Typography and the Letterpress

Johannes Gutenberg Printing Press c1450

There are certain inventions that have a dramatic effect on our lives. The latest would be the invention of the Internet. We could also include the invention of Photography. However, before these two inventions there was the invention of the Printing Press.

What do these three inventions have in common? They allow information to be communicated more quickly and easily than ever before. Why do some governments stop access to the Internet? Why are 'No Photography' signs abundant? Why do books get burnt? Because they are about the spread of knowledge and ideas - and that has power.

A example of moveable type (from the st Bride Foundation)

Printmaking has a long tradition that goes back 5000 years. However, with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing in 1450 brought with it the widespread use of movable type (his most famous example is the Gutenberg Bible).The design, selection and combination of letters on a page led to almost, but not quite, the first use of Typography.

Woodcut - Artist Unknown - February c.1484 From a German Almanac

As well as type the printing press could also be used to print images. This image above is from the MOMA exhibition 'The Printed Image' and was made in Europe in the late 15th century. The image has been printed with black printing ink (black pigment held in oil) onto paper. Paper is a wonderful invention - light, cheap and it can be passed around. If an image had been carved in stone it stayed where it was - you would have to travel to see that image. With the combination of paper and printing images could be passed from one person to another. Ideas could spread easily and this was powerful. If you are reading this on a laptop or tablet that is a revolution - information at to touch of a button. However, relatively, a printed piece of paper is a more revolutionary invention.

Detail of the Legs

'The design of the picture is fundamentally linear. The use of lines as descriptive tools, found as far back as cave painting, is perhaps the most remarkable innovation in the entire history of picture making. While lines appear in the nature of many forms - from a blade of grass to winding rivers - in pictorial terms they are completely artificial. In life the leg and foot of the person we see here are soft and rounded; the lines that describe them in the picture are artificial, yet their meaning is absolutely clear. There must be some remarkable circuitry in our brain that we can so effortlessly see the lines and imagine the objects'
Detail of Flames

''Those areas that were not intended to print were carved away, and the remaining surface of the wood, after being inked, transferred the ink to a sheet of paper."

The Woodcut is an example of Relief printing. This is where the highest part of the printing block, in this case wood, is the part that has ink on it. The carved part, and therefore the lowest part, has no ink on it and therefore remains white. The black lines we see are the part the crafts person has not carved away. Below is an example of a woodblock and its print.

Louis John Puchee - Ornamented type c.1822
Woodblock for the letter Q shown above 1822

In this woodblock for an ornate letter Q the crafts person has carved away at the negative areas and the areas he has not carved are the areas that show up on the print (the above images). The print is a reverse of the block - so when you write whole words the letters and words must be back to front.

Columbian Press invented in 1813

An example of a 19th Century circus poster (1860 -1890)

These posters are from The Leeds Playbill Gallery archive that has a selection of beautiful Letterpress posters. Notice the use of more than one colour. 

The areas of black letters would have gone through the press first and then another set of letter wood have been ink up with blue in. The added decoration around 'BIMBO!' would also have been separate and would have to be lined up.

Gutenburg's press only went through a few modifications (particularly during the industrial revolution).

These bold colourful designs are examples of Indian matchboxes. These were not made using a letterpress/relief printing press. Instead they use the offset printing process (watch this video here and then this video here to see how the CMYK process works). We are looking at it for several reasons - because they are wonderful bold designs and they show how a print can be made by building up separate colours.

Indian Matchbox Detail

The matchboxes where printed cheaply and often misalignment of the colours would occur. In this detail you can see how the green arch is going over the line and the reds are too far to the left. This is obviously a mistake but it adds a visual jump and drama to the designs.

A close up of a comic showing the beauty of a half tone pattern - see more at 4pc

If you look closely at a magazine you'll notice it is built up of small dot. The four colour process uses halftone patterns - small dots built up - to create images. The halftone pattern has an aesthetic quality all of its own and is now incorporated into design and art work. 

The final reason that we have just looked at this offset lithography images is it is ultimately the reason for the decline of the letterpress. It was the wide spread use of offset lithography printing that changed the nature of the printing industry. The old printing presses shut down and the equipment slowly began to rust and decay.

An Abandoned Printing Press

We live in a time where we have mp3's instead of records, ebooks instead of traditional books and, increasingly, screens instead of printed images. This is a revolution but people seem to miss the things themselves - records, books and the printed image. Maybe this is why the IPad and other technologies are such converted objects - they fill that gap of a tangible thing.

However, people do turn back to analogue and physical techniques (see Simon Reynold's book 'Retromania' which questions modern societies love of the past - in music, film, clothes and photography). 

Letterpress is undergoing a modern revival and contemporary print maker are returning to this old process.

Anthony Burrill website

Anthony Burrill places bold designs and quotes on top bold coloured backgrounds. Burrill does not print the posters himself - he designs them but uses Adams of Rye to print his work for him. If you go to East Sussex of Rye, and walk to the top of the high street. There you will find a post office where you can buy magazines, envelopes and tea towels. However, behind the post office is a printshop working as if there had never been a decline in the use of Letterpress.

Watch this poster being printed here.
Letterpress posters by Yee-Haw Industries

These contemporary posters by Yee-Haw Industries are reminiscent of 19th century theatre poster but with a modern twist. Watch this wonderful video here to see how they do what they do.

Earth, Wind & Fire Poster by Hatch Show Print studios

The Hatch Show Print workshop was established in the 19th century but is still going strong today. They use tradition type and printing blocks to create their contemporary posters. However, like Yee-Haw industries, they carve there own images from wood - adding to a large archive of printing blocks.

In this above image you can see how the text and letters are laid out and then printed from.

You can see the Hatch Show Print workshop in action here.

Pablo Picasso 'Portrait of a Woman after Cranach the Younger", 1958,  Linocut
Armina Ghazaryan combining found fonts and illustrations

Armina Ghazaryan combines existing printing blocks to create contemporary graphic designs. Yee-Haw industries carve their own wood blocks and merge them with existing blocks.
An example of Wood Carved Circus Poster Letterpress (different woodblocks for different colours) mid 20th Century

You can make your own printing block by carving from wood, lino or building up with Stencil card. Printing blocks are .918" inch - if you glue your lino onto a piece of wood that is the right thickness you would have a printing block.

This plate has been designed using a computer and created using Photopolymer - not carved out of wood or lino.

 It has a smoother feel than images cut out of wood - it is a combination of new and old technologies.

By placing the plate and the print side by side you can see the relationship between the two. It is a magazine designed by Skin Designstudio and appeared in the 'Reinventing Letterpress' book.

Some modern designer use Photoshop or illustrator to design their plates. They print theses images out in (black and white) on acetate and expose in onto Photopolymer. They stick the result onto a block creating their printing plate. Photopolymer is harder to get hold of in Britain (try here and here) but you could try a stamp making kit (see a video demonstration here).
Examples of laser cut letterpress blocks

Could Lego blocks be used to make prints?
A print made by Physical Fiction out of Lego blocks

Physical Fiction use Lego blocks to create their letterpress prints - they look like 1980's computer graphics (pixels loved by the New Aesthetic movement). What other objects could be printed from?

Of course you can cheat - there is an App that replicates the Letterpress experience. However, the renewed interest in this form of image making is in its tactile, physical quality. The slightly embossed quality modern letterpress printers prefer reminds you of the pressure that the paper has been through. How long will it last - we don't know. In a digital high speed world a little bit of mess, and a slower approach, has its own appeal.