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The Problem with Collographs

The problem with collographs is that most people actually don’t know how to make a good one.

A lot of people don’t really even know how to make one themselves, but nevertheless think they know about them.

Do you know how these collographs were made?

Collographs have a terrible reputation among ‘serious’ art-world types.  I get it, of course.

As a very entry-level friendly technique, a lot of novices are instructed in the method.  Of course, they then make novice, entry-level artwork.  The more ‘serious’ types then are accustomed to associating collographs with entry-level, novice work, and dismiss the technique in general.

You can see the type of novice work I mean here–cardboard plates, dry foodstuffs, wet sketchbook paper, using paint in the place of inks, and no press.  Like I said, I understand the negative bias.  Unfortunately, it interferes with people’s perception of well-executed collographs.

[The woman in the linked video seems perfectly nice and I mean no disrespect to her personally; I just selected the video because it contains all the stereotypes of what people think they know about collographs, which is to say that many people think all collographs are made like that.]

[EDIT: to see a more recent post in which I illustrate the printing of a collograph, go here.]

I encountered this negative bias recently in two interactions–one was at the Ink fair during Art Basel Miami Beach, when (I wont mention who!) an exhibitor (and publisher) of works that were clearly collographs used a different term to describe them.  The works were made by mixing carborundum grit with a glue, applying it to different plexi matrices, inking it as an intaglio and printing the plates in register in order to edition them.

Obviously, it’s a complicated and sophisticated process.  Also obviously, it’s definitely a collotype process.  We chatted a bit, and the exhibitor fessed up that his avoidance of the term collograph was to avoid negative connotations.

The second place I encountered the prejudice against collographs was during the jury process at the school where I teach.

During a discussion of one of my student’s works, a fellow jurist had a positive response to one of the prints until learning that it was a collograph.  It might be that this jurist’s opinion of the work didn’t change, but I saw a slight disdain come over the jurist’s visage as soon as the word “collograph” came up: “oh, that stuff with the cardboard”.

I demonstrate and instruct collotype a lot.  Sometimes I use cardboard.

Usually, however, I use chipboard (the difference between chipboard and cardboard is that cardboard is hollow, with supporting interior ribs, which means it squishes in the press and prints with a regular linear pattern).  Nitpicky, yes, but it makes a difference.

One major positive of collotype is that it’s an inexpensive technique.  A second major positive is that it’s flexible–you can print is as either relief or intaglio.  It also doesn’t require specialized tools (beyond the inks, press and press equipment, of course).

I adore copperplate intaglio, but copper is very expensive, and students are reluctant to purchase it (they usually don’t understand that copper plates are re-usable, in part because they become so attached to the plate), while chipboard (not cardboard!) only costs a few dollars for a fairly large sheet.  So you can buy it by the sheet—or just use the back of a newsprint pad!

Those hard ‘cardboard’ backs of sketchbook pads?  Chipboard.

You can use colloype to familiarize students with mixing and rolling out inks, ink properties, use of the press, intaglio inking, use of tarlatans, hand-wiping and editioning.

It is an entry-level friendly method!  Just because it is one, though, doesn’t mean all work produced with it is low quality.

A typical collograph of scraps and bits of stuff. Color viscosity inked.

The print above is a collograph from a plate I made as a demo for a high school weekend workshop.

It’s the usual glue-bits-of-crap-together plate, the type which is almost impossible to avoid when you build a plate live for instructional purposes.  Students need to be able to see you create the damn thing on the spot, and you usually only have a few hours with them, so scraps and crap it is!

This one is built on chipboard, with more chipboard, some cardboard, lace, yarn, paper, tin foil and tarlatan.

This particular impression has been relief viscosity rolled in two colors.

Viscosity inking techniques use the relative viscosity of separate inks to determine how they will be applied to the plate–the texture of the plate, the durometer (softness or hardness) of the brayer or roller, the height of the plate elements, and the order and direction in which the inks were applied–the different colors are all applied before the plate is run through the press, meaning it prints in one run–determine how the inks are laid down and the degree to which they blend.

