Original versus reproduction: why definitions matter in printmaking

A page from the original article in Imprint (Autumn 2006 Volume 41 Number 1) featuring John Olsen’s, Monkey as Aswan, 1979, lithograph, edition of 85, 106 x 75 cm (paper size); and GW Bot’s Field (detail), 2004, linocut, edition of 25, 92 x 52.

‘I am not against reproductions as long as they are clearly stated thus. However, through the promotion of some publishers, dealers and auction houses these reproduction prints are being blown out of proportion financially.’

Imprint Autumn 2006 Volume 41 Number 1. Cover image: Rock art site in Arnhem Land overlaid with etchings from the Injalak Hill Suite, made by 10 artists from Oenpelli at this site. Courtesy of Injalak Arts and Basil Hall Editions.

This article was written by Stuart Purves, National Director of Australian Galleries, and published in Imprint Autumn 2006, Volume 41 Number 1.

Australia is incredibly rich in high quality print workshops and remarkably good master printmakers. Australia is also incredibly rich in artists who are brilliant printmakers. Strangely though, printmaking as an original form of art is still a largely misunderstood medium. I wish I could take away the word ‘print’ – it is too much associated with calendar top reproductions, it is too generic. Instead I favour substituting the specific term for the artist’s chosen print medium, be it ‘etching’, ‘aquatint’, ‘drypoint’, ‘silkscreen’ or ‘lithography’. Using these terms would serve as the equivalent of ‘oil on canvas’, ‘acrylic on board’ or ‘watercolour on paper’ – terms generally used and very well understood.

When a printmaker works with an artist, images may be produced in a series with an edition of anything from five to fifty. Alternatively, one or two larger and more complicated images may be created. The real issue is that the artist, with the aid of printing devices and sometimes one or two artisans, produces a series of prints which are original works of art. At the end of this period of hard work the result is an original image built up on the plate or screen. This can vary from a one-colour print, to multiple colours requiring the use of numerous plates or screens, as it is usually the case that one plate is required per colour. There is no pre-existing original – the final prints are the originals themselves – the mark making on each plate building up layer by layer to the final image. Each work in the edition is to all intents and purposes the same, although delightfully, through the quirkiness of the press or the artist, each may have fractional differences. Experienced print buyers often view several works in the edition they intend to purchase, scrutinising each carefully looking for the richest in colour and truest in plate registration.

For an illustration of this, one need look no further than the recent and splendid publication Teeming With Life, John Olsen: His Complete Graphics 1957–2005. Here is a remarkable artist who has produced over four hundred etchings and lithographs. He has never waivered from the true methods of building up and making an original work of art through his printmaking. The same can be said of artists such as Rick Amor, Raymond Arnold, George Baldessin, G.W. Bot, John Coburn, Graham Fransella, Euan Heng, Graeme Peebles, Hertha Kluge-Pott, William Robinson, Jeffrey Smart and John Wolseley.

In contrast, when a print is made using photographic techniques to simply copy an existing image with no further involvement by the artist (other than unfortunately signing it), the print is very clearly a reproduction. Very often in such cases artists do not personally inscribe the edition number or title. It matters not what energy an artisan, publisher, or commercial printing house puts into the project, the fact remains that the result is still a reproduction.

Alternatively, when an artist makes reference to his/her own work to create a print (for example using existing imagery from a painting) the print can still be an original work since the artist’s hand is directly involved in the printmaking process, creating the lines and washes on the plates or screens, etc. The result of an artist working this way will always have its own printmaking flavour and thus feel right and look right – it is very different to a photographic transfer.

A reproduction print is a print of an existing popular image that was intended as a one-off. It is not a work of art in its own right and any potential purchaser should be privy to this information as it is simply a copy of an original work. No artist should be seduced into labelling a reproduction as an etching or lithograph in the manner of an original print, and nor should they sign or number the work. It is my view that a reproduction should be labelled with the title of the original work from which it is copied followed by the method with which it was reproduced. In actual fact such reproductions should be credited to the printer and not the artist.

