Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Photopolymer Intaglio Printing Process used in Character Traits

The intaglio printing process I am using in Character Traits is fairly standard, with just a few peculiarities based on my use of photopolymer plates. For most of the plates, particularly those with thicker line work, I need to modify the ink I'm using by adding a substantial quantity of magnesium carbonate. Without the magnesium, the ink is too easily wiped out of the lines prior to printing, and, during printing, has trouble holding a crisp edge. Polymer plates also present some difficulty during the inking and wiping process due to their light weight—they don't want to sit still, and an already messy process quickly becomes unmanageable. To compensate, I am taking advantage of the plates' steel backing by sticking them on Bunting magnetic bases while inking and wiping. This keeps the plate in place and gives me a larger surface on which to work. To protect the surface of the magnetic bases I place a sheet of stiff cover stock between plate and base. The paper barrier also makes lifting the plate from the magnet much easier than it would be otherwise. 

For most plates, the steps are as follows: 
Place the plate down on the paper-covered magnetic base  

Draw ink across the plate with a plastic squeegee, rocking the edge back and forth to force the ink into the larger areas; scrape the surface of the plate with the squeegee to remove excess ink
Wipe with tarlatan twice (with each tarlatan session I use progressively cleaner pieces of material to prevent ink transferring back to the plate from the tarlatan)
Wipe with the edge of my hand vertically, horizontally, and at 45 degrees. Then wipe a third time with tarlatan
Lift the plate off the magnetic base and use a galley magnet to hold the plate while wiping the edges with mineral spirits

Place a cleaner sheet of paper on the base before replacing the plate (throughout the edition I regular change these sheets of paper to prevent ink transferring back from the paper to the plate during wiping)
Wipe with tarlatan and then polish with newsprint, repeating this process once or twice depending on the plate

Clean the edges one last time
Place the plate on the bed of the press
Then Nancy places the dampened sheet of paper, cranks the press and lifts the print, after which we begin the process again

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Frank Worsley plate from Character Traits

The idea for Character Traits took root while reading The Europeans by Henry James in 2011. As I read the book I found myself copying out a surprisingly long list of descriptions of the novel’s characters. For some time afterward I toyed with the idea of making a lettering book in which I designed unique lettering for each of James’ descriptions. Eventually I put the idea in the back of my mind and went on to other things. Then in 2013, I was struck in quick succession by a few different descriptions of human character traits, most poignantly one by Frank Worsley, the Captain of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition: “The rapidity with which one can change one’s ideas…and accommodate ourselves to a state of barbarism is wonderful.” Suddenly, the lettering book idea came back to me, but with an added depth. Rather than a specimen of lettering inspired by Henry James’ insightful humor, I began to imagine a book in which the texts reflected a broader picture of the human experience, touching on some of the darker (and/or comedic) realities of the human condition. I began gathering texts in notebooks as I came across them. 

For Worsley's text I wanted lettering that progressively changed from more to less familiar, skirting the edge of illegibility but not quite getting there. Below are two early sketches of the plate, as well as the finished print from both the standard (one color) and deluxe (two colors) editions of Character Traits.


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Character Traits Progress & Binding Mock-Up

Committing to spend a year or more working on a single book can be an intimidating prospect, and most book artists I know procrastinate as long as possible before fully committing to work. The hesitation is rooted in an understanding of what a large-scale project entails. It is not simply a question of hard work, that's a given. Rather, working on a "big" book means committing to let a single idea, however rich or complex, permeate and consume every aspect of your life for as long as it takes to finish. It can feel alternately like casting yourself adrift on a calming sea or locking yourself in a windowless room, and the experience of every such book I’ve made has been one of shuttling between calm certainty and existential terror. The time it takes to travel from certainty to terror (and hopefully back again) alternates, but it can be surprisingly short. A good hour of work can be followed by an afternoon of crushing doubt, alleviated by an insomniac insight that often doesn't pan out the next morning. 

