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What is print making?

Never ask such a question to a print maker like me unless you have the time and patience to listen to an in-depth explanation. In this age of fast cars and two minutes noodles, it is difficult to comprehend why printmakers take two days just to grind their stones; or spend a couple of hours only to polish and prepare their plates. What is so special about a print which has many multiples or copies? Why do print makers hold the paper so carefully and look at prints so intensely?

Five hundred years after the first press arrived in India, many such primary questions still linger in the minds of viewers. What is the difference between printmaking and printing? What do the inscriptions below certain prints indicate? If this is a print, where is the original? Unfortunately, due to a general lack of awareness and appreciation, print makers are slowly moving to other, more popular mediums. I think it is high time we build a bridge between print makers and the art consuming public, and make an effort from both sides to understand and appreciate this versatile medium.

To answer the first question, let me begin with the definition of a print: A print is essentially the transfer of an impression from a matrix onto a printable surface, most often paper. Several variations exist for transferring these impressions or images and, with time and advancement of technology; newer techniques and materials have become available to the print maker to help him/her improve the quality of their prints.

In this article I am going to discuss traditional print making processes, which can be divided into four major categories as well as, the technicalities of each process – from preparing and cutting the matrix or plate to inking it, registering the block or paper, and finally drying the impression.

The basic difference between printing and printmaking can be described as one of mechanical versus manual. In offset printing, most of the processes are carried out mechanically, making large editions of each print possible. However, in traditional printmaking methods like lithography, etching and woodcut, the processes are almost always manual, and editions are of comparatively smaller numbers.

Another difference lies in the fact that printing, as in offset, often involves the duplication of paintings or other art works, which are transferred with photographic precision and reproduced. In traditional printmaking processes, however, unique images are created directly on the plate or matrix, though at times they may be composed using other methods of transfer or even photographic images. Artists chose the process in accordance to the imagery they want to create, and may choose to enhance it by varying the basic steps and techniques. The print maker for authentication, along with the edition number and medium information, signs each impression taken from the plate or matrix. Often, the block is canceled or destroyed after the declared edition number is printed, so that no further prints are possible from the same block.

Printmaking processes can be divided into the following four main categories:

Relief: Ink is rolled onto the surface of the matrix and paper is rubbed or passed through the press for transfer of image; as practiced in woodcut, lino – cut and mono prints.

Intaglio: Ink goes beneath the surface of the matrix as the image is cut in to the surface; damp paper is put on it and passed through etching press with pressure; as practiced in etching, aquatint, mezzo – tint and dry point.

Plano graphic: The matrix retains its entire surface, but some parts are treated to retain the image, while others don’t. The image is then transferred onto the paper in a Letho press; as practiced in lithography.

Stencil: Blocking of some areas and printing from the remaining space on the paper; as practiced in screen printing.

Relief processes includes woodcut; One of the oldest of all the printmaking techniques, dating as far back as the 5th century. It is also the simplest and least expensive of all the processes, as it does not require a mechanical press or to many implements. To create a woodcut, a drawing is made with black ink or marker on a primed wooden plank. The areas of the image that are meant to be without color are gouged out of the plank, so that when the ink is rolled onto it with a burin or roller, it is only transferred on the surfaces that will form part of the image and not the deeper cuts that will not. After applying the ink to the plank, a sheet of paper is placed on its surface and rubbed on the reverse side. These prints are thus also known as rubbings. There are some specialized tools such as U and V shaped chisels that may be used in the creation of relief prints to achieve different shaped cuts, also one can use linoleum or another flat surface that can be cut into as a matrix.

Some of the processes of intaglio printmaking are etching, aquatint, mezzotint and dry point. These intaglio processes, which are believed to have originated in Germany, are relatively easy as no special skills or tools are required for the cutting. Lines are scratched with a needle or another sharp instrument onto a metal plate covered with ground (generally composed of bee’s wax, resin and black pigment) that resists acid. The plate is then dipped in an acid bath, and where the lines have exposed the plate, the metal is acted upon by the acid creating grooves in the plate that can hold ink. Deeper cuts hold more ink, and create darker shades when printed on a press. An etching press is made of two cylinders moving in opposite directions with a flat iron bed in between, where the inked plate and paper are passed through together. The paper is usually dampened to soften it, so that it goes into the grooves cut on the plate and lifts the ink in them. The paper used for print making is generally acid free and contains a high percentage of rag or fiber to make it stronger.

