DIGITAL PRINTS, UNWANTED STEPCHILD, OR HOW I
LEARNED TO LOVE THE NEW TECHNOLOGY
By Steven Dornbusch
I must confess, I have never touched an engraving plate, or pulled a screen print.
According to accepted definitions, I am not a printmaker at all. I do not use stones,
blocks, or plates, acids, washes, or inks. I do not get cut, or dirty, breath harmful
fumes, or need upper body strength. I work alone, with near complete control of my image
from start to finish.
Yet I make prints: Iris prints, laser prints, and ink-jet prints, limited edition prints on
fine archival papers. I have exhibited them, just as I have exhibited my sculptural work.
Whether my Prints are good, mediocre, or unacceptable, depends not only on aesthetic
judgment, but also on the operative definition of original fine art print.
From the Barricades to the Salon
From time to time, the upstarts shake up the academy. From my
side of the Atlantic, the R.E. after many of the names associated with
Printworks looks a bit stuffy - a Royalist holdover from previous times.
Actually the R.E. stands for Royal Engraver, a proud hundred-year old
moniker that memorializes a successful past struggle against critical
Lounge crooners the world over sing Mack the Knife, obscuring The Three Penny
Operas avant-garde origins. The ghosts of Kurt Weil, Scott Joplin, and Duke
Ellington rub shoulders in the establishment. The output of the revolutionaries eventually
becomes the status quo.
A century ago, it would have seemed aesthetically laughable and
financially idiotic to collect a large commercial screen print by Henri
de Toulouse-Lautrec. Today it is more than a safe bet, like collecting
Impressionist art. All screen-printing was once excluded from the fine
art print family. Today, a lingering Inferiority Complex survives; many
still prefer the more high falutin term lithograph
over screen print.
The Digital Printmaker
have been making digital prints for years now. I started experimenting
in 1984 with my 512K Mac and a black ink daisy wheel printer (Remember
those?). The tools were so primitive that I felt like I was making potato
prints with my wrong hand.
In the early 1990s came the sophisticated painting/drawing programs along
with powerful computer processing chips and memory storage capabilities needed to run the
new applications. These programs are enough to make many an artist salivate.
The capabilities include a reputed 2.4 million colors, layering, multiple masking,
perfect registration, truer colors, unlimited collaging of images, resizing, expanded
tinting, and the ability to save earlier versions of a work. While some of these
capabilities mimic those in hands-on printing, others far surpass them. True, I have lost
work to glitches, suffered a frozen digitizing pen, been unhappy with output colors, and
frustrated by output size restrictions. But it is the advantages of digital over hands-on
printing that attracts me to the medium.
Why Make Digital Prints
artist has not been well along a significant road only to make the wrong
turn and ruin a work? How wonderful to return to the fork in the road,
where the errant turn was made, but this time choose the right path.
When I ruin an exciting painting, I have the option of returning
to an earlier saved version, and starting back from there. In my Print
Triad, I tried more than twenty different ways to fill, overprint, and
blend a masked bubble-shaped area, until I got it right.
Why not enjoy the freedom of unlimited color mixing without the mess, risk, cost,
and time consumption of multiple pass screen-printing? I doubt I can see 2.4 million
colors, but that is how many my Mac painting application allows me to create.
Why not save the color palette of every painting made? Inks run out,
mixtures dry up, and recipes never seem to produce quite the same color twice. I can
preserve my palettes forever. By sampling any area in a painting I can also
create a palette from scratch.
Theoretical colors have advantages over printers inks. Imagine
incredible possibilities for under painting, washes, and off-registration blending, and
tinting. In my Print Recreation, I have a pink horizontal figure that overprints gray and
olive areas above, and below it. These perimeter areas are clearly tinted by the pink
figure. Yet they remain very visible, while the tint is still a rich saturated color
everywhere else. Printers inks preclude this. With the Mac, I mix a very deep color
(close to a black), and then tint at just seven to twelve percent. The best part is I can
even work backwards, starting with the final tint result I want.
Unlimited Collaging is possible without scissors and paste. Imagine if the
prolific American Artist Romare Bearden (1911-88) had lived another decade or two. He
could have scanned his many black and white original photos (or downloaded his own
original color or black and white digital photographs), color scraps from magazines,
pieces of cloth, or other media. He could have stored these images in vast libraries, used
them over and over, combined them in multiples, resized them, or tinted them.
Right now I am working on a series that alters and combines digital
photographs of the most commercial of squalor, Los Angeles Pico
Boulevard. I am collaging for aesthetic or formal effect, not social
commentary --fresh ways of seeing everyday visual phenomena. I like
to take my own images using my digital SLR. This allows me collage sources
outside the typical clipped (art directed) magazine spreads. Digital
collaging allows me greater originality.
Why Must Digital Technology be a Threat?
images can be stored, replicated, and communicated indefinitely. Unlimited
editions and no stone to deface or plate to destroy, offer a democratic
anti-commercial alternative to traditional fine art printing. They also
undermine the artists control over printing, papers, ownership,
payment, and piracy. For these reasons, digital printmakers share, no
less than the traditional print community, a pressing need to establish
standards of definition, originality, technical quality, and the like.
We computer artists must not wait for traditional printmakers
to come to us to establish new standards of fine art printmaking that
include us. We must propose tests for inclusion and exclusion. It is
not enough to require limited editions; is a scanned watercolor painting
printed on an Iris printer original? What kind of art is a collage of
painted pieces of photocopy? How about David Hockneys Faxed prints?
Digital print standards must answer these kinds of questions. Neither
technology nor aesthetics stand still.
It is a cliché that the world turns faster and faster; fortunately or
unfortunately, it is true. Maybe artists are not getting better or smarter, but art
technology is. Printmakers, and indeed all creative people, need to keep up with changes
in the world. Authentic artists will always get the most from any tool or media. Digital
printmaking has much to offer these explorers. The wrinkles can be ironed out along the
All Prints were drawn on a Wacom computer drawing tablet using Pixelpaint
software on a Mac cpu. They were printed on Frankfurt hand made
paper using a Epson printer. Printed in tabloid size, they were
hand torn down to
10" x 13" to define the edges of each Print. There was no use of a
and no introduction of photography in these works. This series was entirely
computer composed and produced.
Photos, ©1998, William Nettles, Los Angeles
All art work and text © 1998 Steven Dornbusch
Some Other Printworks articles concerning Digital Art
Photoshopping for Photoetching
From Paint to Pixels
Conservation Standard Digital Printmaking