Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Letterpress Workshop

This past weekend, I had the great privilege of taking Margaret Lock's letterpress workshop. I've done some letterpress printing before, but not for awhile since I don't have access to a press. I was anxious to try again and to learn more, mostly to see if my interest is still keen. Turns out, it certainly is! Margaret is a gifted printer and painter based in Kingston who operates Lock's Press with her husband Fred. I'd encountered her work at the OCAD Book Arts Fair many years ago, as well as at the Wayzgoose held annually in Grimsby, Ontario (I'm going to have a table of my own at this year's version at the end of April). Margaret also organized the William Rueter exhibit and lecture that I attended last winter at Queen's University. The class involved printing a piece of poetry or prose of our own selection. I chose a passage from Virginia Woolf's book Flush, an imagined biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's beloved spaniel. To the left, I've included images of two versions that I printed: I used 18 point Baskerville lead type, apart from the first letter which is 30 point Centaur, and produced the pages on a Vandercook SP 15 proofing press. Margaret gave us a wide variety of papers to print on so that we'd encounter the different results achieved when textures, colours, and weights vary. We discussed the nature of paper at length (grain direction, the meaning of the term "acid-free"), typography, and the organization of the text on the page in order to best represent the words and ideas. Margaret encouraged us to incorporate other design flourishes like decorating the page using watercolour paints. I'm timid when it comes to painting, so my additions were nominal. However, I welcomed the freedom Margaret insists exists when it comes to going back to a print and altering it using other techniques. My passage was just shy of 200 words and it took me hours to set the type. It was helpful to have chosen prose because, typically, it's justified to the left and right (unlike poetry), so required me to do a lot of extra work with spacing. I absolutely loved setting the type in the composing stick. It's so labour-intensive, that it really forces you to consider the words - their meanings and usefulness, principally. As an avid reader and sometime writer, it was fascinating to see how laying out each word makes you question its purpose. Ideally, every word should NEED to be there. This quality is entirely absent from computer-generated language because the ease of typing means redundancies and indulgences (ie. editing!) don't matter quite so much. We proofed our pages - checking for typos and design flaws we should change - then enjoyed printing for what seemed like a brief time in comparison to the effort of preparation. Margaret also talked about depth of impression, noting that a deep impression is favoured currently, since it indicates that a print was handmade. In the past, a subtle impression was preferred to obscure the presence of human hands. On the other side of the Industrial Revolution, we now crave interacting with art and objects created without the aid of machinery. Margaret prefers the traditional approach of printing with a light touch, an aesthetic I share since a hammered page seems to me to be too coarse. I don't know when I'll next get to do some letterpress printing again. It's always been my dream to produce books in this manner, especially on a press of my own.