One reason for this convoluted process is that the book I think I am making when I begin is only part of the book that I end up with when I’m done; and the greatest challenge in the early days of the process is discovering what the book I am making is actually about. This can lead to all sorts of unexpected avenues of inquiry, opening into poignant self-analysis that was not part of the original bargain at all. I just wanted to make a book! But slowly the slog begins to yield results, the ideas get worked out, and the book gradually takes shape.

This was my experience of Character Traits for most of this past January. For weeks, every letterform that I drew seemed to put me one step further from my goal, every day I became more certain that forward progress was impossible. I would spend three days drawing an alphabet for one of the pages, only to realize that it was all wrong. Convinced that I had learned what was needed, I would repeat the process with the same results. The most infuriating part of this kind of struggle, the seeming lack of progress, is knowing deep down that it is actually how one progresses through certain stages of creative work. After three weeks of getting nowhere, I suddenly had six plates complete and ready for printing. I now have twelve plates ready for editioning, all have been proofed, and I’ve begun printing the first one this week. I’ll be showing the prints, along with Amy Borezo’s fantastic binding mock-up, at the ManhattanFine Press Book Fair on March 10th, and the Oxford Fine Press BookFair on the 24th and 25th. Photos of the binding are below.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Character Traits begins

After a few years of reading and a year of intermittent drawing, I have settled into full time work on my next book, Character Traits. The book consists of three parts: a bound essay with a section of notes on the plates; a portfolio of unbound plates; and, accompanying the deluxe copies, a small volume of color studies cut in linoleum. The plates are short texts by various authors, set in alphabets that are either impossible to produce in metal type, or so impractical that they would never have been produced in metal. The purpose of these limitations is to explore digitally native letterforms free from the limitations of typographic technology. (I discuss the basic technological ideas behind Character Traits in an earlier post.)

In keeping with the non-typographic aspect of the project, I am printing the texts from intaglio rather than relief plates. The intaglio process allows for highly intense colors but, unlike my recent relief color printing, it does not work well with color overlay. The recesses of the intaglio plates are inked in a single color, and, if I want a second color, it is top-rolled onto the relief surface of the plate.* This produces two color prints in which the colors are adjacent to, rather than on top of, one another. After years of thinking of color as developing in vertical layers, the change to a horizontal coexistence of no more than two colors seemed as foreign as speaking an unknown language.

To begin to deal with this new two-color reality, I spent five weeks looking at colors in combination around the tiny town of Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland this past summer, while on residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation. When asked, most people would say that County Mayo Ireland only has two colors: green and brown. Those in a generous mood might add gray to the list or, if particularly open minded, blue. Long views of the landscape generally back up this prejudice: green pastureland and brown bogs, ending at gray rocks that sawtooth into the alternately gray or blue sea, under an alternately gray or blue sky.

On closer inspection, the landscape that at a distance appears a patchwork of monochromes is actually composed of a great variety of color, with purples predominating, flanked by reds, oranges, yellows, and an unchartable gradation of greens, grays, browns, etc. Charlotte Brontë described the general impression of this type of landscape beautifully in Jane Eyre, "I felt the consecration of its loneliness: my eye feasted on the outline of swell and sweep—on the wild colouring communicated to ridge and dell by moss, by heath-bell, by flower-sprinkled turf, by brilliant bracken, and mellow granite crag." As one zooms in, the landscape gets progressively more colorful

During my time in Ballycastle, I spent my days walking through the landscape looking for unexpected, unusual, or pleasing examples of two colors adjacent to one another. I then noted my observations in small, two-color gouache paintings that are the basis for the volume of color studies that will accompany the deluxe copies of Character Traits.

Since all of the paintings are bordered by four straight sides, transferring them to linoleum is a fairly simple process. I first draw the outline of the shape's outer border on the block. Then I trace the interior color separations onto tracing vellum and transfer the tracing to the block. Once transferred, Nancy Loeber cuts the blocks (she can hold a better line than I can).

