Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Man Vs. Machine

 © Hannah Phelps
work in progress
jigsaw reduction relief, using a press

I have got two multi-layer jigsaw reduction woodcuts going right now. The prints are both landscapes and both inspired by plein air paintings, but I am creating them in different ways. 

Most noticeably, I am working on one here at home and the other at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in nearby Manchester. There are large presses at the school, which makes it worth the commute. When I print at home, I use a baren to press the paper into the ink on the block.

More than once, someone has seen me pulling on the press wheel and said, "You must have jacked up arms after using that press." Whether or not my arms are ripped is not the subject of this post. But, if I have any muscles from printmaking, it isn’t from using the press - it's from hand rubbing with a spoon or a baren, trust me.

That might seem surprising at first, but really, it makes a lot of sense. Why invent a huge, nearly immovable instrument like a printing press if printing by hand was perfectly easy?

Printing by hand does have a ton of advantages:

- Printing by hand is cheaper - especially if you use something as simple as a wooden spoon (which I do when I print white-line woodcuts). Barens can cost more - up to a thousand dollars for really nice Japanese-made ones - but it still pales in comparison to the price of nice etching presses which start at a few thousand and go up (and up and up) from there.

- Printing by hand is more convenient - you can use your baren in any room of your house or studio or even take it outside (as I do sometimes). A press weighs a few tons. You go to it.

- Printing by hand is more flexible - a press provides even pressure across the length of the heavy roller, so if the ink layer on your block is even, the color on your paper will be as well. When printing by hand, you can use different pressure at all points of your print, creating gradations. 

- Also, a block needs to be tough to go through a press! The "soft kut" block I am using at home would squish to nothing after the roller got through with it.

At this point you might be thinking, "If printing by hand is cheaper, more convenient, more flexible, and gives you a better arm workout, why drive an hour round trip to use a press?"

The answer is simple: I love the press. 

I like to think it loves me too.

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