The art of printmaking which originated in China around 105 A.D. used stone rubbing as the earliest medium to do relief printing—even earlier than woodcuts—and is having a fair amount of popularity in the contemporary art world.
While wood and rubber have been used for relief printing, some modern techniques have started to push the boundaries of the process. At the galleries at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, an exhibit that runs until October 23rd called “Multiple Ones: Contemporary Perspectives in Printmedia” shows prints on medium including porcelain, melting ice and also recycled wood.
20 artists selected for the exhibit show just how versatile printmaking can be, with three dimensional sculptures and large-scale installations.
While screen printed and woodcut designs can be large scale (the later is a bit labor-intensive, so to do a really big work with different type of woodcuts would take quite a bit of time—not to mention that the images need to be printed in reverse!), it was not always easy to find exceptionally large-scale printmaking works.
But that has started to change.
Some artists have used steamrollers to create large-scale prints, and this has turned into a sort of trend in and of itself, with many contemporary galleries like the UU Gallery in north Ephraim featuring large steamrolled woodcuts by printmaker Chris Style from her series, “Stories from the Heart.”
“Steamrolling has been around for a while, but more people are doing it now,” she said, adding that people especially love the wow factor of seeing it done. Style, who retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, said that students loved the large scale printmaking classes.
But how did a steamroller—a piece of slow-moving machinery really used in construction work to flatten the surfaces of roads—come to be associated with the arts and crafts world? Powered by a steam engine, the rather intimidating-looking machine was used even for crushing objects!
Steamrollers in printing are not of course that heavy as in construction: under the drum of a two-ton steamroller, many artists get their oversized woodblocks printed onto fabric or any other medium of their choice. The big issue here is one of scale: artists find that steamrolling a print can help produce large-scale and impressive works much more easily. There are also many events across the country that bring artists together: watching a steamroller flatten and print works is quite fascinating, almost like watching a rodeo or a NASCAR race!
In June, 2018, professor Claudia Willburn organized Brenau University’s first “Colossal Prints” event at the Gainesville campus and drew a lot of interested participants who learned something new. The idea of printmaking as a large-scale art form is gaining more traction with the student community, who are now exposed to different techniques and a notion that small is not always the trend.
Big woodblock printing can be a team effort, as much of relief printing can be on such a large scale, but steamrolling is a technique that helps transfer the ink in a smooth and even way to the fabric (or whatever medium you choose). Some avant-garde techniques, including a 4’ x 8’ mobile printing press called “The Big Tuna” created by New Hampshire-based BIG INK, have started to come around to help artists with large scale relief printmaking. These techniques have now started to become a bit more mainstream, and places like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hold artist demonstrations to educate the general public about what’s going on.
While large works, like tapestries and wall hangings, are still very labor intensive and often very intricate, printmaking has a wide range of possibilities. In Prague, VAWAA artists Ondrej & Jan show guests how to make Calico patterns and encourage them to create stationary products using hand-printed paper.
With modern techniques, the possibilities of printmaking have started to become broader. But—as steamrolling makes a comeback—it is especially wonderful to see how much older techniques have started to be put into edgier uses.
This trend has especially found favor with the college crowd.
At the University of Georgia in two campuses, the printmaker and noted woodcut artist from Mississippi, Sean Starwars—who is known for his large-scale color woodcuts—will have work featured until the end of October.
Starwars, who does a lot of woodcuts on the themes of robots and sci-fi characters including Frankenstein and Darth Vader, loves experimenting with color. “I’ve made a lot of robots lately,” he writes on his Instagram channel. “I might make (work) into a multi color print, or maybe not.”
For learning calico and screen printmaking in Prague, check out Ondrej & Jan's 3-day studio session.
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