Woodcuts vs Photopolymer vs Zinc… what do you use?

If one reads this forum, it’s easy to see that digitally imaged photopolymer plates are very popular nowadays, especially with the younger printers. I don’t use them myself, but I don’t see anything wrong with them, either. My view is that the quality of the finished piece is all that matters.

However, among my printing / printmaking friends I find that there is considerable philosophical disagreement about them. Some of the more “artisticly bent” and traditional members of our group considers anything computer/digital/photo-chemical to be cheating somehow…. and that work so produced cannot be called “original”.

Others take just the opposite viewpoint…. embracing anything that will put down an image, including Giclee’, lazer-carved wood, photopolymer, and photo-offset. Some of them go so far as to state that a scanned/digitized/Giclee image is just as good as one pulled by hand from a proof press.

Most of my friends take some middle-of-the-road path between the two extremes. Some say that it doesn’t matter how the plate was made, as long as it was printed on a letterpress. Others believe that as long as the printer/artist does all of the steps, it’s OK. Still others think photopolymer is OK, but lazer-cut wood is not….. and so forth and so on.

SO…. what are your views on the matter? Aesthetically and philosophically, which processes are acceptable and which are not? What do you use, and why?

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I use photopolymer plates, but would consider myself a pretty strong artistic purest and one of my press rules is that I don’t use any clip art, only original images.

I think it all depends on how you use the medium, not what medium you use. Wood engravings, wood blocks and linoleum blocks are all great for producing original artwork with, but for the most part on commercial jobs there isn’t the time for that. Instead I create pen and ink drawings, scan them into the computer, clean them up a little bit if need be and then get a negative made and create plates.

It’s original art, just produced through a different method and I would say more original than just hauling out the usual lead type dingbats or scanning in an image from one of the clip art books. Lead type and dingbats are sometimes viewed as more authentic, but they were usually mass produced and commercially made. I in no way argue that it doesn’t take skill to print well with them, or that some really creative and interesting work isn’t being done using lead type and dingbats, but aren’t we all to some extent making use of the handy work of others?

I suppose a total purest would grow their own cotton, use it to make their own paper, chop down a tree with which to carve their own wood type and create wood block images from and then build their own press with metal bits and pieces they cast themselves. Sounds kind of like a really long performance art piece or something done by the Amish.

My only plea for originality would be to suggest not perhaps using so much straight out the book clip art - play with it, alter or adapt it or hey look around you, there are plenty of artists in the world who are good draftsmen and who might be interested in doing a collaboration with a letterpress printer or could be hired to draw up a few images for a printer’s use for a fee that can then passed on to the customer.

Good points, MK…. none of which I disagree with personally. Your comment: “I think it all depends on how you use the medium, not what medium you use.” mirrors my own ideas completely. It is the finished work that matters, not the method used to produce it.

However there are those, especially in the Artisitc Printmaking field, who will say that the act of scanning /making a negative /having a plate made thus generates a reproduction and not an original work of art. I was recently refused permission to exhibit at a show because I sometimes use a computer to generate graphic elements which are then carved onto woodblocks by hand. They cited the old American Print Council guidelines…. an organization that has been defunct for many years.

After that, I began researching what actually constitutes “Original Work” and discovered that there is no agreement at all about the matter. Obviously, there is a line between Reproduction and Fine Art but nobody seems to know where it is.

I think there is a place for the purists, and a place for those who want to push a medium forward and experiment. I am in the latter camp, and that is just where I feel comfortable.

A purist is essentially preserving an existing tradition, and commiting to work within existing structures. While i think it is valuable to all of us to have history preserved, it does little to advance the medium or make new discoveries, which is where I find the most satisfaction.

I personally think anything goes, particularly in printmaking. Everything from photography to rubber stamps can be called printmaking, and I find that printmakers are often a very flexible bunch, willing to embrace many influences. Printing has always been very connected to technology and change, hasn’t it?

I think an important thing to keep in mind is just to not mis-represent yourself. Many people are either clueless about how printing happens, or they assume they know what happens behind the scenes, but in reality there are alot of ways to make an image these days, so it may get tricky for some clients to wrap their head around. There is nothing wrong with using photopolymer, just as long as your clients don’t think they are paying for hand set lead. Nothing wrong with laser cutting wood, as long as you aren’t suggesting that they are hand cut wood block.

