Contemporary Letterpress

The printed word has gone from becoming the most revolutionary idea of its time to one of the most sought after forms of print work in contemporary fine art. The process of printing has undergone many changes since its beginnings, which led to fluctuation in the popularity of letterpress prints. To understand why this form of print is so desirable, it is best to start at its creation.

Most people understand letterpress as set-type, the arrangement of metal letterforms inside a jig of some kind, being inked up and printed. In a broader spectrum, letterpress fits into a type of printing known as relief printing. In relief there exist two materials, the matrix and the substrate. The matrix can be made of wood, metal, linoleum, or any other surface that can hold ink. The substrate is the material which the matrix is being printed on, such as paper or fabric. The matrix is inked up and everything that is not recessed will collect ink. Pressure is applied to the substrate on top of the matrix and the reverse image is printed to the surface. The key to letterpress and other forms of printing are editions, multiple copies of the same image quality.

The first efficient way of creating accurate prints of equal quality was created by Johannes Gutenberg in the form of the “screw-press” around 1450. Gutenberg’s press allowed for even distribution of pressure onto his movable type. This combination of innovations helped push the renaissance revolution of ideas by spreading mass produced books and other learning materials to wider audiences. The best example of this, and probably one of the most known prints by Gutenberg himself, is his 42-line bible. The bible was printed using set-type and hand drawn elements were added in after. The process itself made the bible more affordable then hand-rendered versions which made it possible for people of lower financial status to study the ideas of the church. This was truly a giant step towards a mechanical understanding.

After years of completely spinning a press in both directions to complete a print, printers looked for new ways to help expedite the process further. A knuckle and lever system allowed for quicker printing but still had limits in the amount of pressure being applied. Another problem was the inking of plates, which was being done with leather balls. Brayers were introduced which helped speed up the inking procedure and allowed for more even and consistent distribution. The operation of printing stayed the same until the turn of the industrial revolution. With mechanized thought came the introduction of fully-automated and rotary presses. Fully automated presses inked the matrix, applied the substrate, applied pressure, and removed the print all while under the care of one individual to monitor the paper and ink wells, which required little training. Rotary presses allowed for continuous printing of a cylindrical matrix onto rolls of paper, the basis for many newspaper printing techniques. As technology advanced, the role of the printer in letterpress printing became less evident, especially with the introduction of the digital printer.

The aesthetic qualities of letterpress had become overlooked by the majority, but artists saw beauty in the quality of the print produced by such a simple process. The most appealing quality of letterpress printing, as with most other forms of relief printing, is the crisp and tactile imprint of the image onto the paper. Certain types of matrices, such as wood, carry a sort of history with them when they are printed. Any mark on the surface of the letterform, be it a scratch, a dent, or any other impurity will be revealed as a “happy accident” giving the piece greater depth and character. Letterpress printing is also ideal because the list of substrates is so vast. Many qualities and compositions of papers can be printed on. This form of printing as fine art went relatively unrecognized until a recent revival in the 1990’s.

Brides to be were left in awe when designers started using letterpress in wedding invitations because of the elegant forms and creative indentations. Businessmen also saw potential in furthering their own identity through innovative business card designs using these techniques. Since print shops were all moving to digital printing, old presses started popping up everywhere for discounted prices, such as the Vandercook proofing press. Novice and professional artists picked up the tools and quickly started experimenting with relief printing.

Today, letterpress printing is associated with quality craftsmanship. Artists create posters that are seen as gallery worthy, artist’s books that are pieces of art in themselves, and branding solutions for companies all with letterpress. The future of innovation in the techniques lies with the experimentation of matrices and substrates. Such a primitive form of printing is fast becoming one of the most applied techniques in modern design.

Today, letterpress printing is associated with quality craftsmanship. Artists create posters that are seen as gallery worthy, artist’s books that are pieces of art in themselves, and branding solutions for companies all with letterpress. The future of innovation in the techniques lies with the experimentation of matrices and substrates. Such a primitive form of printing is fast becoming one of the most applied techniques in modern design.

-Michael Snowadzky