I am not against reproductions as long as they are clearly stated thus. However, through the promotion of some publishers, dealers and auction houses these reproduction prints are being blown out of proportion financially. No pubic collection, such as a state, regional or university gallery, would purchase a reproduction print and it is unlikely that it would accept one under the Tax Incentive Scheme. When a purchaser of a reproduction print starts to do some research and discovers he/she does not own an original work of art, continued interest in the world of printmaking is doubtful. In the long term we are more likely to lose purchasers of reproductions from the art world as well as the ten friends they influence, and we all know the art world needs every art buyer it can get.

Brett Whiteley was an artist extraordinarily dear to me, and, during the twenty-two years he was represented by our gallery, he was an important influence on the way we presented works of art. It is well known that he was an exceptionally fine draughtsman who has left behind (apart from his paintings, sculpture and drawings) a great number of fine prints. If I had my time over again with Brett I would have guided him into signing without numbering the now famous reproduction print The Arrival, as it is after the painting of the same title which was commissioned by Time magazine to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary. It was a perfect painting of Brett’s for a fine art reproduction, or better still, reproduction as a poster. It is a fantastic image for Australia and as an unnumbered poster at a sensible price I have no doubt that thousands of them could be happily pinned up in bedrooms, without pretending to be anything other than what they are and enjoyed enormously from that point of view.

How disheartening it must be, as it is to me, for the serious and extraordinarily hard working printmakers at Australian Print Workshop, Chrysalis Publishing, Port Jackson Press, Northern Editions, and for individuals such as Diana Davidson at Whaling Road Press, Basil Hall at Basil Hall Editions, Peter Lancaster at Lancaster Press, John Loane at Viridian Press and Bill Young at Bill Young Studios, to see reproductions attracting interest and high prices from the generally uninformed and frequently poorly guided public. Printmaking and painting are as different as land and sea, and it is too easy to take a popular image by an artist, reproduce it and set it up against those artists who are making original images through prints. Very often printmaking is not about spectacular imagery: it is much more subtle and it appeals to different senses than painting. It is in fact one of the reasons that painters make prints: it taxes different sensibilities and disciplines in their creativity. Referring again to John Olsen, an artist capable of the most spectacular and arresting large oil paintings, the imagery in his printmaking becomes quite intimate and detailed in comparison.

The art world is not a business – it is a way of life. It is cultural, it needs nurturing and it needs extreme care in its presentation. It is the role of every publisher and dealer to help and advise their artists and clients. Success should not be measured solely in terms of money. Of course all sections of the art world need money but it is not necessarily the priority that should be chased. Perhaps the next step is to establish a uniform standard or code of labelling for prints defining exactly what medium they are, in much the same way that food products must carry a description of their ingredients. There is huge potential in Australia for a more lively and vibrant artists’ print world. If the education of the general public can be raised to increase awareness of what is a ‘real’ work of art and what is not, then I feel printmaking will eventually become a financially viable and culturally important, ever-expanding sector of our art world.

A conversation with Irena Zdanowicz

A page from the original interview in Imprint (Spring 2002 Volume 37 Number 3) featuring an image of Irena Zdanowicz with Rembrandt’s Woman with the Arrow, etching and drypoint, printed with surface tone, 1661. This impression was purchased by the NGV in 1998 with the assistance of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. Photography by Predrag Cancar, National Gallery of Victoria.

‘Print connoisseurship has been ridiculed since at least the seventeenth century, and there is no one better than an experienced, cash-strapped, twenty-first century curator to defend it!’

Imprint Spring 2002 Volume 37 Number 3.
Cover image: Milan Milojevic, Two Worlds Collide #1, 2002, digital print and woodcut, 73.5 x 73.5 cm.

This interview was conducted by the art consultant, curator and writer Anne Kirker and published in Imprint Spring 2002, Volume 37 Number 3.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) will open its new home for Australian art in Federation Square, Melbourne, in late 2002. The redeveloped St Kilda Road building, which will display the collections of International art, will reopen in late 2003 and it is here that the Department of Prints and Drawings will be located. One staff member who has been linked at the helm of this Department for over twenty years, Irena Zdanowicz, will not be among the four full-time staff members who look after the 22,000 or so works on paper in the new building. Irena left her position in November last year to pursue independent research, consultancy, and freelance curatorial work. It is a turning point for this colleague and for the most well-known Print Room in Australia. I have known Irena as a colleague and as a friend for close on twenty-five (it may be longer!) years and I am keenly aware of the considerable contribution she has made to the area of print specialisation in particular. I am therefore delighted to have this opportunity to ask some questions of her for Imprint:

Anne Kirker: Irena, what attracted you to the field of print curatorship?

