Richard Noyce on Writing About Printmaking

Writer Richard Noyce has been kind enough to allow Printeresting to reproduce the paper he presented at Equilibrium, the Southern Graphics Council International Conference, St. Louis, March 2010. The topic is one close to Printeresting’s heart- writing about print. Thanks for sharing, Richard. His new book, Critical Mass: Printmaking Beyond the Edge is available at Amazon.

Writing about Printmaking

It has been said that writing about art is like dancing about poetry. The meaning of this pithy statement is that using one language, verbal, to describe another, visual, is doomed to failure. But is it? Might not the thoughtful and skilful use of words be of positive value in the interpretation of visual art? After all, art history lectures are – almost always – presented using words, and describing the intricacies of, for example, the symbolism of colour in Quattrocento painting, through the use of mime alone, would set even Marcel Marceau a nigh on impossible task. The evidence to support the value of writing about the visual arts goes back a long way, to Vasari and his ‘Lives of the Artists’ and beyond; and writers have been at it ever since. The result is that there are endless shelves of books about the visual arts in homes, libraries and bookstores all over the world.

Here is a good example of a traditional art book. ‘Italian Painters of the Renaissance’ by Bernard Berenson was published in Oxford in 1952 by the Phaidon Press, and is a collection of four essays written by the noted art historian between 1894 and 1907. The hardbound book contains essays written in clear English with traditional grammar and structure – an intellectual achievement of the highest order – accompanied by over 400 illustrations, some printed separately in colour and then glued into the printed text, but for the most part in black and white, sometimes with two or three to each of the pages. A traditional book then, suitable for formal study at an establishment of learning such as the Courtauld Institute in London. But, is it any good, and is it still valid in the 21st century? The answer has to be ‘Yes’, but with one reservation: how many art lovers, or the art-curious, would have the patience and the time to settle down to the close reading required to understand what Berenson was getting at? But, there is much of value. The preface, written by the author in his villa in Florence in 1952, begins: ‘Many see pictures without knowing what to look at. They are asked to admire works of pretended art and they do not know enough to say, like the child in Andersen’s tale, “Look, the Emperor has nothing on”. Vaguely the public feels that it is not being fed, perhaps taken in, possibly made fun of. It is as if suddenly they were cut off from familiar food and told to eat dishes utterly unknown, with queer tastes, foreboding perhaps that they were poisonous.’ The preface ends: ‘No artefact is a work of art if it does not help to humanize us. Without art, visual, verbal and musical, our world would have remained a jungle.’ This was written almost 60 years ago, and some would say that the world is now more of a jungle than ever!

So, writing about the visual arts has a long and distinguished history. The world in which we live is very different from the refinement of Berenson’s last years in Florence. We live our lives at a much faster pace, within a constant barrage of electronic and printed information in which the visual arts, like so much else, have for many people become just another commodity, another thing to be consumed. Sitting down quietly to reflect on the work of an artist, or on the meaning of art, is something that few of us ever find time to do. However, for all that the world has become a faster moving and ever more confusing electronic playground, there has been a steady resurgence in recent years in printmaking – which is why we are all here. As the world of printmaking continues to evolve and extend there is a good reason for recording and writing about its progress, its techniques and the work of those artists for whom print is the medium of choice.

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Printmaking books come in different forms, with different functions. There are the how-to-do-it manuals such as the well-known series of handbooks from A&C Black, written by acknowledged experts in their medium, such as those on Digital Printmaking and Japanese Woodblock Printing. The problem with a subject like digital printmaking is that the technology moves so fast that it is difficult to keep up, and the text can rapidly become out of date. With more traditional techniques, such as Japanese woodblock, there is less sudden change and such books have a longer useful life. A 2009 publication, ‘Printmaking – a Complete Guide to Materials and Processes’, by Beth Grabowski and Bill Fick (this is the UK edition) has had well-deserved success. It covers a very wide range of processes, is lavishly illustrated with the work of well-known (and some lesser known) practising artists, some of whom are also given concise profiles, and offers a very good overview of printmaking as well as detailed practical advice: highly recommended! Also well worth searching out is, ‘Digital Art Studio’ (2004) by Karin Schminke, Dorothy Simpson Krause and Bonny Pierce Lhotka, which details a fascinating range of techniques applicable to digital printmaking with numerous illustrations and examples. There are many other handbooks and manuals that give useful advice, encouragement and guidance.