The white halos around plate elements are an indicator that the above image was inked as a relief plate; where substantial height difference exists between plate elements, the roller, or brayer, will not be able to force ink into that area.

The same plate, inaglio inked and color viscosity inked (two colors), printed on good quality intaglio paper..

Obviously, the above image is of the same plate.  Hopefully, you can see a gigantic difference between the two!

This impression has been inked intaglio-style in green before being rolled as a relief plate with two colors using the viscosity inking methodology. It was printed on a high-quality, damp alpha-cellulose intaglio paper at significant pressure.

The white halos are gone (replaced by the green outlining from the intaglio inking), the texture of all elements is dramatically more impressive (ha!), and overall, the image is just better.  The image doesn’t mean anything, but it’s pretty, and rather intoxicating to hold in your hand because of the color and textural richness.

With the right knowledge and technique, you can glue dried spaghetti on a flattened cereal box and pull an interesting print.

A representational collograph printed as a three-color viscosity relief.

I didn’t have any dried spaghetti at the time I made the plate for this demo, sadly.  Only the usual chipboard, cotton rags, and tin foil.  I did use a flattened box, though!

The same plate printed as an intaglio.

This plate was sealed with gesso (which I don’t recommend–it absorbs too much ink for the first few impressions) before it was printed.  This was also made as a demonstration for a high school class.

I won’t make a case for these prints as art, but I assure you that they are good impressions.

That’s kind of a weird thing, right?  Most artists won’t make claims as to what is or is not art–at the most, folks’ll say what is or is not good art, and a lot of times they don’t have many believable reasons as to why.

One of my theories is that the inherent skill with which a work was produced acts upon the viewer as a signifier that something is Good Art.

Skill comes through study, time, and dedication–all of which are hard to avoid as a professional artist.  At the student or novice level, however, those aspects aren’t necessarily in place yet, and so skill can be hit or miss.  Like anything else, the student (or novice!) who works hard and strives to achieve can ‘hit’ more often than not.

Student work from my Fall 2011 monotype class.

This student (who I’ll identify if she wants me to!) used tulle, paper, lace and an X-acto incising technique before coating the plate with acrylic gloss gel medium with a brush.  It’s simple platework, well-inked and well printed, on good paper.  No dried foodstuffs.  Edition of 7.

There’s an odd grey area in collotype–what do you call a chipboard plate that’s been coated with acrylic gloss gel medium, but hasn’t actually had anything glued to it?

I’ve been calling it chipboard relief.

An impression from a chipboard plate, carved out with an X-acto knife and coated with acrylic gloss medium before being intaglio inked and relief rolled.

The print above was printed in an edition of 6, and is intaglio wiped (the lines of the wood are cut out from the chipboard plate–incised) with a finishing relief roll printed on intaglio paper.  It’s put through the press once per impression.

Really, though?  To be honest, the only thing that makes the platework different from the other prints illustrating this post is that I didn’t glue anything to the plate.  In my student’s work above, she didn’t technically glue anything either–she did use the gloss gel medium as a glue, however.  Acrylic gloss gel medium is a fancy glue!

I could call it intaglio, perhaps–like copperplate intaglio.  We don’t usually say zinc intaglio, but we do say drypoint on plexi.  We do say mezzotint.  Though I did learn a collograph technique which approximates mezzotint.  I could simply call it relief, I guess; wood and chipboard both come from trees, after all.  Wait–isn’t plywood made of wood which is glued together in thin layers?  So a carved plywood sheet might be able to be called a collograph!

You begin to see the conundrum here.  I can call it lots of things, but most of those things I call it won’t mean anything to anyone except printmakers.  So why not call it a collograph?

I personally haven’t been doing so because I’ve been being technically pedantic!  But that’s just me.

So here’s what I think.  Unless you’ve personally created a good quality collograph, don’t get snooty about the technique (and if you have created a good quality collograph, you won’t be snooty about the technique because you’d understand how tricky it can be!).  Judge the artwork, fine–I have no problems with that!