I became fascinated with prints in the mid 1960s when, as a student in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Melbourne, I took Ursula Hoff’s course in prints and drawings in the NGV Print Room in Swanston Street. I’d spent long hours looking at paintings in the public spaces of the NGV, but I’d never before handled works of art. The experience was intriguing and thrilling. It was then that I became interested, and very soon, engrossed in the history of the graphic arts. I also responded to the physical qualities of prints: to the deepness of the blacks in drypoint, for instance, or to the delicacy of grey tones and the raised surface of the etched line. It’s a predilection I suddenly became aware of. I never thought I’d be a Print Curator but I knew then that I wanted to work in an art museum, working closely with works of art. I actually began my curatorial career at the NGV in 1968 in the Department of Decorative Arts in the metalwork area. There I had the opportunity to investigate the source of a design embossed on some seventeenth century silver. I had a hunch that the composition was based on a printed design and eventually after leafing through book after book, I found what I hoped I would in a series of seventeenth century Bible illustrations. The cultural importance of prints, specifically their function as conveyors and transmitters of information – both visual and conceptual – and the relationship of drawings and prints to works done in other media makes their study deeply engrossing.

AK: When did you start work in the Print Room of NGV? Who were your mentors? How did you educate yourself in the highly specialised field?

I was appointed Assistant Curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings in 1972 after Nicholas Draffin left to go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Sonia Dean was head of the Print Room at the time and I worked closely with her for some ten years. She taught by example, by delegating responsibilities and by virtue of her fine judgement in all matters administrative, artistic and literary. I was also extremely fortunate in being at the Gallery while Ursula Hoff was there. Though many circumstances in art museums have changed, Dr Hoff remains a role model and an exemplar for Australian curators and art historians. In fact, the Print Study Room at the NGV is named in her honour. You’re right in posing the question about self-education because that is exactly what happens throughout a curatorial career. You start off with the basics, and with a focus on a particular area, and you learn about the vast field along the way. Sustained work with a collection is essential and working with a collection like the NGV educates you. The literature on prints is extensive and extremely interesting and one always looks at prints alongside books. For the decade that I was Assistant Curator I prepared and supervised the Print Study Room on two afternoons each week. Doing that continually exposes you to a vast array of material that others want to see, and it keeps you on your toes. In 1978 I was awarded one of the Harold Wright Scholarships to the British Museum Print Room and was able to spend a year there studying, reflecting, reading, observing. It was the most marvellous twelve months not only for the access it gave me to the collections of the British Museum but also for the contacts it enabled me to make in the museum world. It was also important for another reason: during my year in London I was in close touch with Ursula Hoff who was working there at the time as Felton Bequest Adviser. She introduced me to people in the art world, including dealers, and invited me with her when she was selecting acquisitions; she would also occasionally come into the Print Study Room to look at prints with me. It was an invaluable opportunity. Before that, and subsequently, I’ve spent most of my holidays abroad, renewing professional contacts, seeing exhibitions and doing research on the collection and for exhibitions.

AK: Describe the collection you inherited at the NGV.

The range of the collection is vast, spanning the whole history of printmaking from the late fifteenth century to the present day. It includes Australian as well as European and American art and it has its particular strengths in all periods and schools. Care had been taken to acquire the best possible impressions. Apart from some instances of well-meaning but reckless over-exposure of certain major prints in the first half of the twentieth century (before the arrival of Daryl Lindsay and Ursula Hoff), the collection had been very well looked after both in the physical and scholarly sense. A brief survey of the collection would begin with the early Italian engravers and Dürer in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; Callot, Hollar, Van Dyck and Rembrandt in the seventeenth century; the British watercolourists, Blake, Goya, Piranesi in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century; French nineteenth century printmakers. In the latter half of the twentieth century we had the beginnings of a representation of the mid-twentieth century printmaking revival in the U.S.A. and this was soon to be vastly enlarged through the acquisition of Fred Genis’s printer’s proof lithographs. The traditional association of the NGV with British art and the English art market meant that the British school was pretty well represented in most periods. Not surprisingly the focus of the Australian collection was art produced in Melbourne, which is not to say that major artists working elsewhere in Australia were ignored. Buying had clearly been extremely selective though larger groups of works had occasionally been acquired.

