Black Current – Texts: Black & White Thinking

Initials TB, from Rob Roy Kelly, American Wood Type, 1828 – 1900

Black & White Thinking

Text Harmen Liemburg
Written for Black Current exhibition publication

The Wood engraving
The wood engraving is a type of letterpress printing in which the image is applied to the crosscut of a hardwood like that of the palmtree. Unlike the woodcut, the image is not applied with a knife and gouge, but through the burin. A skilled wood engraver thus was able to reach a level of detail that is much like the copperengraving or an etching. The hardness of the wood, and the fact that the printingpress works in the same direction as the grain of the wood, makes the woodengraving much more longwaring than the woodcut, and thus more suitable to create very large editions. The woodengraving is a method of reproduction; most wood engravers worked after drawings made by others. The demands that the woodengraving required weren’t always taken into account by draughtsman, so making the actual engravings could only be done by virtuously skillfull artisans. Printing the woodgravures combined with cast type, required a special attention that wasn’t always available when cheap magazines were produced. Frustrations were reciprocal when printers complained about skewed blocks that complicated the printing process…

The woodengraver, from Rob Roy Kelly, American Wood Type, 1828 – 1900

Usually, the Englishman Thomas Bewick is regarded as the inventor of the wood engraving. This is not entirely correct, as the method of engraving the hardwood crosscut was widely known when the latter learned the trade during in the period 1770-1780. Like the woodcut, wood engravings were used for cheap and simple illustrations. Bewick was the first however to show that the combining the wood engraving with the newer and more refined vellum paper could create a level of detail that was unprecedented. Rapidly, a stream of works illustrated by wood engravings was published, but it wouldn’t be until 1830 for the first illustrated magazines for the general public like the Penny Magazine (1832) to appear. The rest of Europe immedeately followed this example. The next year, Magasin Pittoresque was published in France. The advance of similar publications in the following decades was particularly owed to the fact that english publishers started to sell stereotypes, cast replica’s of previously created wood engravings, on the international market.

Screenprinting is likely to origin from Japan, where the existing technique of printing through stencils was refined by using hair or silk to bridge the gaps in the stencilsheets. This way, much more refined designs could be printed, without parts that needed to be filled. The Japanese Yuzensai Miyasaki (1654-1763) and Zisukeo Hirose (1822-1890) are regarded as the inventors of Yuzen printing and Katagami stencils. These so-called hairstencils were mainly utilized in the textile industry. The first industrial patent for screenprinting was given to Samuel Simon from Manchester (UK) in 1907.

The principles of modern screenprinting are simple. A piece of fine polyesther mesh is streched over a aluminium frame. The screenprinting frame is then coated with a paste sensitive to UV light, and exposed through a positive film. After exposure, the black parts of the positive are washed away from the coating, so that transparant holes appear in the screen through which the ink can be printed. The ink is scooped on to the screen, and pushed thought on to the printing material by a rubber sqeegee. This can be repeated with different colours of shapes that are printed next to or on top of each other. In contrast to letterpress, offset or intaglio where as a rule transparant inks are being used, screenprinting inks can be completely opaque. This is why screenprinting is utilized to print on to dark surfaces and can be applied to a wide range of materials.

Signs & Libraries
The inspiration for my work never comes bubbling up spontaneously, but is always triggered by existing images that I come across in public space of in the library. I feel attracted to clear graphic shapes that can easily be combined with other shapes, and I’m constantly looking for material I can potentially use. Clichés and widely availabe images like traffic signs, packaging design or scientific illustrations is the stuff I prefer. Usually, I stay clear from creations by other illustrators or designers, unless it’s a commercial logo or icon like the Michelin-man. In my opinion, these images belong to everybody. I never feel the need to create ‘something’ out of the blue, but always start from a question or goal. By playing and combining elements within a certain context, usually a storyline appears. This way, the design process is an adventure in itself. Although it’s timeconsuming, I learned to trust my own process. If the building blocks are of good quality, whatever comes out should have quality too!

As an academic cartographer I learned to look at and appreciate graphic details. From a traditional analogue mapmaking environment, I learned to think in the layering of vectorlines. Meanwhile, I developed strategies to convert existing images into elements I can work with. Sometimes, I’m tracing with the Illustrator pentool, the next time I’m making papercuts that are processed in Photoshop. Or I work with photographic halftones. In the end, it’s all collage technique. By being a screenprinter, the abstract process of colourseparation has now become something entirely physical, which is fully integrated in the design process. Playing around with separations and producing tangible results, never ceases to exite me. So screenprinting is both a method and a goal at itself. Small, autonomous, and artisanal as my methods may be, I strongly believe in the ‘industry’ of it. No fooling around with monoprints, but creating a proper edition is what counts.

Sweet serendipity
The first selection of images from the Smith-Lesouëf library was photocopied on the spot at 100%. In Amsterdam, a selection of 12 was enlarged 500% to A0 size, and printed in black in an edition of 24 sheets each. Using 12 colourseparations of posters I’d made in the recent past, these sheets were overprinted in opaque white, 2 sheets each time. Theoretically, after 2 printsruns, 12 x 12 = 144 variations should be created. The separations were originally made to be properly printed in overlapping transparent colours. By reusing them now, they become halfopaque masks that partly cover, partly open up to the underlying woodengravings. After this, part of the prints were printed again in black in order to create new linehalftones and densities.

The sheets that were created are in fact a directed form of ‘inschiet’, a Dutch technical term from the printing industry that determines material that is used to make adjustements to the press or clean it’s inkworks. By printing and reprinting the same sheets over and over again, random combinations appear that could never be designed. These beautiful accidents are accurately defined by the word serendipity, the ability to discover something valueable by coincidence and intelligence (Van Dale Groot Woordenboek van de Nederlandse Taal, 1999). For this project, I have given chance a hand by choosing images that somehow fit the the work previously made in a thematical or technical way. If this marriage between old and new will indeed be pittoresque, can only be proven by the outcome of the printing process…


Johan de Zoete (et al.) De techniek van de Nederlandse boekillustratie in de 19e eeuw – Kerstnummer Grafisch Nederland, Grafische Cultuurstichting KVGO, 1995

Rob Roy Kelly, American Wood Type, 1828 – 1900 – notes on the evolution of decorated and large types and comments on related trades of the period, Litton Educational Publishing, 1969

Hans Gremmen (ed.) & Wyber Zeefdruk, Serendipity – Gevonden affiches/ found posters, Roma Publications, 2008

For Magasin Pittoresque, see also Google Books

September 7th, 2008
, Posted in Shows/Installations, Stories