Once cut, the height of the block is measured with a micrometer in order to bring it to type height for printing. We then mark the blocks with a T (for top of image), the block number to insure proper imposition, and the amount of extra under-sheeting the block requires to bring it to 0.918 inches (the block below requires 4 sheets of cover stock plus a 0.005" sheet of mylar to make it type high). To register the second color block we print an impression from the key block onto the cylinder tympan sheet, and then offset it onto a fresh block.

When the blocks are ready, I spend a day proofing to match the ink colors to my original paint colors. This is a process that requires a certain amount of compromise as the inks have a different pigment content and surface texture/finish than the paints: the inks reflect light differently than the gouache, so even the closest color match will always look and feel somewhat off. But then the gouache paintings are also significantly different than the natural colors they were meant to record; and those natural colors look different at different times of day and in different qualities of light. So, we do what we can. When a color is deemed right, I package it up in a sheet of oiled tympan paper until we're ready to edition.

The linoleum cuts are printed on sheets of Kelmscott Crown & Sceptre paper made in 1923. It is an extraordinary paper in that it is quite thin but, regardless of impression or ink level, it does not show the slightest cockle or stretch when printed. This was also a concern when considering the paper I would use for the intaglio plates that make up the bulk of the book. The two-color plates in particular combine enormous pressure with a great deal of ink, both factors that can render a beautiful sheet of paper unsightly. After a few conversations with Travis Becker at Twinrocker Handmade Paper, Travis devised a paper that prints beautifully and presses to perfect flatness after printing. We will begin editioning the intaglio plates in February, but below are a couple of details of prints in progress.

* There are, of course, ways to add additional colors to intaglio plates—a la poupeé, stencils, etc. I may end up employing one or more of these methods as I progress through Character Traits, but at the moment I am enjoying the limitation of one or two colors.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bodleian Libraries' Residency

This past October and November I spent four weeks in Oxford, England as the Bodleian Libraries' inaugural Printer-in-Residence. The residency was structured around a public lecture, Making Third Stream Books in the Post-Digital Age; a couple of seminars, New Books Need New Type and Shakespeare & Shandies; and the idea that I would produce a small personal project at the Bodleian's Bibliographical Press. The Press is located in the previous residence of the Schola Musicae in the courtyard of the Old Bodleian. It features a number of hand presses, including Albions from the Daniel Press and Gehenna Press, as well as a Western flatbed cylinder press, a selection of metal and wood types, and an impressive view of the Radcliffe Camera.

The light drenched, cloistered printshop provided me with a significantly different work environment than my windowless Brooklyn studio:

My personal project and one of the seminars, New Books Need New Type, centered on my metal-type-in-progress, Hungry Dutch, which is based in part on the types purchased by Bishop Fell for the Oxford University Press in the seventeenth century. Prior to arriving in Oxford, however, I was asked to lead another seminar about the Bodleian's Shakespeare sonnet project. In 2016, the Bodleian put out an open call for printers to choose and print one of the sonnets to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. To my surprise, all of the sonnets were chosen, and all but one were printed and delivered. The project's call for entries neglected to put any size or material limitations on the prints, which resulted in a remarkably diverse array of physical objects, from a beer coaster to a wooden card-catalog file drawer. I took this diversity of interpretation as an opportunity to explore the various approaches one can take, and problems one can encounter, when printing Shakespeare.

When we consider the First Folio, what is it about the book that inspires such awe and reverence in us? Is it the title portrait, our singular (imagined) graven image of Willy himself? Or the book's perceived rarity (even though by rare book standards the first folio is not rare)? Or do we imagine, like religious penitents, that in this book the actual words of Shakespeare are made manifest? Because the veracity of the text has been wildly contested for centuries. The First Folio challenges our primary assumptions about books: that their texts are immutable and authoritative, and that, once printed, these texts will remain inviolate. Instead, there is something wonderfully unstable about Shakespearean texts that makes them amenable to change, in the same way that any script is tweaked, re-arranged, and adjusted over the life of its performance. In any but the most conservative productions of Shakespeare's plays this instability is accepted and expected; novelty and experimentation are effective prerequisites for theatrical productions of Shakespeare.

