Analog technology works in a digital world
The Letterpress Renaissance: King University
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | January 27, 2016The invention of the printing press is widely regarded as one of the most important advancements in modern history. Its invention provided the means for knowledge to be accessible to all. It is also used to create art.
The Sign of the George, the letterpress shop at King University, is more technologically advanced than the one Gutenberg used in the 15th century, but it has similarities.
"Letterpress printing might be considered Gutenberg Printing, single letters which are hand set to form words, lines and bodies of type," says David Winship, adjunct professor for Appalachian Studies and manager of the letterpress shop.
"The letters are cast in a reverse image, and when they are arranged to be printed, they are upside down and backwards. When the block of type is printed on a sheet of paper, it makes an impression, which can then be read.
"The presses we use are a generation or two removed from Mr. Gutenberg and Benjamin Franklin, since the process has been improved with 19th-century industrial cast-iron presses, but the process is essentially the same.
"The type that we use is of two types. We have both wood type and cast lead type. The wood type is used more for posters and display cards, because it is usually from 1" to 3" high, though some of the display type is larger. The size of the cast type is what you might see in a book or in a newspaper.
"Each of the fonts of type has a distinctive look, which might be familiar to readers who see different type faces in the A! Magazine. Many of the different typefaces that we use in the print shop are called the same names as one might see as choices in Microsoft Word. The original letterpress type font designs are where Word got its letter designs."
The King press is a platen press which uses a bed (or chase) and a platen. "Our presses are operated by hand and foot by a large wheel with an attached pedal that moves ink rollers over the type and causes the bed and platen to open and close like a clam shell, which then makes the print. In this way we are able to make multiple copies of a product. Letterpress printing is time-intensive but very rewarding," says Joseph Strickland, assistant professor of photography and digital media, and chair of the Digital Media Art and Design Department.
King University uses its shop to teach students the art of letterpress and business principles with real-world client-based projects.
"Through hands-on applications such as making invitations, greeting cards and posters, DMAD students learn how the letterpress works. They select and place letters individually (many times as small as 10 or 11 pt. font and sometimes smaller), insert spacing between the letters and between the lines of type, and align the type on the product through manual registration.This process is far from quick and teaches the students that to commit to doing something well means that you must put in the necessary time to do it right for yourself and for your client.
"During this process students are also re-introduced to many of the tools and terms that they use in digital programs such as Adobe Illustrator. For instance, alignment takes on new gravity due to the time it takes to really dial it in and to fix mistakes. In the press room, students can no longer select an object and tap the arrow keys on their keyboard until that object aligns perfectly on the page. Instead, to make an adjustment, the entire chase must be removed and unlocked which risks other unintentional adjustments to the layout. Another example is "leading,' which is a term the students may know from the digital world as the amount of space between lines of text. In the press room they learn the real significance of this as they place pieces of lead between each line of text on a page.
"We have been happy to use the Sign of the George press as a teaching tool beyond graphic design, typography and letterpress. In DMAD, we have used the press to teach students what it takes to launch a business and then to run it, to interact with clients, to take and deliver orders, and so forth. In the spring of 2014 our Entrepreneurship for the Digital Media Professional course was split into teams and tasked with developing competing business plans. They held an open house during our annual alumni weekend, the Dogwood Festival. At this event they sold products they had made and used the information gathered to complete their business plans. At the end of the semester, the students brought the best of their competing plans together into one final version. They called a meeting with the president, CFO, a number of VP's and deans, and pitched the final business plan to ask for the support of the university.
"The goals they set forward were to be self-sustaining through product creation and sales and to use any money raised to put back into the press for future client projects as well as to revamp the room to use as a gallery space. Since May of last year, the Sign of the George Press and Gallery has printed posters for the Push! Film Festival and sold more than 600 Christmas greeting cards. For Valentine's Day, we will be holding an open house at the Sign of the George for two nights during which time we will be selling handmade Valentine's cards. We hope that folks from Bristol and the surrounding community will join our students on campus on the nights of Feb. 8 and 9 from 4-8 p.m. Guests will be able to see the shop, the presses, and of course the cards," Strickland says.
The combination of digital technology and the analog art of letterpress carries through to the graphic design portion of the educational process.
