Penland Letterpress: Session 3 Words & Pictures

What I saw on my morning walk to class:
non-stop amounts of 100% real natural beauty.

As I mentioned down below earlier on this Picture Engine thing, I had the great honor and privilege of teaching a class at Penland a few weeks back. This was an awesome opportunity for about forty-thousand reasons, the chief and most simple reason among them being that Penland is one of my top favorite places on the whole planet of the Earth. Plus, now that I’m done with school, I for the moment don’t have access to any presses and so it was just extremely nice to get back on a press again and to print something for the plain old pure joy of it (which of course it generally is a joy, anyway). Also, you know, when you do the kind of work I do, it’s always pretty much only me and Pandora alone in a smallish room doodling and carving and sewing, so it was fantastic to get out and meet brand new humans and to talk with them for two weeks straight about how to do art on a Vandercook. And my wife got to go, too! Which meant she could see firsthand everything I had raved to her about before. I always kind of thought she thought I was exaggerating, since I’m sort of known for that, but this time I completely wasn’t, so now she knows.

Me at the Duensing Letterpress & Print Studio.
Maybe the first time my face has ever been on this blog.
Yikes, basically. But what a gorgeous building!

I’m not the kind of instructor who drives up in a truck loaded down with heavy theories. Instead, most of my preferred theories are non-heavy due to them being full of loopholes. Mainly, my whole thing is I really just want to get two messages across: one is that there are good and valid reasons for why traditional shop practices work the way they do and that following the rules about how to use presses isn’t really optional. The other message is: once you know how to operate a Vandercook the right way, there are, as far as I’m concerned, no rules about the text and imagery you print.

I was glad to see how quickly folks dove into their work.
Most of my students didn’t have a ton of letterpress experience,
and yet they all went from zero to high speed in a week,
while keeping in mind to print slow to allow for “dwell”.

Now, I know that second part, the “no rules” part, can sound a little too permissive, but I don’t mean you don’t have to stand by what you make, that you don’t have to explain/defend/justify it, because it is altogether fitting and proper that artists totally do have to do that. And so I definitely don’t mean there ought not be tough (and yet fair, and, hopefully, constructive) critiques. But that being said, I love that all kinds of different people have all kinds of different ideas. And I especially love it when students start getting comfortable enough with printing to start experimenting, because that, to me, is what it’s all about: discovering new ways to sneak outside the box, even while we understand and respect all the technical demands. So I guess I’m not “trad” vs. “rad”. I think I’m more like “rad” plus “trad” equals extra bonus quantities of “rad”. If that makes sense (please tell me it makes sense, even if only the sideways kind).

Josh working on a Sandragraph, which is almost the same thing as a
collagraph, except it’s on a near-type-high block and will only get relief-rolled.

Sandragraphs drying in the sun. They might look relatively featureless,
but collagraphs can add rich, complex textures to the printed piece.

The thing is, I don’t even feel like this is a super-unusual place to be. I mean, I see amazing work every day that looks like it came from people with the same ideas as I have, which says to me they’re not even really my ideas, but probably more like grains of pollen that land on all of us. Granted, sometimes pollen can make you sneeze (or worse), but it’s also how flowers make brand new flowers. And, you know, before I extend that metaphor (if that’s what it is) any further, I’ll just stop mentioning flowers and pollen, if that’s all right. A better way to say it, anyway, would be to say that I think lots of us (maybe even most of us) are about marrying thoughtful, excellent technique to the unruliness of an unfettered imagination. Which can make for a bumptious marriage, for sure. But never a dull moment, you know? Actually, the hard part’s not even the technique part, although to learn letterpress well takes about 1.5 lifetimes. Getting the double-knotted fetters off those flickering little ghosts trapped in the bottoms of the coalmines in our heads, that’s a way bigger challenge. Or it is for me, at least. The other challenge being: how to come up with better imagery for what I’m trying to say. I mean, ghosts in coalmines? What? Freakwater on heavy rotation is likely having a subliminal effect.

I was especially glad to see people mix up wild colors.
It’s always fun to see a grey old Vandercook with pink
or chartreuse or bright orange ink on it.

So, back to my class: I had advertised my session as being about play and experimentation and all my students took me at my word, which was great. They all arrived with lots of ideas and enthusiasm but only vague plans about how to put those ideas into action, which was also great. Letterpress can be a challenge, in fact, because it requires so much planning and thinking ahead that, sometimes, when you finally get to the press your spirit can be a little too worn out to have fun actually doing the work of printing something. I’m not saying this is always true or that some folks don’t escape this problem due to whatever special talent they have for keeping their energy up. But it’s an issue I’ve run into now and then. The trick I’m trying to teach myself and others is, how do we prep the way we need to prep, figuring out all the variables and whatnot, and yet keep ourselves open to chance, happy accidents, and the occasional unexpected Muse visit?

Kristina had a fair amount of experience making prints, so she immediately
saw the possibilities in layering images and in rotating blocks so that
layers conflicted in productive ways with each other.

In my own practice, I tend to think of printing blocks as improvisational elements instead of as the delivery method for some fully-worked out, hyper-meticulous design. Sort of like they’re ways to get different sounds out of a press. Except, you know, visual sounds (I know, I’m working on a better description). Not that I’m any sort of a musician; I think I am, instead, the only visual artist in North America who doesn’t play a single instrument, due to a complete lack of talent. But, even so, it’s a pseudo-musical method I’m kind of in the middle of evolving so that spending time at the press isn’t just an afterthought, the work that has to happen to reach the finish line, but is still an enjoyable, creative moment. I mean, I imagine my favorite bands aren’t done with a song once they’ve written a song, but that songs keep evolving, performance after performance. Even three-minute, three-chord punk songs from back when I was a kid. That’s how it sounds from the audience, at least, which is a thing I always liked a ton. Like I said, though, I’m still in the middle of adding weight to my skinny theory. Right now it only about halfway works.

