The process I developed on the offset press is not typically the creating an image and then making an edition with this particular method of reproduction. Whereas as most art print methods may produce some slight variations, my method uses the process to create variation--random variation. Each image is different, but they are related to one another through the offset process.
I was a printmaking major at the Cleveland Institute of Art (class '70), studying under Carroll Cassell. However I was also working part time at a Cleveland area manufacturer of farm implements (the Empire Plow Company) where I learned how to operate an offset press. This was before Xerox became the primary means for reproducing documents.
In my 5th year I took the 5th year drawing class with Edwin Mieczkowski. People knew that I was working at the Empire Plow Co. (it was a big laugh). But it was Ed Mieczkowski who said to me, "Karen, you operate that machine...why don't you do something with it?"
I loved printmaking and I loved all the drawing techniques one could use on a plate or cut into wood. But I had access to this machine so I began to pay more attention. After giving it some thought I came up with an idea that came directly from the offset process itself. Offset is not like most other forms of printmaking where when you print a plate or a block, or from a drawing on a stone. Those processes give you a mirror image of your drawing. Even the old mimeograph process was a reverse process. You needed a negative to make a positive.
Offset printing is a lithographic technique...water and oil. Water to keep the white parts white, and oil (ink) to adhere to the substance that creates the images. But offset printing is different. The plate (either paper or metal) prints the negative onto a rubber blanket, which then prints the positive on to the sheets of paper being sent across the bed of the printer. It was an efficient way to make large runs of printed material. A secretary could type a form letter on a special paper, then hundreds or thousands of letters could be reproduced very easily. This was all before Xerox came along.
When you have to print a large quantity of different types of documents, i.e., form letters, notices, office forms, catalog pages. you have different "plates" for each document. In a day's work I would print office forms for the office and factory, catalog pages for current catalogs, form letters, etc. so I needed a separate "plate" for each job. Between jobs it was necessary to change plates and to clean the old image off the rubber blanket to prepare for the next job. The easiest way to clean the blanket, is called "runoff". You let 10-15 sheets of paper go through and watch as the old image disappears as the new image appears.
It was interesting to see what happened as the old image disappeared, and the new image emerged. Seeing the image disappear while a new image emerged gave me an idea. On a manual typewriter, I typed a single letter of the alphabet repeatedly until it formed, more or less, a square shape with fairly equal rows and columns. The letter was my motif. I ran about 100-150 sheets through the press with one image on each sheet. Then jogged them back together and put them back on the press.
The second time through, I got a double image on each sheet...but not the identical double image because there are subtle differences due to misregistration on the press. I might even get a couple of sheets where the paper twisted slightly and caused some diagonal activity. Eventually I learned how much to loosen the guides to get variation in registration but without letting the sheets go across the bed too loosely.. Each time I would take 8-10 sheets off of the pile and put them aside; reload the rest and begin again. I did that over and over. maybe 12-15 times, removing a few sheets each time, until I had a stack of prints, all unique images.
The images ranged from simple, crisp images all the way to inky black that looked three dimensional and reminded me of intaglio. I decided to bind them all into a book.
I was still living in Cleveland but I came to New York to have the books bound by Richard Minsky at The Center For Book Arts. I provided the fabric and end paper, and he did a "flexbind" which has held up very well. There were no "artists books" at the time. (The Center for Book Arts and Franklin Furnace put artist books on the map.) I did this between the years of 1970 when I graduated from the CIA, and 1975 when I moved to NYC to go to grad school at Hunter College.
There was yet another thing about the offset process that was fascinating. I described the process of "runoff" above. However there was the reverse. I was doing print runs that were unusual, in that the same sheets went through the process multiple times. When I put a stack of sheets back onto the tray right after printing, and send them through again, the moist ink on the sheet going through another time prints onto the blanket, and is then deposited onto the next sheet, leaving a soft, smudged image. The "offset" is what interested me, i.e. the plate prints onto the blanket and the blanket prints onto the paper. But the paper also prints back onto to blanket, which then prints on to the next sheet. The sheets help create on one another as they go through the process. It was as though they were all members of a very large family, that went back for generations. It was fascinating.
FOUR COLORS AND BLACK
After doing about 8 different letters of the alphabet, and creating 3 copies of each letter, I branched out into color. That's what Tom's print was, sort of the 2nd or 3rd wave of my process.
I could get ink in a limited number of colors. I could print with as many colors as I could find, but could only print one color at a time. I would have to do a separate run for each color. I decided to use four primary colors and black (yellow, red, green and blue). I would have do the full process, from beginning to end, with yellow, red, green, blue and black ink. It was 5 times the amount of work and time.
Each time I would manually sift through all the prints, looking at each one to see if it was "finished" or did it need a bit more work. I would put some aside for a later run if I wanted to get a real range of color. A final run using the black ink would really make the images/patterns/colors very subtle and interesting. And the more times I sent the sheets through the process, the greater variety of pattern and color I could achieve.
At some point I had a lot of black/white prints (letter squares) and a many single squares of subtle color and dense pattern. So the next thing was to print more than one square on the paper.
Because I was using 5 colors, I had to do a full cycle of random printings for each color. In order to do the type of print that has four separate squares (different in motif, color, pattern and density) that form a larger square, I had to figure out how to set the machine to print one square in the upper right, one in the upper left, one in the lower right, and the last in the lower left. It was the equivalent to doing 20 full cycles of the process for each print, but at the end I had a lot of prints...I had stacks of prints. It was very complicated, but I think I am an engineer at heart. I figured it out. Now I can't imagine how I did it, but it was very exciting.
Think about how these things can be done today with computers. My prints were all "manual". Not manual in the usual sense of printmaking, but "manual" for that process.
The four square prints I call the "THIS" series. Upper left square "T", upper right square "H", etc. I had previously done a small series with the word "is" arranging a rectangle of the letter "i" directly above a rectangle of the letter "s". Doing the "is" prints paved the way for the much more complicated "THIS" prints. I had to design the plate so that each square would print in the correct position. I was able to make some small adjustments right on the press, but I had to design the plates themselves. It also meant that I would have to spend more time assessing each print and decide if it was ready to go on to the next color, or if it needed a few more passes. At the end of the yellow run, I would have a set of yellow prints, with a yellow "T" square in the upper left, a yellow "H" square in the upper right, a yellow "I" square in the lower left, and a yellow "S" square in the lower right. Each print was different from the other, and that was just the yellow ink. I would have to do the same thing with red, green, blue and black ink.