Archive for the ‘Rants’ category

Ten (or More) Things I (re)Learned Printing Graven Images

February 21, 2011

1. Settle on a binding design from the outset, and stick to it. The binding of Graven Images has been something of a problem. I didn’t have a set plan from the outset, and that created headaches all through production. Originally it was going to be a handsome envelope or folder with the prints loose inside, and it grew on its own from there. Plans to bind the edition myself evaporated in face of time constraints, so the job was handed off to a commercial binder. The results were adequate, but still full of small disappointments.

2. Set limits. At one point, there was some discussion around the dinner table about creating fictional text to accompany the illustrations. I guess that was my line of death, but it would have been an interesting endeavour. The painted covers are covered below, and the final binding of the edition was a compromise imposed by money and time.

3. Use tried and true papers on big projects. There’s a reason so many private presses use only a certain few commercially available papers; there’s no need for further experimentation. Sigh. Looking forward to St. Armand, Fabriano, Arches Text…. and insolvency trying to pay for them.

4. Smoother paper = better halftones. Better impression generally. Canson Mi Teintes paper proved problematic, with one side being rough, intended for pastels. I lost my nerve, and declined to print a large halftone of the box of wood engraving blocks when I realized it would be printed on the rough side, and the last page after already printing the three other pages. I’m telling ya, this racket takes nerves of steel!

5. I’m happier when I can work on the production of a book beginning to end in a concentrated period of time. Because of much going on in my life, I knew that Graven Images would be spread over a long period of time. Two years, in fact. I planned it that way, breaking all the work into its parts, and it all worked out according to plan. But I didn’t like it as much as working on a book every day, continuously for six or eight weeks.

6. I’ve mastered printing type. Just in time to see the early signs of age and wear on my precious lead type.

7. Think twice, maybe three time before betting on a lot of art work for any book. Holly and I planned to have her paint all the covers for Graven Images. What were we thinking?! Trying to reproduce her painted covers using digital laser printing added another dimension of frustration to the job, for everyone involved.

8. I need storage for unbound sheets. At one point, I had the makings of 75 copies of the edition laid out flat in one box. Very heavy! Very big! Always tripping over it.

9. I need storage for bound copies. Graven Images is a big book, not just in terms of labour, but its actual size. And it is by no means even close to the largest folios done by some presses. Even binding up 25 copies a time requires some place to put them, when I even lack bookshelves for the books in my own collection!

10. I need to better organize my work area. Holly has caught me more than once this winter standing at the foot of my press, arms folded and staring into space. My space works very well indeed, but improvements can and will be made. Additional storage. Moving things further back that I seldom use; moving stuff I use frequently closer. A hanging wall cupboard is in the works. Perhaps some shelving.

11. I can print wood engravings. I can even print 130 year old wood engravings. It’s not as easy as it looks. And for the 130 year old engravings, apply lesson #2.

12. Promotion. Promotion. Promotion. I print books with the attitude that I would be happy to live with the entire edition until I pop off. But really, how sensible is that?

13. Live with the variables. There are far too many variables involved in producing a beautifully printed page to be able to control them all. So get over it, and find creative solutions.

14. I love printing, and there will be more books. Wordsworth’s famous poem Tintern Abbey is up next.

A Busy Month

November 12, 2010

Pausing to examine my last blog, I see that more than a month has passed since my last contribution. It has been a busy time: Studio Tour, work on more prints in the 2010 series and a trip to Picton, Ontario to participate in the Maker’s Hand craft show.

Checking tags as the gates open at The Maker's Hand.

The Maker’s Hand is something of an anomaly amongst craft shows. It is not that large, perhaps 50 vendors, set in a town as opposed to a city, and yet it fields some of the best talent in Ontario, and attracts a healthy crowd of buyers. It is a show that has to date been managed by craftspersons, deliberately kept small and all of us – participating artists – must submit new work to be juried every year. The show is a counterpoint to the massive, consumer oriented 800 plus vendor binges seen in major cities, where the promoters insist on referring to art and craft as ‘merchandise’ and push artisans to create goods in the lowest price point possible. It’s all sound capitalism, but somehow it does not say much for the caliber of customer they are hoping for. Well, we are, all of us, trying to make a living.

Holly and I sold well at the Tour and the Maker’s Hand, with my humble linocuts receiving a lot of attention and many heading off to grace other peoples walls. Holly’s new Muse Journals received a lot of praise.

