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Common Place: Traditional and Digital Practices In Printmaking

Ever since the advent of photography and the development of the half tone dot, a rift has developed between the areas of art, science and industry. An even more pronounced rift between the subsets within art world, those of "traditional" printmakers (etching, engraving, woodcut, et al) and those using photomechanical and or digital processes. These territorial battles for the bragging rights within this narrow discipline grow out of a basic discord between what is seen as the mechanical and craft (or hand made). It was possible in 1720 to make a photomechanical print (although none were made) through a process involving the camera obscura and a four color intaligo system patented by Gautier D'Agoty. The realization that creating a color photographic image was more than a theoretical possibility before 1730 requires us to reexamine the lineage of four-color printing. This also demands that we see all printmaking processes as having much more in common than previously considered. Printmaking processes which are now referred to as "traditional" such as intaligo, serigraph, engraving, woodcut, mezzotint, and etching have held their place in the highly developed connoisseurship of fine art printmaking. In the middle of the 19th Century the development of photography and subsequently the halftone dot changed the emphasis in printing from the subtlty of hand printing to high volume mass production. Here the rift between the hand and mechanized production of images began and has been with us ever since.

To understand this discord and to begin to create a new understanding of the lineage and intimate relationships between the old and new we must pose one question. What is the importance of the seeing the evidence of an artist's hand in a work of art? This question continues to plague the artworld this day, and it is the genesis of understanding printed works and the process through which information is mediated and put to the page. Much of the last four decades of contemporary artmaking have been dominated by issues concerning the serializing of imagery and or the elimination of the importance of the image altogether . However, the disciplines of photography and printmaking still cling to 19th Century concerns of craft.

As this outline is written an almost religious devotion to digital technology is at hand. With the advent of the digital computer, abstract symbols, programming languages, personal computers, CDs, and the internet have developed. But what does it mean to say something is digital? Philosophers have as of yet had little luck in defining it. In the context of describing new printmaking processes the computer or digitally coded information has profoundly changed the way images are made, stored, mediated and finally "impressed" or printed. The transition can be easily summarized as one beginning with the hand carved stone tablets to the immaterial existence of the World Wide Web. The matrix through which an artist creates a printed work is the area of greatest change. In Serigraphy the image is created with ink, a series of stencils or emulsions and a stretched silk, Lithography begins with a greasy drawn mark and is transferred through a simple notion that grease and water repel one another. These forms while distinct all are formed to some extent by a dot. New digital prints are no different, many are also created by the dot, but the matrix is no longer material, now is it codes. An elaborate sequence of digits, 1 or 0 which ultimately define the image to be printed, Digital Printmaking differs profoundly from traditional methods. The traditional print is an analog representation of the variation in tone and line. The edition serves to represent a fixed state given to the work by the hand of the artists. The digital print is a discrete representation of the value that describes each subset of pixels. These pixels represent a specific value that refers to its color intensity. The process becomes a much more cerebral act that the tradition physical movement of materials. Once an image is encoded it can easily be manipulated at any point in their existence. Variations and stages of an image's development may be saved. The tradition of a finished state in printmaking is no longer a functional part of the printmaking process. Nor is it required that an edition must be completed at once. The ability to save digital files and print from them on demand has revolutionized the edition process.

The Iris printer uses a continuous flow hertz technology. A four-color nozzle assembly (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) emits 4 million droplets a second. Each droplet is roughly 2 picoliters or about the size of a red blood cell. This incredibly small dot size and the huge range of substrate options make the Iris process unique and especially well suited to artists. The printer is capable of detail so fine it optically resembles a continuous tone. While the printer is rated at 300 dpi, it is capable of over 500 shades of grey in each color. No other printer is capable of any thing close to gradations this fine. It is one of the few computer-controlled printers that demand significant operator control over the appearance of the final print. David Hockney describes the Iris print as "the most beautiful printing of photography I have ever seen. The color on the paper seems almost physical."

There has been considerable debate about the longevity of the dye used in the Iris process. In order for the ink to be emitted by the nozzle assembly, the color itself must be incredibly fluid, thus, water-based. The molecular structure of pigmented material is too large to pass through the Iris nozzle which roughly half the size of a human hair follicle. Because of these requirements dyes must be used, which are traditionally less light fast that pigment. New advancements in light fast ink research have made it possible have longevity of upwards of 150 years with the digital printing processes.

Portions of this have been excerpted from Adam Lowes pioneering book Digital Print.