An Artist's Medium

From Picasso to the Belfast Print Workshop, we explore the wide appeal of printmaking

Printmaking is an art form that doesn’t garner a lot of media coverage, yet some of the most accomplished and valuable images in the history of world art stem from printmaking. Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse were both printmakers as well as painters. Picasso made more than 1,000 prints including etchings, engravings, drypoints, woodcuts, lithographs and linocuts while Rembrandt, also a prolific printmaker, produced approximately 300 plates in his time.

Printmaking originated in China after the invention of paper (around 105 AD) and relief printing first flourished in Europe in the 15th century, when the process of papermaking was imported from the east. Since that time printmaking has continued to be practiced as one of the fine arts.

A fine art print is a multiple original. Usually within the confines of a limited edition, the artist commands his work specifically in the context of one or more hand-produced techniques such as etching, woodcut, silk screen or lino cut. Each of the works are created either by the artist or under his direct supervision (by a master printmaker for instance). These are then regarded as originals and signed by the artist. A reproduction, on the other hand, is photo-mechanically reproduced, and not created by the artist. There is usually an unlimited production of these prints (better known as posters) and they have little monetary value.

There is a growing demand for printmaking in NI and the Belfast Print Workshop sees that demand fulfilled. Some of the artists in the workshop/gallery work solely in the medium of printing while others prefer to work in a variety of mediums. The place itself is a hub of creativity and printing machines are working to full capacity at all times.

‘It is the artists that continually define and redefine the workshop space with their presence, their ideas and their creativity,’ states Belfast Print Workshop director Paula Gallagher. ‘The Belfast Print Workshop has a dedicated commitment to providing facilities and opportunities for artists while contributing to the arts community of NI. NI is changing, art is changing and the people are changing.

‘The innovation of the BPW and access to its facilities increases the means available to artists to make multimedia prints through the use of advanced technology,’ Gallagher says. ‘At the same time, the workshop gives artists the opportunity to execute traditional lithographs, linocuts and woodcuts.’

As time goes on, more and more artists are turning their creative attentions to printmaking. Graphic work is now viewed by many of these artists as either the core of their work or a necessary element of their art practice.

‘Printmaking is whatever you bring to it,’ says Michael Hart, both a practising printmaker and teacher of the craft. ‘There is a lot of skill involved. Some practitioners spend a lot of time creating their works from particular techniques. They have developed their own style and have gained a lot of knowledge.’

Printmaking appears to be both a medium in its own right and also a practice that aids all artists by providing the opportunity for them to produce fine art prints of their work.

‘You learn the technical side and then from there bring creativity to arrive at a finished product,’ says Hart, ‘similar to a painting or any other work of art. The great thing about it is that you can make more than one print - you make a variety of plates that can be re-used time and again.

‘That’s why it's cheaper to buy fine art prints,’ he continues. 'It’s a great way for artists to reproduce works but it is tough and it is undervalued by a lot of people. We are trying to challenge perceptions, encourage more artists to join and gain more exposure for print-making as a medium in its own right.’

One of the things that the BPW offers is an exchange programme. I had the pleasure of meeting Jeremy Lund from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is visiting Belfast for six weeks with an exhibition during the Belfast festival.

Lund enjoys printmaking because it allows him to experiment and produce different effects from those of a paintbrush. He feels that printmaking allows for more variation – colours, layers and effects. ‘It also allows for multiples of the one image because printing plates are involved in the process,’ he says. ‘It allows for a lot of flexibility because you can reproduce one or more components of the process.’

Raymond Henshaw is a print-maker who puts a lot of thought into his works. ‘Some of the works take months and months to build up,’ he states. Henshaw produced an African series, which used colour-blind tests for its starting point. ‘I replaced the numbers in the original tests with words to create my own version. Together the pieces compose a word game that questions issues of race, territory, cultural history, language and science.

‘Now there are two series of nine pieces: one with a South African theme, the other rooted locally in Belfast. But their common denominations are their metaphoric allusions to environmental concerns and their overall focus on socio-political issues.'

Henshaw uses printing to express himself just as a painter uses paints or a sculptor uses clay. I was particularly intrigued by his use of colour – I assumed printmaking would be quite restrictive with colour. This is not the case – it is a very experimental medium.

‘Print-making has always been seen as painting’s poor cousin,’ says Laura Maguire, who is both a print-maker and a painter. ‘Print-making is the more difficult. You can scrape off the paint and reuse the canvas but once you’ve produced a plate for printing, the plate is made.

'Printmaking is underestimated as an art skill,’ Maguire says, ‘but it is a great way for someone to buy works of art by a well known artist for a cheaper price. Prints are always cheaper. They aren’t valued the same way as paintings.

‘The Print Workshop provides a great opportunity for artists to explore new techniques. It allows artists to make original prints and it’s another medium for artists to express themselves with,’ she smiles.

Being an artist is about being free to express your personality through art. An artist should be allowed to express themselves in any way or art form they prefer, whether that is printmaking, painting or some other medium yet to be discovered. Printmaking is an additional means of communication for an artist and thus a medium in its own right.

The great thing about printmaking is that it’s not only a defined medium; it’s also a way for all artists to produce multiple originals of their works. Although printmaking is often seen as a lesser medium, as artists and audiences we should begin celebrating it as a better one. It offers something for every artist, and very few media have this quality.