Printers as Artists

After learning about and trying various forms of printing, I can say with out a doubt that what is most interesting and admirable to me is the field of printing as an art. There’s a reason our class was called The Art of the Press. Like any other form of art, printing has devotees who spend lifetimes honing their skills, constantly working towards becoming more proficient. While these printers would probably reject the idea that they are artists, much of how they train and create is similar to the work of a fine artist.

Linotype slug. Photographed by Grace Golden.

While learning about each printing technique, what struck me was not the technological advancements or mechanics, but the stories of each printer who devoted his life to learning the trade. Through hearing the stories of these men, many of whom went to high school specifically to learn printing or continued in a long familial line of printers, I found that printing texts is not simply a form of relaying information. These printers dedicate their time and energy to perfecting their art— learning practicing linotype to the point where they can hear problems with the machine, or hand-setting until they can pull slugs correctly without looking at the pieces themselves. Beyond learning to use their equipment and to assemble texts quickly, printing requires extensive knowledge about typefaces, kerning, layout, and design.

Globe Posters at the MICA Letterpress Studio. Photographed by Grace Golden.

These artistic aspects are seen obviously in the colorful and decorated Globe posters, which were popular advertisements for concerts in the Baltimore/Washington DC area throughout the late 20th century. Globe served such clients as James Brown, Ike and Tina Turner, Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, and the Beach Boys. Popular among R&B, hip hop, go-go, and rock artists, globe was easily recognized for their florescent colors and bold types.

However, more simplistic looking pages require just as much artistic knowledge. The effort put into creating a simple page of text with lead type is tedious, and requires diligence, patience, and lots of exact measurements. However, it requires the same set of knowledge about design and layout as the flashier Globe posters. While today we can easily change our fonts, sizes, and spacing on word processors, manual printing required that each of these decisions be planned out as deliberate. After trying my hand at printing, I can truly appreciate a well designed printed page. Although technological advancements have made the hand printed page much more rare and expensive, there is still a population that appreciates the care that goes into printing. As long as we have students interested in learning the trade and consumers willing to pay for the now upscale and small printing presses to create something beautiful, the printed word is going nowhere.


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