by Joy Wong
I have a problem where I want to do everything. I think a lot of creative types are this way; they like to get their hands dirty by sticking them in all kinds of messes. I call myself an inter/multidisciplinary artist, but I could reduce it to the three Ps– Poetry, Painting, and Printmaking.
Printmaking is a wonderful medium where clearly the inventors wanted to take the concept of multiplicity in art and then make it as difficult as possible. Ideally it should be called a labour of love, but the only guaranteed part of that statement is that printmaking is always labour.
Printmakers know how to work hard, though it is quite easy to forget to work smart. It is just an inherent part of the process. Take lithography for example. Alois Senefelder discovered in 1796 that if you drew on a slab of Bavarian limestone with a greasy crayon, you could pull a print of that stone. For some reason people still use this process today, 220 years later, albeit with some technical improvements.
There’s another P word I love, and that is Process. Lithography is chocked full of processes, and it is probably one of the most complicated of the main four printmaking methods. In short, the steps include graining the stone, drawing/creating the image, first etch, roll-up & second etch, and finally printing.
Despite the arduous process of lithography, it is one of the most satisfying methods of image-making, but it is not always forgiving. For my most recent lithograph, I decided to try a method called maniére noire, literally meaning “the black method” in French.
After graining the stone, which can take anywhere from 1 to 4+ hours, depending on the size and condition of the stone, the surface is ready to accept any and all greasy substances. For maniére noire, instead of building up dark values by adding grease, I start off with a flat black and scratch away to reveal lightness. Like any drawing process, this takes some time as well. Unlike drawing with graphite, lithography does not have a lot of leeway to reverse an action or erase a mark. Once it’s on the stone, you’ll have to either work with it or grain it off.
With this first image, I arrive at the stage where I begin printing, but something goes awry. Because I’ve never etched such a dark image before, I miscalculate. The image is improperly etched, it is blotchy and uneven. The light parts are filling in with ink, and the dark parts aren’t dark enough. I would have to spend too much effort trying to salvage what I had, and even then it was not a guarantee the results would be positive. I stare at the stone and the awful prints and sunlight is fading outside the studio windows. I think about the hours spent graining and levelling the stone, spent adding and removing ink and then adding ink back, about how carefully I studied the different steps. I think about how tired my arms and back are from moving this stone around, how heavy the ink rollers are, how much paper and ink I’ve wasted in this endeavour. And I make a decision.
I wish I could say with a Lifetime-Movie style of affirmation that I happily accepted this pitfall and merrily restarted my project from the beginning, but I did not approach the prospect with enthusiasm. In fact I was angry, and tired, and felt like I had wasted a week of my life. It was a punch in the face, like Senefelder was there jeering at me as I donned my gloves and washed off the left over ink on my stone. I spend the next 3 hours graining my stone, and I start the entire thing over.
Ultimately though, it is part of the process, not just of printmaking, but of any making, to know when to start again. Sometimes it is judicious to (metaphorically) throw your work out the window in order to make progress. Sometimes the process isn’t as straightforward as step one and step two. It is a step backwards, sometimes a step forward, sometimes you shake your foot about before you know what you need to do.