To achieve varied tones in intaglio prints, the processes of aquatint or mezzo – tint are employed. In mezzo-tints, the entire plate is roughened evenly with a bruin or rocker, and then, with the help of a burnisher or scraper, areas of lighter tone are created. Mezzo-tints have a beautiful velvety texture and subtle tones. In aquatints, the ground comprises of resin dust which is applied evenly on the plate and then glued to it by heating the plate. The plate is then bathed in acid, which cuts it in between the small particles of resin dust, creating finer tones. Unlike mezzo-tints, in this process the tones are created from lighter to darker by increasing the time of submergence in acid.

Finally, in the intaglio process of dry point, grooves are cut directly into the plate with a sharp tool, which leaves a burr on the edge of the groove and therefore creates a different quality of line in the impression. However, in this process lines cannot be cut very deep and the burrs are evened out after few prints, making larger edition numbers impossible.

Planography techniques include lithography, mono type, and digital printmaking. In 1798, Alois Senefelder invented the process of lithography, based on the chemical repulsion of oil and water. A porous surface, normally limestone, is used as the matrix in the process, and the image is drawn on it with a greasy medium. The grease is burned into the surface with a mild acid, and the non-greased portions are cleaned and sealed with Gum Arabic. The stone is wet, with water staying only on the surface not covered in the grease-based residue of the drawing, and an oil-based ink is applied with a roller covering the entire surface. Since water repels the oil in the ink, the ink adheres only to the greasy parts, perfectly inking the image. A sheet of dry paper is placed on the surface, and the image is transferred to the paper by the pressure of the printing press. Lithography is known for its ability to capture fine gradations in shading and very minute detail. A variant is photo-lithography, in which the image is captured by photographic processes on metal plates, but printing is carried out in the same way.

The fourth major category of printing is stencil, which can be divided into two processes: screen printing and pochoir. Whereas screen printing is very popular and has wide commercial applications today, pochoir is less well-known and practiced, and presently, there are only two printmaking Ateliers in Paris that employ this process.

In screen printing, the artist draws or paints an image on a piece of paper, plastic or polymer film. The image is then cut out, creating a stencil that is used as the printing area. A screen is made of a piece of fabric (originally silk) stretched over a wood or aluminum frame, and the stencil is fixed to the screen. Modern technology has enabled the use of direct and indirect photo-emulsions which are sensitive to ultraviolet light to transfer the artists drawing to a screen for printing. This means that the artists renderings on transparent film can be exactly reproduced on a nylon screen coated this emulsion. The light sensitive emulsion fills in the entire screen, the transparent film upon which the artist has drawn is laid upon the screen and both are placed in the exposure unit. Where the light passes through the transparent film, the emulsion is exposed and hardens. Where the artist’s markings on the film block the passage of light, the emulsion is not exposed and can be released from the screen on washing, creating a stencil on the screen that reproduces the artists markings to the finest detail.

The screen is then placed on top of almost any substrate, including paper, glass and fabric, and ink is placed across its top edge. A fiberglass or rubber blade is used to spread the ink across the screen, over the stencil, and through the open mesh onto the substrate below. The screen is lifted once the image has been transferred. Like woodcuts and lithographs, colors may be added layer by layer through separate stencils and screens. The screens can be re-used after cleaning.

With the advancement of technology, digital, computer and video art also offer multiples of a single image, and therefore may be considered sub-categories of printmaking. However, the acceptance of such newer process and the expansion of the traditional four-fold division of printmaking have generated major debates in the global community of print-makers.

The History of Printmaking in India

Contemporary printmaking came to India in 1556, about a hundred years after Guttenberg’s Bible was first printed. At this time, printmaking was used merely as a device to duplicate and reproduce. There is, however, evidence that the use of the concept of mass duplication dates even further back in India, to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. For instance, grants of land were originally recorded by engraving the information on copper plates and etchings on different surfaces like wood, bone, ivory and shells have been documented as an important craft of that time. Nevertheless, printmaking as a media for artistic expression, as it is recognized today, emerged in India less than eighty years ago.

The book, Compendia Spiritual da Vide Christaa (Spiritual Compendium of Christian Life) by Gaspar De Leo was printed in Goa in 1561. This book has been recorded as the earliest surviving printed compilation in India. A few years later, in 1568, the first illustrated cover was printed in Goa for the book Constituciones do Arcebispado d’Goa (Constitution of Archdiocese Goa). The illustration, an image of a traditional doorway or entrance, was done using the relief technique of woodblock. Thirteen such books were printed in Goa between 1556 and 1588.

