Beauty In Limitations: A Printmaker’s Perspective

Denslow’s Mother Goose, W W Denslow, 1901

I have been thinking about limitations lately.

Like illustrations from old picture books before four-color photo-processing became the norm. The ones I’ve accumulated are mostly from the 40s and 60s and they seem have been printed that way to keep production costs down. An economy of expense leading to an economy of style.

Those images have a particular quality that I’ve always loved. The simplicity of an image made by building layers of color. The opposite of slick. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to printmaking. Printmakers are inordinately fond of process and tools you have to sharpen by hand. We think in layers. We are to painters what typesetting is to Microsoft Word.

Kees & Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Kees &Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Not that images like these were simple to produce. Each color had to be created on a separate overlay in black (or the photo equivalent). Often the print run was limited to two or three colors so overlapping was used to create more.

When you have to do the color separation yourself with specified colors, you have to create the mechanicals whilst thinking ahead to what the image might look like. You won’t know for sure till the finished page comes off the press.

Kees, Elizabeth Enright, 1937

The above images were printed with red, yellow, blue and black inks. The oranges and greens and other tones come from overlapping the transparent inks and using screen tones of those four colors. I know it sounds like CMYK, but the difference is that the color separations were all done by hand. There was no full-color image to start with ahead of time.

Rather than confuse you further by describing what I’m talking about, I will show you an example. The spread below demonstrates how three separate images overlap to produce a multicolor picture.

Woodcuts & Woodengravings: How I Make Them, Hans Alexander Mueller, 1939

When artists work under these limitations, I think a kind of magic can occur. I like the happy accidents that happen when colors overlap and registration gets a bit off. Some people would argue that you can get the same effect more easily using a computer, but there is too much control — down to the pixel — with digital media. There is no room for chance or Happy Accidents. The only accidents I can think of involving computers involve spilled liquids, and they are NOT happy.

Pierre Pidgeon, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1943

Ilenka, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1945

Mrs. McGarrity’s Peppermint Sweater, Abner Graboff, 1966

Josefina February, Evaline Ness, 1963

James and the Giant Peach, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, 1961

So how does all this inform my work?

“Daphne’s Hand”, Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Well, like I said, I’m a printmaker, and printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique in which to work. Nonetheless, it is worth it to still leave room for chance in my work. Images like these remind me that working within limits can have positive, even beautiful, results that could not be achieved in any other way.

10 responses to “Beauty In Limitations: A Printmaker’s Perspective

  1. Many thanks for this post – yes print making techniques do create beautiful illustrations, and I too enjoy those in books old and new and have developed a collection. I’m not sure what you mean by it not being the most practical medium – certainly computer aided drawing and colouring may be quicker. But one of Australia’s most successful illustrators, Narelle Oliver, with a swag of multi award winning books, only uses linocuts. You may like to check out
    and go to her Publications and click on the text links in each of her 10 books to see the illustrations. A long time ago I did etching, and would still love to illustrate a book using that medium.
    All best wishes

    • Thank you for your comments and the link, Peter.

      When I said printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique I didn’t mean it isn’t a successful one, just a very slow one. As our world speeds up and everyone expects things to happen quickly, I sometimes feel caught with the love I feel for such a process-oriented, labor-intensive medium.

      But those are the kinds of limitations I am learning to revel in. Perhaps I should start my own Slow Art movement!

      Thank you again and good luck with your etchings! ~Margaret

  2. Great post, Margaret. I love your examples. I think Itzhak Perlman was talking about limitations in making art in the larger sense when he said, “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” Here’s to the music!

  3. Wonderful post. As a printmaker, currently working in polymer plate lithography, (and thinking that this would be a great illustration medium) I love wrapping my brain around 6 -10 plate lithos. There is something wonderful about turning my brain into a color separation “computer.” In a world where (many if not most) people don’t know the difference between a hand-pulled print and a photographic reproduction, It always makes me happy to hear of others working in print media.

    • 6 to 10 litho plates is impressive!

      I love the way printmaking allows you to add layer upon layer of color and texture to build depth of imagery. You have to see an original print to appreciate how complex it can be.

      Long live printmaking!

      • Yes! huzzah! Long live printmaking! The beauty of the polymer litho plate is that they are translucent, so registering the image is not that hard. I use a light table and plastic print corners to hold the plates in place. the really tricky part (besides breaking down the colors in your head) is getting the plates placed directly on the paper.

  4. Nice post, Margaret–and I love the vintage illustrations you’ve shared from your collection. I also like your idea of starting a “slow art” movement!

  5. Thanks, Margaret and Laura.
    Your comment, Laura, reminds me of a different context where an Art Director at a SCBWI conference suggested that illustrators try taking ‘liquid-paper’ to their drawings to remove as much as possible – retaining only the truly essential lines. In particular, she was thinking about the freshness and vitality of E.H.Shepard’s minimalist drawings to illustrate A.A.Milne’s work.

  6. Hey, I just discovered there’s a name for how the early children’s books were printed, even though I have no idea how to pronounce it. This is how the original Greenaway and Caldecott illustrations were reproduced. Check it out.

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