AK: What brief did you set yourself for the collection? Did it change over time?

In the first instance it was to maintain and to develop the standards set by my predecessors, though I always thought of that as a responsibility and challenge rather than a ‘brief’. I’ve always strongly believed in the custodial role of the curator – a responsibility that depends on a good knowledge of the collection, a knowledge of the history of your subject and an eye to the future. Providing public access to the collection through the Print Study Room was always important to me, even when staff shortages made this difficult to ensure. But we have always had strong support for the Print Study Room from artists, who traditionally have been amongst the most informed and interested users of the collection. I wanted to encourage research into the collection, to disseminate information about it through exhibitions and publications. Since it’s impossible to do this single-handedly, we often worked in collaboration with our international colleagues and with those in universities locally; that too was extremely rewarding. For curators of works of art on paper there is a never-ending demand for exhibitions – it’s one way of making the collection available to the public. I also wanted to make good acquisitions across the board, of historical as well as contemporary art, an increasingly difficult assignment as the local commercial gallery scene reconfigured itself by expanding enormously, and as prices soared and the value of the dollar fell. The availability of first rate works on the international market also dried up. As for change, it’s nothing new; we’ve constantly been in the midst of it and have constantly had to adjust. The course of action recommended by curators is dependent on the policies and decisions of the current Director and Trustees. Throughout this time, however, we were able to continue researching and documenting the important parts of the collection through a series of collection catalogues, many of them sponsored by a great benefactor of the Print Room, Mr Robert Raynor: Dürer, Rembrandt, Master Drawings, Blake, Goya, Picasso, important parts of the collection of Australian watercolours. Several of these catalogues, I’m happy to say, are now out-of-date as a result of a number of major acquisitions that will be revealed when the NGV reopens its doors at Federation Square and St Kilda Road.

AK: What exhibitions did you mount that you are particularly proud of? Why?

Devising exhibitions, as well as installing those assembled by others, always presents a fascinating challenge and I found each exhibition totally engrossing at the time I was engaged with it. Visitors bring with them different levels of knowledge and differing expectations when they come to see a show and one is obliged to select carefully and to present the material clearly. The Dürer exhibition we did in 1994 to accompany the launch of the catalogue of the collection is one that stands out. People flocked to it and they made many repeated visits. Of course the material is first rate; it is a complete collection of Dürer’s prints with impressions of sparkling quality and it was therefore possible to choose exactly what was required. But it is also a very large collection and we had a whole team of people working on it: curators, conservators, mount-cutters, photographers, librarians, art historians and historians and everyone worked tremendously well together. To accompany the exhibition two of our academic colleagues – Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika – convened an excellent cross-disciplinary symposium at the University of Melbourne and subsequently edited the symposium papers for publication. The work was so intense at one stage that Cathy Leahy, who now heads the Gallery’s Department of Prints and Drawings, and I both got severe cases of repetitive strain injury in our writing hands during the exhibition and catalogue preparation, and we only just managed to survive! Another exhibition that comes to mind was that of Margaret Stone’s drawings; it stands out not just for the quality of the work but because it introduced me to the field of botanical science, a discipline and a system of knowledge that was entirely new to me. To learn in this way is a great privilege. The Rembrandt exhibitions I’ve worked on in 1988 and again in 1997 were special because of my particular interest in the artist. In the area of Australian art the same might be said of Fred Williams, an exhibition of whose prints I worked in 1981.

AK: And acquisitions? Which works did you chase and secure?