The process of intaglio printing was introduced in India by the Danish missionary, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg. He published a book titled The Evangelists and the Acts of The Apostles, which was printed in Tranqueber (a district in Tamil Nadu, which was then a colony of Denmark). The opening page of this book had an etching printed in a shade of brown. This became one of the first recorded instances of color printing in India. Another book of Ziegenbalg’s, Gramatica Damulica, displays the earliest example of plate engraving.

In 1767, the British painter Tilly Kettle traveled to Madras. Several other artists followed soon after, and between 1767 and 1820 about sixty amateur artists from other countries visited India. A number of these artists worked and eventually settled in Calcutta, then the capital of British India. Two prominent artists from this time were William Daniell and Thomas Daniell. In 1786 the Daniells published the album, Twelve Views of Calcutta, containing twelve original etchings of William’s drawings of the city. All the etchings were printed in monochrome and individually stained in color ink. This was the first time anyone had explored the possibility of single sheet printing on a large scale in India.

The earliest printed illustration (a woodblock print) can be found in the book entitled Balbodha Muktavali, printed in Tanjore in 1806. However, the first example of an illustration printed by an Indian artist was part of the Bengali book, Onoodah Mongal (a compilation of tales of Biddha and Soonder). The book was published by Ganga Kishore Bhattacheryee and printed at the Ferris and Company press, Calcutta, in 1816. There are two engraved illustrations in this book, which are accompanied by the inscription ‘Engraved by Ramachand Roy’.

After studying publications of intaglio prints in Calcutta, it is evident that intaglio print presses were well established in the city by 1780s. However, the first lithographic single sheet print was printed there only in 1822 by a French artist, De Savignac. Savignac re-created, as a lithograph, a portrait of Hastings originally painted by George Chinnery. The first examples of lithographic illustrations were printed for a book, at the Government Lithographic press in Kolkata in 1824. As the demand for printed pictures for calendars, books and other publications grew in the 1870s, and as single sheet display prints (fine art prints) gained popularity, several art studios and printmaking presses flourished all over India.

Bat-tala, a name derived from a giant Banyan tree in the Shova Bazaar and Chitpur areas of Kolkata, and presently the name of a police station in the city, was the hub of Indian printmaking activities in the 19th century. The printing and publication industry that developed in the vicinity of the banyan was also known as Bat-tala, and maintained its reputation as one of the country’s most important publication centers until the end of the 19th century.

During their time spent in India, the British were keen to introduce their education system and encourage the talent of craft and design-oriented artists. This in turn provided them with a means to fulfill the demand for Indian crafts in the foreign market they supplied.

The art school in Madras was founded by Dr. Alexander Hunter in 1850. Other schools that were established during the same period by the British included the School of Industrial Arts in Calcutta, in 1854; the Sir J.J. School of Arts in Bombay, in 1866; the Jeypore School of Industrial Art in Jaipur, in 1866; and the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, in 1875.

Raja Ravi Varma was the first artist in India who used printmaking, not as an artistic medium in itself, but as a means for his art to reach the masses. To achieve his purpose, he set up his own lithographic press towards the end of the 19th century, known as the Ravi Varma press in Ghatkopar, Bombay. Here he copied several of his religious and secular paintings and printed them as glossy oleo graphs.

The practice of printmaking as a fine art medium gained immense popularity with the establishment of Kala Bhavan founded by the Tagores in 1919. An earlier organization, also established by the Tagores, was the Bichitra Club – where new styles of painting and printmaking were explored. The three Tagore brothers, Abanindranath, Gagendranath and Samarendranath (nephews of Rabindranath Tagore), transformed the veranda of their Jorasanko residence into a meeting ground for the club and frequently hosted art salons there. Of the three brothers who spearheaded the Bichitra Club, artist Gagendranath Tagore took a special interest in lithography, and set up his own lithographic press in 1917. He later published an album of his prints.

Another prominent member of the Bichitra Club was artist Mukul Chandra Dey, who went to America in 1916 to learn the technique of etching from James Blinding Slone. He traveled again, in 1920, to England where he studied etching and engraving under Murohead Bone before returning in 1926. Dey was the first Indian artist who went abroad to learn graphic art.