After all, there’s many a novice cook (or poet, or singer) out there with lackluster offerings, but we don’t look down upon food (or poetry, or music).

Even a good cook will use dried spaghetti and be found with a cereal box in hand from time to time.

One more thing: people are generally not printing collographs by hand because they prefer it–rather it’s because they don’t have a press.  Very few techniques are able to be adequately printed by hand; relief is pretty much the only one, and even then, pulling a good print by hand is not easy.  So if there’s a press nearby, don’t suggest that someone print a collograph by hand.

I guess if you don’t like that person and want to cackle madly while they laboriously develop tendonitis from hand-impressing their plate, then maybe.

Otherwise, no.

So lest you be bummed by the title of this post, let me commence by saying that it is titled after a Belle and Sebastian song which for me calls to mind the odd empty fullness that only Summer can have.  My own Summer was absolutely rife with that confusion; it was both a total failure and a total success.  What I meant to do was left undone, and what did arrive was full of void.  This may sound bad, but it wasn’t entirely so.

“What on earth does she mean?”, you must be wondering.  Beginning sometime in April, my grandmother began having serious health issues which sent her to the hospital numerous times.  It was a fearful, fretful time, only assuaged when she finally ended up in a rehabilitation facility with round-the-clock care.  Assuaged on the matter of her stability of health, I should say, for it also began a time of isolation for my grandfather.  For the majority of their lives, my grandparents have lived with family–their own parents, their children, their children’s friends, their grandchildren (me and my brother).  More factually, we have all lived with them.  They have generously opened their home to us all, they have helped to support and raise and care for all of us.  When my grandmother’s 52 days worth of time in the “home” as we all half-jokingly call it, began, it meant that my grandfather was alone more than he likely ever has been.  And it was not good.  Without getting even more personal, things were very difficult in the family this Summer.  A lot of life was uncertain.

When life is uncertain, it also becomes more precious.  So there were days which were frightful and days which were lovely and loving.  My productivity, however, was mostly shot.

Avocado blossoms

Avocado blossoms in my grandparents' yard, some orchids in the background.

At a point when things looked relatively stable, I finally decided to act upon a professional development grant which NWSA gave me: the plan had been to go to a printmaking workshop in South Dakota, but I had been putting off the nitty-gritty of the details because of the great uncertainty in my family.  Ultimately, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I arranged travel at the last minute and dashed off to the wilds of the center of the country.

I had never been to South Dakota before, and honestly, I was somewhat wary of it due to their politics concerning reproductive freedom–a matter of principle; I often tell myself that I won’t spend money in this or that anti-choice state, but rarely have to put it to the test.  It’s likely why I chose to fly into Sioux Falls, SD rather than Rapid City, Iowa–if I was going to spend money in that state at all, perhaps I could mitigate it by spending it in the more liberal cities (the only abortion provider in the whole of South Dakota is in Sioux Falls).  Hm.  In any case: Vermillion, South Dakota!  They have annual flowers!  All manner of evergreens!  Cottonwood trees!  And a big floody river.  Which I somehow did not see.  I was staying in the dorms, though and there were many people staying there who had been flooded out of their homes, as well as National Guard types who had been assigned there because of the flood.

The workshops were run by Frogman’s Press at the University of South Dakota.  I don’t think I’ve ever been around so many printmakers.  It was gloriously nerdy.  And filled with many printmaking jokes!  Which usually no-one around me gets, so I was thrilled to laugh at jokes about chemicals, or OCD behaviors, or gloves or any other other dork thing we could think of.  What I refer to as the center of the country (versus the Caribbean portion of the country, where I live) has a huge print culture.  It was quite foreign to me.  I felt like a rube from the boonies.