There are those acquisitions you chase and those that drop like manna from heaven. Of the latter there was Mrs James Evan’s gift of drawings and prints by a group of artists working in mid nineteenth century Melourne, including Edward La Trobe Bateman, Georgiana McCrae and Louisa Anne Meredith. She rang the Department out of the blue, a phone call that eventually resulted in the transformation of our collection of colonial art. Then, too, Lyn Williams and James Mollison have been systematically enabling us to build the country’s main research collection of Fred Williams’s prints, with many rare trial proofs as well as variant states and impressions; it’s now a great collection. We have acquired some very fine nineteenth century French prints, including those by Redon, two major works by William Blake – an early edition of the Songs of Innocence and a coloured version of the Night Thoughts. The Night Thoughts may have belonged to Alfred Felton himself, so it was of particular interest to us and we bought it at auction in London, through the Felton Bequest, having had less than a week’s notice of the sale. That really was a chase. Our first two etchings by Canaletto entered the collection in 1982. More recently we’ve acquired major Picasso prints, not all of which have yet been seen publicly. However, in the Old Master area, one acquisition stands out and that is the purchase of a group of three Rembrandt etchings from the Ritman collection. They will be seen for the first time in the opening displays in the St Kilda Road building. It was a very complex and long drawn out negotiation, but it’s a wonderful group of works and a great addition to the collection overall. Mr James Fairfax has put it on record, in an interview in the Art Newspaper, that he wishes to help the Gallery build its collection of Rembrandt etchings, so that is something to look forward to. While we’re in the seventeenth century I shouldn’t omit mentioning the wonderful old master drawing that was acquired through the Felton Bequest in 1981, the year I became head of the Department: a very beautiful sheet on pink prepared paper by Claude from the Wildenstein Album. These are some of the highlights or hard won chases, but what is equally important is the sustained purchasing of contemporary art. Acquisition funds are, to put it mildly, small, and the Victorian State Government doesn’t contribute to the acquisition budget. This budget also has to cover all costs associated with acquisitions, such as transport, insurance, mount board, solander boxes, framing etc., which, as you know, can be substantial. The purchase of a single work can blow the budget, so the whole area of acquisitions presented the greatest challenge and one that is always taken very seriously.

AK: What changes in approach to the print in particular have occurred in the Print Room from the days of Ursula Hoff to now?

The computer and, through it, the introduction of the dematerialised matrix (where the image or information is stored electronically or digitally, rather than in the physical form of a plate, block or screen) has been the single most radical technical innovation. What artists do with the technology is another matter and its mere use is no guarantee of merit. Nevertheless, there have already been some substantial achievements, for example the works of Patricia Piccinini in Australia or Richard Hamilton in England. It’s still early days, however, and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that the existing forms of printmaking are obsolete. As for print scholarship, I think that perhaps greater emphasis is now placed on considering the individual impression, not simply the edition. For example, a closer examination of papers that Rembrandt used for his prints has yielded new information about how and when he published them. We now know that Rembrandt reprinted plates some years after they were first issued, a fact that can be dated fairly securely through an examination of the watermarks. Greater interest has also been taken in the procedures and the economics of print publishing. Alongside this we’ve witnessed a burgeoning interest in the history of collecting, though this is one area in which Ursula Hoff was a pioneer. The printed image is now much more frequently used by historians as cultural evidence, and their methodology has freed up the way art historians approach the subject. But that of course also characterises other late twentieth century approaches to art history, such as that which emerged from feminism.

AK: Is there still a place for a Print Room in our art museums? What function does it serve today, given that some curatorial departments are being restructured to eradicate media boundaries in favour of integration according to a set period of time (such as Contemporary Art)?

So long as substantial collections of prints and drawings exist there remains a place in the contemporary art museum for a Print Room. Only a Print Room can provide optimum conditions for viewing works of art, or, as the NGV’s current statement of purpose goes, of ‘bringing art and people together’ in ideal circumstances. This is not simply a matter of physical proximity but a matter, too, of intellectual proximity and engagement; it requires informed, specialist staff. But print curators cannot be blinkered and I don’t believe they are; everyone is acutely aware of the need to think not only of their part of the collection, but of the museum’s collection overall. Collaboration is absolutely essential and everyone is aware of it. The restructuring that has occurred in some places is one manifestation of economic rationalism in the museum sphere: you gain some things, but you lose an awful lot. Most especially you lose knowledge, and not just specialist knowledge about a particular part of the collection, but knowledge of how to assess the work, how to interpret it and how to present it to the public. A collection dies if research on it stops and it stops when specialists are got rid of.

AK: The word ‘connoisseurship’ is often unpopular in postmodern circles. How do you reconcile the fact that art history has moved on and that the visual arts are often used in highly speculative thematic ways?