Another category is the growing number of books that deal with the past, and the more recent, history of printmaking. I would include in this monographs on specific subjects – such as ‘Japanese Popular Prints’ by Rebecca Salter – a fascinating study of a little known aspect of Japanese graphic art, and the continually growing number of catalogues of exhibitions of printmaking by individual artists, such as these by Vicky Tsalamata (Greece), Eglė Kuckaitė (Lithuania) and Zoran Todović (Serbia), and major museum catalogues such as these for the exhibitions of work by Hiroshige and Hokusai at the Royal Academy in London in 1992 and 1997). Then there is the documentation of the ever-evolving number of triennial printmaking competitions; these are some of the catalogues from the Biennial and Triennial competition exhibitions in Wrexham (North Wales) 2001 – 2009, Falun (Sweden) 1995 – 2007, Thessaloniki (Greece) 2008, Penang (Malaysia) 2007 and 2010, Ferrol (Spain) 2010, and not forgetting Krakow (Poland) 1991 – 2009. Some printmaker/artist associations produce their own catalogues of work by their members, such as those in Taiwan, South Korea, Estonia and Latvia. All of these provide a fascinating record of the development of printmaking in specific places over the years. While many of them primarily contain illustrations and details of the works of award winners and those selected for exhibition, they usually contain essays by jurors and academics that shed some light on the changing rationale of such events. The illustrations and details themselves give clues about the evolving nature of printmaking.

The same is true, of course for the small number of regular magazines and journals that deal specifically with printmaking, ranging from those covering specialist collectors’ interests to more general magazines featuring specific artists, galleries, techniques and so on. These magazines are also a useful source of information on equipment, materials, exhibitions and galleries, and the all important calls for entries for competitions.

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These then are some of the forms in which printed writing about printmaking can be found. But what is it for? Why is it necessary and how should it be done? For a start, despite the continual prophecy that printed books and magazines will soon become obsolete, made redundant by the devices and techniques of the onwards march of technology, publishers continue to commission writers to write all manner of books for printers to print for bookshops to sell to people to read, and for libraries to put on their shelves to record the changing nature of our shared culture. While other forms of transmitting and sharing information will develop and grow I doubt very much that printed books will disappear any time soon: and I hope that they don’t. There is something about holding a printed book and turning the pages, and there is something about the activity of reading from the page that is hard to resist. Books can be read in all sorts of places that defeat electronic devices, they don’t need electricity to operate and, given reasonable care, they last almost indefinitely without suffering from technological change – they are the ultimate legacy device. Books convey information and provoke thought very simply by a mixture of printed text and images.

Books have the potential to be wonderfully democratic; people choose books, not the other way round. They sit silently on a table or a shelf, waiting for someone to pick them up and open them; they do not impose themselves through sound or moving images, they do not intrude into daily life in the way that other forms of contemporary communication do. They present information that ranges from the Olympian heights of academic peroration to the vapid waffling of teenage Z-list celebrities – and everything in between. That information covers the entire range of human experience and activity, and not content with that, new varieties of experience and activity can be provoked.

When it comes to writing about printmaking the first consideration is the audience – who is the book aimed at, what type of reader is sought? Is the book aimed at experts or amateurs, at printmakers and artists, or at the general public and the art-curious? The answers to these questions in a sense define the way in which the book should be written and presented – an academic tome will be different from a coffee-table book, a commuter paperback or a practical handbook. But can a worthwhile book on printmaking be aimed at a wide audience? I believe that it can, and that it should: how successful this can be is dependent on the style of language used, and here can lie the first stumbling block: if a book is intended to be read by a wide audience it should use the type of language that can be understood by anyone with a reasonable level of education. It should then avoid the use of complex ideas expressed in the type of language used on the lofty heights of academe, and which is frankly more or less incomprehensible to mere mortals! There is a need for clarity and concision, with a balance between generality and detail, written in a style that does not confuse, mislead or betray. It is perhaps difficult to convey complex ideas and processes without complex language – but such means can, provided that sufficient explanation is given, be effective. One useful technique is to write as if speaking, presenting ideas as clearly as possible: the work of printmakers, their concepts and their techniques, can be conveyed to a general interest audience in ways that engage their attention.

While the use of language is one thing, its presentation is another, and this is dependent on the skill of the designer. Combining text and images in a way that makes the pages attractive to look at and easy to reach takes a good eye, coupled with a sensibility on the part of the designer towards the work of the writer. A comparison between the look of ‘Printmaking at the Edge’ and ‘Critical Mass – Printmaking Beyond the Edge’ may serve to show what I mean. The outside covers are clearly linked, but it is on the layout of the pages that the differences can be seen: I know which I prefer. The question of the size of the images is a vexed one, and it is here that the raw economics of book production come into play. There is a fine balance between the size and production quality of the book, and its cost – matters of number crunching for the bean counters that are at the decision-making edge of all major publishers. Having more larger images means more pages, and more pages means higher printing costs. It is a matter of balance, one that often results in too many small images. On the other hand, having less text and more images of larger size can be another solution, but this can be a problem when too many images are printed across the gutter between opposite pages, making the images difficult to read. In the end it is a matter of choice and balance, and there is no perfect answer that is economical to achieve. With a lavish, and consequently far more expensive approach, a greater degree of detail can be reproduced, as in this extraordinary book about the work of Konstantin Khudyakov. ‘Deisis’ is an illustrated account of his enormous digital iconostasis, as exhibited at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The boxed book weighs around 13lbs, and measures 17 x 11½ inches, and with double gatefold reproductions achieves impressive results.

