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.