To draw or to make a print? That is the question

To draw or to make a print? That is the question. Or — maybe it’s a bunch of questions. What follows are questions – and some of my answers – about the relationship between drawing and printmaking. These are questions that I’ve recently asked myself in order to motivate and focus my own current printmaking.

What characteristics do drawing and printmaking share? What’s similar? Drawing and printmaking are both graphic arts. Thus, these activities both use tools to acquire and hold pigmented material for application to a flat, graphic, or two-dimensional space. Despite the complexity of printmakers’ matrices (e.g., stones, plates, planks, screens), printmaking tools share those common purposes and functions with pencils, pens, and other drawing tools. My screen-mesh-stencil-squeegee combination may seem complicated, but it’s not any different than a pencil in its purpose or in its use of my mind, eyes, hands, and pigmented material. My matrix is my pencil.

Drawing and printmaking often share a common problem: Pigment or not? Dot or not? Ink or paper? To put down a mark or not? Think about drawing with a pen and black ink on white paper. How do you get tones between black and white – when you only have black and white? Dots, stippling, scumbling, crosshatching. That’s how. While these drawing strategies are made explicit and precise in printmaking through the use of halftoning, that printmaking purpose is one that is shared with drawing. This common context has made me rethink the use of halftoning in printmaking. If dots, stippling, scumbling, and crosshatching are not to be obscured in drawing, why obscure such techniques in printmaking? And, in fact, halftoning techniques may be openly exploited for interesting textures, patterns, and tessellating image elements.

So much for some similarities. What’s unique about printmaking compared with drawing? Despite their shared contexts mentioned above, printmaking has uniquely defining characteristics relative to drawing. Specifically, it’s printmaking ability to efficiently and accurately repeat imagery – across an edition and within an individual work – that gives printmaking its uniquely defining characteristics as a graphic arts medium. If you’re repeating images accurately and efficiently, then you’re almost certainly using a printmaking technique. Drawing many repeated images quickly and precisely is not easy to do – although it may be therapeutic. And, if precise repetition is an important element of your composition – think about jazz – then printmaking is a natural graphic arts choice.

To draw, and then to print? Perhaps that’s another question. Does drawing precede printmaking? I know that many painters do not want to be known as people who draw – and then ‘paint’ their drawings. Likewise, I don’t want to be thought of as a person who draws – and then ‘prints’ my drawings. Does it even make sense to print a drawing? Would it make sense to draw a print?
[When Roy Lichtenstein painted his ‘halftones’ and printed his ‘brush strokes’ he was making a similar point about painting and printmaking.] To focus my work and to free myself from the tyranny of this temporal relationship – i.e., that drawn imagery precedes printed imagery – I try to avoid traditional drawing processes in developing a printed image. For preliminary work, it’s ABD – Anything But Drawing. But, as a printmaker, can I get away without drawing? Not really. To the extent that drawing involves using the mind, eyes, hand, and tools for clarification of the image, I must often draw in preparing to print. However, if I have to draw, I’m often able to avoid traditional drawing processes. How? A subject for future commentary.

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2 responses to “To draw or to make a print? That is the question

  1. But, why is drawing to be avoided? It is one way to respond to a subject or to express an idea. Every tool, including plates and screens and stones, is capable of a mark that no other media is capable of. Why then banish any means of working?

  2. Michael Hagan

    As indicated in the first paragraph, “These are questions that I’ve recently asked myself in order to motivate and focus my own current printmaking.” My own current questions. My own current motivations. My own current foci. I’m not at all suggesting that others must think in the same way — or that I myself think about these issues in the same way all the time. I’m just putting some ideas out for discussion — not criticizing anyone’s mode of working.

    Yes, drawing is “one way to respond to a subject or to express an idea,” but it’s certainly not the only way. I see printmaking as an equivalent, separate, unique way to respond with graphic images. In that particular regard, I’m very interested in the fundamentals of printmaking, relative to drawing and other graphic arts. What’s unique? What’s shared with other graphic processes? What essential? What’s necessary? What’s merely traditional? What is newly possible in the current technological environment of 2009 — as opposed to the technologically constrained environment of 1509? Does current technology change the answer to these questions? I find these questions challenging, not threatening.

    So, yes, “every tool, including plates and screens and stones, is capable of a mark that no other media is capable of.” I fully agree. I’m looking for those unique marks in the context of current printmaking possibilities. That’s my main point.

    I’m posing a question for myself: If drawing an image doesn’t require printing it, does printing an image require drawing it? I’m not “banishing any means of working.” I am currently subordinating traditional drawing to current printmaking in order to think, learn, and do my printmaking in a productive way. In fact, to fully answer my questions, the same questions must also be applied to drawing: What’s unique? What’s essential? Etc.

    To prioritize in order to think and learn is not to banish — or even ignore — that which has been subordinated. Focus is not banishment.