The workshops were intense: 9 – 5, with about a two hour break in the middle for presentations and lunch, but you know litho (maybe some of you do?  I hope?)–it’s extra intense.  Our first day had us in demos until 6:30, because: litho.  There was a lot of standing on concrete slab floors, which played havoc on us olds and our knees and legs.  Even so, I walked all over.  I had to buy extra insoles, to put on top of my Birkenstock insoles, that’s how serious it was.  I loved looking at the plants and the architecture; it’s so very different from Miami.  I even saw rabbits just hopping about.

To be honest, I was a little shell shocked from all the family goings-on back in Miami, so I wasn’t in a very social mode.  I mostly kept to myself for the first four days, after class hours, and that was wonderful too.  I needed to be alone–I’m one of those types, introverts, who recharge when alone, and in my normal daily life, I don’t have much alone-time at all.  So I devoured my solitude, slurped it up greedily, reveled and luxuriated in it.  And it was healing for me.  I need a sense of the empty (potent! awesome! vast! amazing!) void (space, solitude, silence, potential) of life to make me want to engage in the business of life.  Recharged, I met wonderful people: fascinating, dedicated printmakers from all over.  They inspired me with their knowledge, their efforts and their quirkiness.  It was good.

A fake litho stone I made out of paper.

A fake litho stone I made out of paper for a costume contest; I was Käthe(leen) Kollwitz.

I wrapped a visit to my Dad up into this voyage, so after South Dakota, I went to Montana, which seemed to be about the only cool (cold, even!) place around this Summer.  I did a lot of outdoorsy things, including Yellowstone, a fly-fishing lesson, white-water rafting, and hanging out in a 1914 Forest Service cabin.  I had a good visit with my Dad and step-mother, met a bunch of their friends, sketched the mountains and read a lot.

Big Sky Montana

A morning view from the back porch in Big Sky, Montana

After the emotional intensity of what was happening with my family in Miami, solitude, hard work, print-geekery immersion, long walks, outdoorsiness, and reading managed to make me feel whole and energized again.  There was a lot I didn’t do, a lot I couldn’t do, but what I did do was worthwhile and necessary.

A view of a 1914 Forest Service Cabin in Montana.

This view of the 1914 Forest Service Cabin shows a room jutting out which used to have river water piped directly into it to keep food cold.

My grandmother is back home now, and is mostly okay.  We had many family birthday celebrations, and a gathering for my grandparents’ 63rd wedding anniversary.  I don’t know whether or not they’ll still be living in the same house in which I was raised, come December.  I don’t know whether their health will hold out.  Many things are still uncertain, but at least I spent a summer wasting, a summer healing.


Recent Readings; Nancy Spero and Jo Baer

I’m saddened by the death of Nancy Spero this past weekend; I had known little about her until rather recently.  What prevented me from knowing more about her sooner was a typical sort of smugness found in a lot of artists–the idea that I knew enough already.  That changed when I actually saw her work in person a year and a half ago.  I wish I could say that it was the first time I’d been gobsmacked by my own idiocy and another’s  wonderfulness, but it wasn’t.   I hope I won’t be such a clod again, but I  probably will.

In case you–reader–don’t know enough about her, I highly recommend that you first read Tyler Green’s post marking her passing, followed immediately by an article he recommends in which Spero and her husband, Leon Golub, accompany Michael Kimmelman to the MET.

Her NYTimes obit is here.

On the topic of artists one may not know enough about, I’ll now segue to an article in the latest CAA Art Journal about Jo Baer by Patricia Kelly titled Jo Baer, Modernism, and Painting on the Edge.  Given that the body of work I made for my MFA show was an attempt on my part to (retrospectively, of course) infiltrate and undermine historical Modernism, specifically that of the era discussed in the Kelly article, I was interested to learn that Baer’s work at the time bridged the disciplines of painting and sculpture while using visual formalist and dance/movement-based strategies as mental triggers to enhance the conceptual reception of her work on the part of the viewer.