All the while, Graven Images has been proving itself a success, which is a delight and a relief. As of today, it has sold it’s first $1,000, which I dare say cuts a swath out of the expenses to date, taking into account the fact that only 20% of the edition is bound as yet, so the outlay has not ended yet. Ah well. Multiple copies have gone to book sellers in Seattle, and expressions of interest have come from New Jersey and London, England. I just mailed off the first of this edition to be bought by a university’s special collection, namely my alma mater, Carleton University, and a copy for the Rare Book collection at the Toronto Reference Library will be winging its way there from here on Monday. Previous editions from the press have found a place in the collection of Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, and the National Library of Canada purchased my first three editions just prior to the cancellation of that practice. They have reverted to insisting that book artists donate one copy, or two if the edition is larger than 99, as per the law entrenched in the Constitution, no less. Even if there exist only two copies, and the value being tens of thousands of dollars. But that’s okay, because I’ve been hearing through sources that some in the National Library are keen to end the collection of books and their costly storage, unless sent to them as digital files. So far I’m not aware of book artists being asked to send digital copies of their books.

Speaking of the National Library, that is where the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild meets monthly, and last Wednesday I gave a slide presentation on the making of Graven Images, particularly on the extreme make-ready required to print the very old blocks. I’ll do a blog later with the images from the demonstration.

No Time

September 6, 2009

Time. I wish I had more of it. Earlier in the year, our business was quiet and we filled our time and rode out the recession developing new products. I put aside press projects since I didn’t even have the cash to buy paper. Now, when I most need to work on artistic pursuits, the floodgates have opened and our Big Client needs to stock their shelves for Christmas. And thank heavens for that, because this year was looking pretty grim, financially. So no book off the press this year, as we work like devils to dig ourselves out of the hole. The studio tour and other events will have to be content with last year’s product since almost all of my time will be dedicated to following the money. So Greyweathers Press ends its fifth year with a whimper rather than a bang.

Not to say it has been completely idle. The engraving portfolio project has been good to work on here and there, both because it can only be done one block at a time, and it is, to say the least, a challenge to print. Frustration the apt word, perhaps.

In August, I printed the largest of the wood engravings, measuring about 6″ x 9″, mostly of a tree with two resting deer beneath it mighty boughs. There are two round vignettes in the top corners: a fence stile at left, and wagon wheels at right. The result was not what I would consider ideal — I’m still losing clarity in the centre of the engraving in spite of extensive make ready. But it is the best I can achieve. This time, I opted to restrain the ink and preserve the detail and tone of the engraving, as opposed to striving for heavier black impression throughout. Here it is:


The engraving work is lovely on this unsigned block. It took a day and a half to produce 100 prints.

More recently, I set type on a commercial piece for the Merrickville Artists’ Tour. The tour will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year with a party and I volunteered to print the invites. It’s by invitation only, so I’ve removed the details, but you get the gist.


I don’t mean to sound unenthusiastic about commercial letterpress, but I can’t help it. There are printers out there doing fabulous work for invitations, business cards, portfolio covers, annual reports etc. However, I love books and those are what I want to print. While I’m printing these little jobs, even the wood engravings, all I want to do is get busy on another book.

This invitation will not be the finale for 2009. No matter what, I will be doing a demonstration of some sort on the press for the two weekends of the Studio Tour (September 26-27 & October 3-4), so I’ll plan something fun for that. I’m thinking a type sampler….

Then down to planning an ambitious project for 2010. The leader right now is an illustrated book of selected Shakespeare soliloquies.

And I Was Just Joking!

February 14, 2008

The PC icon changed yesterday. Now I’m worried…..


Demon in the Machine

February 11, 2008

I’m a Mac guy. Have been since a good friend sat me down in front of a Mac Classic back in 1992. Prior to that, I worked in DOS, so you can imagine the paradigm warp that took place. Well, maybe you Window lifers can’t, and that’s OK. For 15 years I’ve been vaguely aware but blissfully free of most of the problems that have plagued the other 90% of computer users. My only concern has been the persistent worry that Microsoft would achieve its goal of world domination by running Apple out of business. With iPod and growing sales in computers, Steve Jobs has held that fate off for a while, at least.

Recently, the company that made our accounting software has stopped supporting upgrades for Mac in Canada. Either we could buy a cheap PC to run our accounting, or buy the latest Mac, which can support both platforms, or all platforms apparently. We went with the latter option, although I am vaguely discomfited by the notion of Windows being anywhere near our Mac, let alone inside it. My lovely computer geek, Holly, assured me there would be no problems. The hard drive is partitioned. Firewalls are in place. Cages are locked securely. Security is tight as a drum. Windows doesn’t even have a window in its cell on our computer. You’d think that would do it.

