Interview with Printmaker Michael Hagan

I have often wondered why an artist chooses to become a printmaker. Is there a unique attraction to the craft or is there a unique characteristic of the artist? It could not be a typical quest for fame and fortune. I decided that, for me, it is the love and respect for a medium that fights back, that dares to be mastered. But that may be a dated perspective.

Contemporary printmaking has been revolutionized by new techniques that remove many of the difficulties of the traditional craft and provide new nontoxic materials—both beneficial for the contemporary artist. Most significant, I believe, is the use of computers to modify images or adopt them from other sources.

I thought it would be interesting to interview printmakers and see if new techniques have also generated new perspectives. Michael Hagan, a member of the Washington Printmakers Gallery, generously agreed to be interviewed for this blog. He is well known for silkscreen prints with a contemporary attitude, which are often saucy or wry, and marked by vibrant application of pattern and color. See the details below. Our interview follows.
Carole Nelson
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Q. When did you first become aware that you had a special affinity for printmaking? Did some specific aspect of the art or craft catch your attention?

A. My ‘awareness’ of printmaking was a cerebral and indirect process. I didn’t look at prints and think “hmmm, I’d like to do that.” I’ve always been interested in epistemology (how we come to know the world through senses and thinking) and aesthetics (what’s beauty). I’ve always been interested in a scientific approach to light, sight, spectrum, eyesight, the brain’s role in vision, the psychological, social, cultural, and economic contexts of color, and the chemistry of pigmented materials. Exploration of these issues led me towards printmaking.

Three specific aspects of printmaking caught my attention. First, printmaking shares a common context with drawing and painting. Drawing, painting and printmaking are all graphic arts using tools for acquiring and holding pigmented material and for applying it to a flat, graphic or two-dimensional space. Despite the complexity of printmakers’ matrices (e.g., stones, plates, planks, screens) those tools share that common characteristic with those pencils, pens and brushes etc. I say: “My matrix is my brush.” Roy Lichtenstein’s printed ‘brush strokes.’ He painted halftones. Prints about paintings. Paintings about prints. He was making a point about the inter-related characteristics of these various graphic arts. Does it make sense to print a drawing? Would it make sense to draw a print?

Second, despite their shared context, drawing, painting and printmaking each have uniquely defining characteristics. Printmaking’s ability to efficiently and accurately repeat imagery—both across an edition and within an individual work—give it uniquely defining characteristics. If you’re repeating images accurately and efficiently, then you’re almost certainly using a printmaking technique. Nothing else will easily do. And, if repetition is an important element of composition—think jazz—then printmaking is a natural direction in graphic arts.

Third, while drawing, painting and printmaking have traditions, some of these traditional processes are not essential. We have done things in the past only because of technological constraints. Technology is a friend to art, not an enemy. Innovations in printmaking in industrial and commercial contexts have been fast, widespread, startling, and—for me—stimulative. Such innovation made me think: How does a printmaker doing hand-pulled prints respond to this new world? How can advantages of new technology (e.g. speed and precision) augment advantages of the hand-pulled print (e.g. total control over the color space). So, paradoxically, a broad interest in the rapidly changing world of commercial and industrial printing made me even more interested in hand-pulled printmaking.

Q. When did you start using computer-assisted and/or photographic images in developing your work? Were you comfortable with these techniques right away or did you have to define or refine their relationship to your particular aesthetic?

A. In the mid-90s at the Corcoran I took the school’s first course on using the computer in screen printing. I was already screen printing, but I had never used a mouse, a graphics program, a graphic-user-interface, or a Mac. Of course, the computer graphic artists in the class did not know what a squeegee was. Nor did they know that miniskirts and high heels were not the best screen printing apparel. Everyone learned.

At the end of the course, I began to see the potential for using the new technology—but not to simply screen print CMYK halftone separations. Why bother? That could be done commercially. What I realized was that the color space could be customized to the image. No painter would start to paint a lime by selecting ‘process’ yellow and cyan pigments. Why would a printmaker use such a color space? The computer allowed quick, precise, flexible transformations of images into custom color spaces suitable for each image. I could use the thinking of a traditional screen printer—and apply it at lightening speed—with micro precision.

Q. Any advice for printmakers interested in or already using reproductive techniques?

A. I would ask printmakers to answer these questions: What’s unique about your current printmaking process? Is it truly unique? Specifically, can you use current technology to get the same thing faster and more effectively. If so, why bother to pull a print by hand? For me, these questions are not rhetorical. I know why I pull my prints by hand—custom color. I also know why I use current technology in preparing positives—precision, speed. I don’t know how another printmaker would answer these questions, but these questions and my own answers have driven much of my current printmaking.

Detail #1: sheep-goin-abstract
Detail #2: lead image

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