Baer strongly made her own path, challenged contemporary artists and critics (such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg), and suffered for it, unsurprisingly.  Unfortunately, the article is not available online (it might be on JSTOR, I’m not sure); I could hardly excerpt enough to do the article justice, though there are some choice quotes.  Of Judd, Baer wrote that he

implies that any vacuformed plexi-bas-relief is automatically superior to any contemporary ideated marks on a flat surface.  But ideas are ideas.  Ideas and materials have a functional relationship, not an identity.

That is to say that ideas and materials are tools whose worth lies in their joint function, rather than as individual keys to objective ideals one can appeal to or attempt to attain via art.  Though art now seems to be quite a distance off from the hegemony of minimalist sculpture’s era past, I suspect that there is an aspect of wanton materialism in much art today (very general statement, I know, but I’m just musing here–starting to stew these ideas up) which is like a flip side to an attitude of minimal austerity, as if we are now more weighted toward the allusive potency of a cacophony of material rather than toward idea, as in the past.

The relationship of works on paper (‘ideated marks on a flat surface’) to both is a question I’m pondering quite a bit lately.  Personally, I feel that works on paper are more effective at evincing sustained, dynamic thought from a viewer than sculpture or painting (also ‘ideated marks on a flat surface’), in large part because we are a literate culture, and are habituated to paper being the prime vehicle of our own literacy and life of the mind.  But that’s a topic for another day.

In 1983, after stating that she was “no longer an abstract artist”, Baer addressed some of Judd’s arguments against painting:

When in 1966 Judd attacked illusionism in painting he neglected to explore or even question its presence in sculpture–their aim was an ‘objectivity’ to be derived from the ‘making of non-illusionary specific objects’ (via numerical concept and a mundane restraint against philosophy’s ‘seondary properties’ –i.e., they used prefabrication, metals, geometric forms, bricks, mirrors, lamps, car paints, uniform colors, etc.).  Sculpture’s basic, scandalous fiction went unregarded.  All sculptures pretend to contain the real.

Certainly, this always seemed obvious to me, of course with the benefit of distanced observation.  Sculpture and theater have much in common.

Kelly does address the powerful ideological climate of the time, which would have–and did–prevent most artists from questioning the era’s artistic tenets to the degree that Baer (and many other women artists) did.  Relevant to this idea is a quote Kelly included from David Reed:

I am convinced that the one reason the innovations of ’70’s painting were unrecognized is that four of its leading practitioners were women: Lee Lozano, Jo Baer, Dorothea Rockburn, and Ree Morton.  It’s very strange that the history of painting could be thought to end just as women were beginning to make their contributions.

Reed’s observation is quite like one made by Adrian Piper which asserts that women’s successes during Post-Modernism were met with a backlash, among which was a claim for the end of art.  Danto’s essay (The End of Art) doesn’t even mention any women (to my recollection), but it is indeed strange that art would ‘end’ just as women gained greater artistic prominence than ever before.

A paternalistic atmosphere is reflected in the last bit I’ll share from the essay; in an anecdote about an encounter with Clement Greenberg,  Baer recalls

Greenberg was a brilliant writer, a brilliant critic, and slimy as hell.  I remember a conversation he and I had about color . . . . Clem said, ‘Jo, you know this is all very well,’ by which he meant he couldn’t promote my work if it was all white and gray.  Too stark.  ‘Why don’t you use  pink or some other color?’  And I said, ‘Because Ken Noland already does that.  You don’t need me doing it’.  By which I meant . . . I wasn’t a Color Field painter.  I was working with degrees of light, and he wasn’t paying attention to that.  I was supposed to apologize, but I didn’t.

What I’ve excerpted here reflects my concerns–the article is rich with other information: considerations of the science of visual perception, women artists’ relationship to movement, the intersection of politics and art, as well as more detail concerning minimalist sculpture’s epic* battle with painting.  If you can find a copy to read, I strongly recommend doing so (Fall 2009, Vol. 69, No. 3).  The issue also has articles about Walter de Maria and Louise Bourgeois.

*I use ‘epic’ in with a tongue-in-cheeck awareness of the internet parlance of the day.