The only visual evidence of Windows on the computer is this icon, which appears on the desk top:


Innocuous enough. But if you shut the computer down (something we do occasionally) and start it up again, Windows launches and takes over. No surprise. Holly says its nothing more than changing a preference toggle somewhere, but I’m worried. We beat Windows back into its cell by a different relaunch protocol, then we’re back in Mac Land.

But I can’t help but think we’ve got a demon in our machine….. Perhaps we should rename the ‘untitled’ drive ‘Hannibal Lector’.

Letterpress is Dead. Long Live Letterpress.

February 4, 2008

A Pub, Somewhere in Europe, circa 1500 C.E. — Five scribes, Friedrich, Franz, Hans, François and Gustav, are sitting around a table drowning their sorrows. This new-fangled printing press turned out not to be just another block printing fad. It’s spreading across Europe like the plague, putting calligraphers and scribes out of business! Five more over here, barkeep….

Poor guys. They had good reason to drink. By the year 1500 – that’s just 50 years after Gutenberg invented movable type – over a million books had been printed in Europe. And that’s just books. Almost everything scribes could do, the printing press could do almost as well, and in great volumes, at a fraction of the price. There’s no denying that a highly sophisticated and skilled craft had been supplanted by a clever device of technological wizardry. Those scribes probably thought what everyone thinks in that situation. It’s all over.

Or was it?

Of the five increasingly tipsy calligraphers at the table, Friedrich decides that copying legal documents and indentures bored him silly, so he’s going to run off with the next group of minstrels and actors and live a life of fun and adventure. Another, Fritz, is bug-eyed with religious dread after copying endless Indulgences for the church and figures on hedging his bets by taking the cowl. Hans’ attitude is if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and he’s already thinking about setting up his own press. The youngest at the table, Francois has borrowed money from family to apprentice with a bookbinder. Finally, Gustav looks about at the four men around him and their ever-changing world, and sees that while times have indeed changed, the world still has need of his skills. He loves his work, and it shows in the quality he produces, so that even these new-fangled printers come to him to embellish their special editions with illuminated and decorated letters.

So it went. Scribes never had it so good ever again, but fine calligraphy survived as a specialized trade until quite recently. Currently, it has fallen into the hands of artists who bend the traditional boundaries, but who keep the craft alive, thank you very much.

Those five scribes may have fantasized about the nib being on the other pen, so to speak – when letterpress itself would face technological obliteration. They would have had to live almost 500 years to see it, but it would happen. The early warning signs came in the late 19th century, when the highly skilled craftsmen who cut wood engravings for books and newspapers found themselves scanning the classifieds after new reproduction techniques made illustrating printed material a snap. It wasn’t long before the same techniques were used to reproduce type. Ironically, the process took about 70 years, until in the 1970s it became rather difficult to buy presses, type, supplies or service for letterpress. Unlike scribes, most pressmen made the transition from raised type (letterpress) to flat plates (offset) easily and perhaps cheerfully. So pressmen didn’t go to the pub to drink about becoming obsolete. They were in the pub just because pressmen drink. No excuse required.

With the end of letterpress, fine press and hobby printers have inherited the magic of that by-gone age, and yet, the spirit of dispirit still hovers over us. In websites, blogs and articles by noted fine press printers, frequent reference to ‘this dying art’ recur with depressing frequency. Call me a dreamy-eyed optimist, but I take exception to that stance. And to illustrated my defiance, here is my very own top ten list of reasons why letterpress printing will still be around for centuries to come:

1) Interest and understanding in letterpress is increasing, not decreasing, helped along by the onslaught of laser and digital technology, ironically enough. The more ‘jacked in’ our society becomes, the more people seem to be searching for the real thing. They’re looking for presses, or just learning to appreciate the value of hand printing. Some day they may become collectors.
2) There’s a long list of crafts that have survived the test of time. Like calligraphy, they may no longer be a major sector of the economy, but they have survived. So it’s not like letterpress is the first to survive obsolescence.
3) Presses are scarce, costs for them are escalating, but people are still paying the price, according to reliable sources. When demand hits a certain level, some clever tool & die guy is going to start making presses again (if he hasn’t begun already).
4) Most of the equipment was made to endure. And as far as I know, good machinists can still make replacement parts.
5) There are a dozen sources for new type still in operation, and ample supplies of old type, with more turning up all the time. (As long as Don Black Linecasting is operating in Toronto, I’ll never be pessimistic!)
6) Digital graphics and type can be rendered to relief plates in magnesium and copper, opening up a world of possibilities.
7) Letterpresses can use offset ink, so no issues there until offset goes dodo-bound.
8] The old guard is passing on the wisdom. They’re teaching newbies.
9) There is an established collector community that loves to buy hand printed books.
10) Those who love it will not let it perish.

I could go on, but I won’t.

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