"The main way we are doing this is through the creation of custom blocks," Strickland says. "This is particularly useful for logos, for example. This summer we made custom posters for the Push! Film Festival in Bristol. While all of the other elements on the poster were single letters and numbers placed by hand, the logo was of modern design and had to be custom made. To do this, the logo had to be sent to a company called Owosso Graphic Arts, which is able to make "type-high' blocks that align perfectly with letterpress type. With the logo in hand, the team was able to complete the project for the client. This same process enables us to create custom graphic designs digitally and then have them made into blocks that will be used with our platen press. The result is a custom, authentic letterpress product."
According to Strickland, the students are embracing this marriage of digital and analog technology. "It is such a departure from the usual screen-based technology they are accustomed to. The tangible nature of analog processes makes the experience seem more real. The business aspect of the press has given the students something of their own to believe in and support. It should be made very clear that the students have been the driving factor for the revitalization of the Sign of the George. They recognize the value of the opportunity they have to gain all of this experience in both business and letterpress while they are still in school."
The art of the letterpress is undergoing a national renaissance in the art world. Strickland thinks "with the advances in technology and the ability of today's artists, the current digital landscape is one of distrust and manipulation specifically in regard to imagery. Analog processes such as letterpress bring a spirit of authenticity that digital is incapable of replicating. People are really responding to the aesthetic and conceptual qualities of analog products."
Both Strickland and Winship believe that letterpress is both an art and a craft.
"In some ways of dividing the two, I look to the production part as craft and the design part as art," Winship says. "Though the line begins to blur, when you begin to print and have to see how the impression appears on the paper. With the design, you have the choices of type, both font and size, how it will lay out on the page, how you will work with the ink and paper to make what you want. If it is a booklet or a broadside or simply a sign, knowing the audience and the audience's response to different formats is part of the artistic design.
"The craft comes when you begin to take the idea and transform it into type, perhaps including cuts for illustration. You set the type, keeping alert to the quantity of type you have in the case, because if you don't have enough of a particular letter, you might have to engage in some creative editing. This was one of the points my father pointed out to his English students. When Shakespeare delivered a manuscript to the printer, he could hope that it would come out as he wrote it. But if some of the cases were short of some letters, the typesetters might change the wording to fit their abilities to set. So what we know as Shakespeare's words may not be exactly as he wrote them.
"Then when the type is locked in the chase, and the chase is in the press, then the fine art of printing begins. Before you make your first impression, you have to set up the press so that it will print evenly, will not make too much of an indention in the paper, but make enough contact so that you have evenly legible printing. It is not simply a matter of putting the ink on the table, then locking the chase in, and printing. Ideally, you simply want the inked type to kiss the paper, leaving a lovely impression. We're still working on that, occasionally getting it just right.
"Then, when all is done and printed the way you want, the very dirty part of the craft comes into play, the cleaning up and the redistributing the type. Ink is messy and it gets under your fingernails. Yes, you can wear gloves and sometimes I do and others do, but not always. The genius of Gutenberg was movable type that could be set up to print one page, then reused to print another page. In between is the redistribution of the type back into the type cases. You know the saying, "mind your Ps and Qs,' as in "pay attention to what you are doing.' This is an old printers' saying, because as reversed letters, the Ps look like Qs and the Qs look like Ps in a lower case. So putting them in the correct section of the case is essential, because the next time you come to set a block of type, you'll reach for the p, expecting it to be right and probably not knowing until you draw your first proof of the page, which is essentially a test run, often taken before you put the locked-up chase in the press," Winship says.
"If craft is the skill and techniques that one masters to create great art, then I think that the letterpress certainly gives students the opportunity to build their craft. By this I mean that it teaches them the art of patience and diligence. Many times to "get it right' on a letterpress requires very minute adjustments and mistakes are far easier to make than those adjustments. Our students are challenged with creating products that are held to a very high standard that can be frustrating to achieve, but in the end, the students then know the kind of commitment it takes to not only create a nice product, but to produce a piece of art."
For more information about The Sign of the George, visit www.kingdmad.com/sign-of-the-george.
>> The Henderson offers letterpress workshops
Some of the lead type that is used in letterpress printing.
Tessa Klingensmith, a senior at King University who helps manage the Sign of the George, sets type.