Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stone Lithography

White Pine, 20 x 15 inches, is a straight forward drawing done with lithographic crayon on a limestone block, with some scraping back into the surface. It depicts a massive white pine along the Northville Placid Trail in the Adirondacks, and was printed in an edition of 125.

Printmaking is the process of producing your image in one medium - stone lithography, metal plate etching, or woodcut, and others- and inking it up and printing the image onto another surface, most often paper. My friend Tom MacPherson, who teaches printmaking at SUNY Geneseo, refers to it as art for the working man. As there are multiple copies of the image, each an original inked and pulled by the artist, they have traditionally been a more affordable medium than paintings.

In this era of electronic reproduction, laser and inkjet printing technology, traditional printmaking is a labor of love, requiring the respect of process, labor and technical knowledge. And I do love printmaking - stone lithography, etching, monotypes. I nearly gave up on it a few years ago, exhausted by the constant explanation of the processes, and why they didn’t look like my paintings, hopefully a cheaper version. Then I went to see an exhibit of Robert Marx’s etchings. I was blown away. And completely re-inspired. If at some point in the future, I have created a body of printmaking work with the power of his etchings, I think that is reason enough to continue on the path.

Stone lithography is one of the earliest forms of commercial reproduction. Apparently some years ago - like hundreds - a Frenchman was cleaning up some ink outside on a limestone walk, and noticed the old adage, oil and water don’t mix. Anyplace the stone was wet, the ink was repelled, and anyplace the the ink had touched dry stone, ink would absorb, but water was repelled. After a few generations the technique got pretty sophisticated, and up until the recent developments with laser and ink jet printing, the vast majority of commercial printing was done this way, first on limestone, and more recently metal and polymer plates.

I have to confess, the above is about the limit of my knowledge of lithography. I have a secret weapon though - my friend, the aforementioned Tom MacPherson, who I address simply as MacPherson, in my lame Scottish accent. I’ve got a question, or more likely a problem I blunder into, Tom has, or figures out, the answer.

I was writing out a lovely explanation of the whole process, and Googled levigator, and found out, hey - I love the internet. Occasionally. Anyway, here is a really lovely explanation of the whole process, handsomely illustrated, and already done. I reinvent the wheel often enough. I can still remember the joy at college graduation of the realization I would probably not have to write another research paper.

Anyway, once you have spent a few hours grinding a big hunk of limestone, you're up, with two down, bottom of the ninth. (OK, don’t get nervous, I won’t be doing a whole litany of sports analogies. I like to play, not much patience for watching and statistics.) But, there you are, about 4 or 5 hours of serious labor in prepping the stone, and you have to relax, and draw as if you have a pile of those babies laying around. Don’t tighten up like some little wooden figure and make stiff, self conscious marks. Draw fluidly, the same way you have to swing at the plate. All the practice is behind you. Concentrate, and move with sureness and confidence.

I love to draw. But it is also my fall-back. When in doubt, I render. And making pictures is full of doubt. So I am constantly battling my own tendency to render, looking for ways to broaden my statements, rather than refine them. Paint with a bigger brush, draw with scraps of cardboard. Pond at Dusk, 9 x 13 1/4 inches, was drawn in etching ink applied to the stone with various cardboard “pens” cut from mat board. The image was under and overprinted with seven silk screened colors. It depicts my most often poached fishing location from years ago. Poaching. Trespassing. A whole other subject.

The biggest problem I have with lithography is the concentration of time, labor and equipment required. It is nearly impossible to fit it in between my painting, traveling and other activities. Generally I need several days says set aside, to figure out the image, grind the stone, draw and etch the image, and then mixing ink and printing. And then the clean-up seems endless. So, though I do enjoy lithography, I have been more absorbed with monotypes lately, as I can fit in a few hours here, half a day there. And it relates more directly to my painting.

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