Digitally handmade: hand made digitally

Ruth Lee 11 years ago

Hand made digitally: digitally hand made
by Ruth Lee

Images still to be uploaded.


Moving on from the large scale digitally-printed textiles this new body of work sets out to explore further whether the concept of digitally handmade is a contradiction in terms or simply the best of all worlds.

Combining the digital and the handmade is an exciting prospect.  Learning how to use image-making software has allowed me to take advantage of the powerful technologies available to the contemporary artist/designer, while retaining and adding to my signature style.  At the same time I am intrigued by finding ways of subverting the, sometimes, slick and impersonal image making of the digital world by making evident the maker’s hand in the creative process.

Currently based in printmaking at The University of Central Lancashire with courtesy of the aa2a scheme  this welcome opportunity has enabled me to clarify my future direction, bringing together seemingly disparate yet related elements of past and current work.

For this project I set out to create a body of experimental visual studies through hands-on printmaking; the main focus being an open-ended investigation as to just what is possible in terms of cross referencing traditional printmaking methods with digital technologies, and also how visual information is processed using certain tools, machinery and technology.  

Initial experiments

    As a way into the project ,and getting used to new surroundings, I opted to continue with the theme of migrating birds, taking existing images in my digital sketchbook to through into traditional screen-printing.   Working with acrylic printing inks and the vacuum print bed was a new experience, which took some time to get used to. The challenge was to unlearn textile screen-printing working methods, which though similar, are not the same.

Initial experiments involved printing onto lightweight papers, which were strong to use yet fragile in appearance, including Tissutex paper and Gampi: the latter is a beautiful paper, which has a sheen not unlike silk.

 Further experiments with overprinting transparent colours and layering the prints began to suggest a sense of space and distance; a metaphor for migratory birds.  Colours related to Portuguese blue tiles, and images referenced the migratory journey swallows take from Africa through to northern Europe.

Combining laser cut layers with screen printing.

    A chance experiment with laser cutting to find a way of making shaped frames to house these delicate prints kick started the project into action.  A prototype for a shaped frame (which was eventually cut from clear acrylic), and based on the bird silhouettes, was cut in Gampi paper.  Overlaid on top of the screen prints, the latter added depth and a subtle texture to the work.

    Work is now ongoing to make a series of small tiles constructed from layers of prints sandwiched together with laser cut acrylic frames cut to the same designs as the Gampi prototype.

Laser Cut Wooden Printing Blocks

     Noting that it was possible to etch into wood using the laser cutter, I was curious to try the same technique as a way of producing relief-printing blocks as a side project to my stated aim of working in screen printing.  Having the chance to explore a completely new working method in relief print making was the shot in the arm this project needed.  I loved the tactile nature of the relief-printing block, the viscosity of the oil based printing inks and the way in which it is possible to build layer on layer of colour onto the printing blocks, colour which I learned to mix from first principles.  It is here that I felt the connection between the ancient with the modern in terms of printing technologies: something that greatly appealed to me.

Working with technologies spanning nearly 156 years, the laser cut wooden printing blocks have been printed onto variety of paper surfaces using a magnificent cast-iron Columbian relief printing press dated 1856.

Some of the imagery was developed from digital photographs taken of Roman tiles in Portugal.  Others, such as the birds, were hand-cut stencils which were scanned into the computer or created to give the appearance of being stitched.  For the latter I used the Bernina image-making software usually used with a digital embroidery computer.

Designed in grey scale and then converted into suitable files for the digitally-controlled laser cutter to read, the wooden blocks were laser-etched in relief onto pine and plywood.  The areas of the design that are either light or dark in tone relate to the areas which are cut away or left standing proud of the wood block.  It is the latter which are then rolled up with ink and printed.  It is or course possible to invert the light and dark tones at the design stage, making it possible to produce two printing blocks of the design in negative and positive format.

The small pine printing blocks showed the grain lines of the wood most successfully and in doing so created imagery that retained a hand drawn quality.  The larger plywood blocks (30cm by 30cm) were less successful.  Good quality ply is too hard for the laser beam to cut through to the depth needed for relief printing and cheap plywood disintegrates on the top layer after just a few prints have been made. 

Another first for me was to mix my oil-based inks from scratch.  I am very particular about colour mixing, and like to have complete control of the base colours used in the mixing process.  To do this, colour in powder form is mixed with copper plate oil and blended together on a stone slab.  A time-consuming process, but well worth the effort to produce an individual colour palette in the colours you really want. 

The oil-based printing inks were hand rolled onto the wooden printing blocks, making the new prints similar to each other but not identical. This is very apparent with prints made onto lightweight Japanese papers such as Kozo and Gampi, or long fibre abaca paper, each with their own discreet texture. Further experiments were tried on thin wood veneers and silk papers. It is in the latter that the individuality of each print is clearest, due to the uneven nature of the hand-made printing surface
The next step in the process is to introduce hand-stitching or other textile processes into the equation.  Current thinking is to substitute areas of print with digitally stitched panels. 

Digital Sketch Books

Keeping a digital sketch book alongside hands-on practice is a useful method for exploring, for example, changes of scale, adding and subtracting motifs and text, trying a variety of effects and layouts, or changing the tonal balance of any given image.

A really useful practical application for this body of work was working back and forth between digitally-created and hand-printed imagery, visualising various juxtapositions and combinations of colour derived from the colour palette designed for the large scale textile pieces. Adding or subtracting colours to my stored, custom-made, digital colour palette quickly suggested many possible variations on the original colour story.

In Conclusion

Much needed technical know-how has dominated my working practice for the last two years or more.  Ideas now seem to be flowing freely again: the hard slog to understand the potential of new technologies as simply another tool is beginning to pay dividends.

As a maker, there is no real substitute for hands-on practice and working with actual materials.  Revisiting and adding to my understanding of traditional printmaking techniques have begun to square the equation and balance the new technologies which so excite me.  Who knows what the future holds?  There is still much to explore and experiment in this regeneration of my working practice.  It can be seen as an incredibly exciting yet daunting prospect for a mature artist.

 Ruth Lee May 2012