Learning Letterpress

Thank you, Nancy, for inviting me to write a guest post here on Dabbled–this is one of my favorite sites for creative inspiration, with a nice dose of fun mixed in, so it is an honor to post here.

Letterpress "ornaments," which are decorative elements that can be incorporated with type. There are some amazing ornaments out there--from corporate logos to highly artistic Celtic knots. There are, in and of themselves, works of art.

I was invited to write about letterpress, my latest obsession. Probably more than anything I do or write about on Sewer-Sewist–the blog I co-author with my wonderful husband, Josh–I get wistful-sounding feedback from people who really want to learn letterpress. Unfortunately, letterpress is kind of a hard thing to write a “how-to” for–since it involves equipment that most of us don’t have on hand and requires specialized inks and tools, I thought I’d talk to you about learning letterpress and the language of letterpress. It’s a beautiful art-form that has helped me tremendously in my creative thinking. I also love that it has a practical heritage and connects us to our past, since letterpress printing was revolutionary when it was developed, making the printed word accessible to the masses–not just the wealthy elite who could afford handwritten books. There are lots of interesting resources online about the history of the printing press, but About.com’s guide is a nice, brief overview.

Wood Type for my first letterpress project
Wood type is generally used for poster printing or art pieces. Sadly, since wood type is very decorative, so people buy their favorite letters, numbers and punctuation to display, it is very difficult to find complete sets of larger wood type.

While I am normally a big advocate for self-teaching (I taught myself screenprinting, for example), letterpress is the one craft that I really believe that you need to learn from an expert who has not only experience in composing letterpress designs, but who has a good level of familiarity with the equipment with which you will be working. For example, while I have taught people how to printing using a Vandercook press, I would not be qualified to teach anyone how to print with a platen (or clam shell) press–and not learning proper equipment operation can not only lead to damage to pricey, hard-to-fix press, it can also result in physical injury.

Josh Printing
My husband Josh printing on a Vandercook press for the first time. He learned in a four-day intensive workshop that lasted six hours a day. You really need 20-30 hours of training to gain confidence in letterpress. It's far more challenging than I would have ever expected--in part because the presses are quirky.

I started my introduction to letterpress with a ten-week-long (three hours per week) letterpress class through Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Continuing Education program, which was actually an intermediate class (I thought screenprinting skills would translate to letterpress–I was wrong), with Abra Ancliffe, a letterpress printer who has a degree in printmaking and worked at Egg Press here in Portland for a number of years. I would highly recommend that if you have a college, museum or library in your area with a Book Arts program, that you look into one of these types of courses. Book Arts programs will generally have excellent equipment and give you access to the letterpress studio outside of class–a big plus, because it takes lot of practice to become confident with the printing process. You’ll pay two or three times as much as you would for a half-day seminar at a letterpress studio, but you will get at least ten times as much out of it. Trust me.

Type - Raleigh, Times, Gothic Bold
There are three different typefaces in this block of type--Bank Gothic, Raleigh and Times New Roman.

Letterpress printing is a relief process, so you can used a number of different methods to create unique artwork. The first technique I used was the traditional type-setting. I love painstakingly setting type using lead for spacing–particularly when playing with different typefaces in conjunction with one another. For my first letterpress project, I had an overly-ambitious project for creating the coolest, artiest basketball cards ever. Little did I know that it would take a ridiculous amount of time to create lines upon lines of text for each of these fifteen cards. (I still haven’t finished the text part of that project.) If you’re learning letterpress, start with type–preferably lead. You’ll really learn the intricacies of letterpress that way. While it’s not the easiest to work with, once you get a handle on that process, you’ll have the confidence to explore other materials and mixing type with linoleum blocks and photopolymer plates. There is also something almost profound about simple hand-set type on paper. It draws you in in a way that computer generated print simply cannot.

"Portland, Oregon"
This piece is set with Bank Gothic 12 point type. I love the stark simplicity of this all capitals font.

Now, on the complete opposite end of the letterpress spectrum, we have photopolymer. As I began to explore letterpress even more, I really became excited about was experimenting with this high-tech approach to traditional relief printing. Photopolymer is a relative newcomer to the world of letterpress; basically, it’s a thing metal plate with a semi-hard gel of photochemicals coating it. Using a black and white negative image, you expose the plate, and wash away the unexposed areas, which you then print with on the letterpress.

Metallic Ink Experience - This May Be Rad
A photopolymer plate in action. It's attached to a giant magnet while you print. If you can correctly guess what this plate is of and send me an email through my blog by July 28, 2009, I will totally send you a print. Seriously, I will.

I’ve become really interested in using photopolymer to print faces. I like playing with paper, ink and packing (paper placed behind the paper you’re printing on to create a deeper impression) to see the different results–and human faces have some interesting results. I incorporated this into my ridiculous basketball card project.

Photopolymer Plate Print--Testing Papers
Same ink, same packing, three different papers--very different results.

You can get a fairly high level of detail using photopolymer, though not at fine as with screenprinting. If you reverse our image with a photopolymer plate, you can get very striking results–and that’s generally the method I use. I think it makes the ink and paper play with each other in very interesting way, as the paper is almost an accent element.

Letterpress Brandon Roy Card
This is probably my favorite thing I've ever printed--and I did it just as a goof-off print run to mess around with metallic ink (which has real silver in it). There are technical details about this particular print if you click through to the Flickr photo. Who is this in this print? It's Brandon Roy, guard for the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team--I'm a big fan. Google him, he's awesome.

I recently took a four-day workshop at PNCA in letterpress and mail art and used linoleum blocks on the letterpress for the first time. You can get many of the same results as photopolymer, although because of the soft surface of linoleum, you get more of a stamped quality to your print, as opposed to the pressed look of photopolymer. And you can even combine the two, for a look with additional texture. I’m itching to also incorporate type–maybe in the form of blind embossment (creating an impression without inking the press)–into a piece combining photopolymer and linoleum block printing.

Steel Bridge Post Card
A print combining both photopolymer prints and linoleum block prints--the background is linoleum printed. This print is of Portland's Steel Bridge.

Letterpress printing is a wonderfully diverse medium, that has enjoyed a wonderful reemergence over the last few years. I feel so fortunate to be a part of something of a movement to help this craft thrive. Because of that, I’d be happy to chat over email with anyone who is interested in learning letterpress, and try to answer any questions you may have. Get in touch with me through my blog–I’m thrilled to share some letterpress love.