Print connoisseurship has been ridiculed since at least the seventeenth century, and there is no one better than an experienced, cash-strapped, twenty-first century curator to defend it! Let me begin answering your question by posing some of my own: in a sale exhibition of many equally fine works how do you decide which one to propose for acquisition? What measures of judgment do you use? Do you buy something that you notice has a printer’s fault, or do you point it out and ask for another impression? Do you select a brilliant impression from a first edition, or go for the slightly cheaper, but dulled one from the second? Then again, do you go for the immaculately printed impression of a Gauguin woodcut printed by Pola, or the rough and unevenly printed one made by the artist? One must know the printing standards that apply in a given area or in the case of a given artist. There’s no question that connoisseurship is important; it’s a matter of knowing the facts and the context of production, rather than having some form of esoteric knowledge. The quality of the impression so often carries the meaning, meaning which may otherwise be diluted or even lost, thereby diminishing the impact of your thematic speculation. On the other hand, if these matters are not important to an artist, then that has to be accepted. For example such issues have no particular relevance to the documentation of performance art in the 1970s, though of course one wants the material record to be in good physical condition. As for thematic exhibitions, there have been good ones and bad ones. The good ones are carefully selected and include art that is inherently interesting, not merely superficially relevant.

AK: How should curators reconcile the fact that the print has a separate history from that of other art disciplines and that this history is often overlooked in integrated collection hangs?

There are many histories of art, and now many ways of approaching the history of art. There are also many different kinds of collections and different cultures in which they exist. Some major European institutions wouldn’t dream of integrated hangs, largely for the reasons you identify – prints indeed have a history of their own, and it shouldn’t be thrown out – but also due to the lighting and conservation requirements of the material, and to the visual disruption that can stem from a disparity of scale. It is also interesting that while the graphic arts have their separate history they are simultaneously most closely related to works in other media. In fact, there is arguably as much overlap as there is divergence to reconcile; it’s one of the very things that makes their study so fascinating. But it depends on how you deal with the issues. In the Australian situation there certainly is a place for integrated hangs, though the difficulties and dangers need to be spelled out, even at the risk of harping: continually recycling the same key works – which is in practice what usually happens in such situations – can threaten their long-term survival. There are probably examples in all Australian collections of prints and drawings that have in the past been damages through over-exposure to light. The staff of art museums must never forget that they are custodians, not owners of the collection they look after. A lively collaboration across departments is essential, and it certainly exists at the NGV. As for the loss of knowledge which occurs when specialist curators disappear, that is always to be regretted, because I believe that specialist knowledge is the most effective springboard to creative, speculative thinking. That having been said, I do recognise that institutions differ, and that what would be inappropriate for one collection may sometimes be reasonable for another. But I don’t think there’s a danger of the Department of Prints and Drawings disappearing in Melbourne. The collection is too substantial and there is a very strong curatorial staff who work extremely well together.

 

At the time this interview took place, Anne Kirker was Head of International Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

Brent Harris on making The Problem (2015)

In 2015 the Print Council of Australia commissioned Brent Harris to make a special fundraiser print to help raise money to pay Imprint contributor fees. The result was The Problem, an edition of thirty photopolymer gravure and multi-layer screenprints.

The article that follows is based on the short talk Harris gave at the Fitzroy Town Hall on 26 November 2015, along with collaborating printmaker Trent Walter of Negative Press, about the way this print was worked into reality.

Printmaking has been an important part of my working life as an artist, and an integral component in the development of my imagery over the past twenty-seven years. Since 1988, I have generally worked with master printers including John Loane of Viridian Press (intaglio), Larry Rawling (screenprint), Kim Westcott (woodblock), Peter Lancaster (lithography), Martin King (lithography), Adrian Kellett (monotype) and
Trent Walter (photopolymer gravure and screenprint).

I have also participated in two international printmaking residencies: a three-month residency learning the Japanese watercolour woodblock technique at Nagasawa Art Park in 1999; and a five-week residency working on large scale paper pulp works with master papermaker Richard Hungerford, and woodcut prints with the printers at Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2004.

Brent Harris
The Problem 2015
photopolymer gravure
with multiple screenprint layers
76 x 56 cm
edition of 30.

Getting to The Problem (2015):

In 2012 I worked on a series of one hundred monotypes. These works became a series titled the fall (2012), which was shown at Tolarno Galleries in November–December 2012, and was presented in nine groups of seven, two triptychs and twenty-one single prints.