Behind all of this – the different varieties of books and magazines on printmaking, questions about who the books are for, matters of language and design, comes a central consideration – and that it the relationship between the writer and the printmaker or printmakers described in a book or magazine. Is it to be like the more traditional relationship between the critic and the artist, where the work of one is about the work of the other, but they remain separate and often competing entities? Or is the writer in the role of the interpreter, seeking to understand the work of the artist and then to describe it in a form that can be understood by others, including those who lack expertise? Or perhaps the writer takes the role of a social and cultural commentator, attempting to place the work of printmakers within the broader context of society and culture? All three approaches have validity, but in my writing I prefer to take the role of the interpreter – quite simply because I have, over the past three decades or more, become increasingly involved in writing about the contemporary visual arts and for the last half of that time specialising in printmaking. In this time I have become certain that the best relationship between an artist, or a printmaker, and a writer is a symbiotic one, in which the work of each complements the other. It seems to me that this makes for the best fit within the context of the international printmaking community, and I remain grateful for the cooperation and friendship that I have experienced as a result of immersing myself in that community.

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While I believe strongly that books printed on paper will continue to be made for many years to come, in the not so distant future it is inevitable that alternative possibilities will be devised for writing about printmaking and the artists who pursue it, and the potential is intriguing to consider. The relationship between writing about art and technology has already expanded considerably with the introduction of e-books, and even more so with the coming of the iPad and the wide range of other tablet style computer devices that are now emerging on to the market. The rapid proliferation of ‘Apps’ has widened beyond all that could be imagined even five years ago to the point at which interactive written and illustrated works are now commonplace. Daily and weekend newspapers, technology magazines, and general consumer titles, all in digital format,ß are multiplying in number all the time. There is no doubt that the newspaper and periodical industry is facing perhaps its biggest challenge for many years, and the old adage, ‘adapt or die’, is being applied with enthusiasm. How then might the developing interactive technology alter the way in which information is presented in my two books about contemporary printmaking?

Consider these pages from ‘Critical Mass – Printmaking Beyond the Edge’: they contain, as do all the other pages devoted to the artists in the book, the headline name, some text, some illustrations, and a web link on the following page. In printed form they convey a selection of information, enough to provide a basic introduction to the artist’s work. The full-page illustration is a montage of digital stills from Rees Roberts’s DVD film, ‘Man at the Border’, which is itself composed on a mixture of archive and new film and video, and a digitised collage of prints in a range of traditional techniques, together with a soundtrack. The montage serves, only, to give a flavour of the content of the film, which lasts over 12 minutes. Transposed to a format suitable for such technology as the iPad these pages could provide interactive elements that would enhance greatly the experience of the reader. Clicking on the headline name, for example, could open a link to a portrait photograph of the artist, or even a short video of the artist introducing himself. Clicking on the text could enable a reader to hear it read out. While clicking on a photograph could trigger a short slide show of other images and, in the case of the montage, the playing of the entire film. Finally, the website address could be a hot link, taking the reader straight to the website in question. The positive side is that this format would enliven the whole piece; the negative side is that it would only work for those with access to the necessary devices and technology – and would discriminate against the techno-poor. In addition, the cost of producing such an interactive electronic version would be high, pushing the cost of owning such a version of the book to a possible unacceptable limit. A more conventional e-book, in which interaction was limited to turning the pages forwards or backwards, and maybe having a search function built in, would give an alternative form of access that might be attractive to some. However, there is currently much dispute about the cost of e-books, with complaints that they can be more expensive that the paper originals. My publishers, A&C Black, are currently considering the options for making parts of their list, including my two books with them, available as e-books: I have yet to find out what the implications would be.

Further into the future, it is certain that emerging technologies will make the whole process of having access to a writer’s work on an artist far more intuitive and accessible. And yet, despite the potential for holographic books, with surround sound and 3D interactivity, paper books are likely to remain one of the main sources of information. Whatever the possibilities, at the root of the viability of a writer’s book on a printmaker’s work will depend on the building of a good level of mutual respect and understanding between printmaker and writer, and a shared willingness to communicate the excitement and challenge of each other’s work to the wider public. Whatever happens, it is unlikely to be dull.

Richard Noyce
Wales, February 2011

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Categories: Critical Discourse

2 Responses to “Richard Noyce on Writing About Printmaking”

  1. Ari says:

    positive thinking…


  2. sukka karuna says:

    its a good analysis, was use full for me, when i started writing “printmaking in Andhra Pradesh”