As an art student at the University of Utah I was required to take some form of printing. There was screen printing, mono type, lithography, but who wanted to print when you could paint? So I chose letterpress. What was it? Didn’t know, didn’t care; it was only once a week and wouldn’t interfere with painting. The class was in the library in a studio associated with The Book Arts Department, Book Arts who had ever heard of such a thing?
I have eaten my words many times, but this was my biggest meal to date. As I watched the printing tutorial on the first day I knew this was a craft that had withstood the test of time. It was beyond worthy of my respect, my reverence. We dove into the history of the book and the written word. Quickly, I learned of the invention of movable metal type & the letterpress by Johannes Gutenberg in 1436. Arguably one of the most important events in the history of the modern world, igniting the Printing Revolution and responsible for bringing knowledge to the masses- this was an event that changed the world forever. Paving the way for the Renaissance period, Reformation & the Scientific Revolution. When I think back upon my arrogance and ignorance, I cringe. How could I not have known this? Shouldn’t this seemingly one of the most important events in all the history of the world be taught from the earliest comprehensible age? Certainly the history of how knowledge & truth was first able to be accurately recorded and spread among all nations is worthy of any ones elementary education.
My children WILL know who Gutenberg is before the pathetic age of my enlightenment. Beyond this rich history is also the art form, the craft. The way the soft paper rolled over the inked metal type & left an impression of letters deep in the paper, was unlike anything I had ever seen. The permanency of it was profound. It didn’t matter what the letters read -visually, aesthetically it was stunning. I had never before viewed typefaces and impression as an art form and now design was everywhere. In the layout, the typeface, the color combination, the quality of printing, and finally the overall meaning. It was a symphony of art all on its own, the history of the craft spoke to me with every impression.
In the 1950’s letterpress took a back seat as photo typography and lithography were developed. Then was completely phased out commercially at the end of the 20th century with the digital revolution. Presses were sold to old school printers and eventually made there way in to Book Arts programs at university’s. Artists & designers began to learn the craft from seasoned printer’s and a movement or rebirth began among the art world. The beauty and skill of the craft has allowed for the presence of small business printers & studio shops in the market. Wedding invitations, cards, broadsides, and art book editions are being printed & gaining popularity at an alarming rate. This trend is worth taking note of, and a craft in the art world that is here to stay. When buying or commissioning letterpress work here are some tips to keep in mind….
1. The impression should not be so strong that it heavily pushes through the back of the paper, you may want impression but too much is just bad printing.
2. Letterpress ink is transclucent so it generally doesn’t work to print lighter color ink on darker paper. (Don’t ask you won’t be happy with the results)
3. Trust your printers advice this is completely unlike digital printing so make sure you are in it for the letterpress quality not the trend.
4. Letterpresses only print one color at a time, the press has to be re-inked and everything ran through again for a second or third color. This is why the price can jump significantly with each additional color.
5. Support this art, many University’s have letterpress programs and offer workshops to the public. Check with your local University to help keep these departments well funded and educating our youth through out reach programs.
Letterpress is addictive, both in printing and buying. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do and can appreciate the craft on another level. The next artist interview is with a very savvy letterpress printer & designer who has her own studio and business. Her work is amazing & she is going to do a uber cool giveaway, so whether you already love letterpress or are more curious about it watch out for the interview. You may get the chance to own some for yourself….!