At Work: Prints from the Great Depression Opens Today!

Seamstress sewing

Riva Helfond (1910-1989), Custom Made, 1940, lithograph, from the collection of Marcia Price and Ambassador John Price.

At Work: Prints from the Great Depression is a collaborative exhibition between the UMFA and the University of Utah’s American West Center designed to explore both the world of work and the role of art during the Great Depression. At Work offers a compelling narrative about the Great Depression through the work of artists, many of whom the federal government employed.

This exhibition includes many different types of printmaking, including lithographs, etchings, wood engravings, woodcuts and linocuts. I have had the different process of printmaking explained to me over and over again, but only about 10% of the information ever sticks (I have the same problem with understanding how bronze is cast in the lost wax method, but only about 5% sticks – I know the wax melts, and therefore is lost – but that is another blog post for another day). So, if you are confused as I am, do as I do and refer to this handy guide:

Ways of Printing

Printing is the process of transferring ink from matrix to paper, and, except in stencil and digital printing, the image on the paper appears backwards from the way it is on the matrix. There are only four ways of printing mechanically: relief, intaglio, planographic and stencil, and one way to print electrically: digital.

Printing in Relief:

image of air raid wardens

Richard Correl (American, 1904-1990), Air Raid Wardens, 1943, linocut, from the collection of Marcia Price and Ambassador John Price

In relief printing, the matrix is made by carving away whatever is not supposed to be printed. Wood, linoleum, rubber (as in rubber stamps), metal (as in letterpress type), and a variety of other materials may be used in relief printing. To transfer the image from the matrix, the ink is pulled off the top surface by the paper. Since the ink is easily pulled off the surface in relief printing, not much pressure is needed to transfer it to paper. Pressure can be applied with the back of a spoon or a firm pad, though a press is often used for faster and more even printing.

Types of Relief Printing:

Printing in Intaglio:

men standing on a beam above a city

Samuel L. Margolies (American, 1897-1974) Builders of Babylon, 1937, Etching and aquatint, from the collection of Marcia Price and Ambassador John Price

An intaglio print is made when ink is spread into incised grooves on a metal matrix. The plate’s surface is then wiped almost clean leaving the ink in the grooves. The plate is laid on a flat etching press bed and dampened paper is placed on top. The damp paper allows the ink to be pulled out of the plate’s recessions. Then the plate and the paper are put under a press which applies many tons of pressure to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper. When ink is pressed into the dampened paper the pressure spreads it into the paper fibers. This results in slightly softened lines and edges, and produces a look unlike that of other forms of printing where ink sits on top of the paper and yields crisp, sharp edges.

Types of Intaglio Printing:
Spit Bite Aquatint
Sugar Lift Aquatint
Water Bite Aquatint

Planographic Printing:

men working with a crane

Herschel Levit (American, 1912-1986), Dam Builders, 1937, Lithograph, from the collection of Marcia Price and Ambassador John Price

Most printed things in our daily lives, like books, magazines, newspapers, are printed planographically, by lithography. Planographic printing is surface printing on a two-dimensional plane. The areas that print are chemically differentiated from the areas that are to remain ink free. The basis of lithography is the fact that water and oil repel each other. To make a lithograph, the artist marks on a plate (originally stone, now mostly metal) with oil-based crayon or with an oil based ink. The non-marked areas, which have been made receptive to water by chemical treatment, are sponged before each inking so when the oily ink is rolled on, it sticks only to the areas marked to print.

Types of Planographic Printing:

Printing with Stencils:

rock drillers

Harry Gottlieb (American/Romanian, 1895-1993), Rock Drillers, 1939, Screenprint, from the Collection of Marcia Price and Ambassador John Price

In stencil printing, the ink is pressed through a part of the surface that has been cut away. Almost everyone has done stencil printing, putting a number on a curb or a name on a locker. To print with a stencil, cuts are made in sturdy paper and ink is sprayed, painted or rubbed through the opening. A silk-screen matrix is a woven screen, originally silk but now more often made of synthetic or fine wire-mesh fabric. The fabric is stretched over a frame to make the screen and what isn’t supposed to print is blocked out with paint or other blocking material. Then the ink is pressed through the open areas onto the paper.

Types of Stencil Printing:

This last type of printmaking is not represented in the At Work exhibition.
Digital Computer Printing:

Digital printing uses computer-driven electronic processes to make the impressions. There are many different ways to transfer the art from an electronic image to a print. Ink Jet, Dye Sublimation, and Xerography, are three ways of printing digitally. Ink Jet printing requires the image to be put on a computer before it can be printed by an ink jet printer which squirts the ink onto the paper. Dye Sublimation also requires the image to be put on a computer before sending it through a special printer. The printer then transfers the ink to the paper by changing the ink’s state from a solid to a gas and back to a solid. Xerography refers to creating and manipulating an original piece of art using a paper copier. The copier scans the image, translates it into computer language, and then prints an exact copy.

Types of Digital Computer Printing:
Ink Jet
Dye Sublimation
Thermal Wax


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