Nandalal Bose was another artist closely associated with the Bichitra Club. He left Calcutta to take charge of Kala Bhavan, which was newly established at that time. Initially, only a few artists demonstrated and taught the various processes of printmaking at Kala Bhavan. However, with time, more and more artists grew familiar with printmaking as an art form and pursued it frequently. Ramendranath Chakravorty, Binode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinker Baij, Manindra Bhusan Gupta and Biswarup Bose are some of the Indian artists who generated and sustained the great interest in printmaking during the 1930s and 40s. They experimented freely with its various techniques and created several intaglio and relief prints. This was the turning point for printmaking in India, as artists no longer associated the techniques with their reproductive value, but instead, concentrated on using them to make fine art.

Kanwal Krishna is another important Indian printmaker who deserves a mention here. Krishna initially received his training in painting from the Government College of Art in Calcutta. In 1951, he went to Europe to further his education. While in Paris, he learnt the newly developed printing technique of multi-colored intaglio, under the guidance of renowned printmaker William Hayter. When he came back to India in 1955, Krishna set up his own printing press where he practiced the processes of multi-colored intaglio and collagraphy. Krishna’s prints were vivid in color and had highly textured surfaces, qualities that made his work tremendously popular amongst his contemporaries.

Somnath Hore is another artist who contributed greatly to the development of printmaking in India. During his time as a student at the Government College of Art in Calcutta, Hore printed just a few wood engravings. After his graduation, however, the artist continued to research and experiment with various processes in the field of practical printmaking, mastering many of them including relief, multi-colored intaglio and lithography.

K.G. Subramanyan is an extraordinary artist who effortlessly incorporated several printmaking processes and materials into his already diverse oeuvre. A large range of lithographic prints make up the portfolio he produced during his time at Santi Niketan. Besides lithography, Subramanyan is also fluent in serigraphy and single sheet display prints. He has also printed illustrations for several children’s books, which were published during his stint as a teacher at the M.S. University in Baroda.

Another artist who has made an outstanding contribution to Indian printmaking is K. Laxma Goud. Originally from Hyderabad, Goud spent his student days at the M.S. University in Baroda, studying under masters like K.G. Subramanyan. He excelled in printmaking and went on to play an important role in the evolution of the field, especially in etching and aquatints. Other prominent printmakers of period immediately following Indian independence include Sanat Kar, Lalu Prasad Shaw and Amitava Banerjee.

The 1960s and 70s brought to the fore printmakers like Jyoti Bhatt, who also received his training in Baroda. Jyoti Bhatt went on to study at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York, where he mastered the various techniques of intaglio printing. On his return in 1966, he created a studio for himself in Baroda and dedicated himself entirely to printmaking.

In 1990, the Indian Printmakers Guild was established. Over the years, it has been successful in building awareness about the medium and creating appreciation for it. The members of the group include Ananda Moy Banerji, Dattatraya Apte, Jayant Gajera, K.R. Subbanna, Bula Bhattacharya, Jayant Gajera, Kavita Nayar, Kanchan Chander, Moti Zharotia, Sushanta Guha, Sukhvinder Singh, Subba Ghosh, and Shukla Sawant. They are all devoted printmakers, and apart from being practicing artists, they run several programs and workshops for aspiring printmakers.

Chhaap, literally meaning stamp or impression, is a printmaking workshop in Baroda established on a cooperative basis in 1999. Chhaap is promoted by the artists and printmakers Gulammohammed Sheikh, Vijay Bagodi and Kavita Shah. The organization aspires to promote printmaking and continually offers new work opportunities to artists, enabling them to investigate and experiment with the different techniques. The infrastructure of Chhaap is well equipped for all mediums of printmaking and is often visited by many senior and international artists. The facilities are also open to art students and other printmaking enthusiasts.

Other such printmaking collectives and spaces include the Garhi and Lalit Kala studios in New Delhi; the Rashtriya Lalit Kala Studio in Lucknow; Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal; the Print Studio and Academy of Fine Arts in Mumbai; and the Kanoria Centre for Arts in Ahmedabad, among several others.

In recent years, with the advent of computer graphics, different software programs, scanners and printers, the notion of printmaking has changed dramatically. The classic hands-on approaches have now been replaced by entirely automated ones. Prints of images created or manipulated on a computer can now be created at the push of a button. This technology has led to some interesting variations on traditional prints, as can be seen in the works of artists like Bharti Kher, Jyoti Bhatt, Nataraj Sharma, Ravi Kashi, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Shukla Sawant amongst many others. Whether such works can be classified as fine art prints, however, is a never-ending debate.