Why Printmaking is Important (And Always Will Be)

I have been getting a lot of questions about bringing the arts back into classrooms of all sorts, so I have begun a series of articles I hope to compile into an eBook for instructors. As an ardent S.T.E.A.M. proponent, an artist, and an interaction designer, I feel we must be able to give our students a wide gamut of experiences in our classrooms in order for them to succeed. Printmaking is a huge part of my personal approach.

Printing $500 Bills

I still remember when I pulled my first print: I was 22, working on my BFA, and I had no idea what printmaking actually was. I knew I couldn’t afford the supplies for the painting classes and that my allergies had cut short my ceramics career (darned clay dust), so here I sat in a musty basement studio chipping away on some linoleum. It was a simple one-color linocut: I created a composition, transferred it to my block, and carved it out as best I could. I inked it up, ran it through the press, then peeled back the paper gingerly…

My first linocut masterpiece, 1993: It was a heady meditation on vanity and impending mortality...
My first linocut, 1993: It was a heady meditation on vanity and impending mortality, very deep indeed…

The initial glimpse hit like a physical blow to my solar plexus, causing me to gasp audibly. I remember actually glancing left and right nervously because I felt almost criminal, like I was printing a $500 bill. There in front of me was my idea, only it was substantial, real. I was suddenly a true cultural producer, and I could make as many copies of my vision as I wanted. I truly was printing currency, albeit not the monetary kind. I finished my edition and left that day feeling as if I had truly arrived where I’d no idea I was welcome to be, and that feeling of empowerment and personal creative agency* has never left me.

Printmaking helped me finally find my place in the larger span of histories, methods, and messages of the world around me. It was the entry point I needed to become the artist, designer, educator, and citizen I needed to be in order to contribute my best to society. As I have moved from the haptic realm of woodcut and silkscreen into the virtual plane of interaction design, I have found that each and every one of the skills I developed as a printmaker have served me on a daily basis. It taught me to be a problem solver, a conscientious and political animal, a message sender; it taught me what craft truly means and how to be on the right side of history as time passes.

As I have continued to teach, I have found that printmaking is as relevant to my digital design students as ever, linking them to the past in an immediate, visceral way. They get to witness the shock of the first true print just as I did, and with that sharp inhale of discovery they are witness (alongside all the waves of past generations) to the revolution of print. Certainly, we cannot stop at the simple handprint knowing all we know now, but with that mark we can identify with the cave painters in Chauvet and realize the import of digital photography so accurate you can get fingerprints from a snapshot alone. Without the actual experience of making a plate that can print a multiple, my students are left adrift in a sea of Adobe presets and meaningless filters for far longer than they should be. If I do not make room for this fundamental idea in my design and visual arts curricula, I am doing a massive disservice to my students.

Taking Action

I have started a Printmaking Club at my college. I (and my amazing co-advisor, David Barthold) have been working hard to get students from as many disciplines into the club as possible so we can reach as many corners of the community as we can. The effect of that first print is the same: we lift the paper as it comes out of the press, and they gasp at what they have created before leaping back in to make something new, eyes ablaze with possibility.

In my Type & Media classes, I teach relief printing to help illuminate the intricacies of typography and every time I have at least one student crying out something like, “I made this! And it’s so real!” I have begun to develop workshops for the general public, such as the one I will be doing in December at the Brooklyn Brainery. There is a real thirst for this sort of hand-based creation I am trying to tap in each institution for which I work.

Learning the ins and outs of typographic white space.
Learning the ins and outs of typographic white space by carving it out of the substrate by hand.

There is no reason to cut these processes from our classes. So what if they are messy? Everyone deserves to smell fresh ink, to hear the sizzle of the brayer spreading it out, and to apply the coat of color to her own plate. So what if they seem outdated? That is just shortsighted, plain and simple. I have witnessed time and again as presses and tools have been jettisoned to make room for endless computers: it always results in an immediate thinning of the educational experience of the students. We must represent the full continuum of technologies that have shaped us in some significant way or risk our students losing key experiential perspectives. Printmaking is our historical reality and our present grounding, and it is absolutely an integral part of our future contribution as cultural producers.

* I have WAY more to say on this phenomenon later, fear not!

Next in the series:

Basic Printmaking Principles for All Ages

I hope to draw out the themes and concepts we can illuminate with printmaking, no matter the context or experience of the students.