C.J. working on weaving together strips cut from proofs.
The stopping point on a print can be way past
the usual stopping point.

C.J.’s prints incorporated an adventurous use of color, a lot of
interesting collagraph textures, and layered patterns
from blocks printed in different directions.

Anyhow, I learned at least as much from my students as I think they learned from me. I learned, for example, that Pictorico works all right for making plates, although, as always, your mileage may vary. I mean, I know this is a little bit of an arguable idea, because it’s true that real film negatives work like a champ nearly every time, and so there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to use something that doesn’t have the same level of density of black. And yet it works, especially in circumstances where you might not be able to get your hands on a negative quickly. And it looks to me like it works pretty well on sort of low-resolution images, where it’s not critical that a lot of tiny details make it to the plate. I’m not saying it’s perfect or even preferable to actual negatives…but it’s worth a shot, at least, if you have some scrap polymer laying around. For my students, the plates they made with inkjet transparencies all came out really nice. Still, when a platemaker says not to send them Pictorico images, then don’t send them Pictorico images. I’m just talking here about using it in situations where you’re making your own plates and have enough polymer to spare for doing them over if needed.

Me giving what I hope was good and correct advice.

Getting everyone to the presses early and often
was one of the big goals for the class.

The walls in Duensing are bulletin boards, which is the best kind of wall.

They’re even better when they get covered up with
a bunch of different sketches and proofs.

I also learned that pressure printing is a massive amount of fun (or, at least, watching it happen is fun, because I didn’t get a chance to experiment with it myself). And I learned it’s good to keep and eye and an ear out for collaborations, because you never know when someone from another studio might come along with a great idea. For instance, my students got to work with Jill Eberle’s third session life drawing class, which resulted in some amazing pieces featuring lots of cool interplay between charcoal linework and wood type. Above all, I learned that teaching is something I actually love to do. I just didn’t know before because I was so completely involved with being a lifelong student. But it was good to get the chance to turn the focus outward, for once, and to help other folks get their work done instead of worrying all the time about the world inside my own navel (nothing much in there anyway except a speck of dust with a weird little village on it…even if no one believes me it’s real). Besides, is there any place better to print than on a Vandercook with a view of a misty green mountain? A machine, by the way, up the hill from the friendliest coffee shop in the Solar System. Not to mention the salad bar, which I won’t mention due to this post being ten miles long already.

It was good to see that keeping a sketchbook seems to have become
a normal part of everyone’s practice. This wasn’t always the case, I think,
but it’s super important to fill them up and to start new ones all the time.

We were immensely lucky over in Letterpress that Georgia Deal was the third session Printmaking Instructor. Right from the start, she was open to our classes collaborating on some kind of an exchange portfolio, as well as on the Fourth of July festivities, and on various Session 3 in-jokes that won’t make sense here but were, trust me, hugely amusing in context. We finally settled on doing a postcard exchange, since that seemed manageable and also in keeping with the exploratory, experimental nature of the work being done in both classes. Every student, teacher, and assistant ended up joining in, which meant we all had produce 25 cards so that we could do a big trade on the last day. We made boxes, too, and Jennaway Pearson, Georgia’s Studio Assistant, silkscreened a colophon onto each box. One thing I enjoyed seeing about the finished portfolios was, every one of them was different, not only because every artist had a different style or approach, but also because the cards from individual artists were often wildly, intriguingly diverse. I’ve been in a lot of exchanges, but this one was one of my favorites so far.

I’m happy to report that the exchange proceeded in an orderly fashion…

…and that the boxes seemed to work, despite all the completely
non-mathematical guesswork that went into the measurements…

…and that we all survived the session with 99% of our wits intact.

Kate and me and a mysterious drawing that magically
appeared on the chalkboard on the last day.

Finally, I want to mention Kate Ball, who was the Studio Assistant for Session 3. I met her in 2012 when I was an assistant and she was a student in Steve Miller and Mary Wehner’s class. She is a talented, imaginative artist with a great sense of humor and an excellent work ethic. Plus she did an outstanding job helping with the class and definitely deserves a huge amount of the credit for everyone having a positive experience. Good luck to her in all her future endeavors!

Everyone from Letterpress (“Press Play”) and Printmaking (“Print Gumbo”).

Good luck, in fact, to all my students. My hope is that you will all be able to print again as soon as possible, now that you’re equipped with enough basics to get started fast on the next proof press you encounter. It’s always true there’s more to learn; I have an immense amount still to understand, myself. But you’re on the path, even if printing is work you’ll do off to the side of your usual work. At least it’s an available option. Plus, you know, it’s just a lot of fun, right? I know I’m looking forward to seeing all of everybody’s future work.

I spent most of my waking hours
working on this chalkboard,
which was kind of our syllabus.

And then it all got erased.

I guess that’s all for now. As long a post as this is, I took only about 10% as many pictures as I should’ve taken, so that’s why lots of people, moments, and prints aren’t as visible as they should be. Half of the photos are from Bryn’s phone, but I don’t know offhand which half because now all of our pictures are all scrambled up (our books aren’t married but our snapshots are). Generally, if I’m in a picture (which is a miracle) then I probably didn’t take it. Thanks, as always, to B. for helping me with this and with everything else. Thanks also to my teacher, Steve Miller, who persuaded me to apply for this instructorship, which turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career.

Postcard by Josh Copus. Made from wood and metal type and a rubber stamp,
with polymer plates taken from found images. One of many variations on a theme.

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