A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those worth a thousand dollars tend to be valued a bit more highly. With modern print techniques as they are, however, anyone can afford to adorn a home with masterful reproductions of pricey prints.
For under $17, one can re-wallpaper his or her bedroom with a giant-scale print of Monet’s “Waterlilies” or Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night.” Perhaps not a decorating move you’d see advocated by Home and Garden Television, but great for the art afficionado on a budget. So, short of securing an original, is this the only option open to collectors — a high-quality copy of artwork made by the same process that mass produces 40″ x 60″ posters of Eminem and Janet Jackson?
The answer to this question can be found by examining the workings of Tandem Press, a local printmaking studio located at 201 S. Dickinson St. in Madison. Tandem is a self-supporting studio that was founded in 1987 by Bill Weege to foster research, collaboration, experimentation and innovation in the field of printmaking. The organization has a great commitment to education, due to its tie with the Department of Art in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“There is tremendous energy at Tandem because of the creativity that takes place between the artists and master printers, and the presence of the students keeps everything very dynamic,” says Paula Panczenko, executive director of Tandem Press. The art produced at the studio includes the works of such world-famous artists as Judy Pfaff, Jim Dine, Gronk and director David Lynch, all designed in-house at Tandem.
Said Lynch in a 1997 talk, “[Printing] has the same sort of excitement as when you go to the photo shop to get your pictures back. Even though you took them, they never come out exactly the way you see them through the camera. There is always some sort of surprise, and that’s the way it is with printmaking. With action and reaction, exciting things begin to happen.” Lynch has produced many intriguing works at Tandem, including a composition that used actual dead flies.
Prints created at Tandem’s studio are the progeny of a union between a printer’s skill and an artist’s vision. “It is a long-standing tradition of printer as craftsperson, enabling the artist to create unique works of art on paper in multiples,” said Andrew Rubin, master printer at Tandem. “Modern printers continue this tradition.”
Often the artist does not craft the final product directly, but rather affects it through the intermediary of a printing surface. This surface is inked and used to create numerous impressions, usually not exceeding 40 at Tandem Press. When the printing has been completed, the printing surface is typically destroyed, orphaning the small family of prints, called editions. Numerous steps may be involved in the process, including multiple runs through the press with various inks and customized additions.
For example, recent prints at Tandem Press include a work by Cameron Martin, titled “Dragnalus,” which used a gradient of metallic silver ink awash in greens and blues. The printers really had to earn their keep at Tandem when working on a print by Judy Pfaff, who transformed the printers into botanists to collect elements of plant matter to be used in a composition. Each print requires a great deal of individual attention.
The basic print process can be any of three employed by Tandem Press: relief, intaglio or lithography. Relief printing is the result of a printing surface that has been carved to remove all non-image areas. The material that has been left standing is then inked and forced against paper to create an image rich in dark-light contrast.
Woodcuts and wood engravings, linocuts and wood and metal type are the main uses of relief printing. This technique dates to ninth century China, and went on to have significant impact in northern Europe during the 16th century. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, relief printing was revived to become an important artistic method once more.
Intaglio printing is the inverse of relief printing, in which the surface that introduces ink and paper recesses instead of protrudes. The incision is the result of engraving with a sharp tool, or can be bitten into the metal plate by an acid solution. Ink is first applied all over the printing surface, then wiped clean so that only the ink hiding below the surface is saved from extinction.
When going through the press, the paper is dampened and pressured against the printing surface to coax the remaining ink out of exile into public view on the paper. Normally the paper is larger than the printing plate, so that the plate’s impression remains in the form of a platemark. Intaglio printing is expressed by a genus of techniques including engraving, drypoint, mezzotints, etching and aquatint.
Lastly, the printing process known as lithography relies on the polarity of the materials used to work its magic. The image is drawn onto a lithographic plate or stone with a greasy crayon or liquid, then dampened and finally rolled with ink. The image areas repel water but accept ink, while non-image areas do the converse.
After being run through the press, the hydrophobic ink is relinquished to paper to form the final image. Although the newest of the three described printing techniques, developed into maturity as recently as the late 1800s, it has been used to great effect by such famous artists as Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
All of these techniques are on exhibit in the gallery of Tandem Press during normal business hours. The public is welcome to browse the gallery, as well as to attend the artist lecture series held throughout the year at the Elvehjem Museum. Also, Tandem’s Holiday Open House is Dec. 6 and is a great opportunity to see these techniques being demonstrated. Expect to find almost anything that can be put on canvas — anything, promises curator Tim Rooney, but the latest pop superstar.