well, I think this is very much the same way with many of us who have moved toward digital works. I first worked in computing in the 1970's during five years spent working in the field of industrial engineering. And then again in the mid-1980's when my university got a grant and bought some of the first PowerMac equipment and began doing digital video. In the late 80's and throughout the early 1990's I worked for magazines, newspapers and began to do illustrations for academic publications. As these areas of work moved into digital technologies so did I. The year 2001 represents my tenth year of producing original digital output for my own artistic purposes. Some days I just scratch my head about how exactly I got to this point.
RS: Well, I think that setting, and then re-setting, modifying and working toward goals is, for me at least, much of what art making is all about. I find a great deal of enjoyment in getting something done that I set out to do. The art works I make are a result of this process and stand for my success or failure in reaching these goals – regardless of what technologies I choose to employ.
JAL: I agree and this challenging of one’s self seems constant across all studio areas. I think you would agree that each area has its unique challenges too. RS: Oh, this is certainly the case. For example, I have heard many of my students who are also working in your digital studio, complain -- or perhaps simply observe – that the speed of decision making is quite off-putting to some of them. These students have said things like “stuff just happens too fast with a computer.” I can tell from such comments that digital art is not for everybody.
JAL: Yes ... I would agree. I have also heard the reverse. A number of students over the years have expressed frustration with the speed, or lack of it, that is inherent in working with areas such as silkscreen or oil painting. Seems as if any way of working has such attendant issues that are attractive to some and repellant to others.
RS: Certainly the nature of printmaking is very deliberate, even quite slow and laborious at times. Etching and aquatint are just not something everybody is interested in and the painstaking effort required is part of the package one deals with in taking on such work.
JAL: This is very much so in many parts of working in digital imaging and printmaking too. The nature of tuning and re-tuning color space and the care and maintenance of various pieces of equipment is not very exciting, very painstaking, and very much about problem- solving too.
RS: I want to say something about the concept of “facility” that is so much at the core of traditional printmaking. I just don’t know enough about digital studio practice to clarify for myself what sorts of facilities one must have in order to excel and push the limits of these newer media. What sorts of facilities do think digital artists must develop? Or is this even a fair question at this early stage of fine arts digital printmaking?
JAL: Well, I think it’s a very fair question but one that is pretty difficult to answer as well. Let me qualify that a little though. As you suggested, making art digitally demands that one work in tandem with a computer that can calculate seemingly as quickly as one asks it too. In this way it appears, at times anyway, to be able to make real-time decisions that make work as deliberately as if one were carving wax, moving paint or framing a photograph. Taking advantage of these fleeting opportunities might be one facility digital artists must hone if they are to be successful in making work.
RLS: One of the things that I most see as a difference between our two areas is that element of the human hand. I would call this “touch” and wonder how digital artists deal with the remoteness I feel when working with email and word processing software.
JAL: Working at the end of a wire or even holding a stylus tool and Wacom tablet is not at all the same as physically engaging a copper plate with a sharpened stylus. These things have similarities but are not at all the same. I agree.
RLS: But skills must be developed with the equipment in both places ... I can see that. I find it amazing that such powerful works can be made on digital equipment that is, relatively speaking, so very new to the world of making art.
JAL: There are many new tools for artists to learn and employ in the digital studio. More software tools and hardware tools are introduced every year. The array is amazing ... too wide for any individual artist to know.
RLS: I would agree that is very much the case in traditional printmaking studios as well. Being a master printer across several widely different media is highly unusual. Artists often choose a fairly narrow range of techniques and work with other master printers to do work in less familiar techniques.
JAL: In my experience this is exactly the way it is in digital studio as well. There are many specialists in the newer media and tools for making digitally-based works. I see many parallels with traditional studio in this regard.
RLS: Yes ... I see many similar things to talk about when comparing the environments and products of two studios. More than anything, what I can say, for me anyway, is that after more than thirty years of making art as a professional artist I know that all artists of quality engage their product. What I mean by this is that art, whatever the form, is about the act of making something. Something is produced with the intent of it being art. And as far as digital printmaking goes, it seems to me that making prints with anything other than traditional processes is simply different ... perhaps even equivalent – but not the same. The similarity exists in that “art is art” regardless of the processes used. Of that I am certain.
View the work of Professor Ralph Lee Steeds
View works by John Antoine Labadie and his students
Dr. John Antoine Labadie is Coordinator of Art Department Digital Studios and Director of the Media Integration Project the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, Pembroke, NC 28372
Tel: 910.521.6618, Fax: 910.521.6639, Email: