Adrian Tidd and Linda Reynolds, Department of Design
When the word printing is used nowadays, it generally refers to the act of sending a file via computer to a machine that sprays ink onto cheap office paper. The result of such printing is plain white paper with imagery or text laid out in a pattern of small ink dots. There is no human element or quality in this process and the result is mediocre; even if quality paper is used, there is no character in the final outcome and the ink typically rubs off with very little effort. The project I proposed was to explore older methods of printing while writing, designing and self-publishing a book about an island off the coast of Maine.
Though there are several older methods of printing that are feasible, letterpress is the oldest and is quite effective for books. Unlike the modern machines we typically use, letterpress involves paper being pressed onto a printing plate covered in ink. This process requires a fair amount of training, typically involves a substantial amount of human interaction and yields a premium result. While lead moveable type was the first type of printing plate, other materials have been used since, including wood, plastic and other metals. For this project I used a combination of photopolymer plastic plates for the text, and wood plates (known as woodcuts) for the illustrations.
Before creating the printing plates, I began my project by doing extensive research into the history, geography and culture of Haskell Island, the subject of the book, and the surrounding area. I found several books that while tedious, provided a fantastic amount of context. Since my family has a lot of history involving Haskell Island, I had access to several unique resources that proved invaluable. One such resource was a home video filmed in 1940 that had good history to the island, and some exceptional photography that provided reference for some of my illustrations.
After researching the island, my next step was to explore the process of creating the wood plates. Linda, my mentor, is an expert in that medium so my exploration was made more easy than it would have been otherwise. Though I’ve worked with a number of other illustration mediums, the woodcut process is the most unusual. Painting and drawing are similar in the same way that the English and French languages are similar; there are commonalities that make them relatable. In this analogy, woodcuts would be the Chinese language—sharing very few similarities with many other illustration counterparts. Each wood plate, or piece of plywood, had to be shaped with hand carving tools. My illustrations involved two colors each, which meant that two separate wood plates had to be carved (one plate for each color) to line up perfectly. Miraculously, only one of the 12 wood plates needed to be re-carved.
During the same phase of creating my wood plates, I also wrote the text for the book. My primary goal in writing the text was to capture the soul of the island and present it to the reader in a way that would compliment their visual journey. After writing the text, I used photopolymer plastic to create the text printing plates.
When both wood and plastic plates were created I began the printing process in the school’s print lab. Each color had to be mixed by hand and printed across all 50 copies of the book using the letterpress printing press. While I originally intended to create a bound book, I found that an unbound book would serve my purposes better. Each individual page, excluding the cover, was designed to be coherent in any order. The finished book is 16 pages long with seven pages of illustration, making for 800 printed pages, 250 of which had to be printed with two colors. A copy of the book will be available for viewing in the BYU Graphic Design Resource Library.
As far as results go, I found that while significantly more difficult than printing with a modern printer, printing using letterpress and woodcuts can yield stunning results. The process of carving out each wood plate imbues the final product with a character and quality that really can’t be achieved any other way. Printing each page by hand also gives each piece a certain authenticity and uniqueness.
In conclusion, while not practical for printing textbooks and the like, I found that letterpress and woodcuts lend themselves well to being exceptional artistic mediums. Though letterpress and woodcuts are extremely old methods, they certainly still have a place in today’s art works.