I taught a letterpress basics workshop on the Vandercook recently, and I demonstrated both wood type and photopolymer. At first everyone was kind of dissapointed in the photopolymer because it didnt’ fulfill this crafty, old timey image that they had in their heads of what letterpress was, and they seemed even more dissapointed to find out that most contemporary letterpress is done that way. But after a few proofs were pulled, and i started to explain the process from computer file to film to plate, I could see people’s brains light up because a whole world of possibilities opened up as far as what they would be able to create. It seems like there is a balance somewhere, but whatever is going to get the ideas flowing is what gets me going. :)

Here is how I use the mediums.

Polymer - for the job work and anything that requires a deep impression. Also for projects requiring fonts not in my cases.

Lead type - for the lighter impression, personal work and projects that have the time frame suited to hand setting.

Wood or Lino hand cuts - Personal work and fine art type pieces. Large poster pieces from 9” x 12” to 18” x 24”. Polymer gets too expensive.

Wood Type - whenever I can.

Zinc or coper plates - rarely ever because I have had success with all of the above.

You are asking what medium you use, but it is almost like asking what are your intentions with letterpress.

An artist may find satisfaction in making their own paper, carving their own images and framing their final product. They have come to letterpress to express themselves, and they may feel that polymer is cheating.

A purist, as Natron shared, chooses to work with the method that was used within the boundries of an era that they feel was the “correct” era. These folks are important in teaching history to future generations, and also in teaching the important foundations of letterpress.

Others still are tradesmen. Folks that use letterpress as their occupation. Their main requirement is that they make a profit working in a field they love. These folks will use the medium that will provide the best results the fastest. They need to make time, because the more jobs that leave the door, the more money they make. This may make them sound bad, but isn’t this the most historically accurate use of letterpress?

Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type and the press to express himself or to make himself feel good. It was the need to mass produce, or even to spread the Gospel some may argue. Ben Franklin would have dropped letterpress in a minute if offset had been invented back then. Offset would have forwarded the case of the American Revolution so much more efficiently.

I guess I shouldn’t be so black and white. I’m sure there are people that are all three of the examples given, or a custom combination.

But why do we choose to work in an outdated occupation from times gone by? Everyone will have their own answer to that, and everyone will be right. Lets make sure there is room for everybody.

Oh. I still love magnesium.

I use magnesium blocks for ornaments and other sorts/decorations that i’d like to use as often as I use lead type.

I use photopolymer plates for digital projects that involve client pre-press proofs and specific fonts and more complicated typographic effects, like kerned pairs and so on.

Hi all,

I am new here. Just become a member few days ago.
I like to think I am a purest. I would love to have types and sorts and cuts the old fashion way, but most of the things I like are 19th century and finding that kind of materials is very difficult if not too expensive. I don’t like to use cliparts. I would look at a clipart in search of ideas, but I don’t make use of them as they are, because in the end it will always look digital.
So, I turned to photopolymer. The way I see it, and putting it into a perspective more accord to my time, I say it is moved by necessity and the polymer plate is good. It does the job.
As for the artwork I do, I simply can ignore the usefulness of the computer. The only bad thing is that the digital type just don’t look right, like lead type. I have digitized many cuts and borders and sorts (vignettes?) from historic specimens, in a way that it looks as close as possible to the originals. This is a very time consuming task, but I love it and I will keep going this way.
I have been thinking and experimenting with computer art work, searching for a way to produce wood cuts that resembles 19th and earlier centuries. And the thing is: they are not ‘real’ wood cuts, but it is what is available to me, the polymer plate.
If I could choose how I make plates, I would certainly use zinc or brass, but, again, plates like this were available long ago, and no longer available with easy and in a speedy way.

Another thing that I have been working on is to digitize old typefaces. For example: I have some new old type I purchased on auctions. My idea is to digitize that type and make it so that it is suitable for polymer plates, in a way that the face itself holds its characteristic as metal type. The process consists on proofing the type, scanning it and work the curve to be as precise and the proof shows. I have had good results, which I will sometime place here for all of you to see and comment.

My big problem is that some of the types I would like to digitize are relics and therefore to expensive to acquire…
Unless, someone who has that kind of relic would like to proof it and in a collaboration basis, revive those beauties and make it available to all letterpress nerds, like us.