The same cannot be said of printed editions of Shakespeare, which typically err on the conservative side typographically. There may be a flourish or two, the occasional bit of unexpected typography, or some innovative illustration, but for the most part printed editions of Shakespeare's texts are laid out as we expect them to be laid out. This is partly due to length. The plays, longer poems, and sonnets (when printed in sequence) are simply too long to bear out typographic experimentation over their entire length. So the sonnet project provided printers with a rare opportunity to relish brevity when dealing with Shakespeare.

In structure, my seminars were intended to explore ideas in theory and practice. They began by looking at printed materials in the Weston Library, and continued with hands-on printing in the Bibliographical Press. This model is particularly rewarding in a library such as the Bodleian. In addition to looking at submissions to the sonnet project, we also were able to call up copies of the 1609 Sonnets and the First Folio.

For the hands-on section of the Shakespeare seminar I set a passage from King Lear in two ways. The settings were designed to emphasize the difference between traditional and interpretive typography—one was set in 14pt Bell type and laid out as we would expect, the other in 14pt Caslon and laid out and printed in a highly unconventional manner. The unconventional setting I used is one of those ideas that has followed me around for decades. There is a group of books that I have always imagined I would print but know deep down that I never will. One of them is King Lear. The reason I know I won't print it is because I have a single graphic image of how I would like it to look, and that image has never changed or developed. It is an image I like but it is not complex enough to sustain itself through the entire text of Lear. The principle is simple: rather than concentrating on Lear's madness, my design would emphasize how mad everyone else appears to Lear. To convey this, Lear's lines would be printed in black ink and positioned traditionally, while everyone else's text would be printed in varying acid colors and printed from type that is not locked up on the press. As these unlocked lines are printed, the letters move and shake, occasionally fall down, resulting in jumbled, out-of-focus words.

Spending time with the sonnet submissions provoked me to reconsider my personal printing project at the Press. Originally, I had intended to make a word puzzle using the fourteen letters of Hungry Dutch that have thus far been produced. But as I thought more about it I realized that I wanted to string words together. I might not have enough letters to make sense, but at least my print would look like language rather than just a bunch of random words set in a grid. As I teased out lines of gibberish, I arranged them into fourteen lines of ten syllables each, rhymed in a Petrarchan scheme of A B B A A B B A C D C C D C. I can't claim that they're in iambic pentameter, but I've never claimed to be a sonneteer either. In a nod to the surprising number of sonnets submitted to the Bodleian in translation, I decided to translate the title, "Sonnet of the Hungry Dutch," into Italian, "Il Sonetto dell'Olandese Affamato."

The fourteen letters that I currently have of Hungry Dutch, C H O N a e f g h i n o p t, consist of the thirteen medial trial characters and the N. The medial trial characters are the thirteen letters that Montoype would produce first when manufacturing a new typeface in order to confirm that the type design worked. Hungry Dutch was designed, on principle but unintentionally, to fail this test. Most of my type designs are created with the idea that the industrial principles of alignment and standardization (the principles that Monotype perfected in metal type design) are neither expedient nor desirable when using digital tools.* Hungry Dutch is an extreme example of this approach. I designed the roman and italic typefaces in two days while referencing low resolution images of some of the seventeenth century Fell types.** Although I have made considerable adjustments to the original design to make it work for Monotype, I have tried to maintain the lively irregularity of the digital typeface. To show that my irregular alignment was not entirely without precedent, I decided to print the medial trial setting alongside the same basic setting in the original Fell Great Primer type.*** In order to set the Fell type I had to happily make my way to Whittington Press near Cheltenham, where some of the original types live after being deaccessioned by Oxford University Press.

* Although I prefer wavy alignment, the type used to set the sonnet is more irregular than I would prefer. The only way I had enough type to set the sonnet was to use two unaligned castings from two different foundries.
** I originally designed the digital type for my book Hungry Bibliophiles. You can read about the digital type here and the metal type here.
*** The Fell type is set in the actual medial trial setting, whereas the Hungry Dutch trial setting text has been modified to accommodate the N