Brent Harris’s studio, 2012
Below: Tolarno install of the fall, 2012

Even while this body of monotypes was being made, I was thinking: there is so much imagery here. I have to be able to use this across different media in future works.

the fall #83 was my first attempt at this. Obviously the two challenges here are scale and bringing colour to a black and white image. An element from the fall #70 has been flipped and also used down the left hand side of the painting below.

Top left: the fall #83 2012
collection: Art Gallery of Western Australia
Left: the fall #70 2012
Above: The Prophet 2012
oil on linen 240 x 160cm
collection: Shepparton Art Museum

It may seem that I am digressing, but this relates to what I am seeing as my imagery bank, which formed in the monotypes, and to how the imagery was developed for The Problem.

In 2013 I made another smaller series of monotypes titled embark. There are twenty prints in this new group and they were shown, along with nine small board paintings, in an exhibition of the same name at Lister Gallery in Perth (below).

Three of the nine paintings exhibited in Perth contain imagery that first appeared in one of the monotypes: this figure at the lower right of the monotype below.

embark #15, 2013, private collection Perth

This character has been cropped from the monotype, flipped horizontally, and then redrawn into the painting.

embark no.9, 2013, 52 x 38.2cm, private collection Perth

I’m not sure what the figure is about. At times I have thought of him as a stand-in for the artist.

In the monotype he seems to be a witness. He seems to be supported by a hand belonging to some larger being. In the paintings he appears as though he’s being delivered to some kind of portal, as though his past is delivering him into his future.

This character appears in several paintings including the large painting below.

Embark, 2014, 220 x 160cm, private collection Melbourne, shown at Tolarno Galleries in February 2015.

I should explain the monotype technique that I am using.

In December 2011, I went to Boston to see the Edgar Degas exhibition Degas and the Nude. He is an artist I love. I knew there was going to be a good selection of his monotypes and in particular the ones where he uses the ‘dark field technique’.

With this technique a substrate is rolled up with printing ink so as to achieve a totally black inky surface (in Degas’s case I think he most often used a copper plate). I use a piece of Perspex cut to the size I can comfortably print on the small press in my studio. Then you start wiping into the ink. The image forms as light, where the ink has been removed.

I think Degas would have known the image he was aiming for, either as an idea or from a drawing. For myself, I start with no preconceived idea. I just start smudging and watch for whatever imagery might surface.

It is possible to push ink back onto the plate into areas you might want to change while trying to retain areas worth holding onto (I use my fingers). If nothing of interest comes to the surface you can just re-roll the whole surface with ink and start afresh. Most often the monotype is printed on the same day it is made. Otherwise the ink will dry on the plate and print poorly. Many times at the end of the day, with no strong image having surfaced, I end up wiping down the plate.

the fall # 7, 2012, private collection Melbourne

the fall # 7 was so nearly not printed. I had worked on it all day and there had been many figurative elements trying to surface on the right hand side of the plate, but I could get nothing to stick. I liked the figure on the left, he reminded me of a figure in the painting The Flagellation of Christ (1455 -1460) by Piero della Francesca.

You have to remember that when making these prints you are working in the reverse, so on the plate this figure was coming in from the right, as is the flagellator in the Francesca painting.

As worked on the plate.
Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ (detail), 1455–60.

So at the end of the day and with no firm imagery appearing on the left, I was about to wipe the whole thing off when the finger marks where I had been pushing ink back onto the surface reminded me of another work by an artist I admire, Savarin 3 (red) by Jasper Johns. With Johns’s lithograph in the back of my mind I decided to print this plate.

When printed, it reminded me even more of the Johns lithograph. I was pleased I hadn’t wiped off my day’s work.

Jasper Johns, Savarin 3 (red), 1978, lithograph.

For the purposes of extending this monotype and using it for this new print idea, I inverted and coloured it similarly to the Johns.

I printed out a couple of these at A4 size in the studio and started mucking around on them with coloured pencil and gouache.

Quite quickly I saw the three figures/heads up at the right and presented them with eyes, and one with a beard. Also this figure with his hand behind his back arrives from another work of mine. He moves around within the image but doesn’t hold on, and gets dumped – it was starting to look too religious.

Now this other character arrives from the bottom right.

The bearded figure drops out of the group in the upper right. I am starting to feel this could be the print, but try one last stab at the new figure introducing more colour, which doesn’t work. So I have the print.

These two images are gouache on cheap reproductions; the right hand one will become the print. Trent and I now had to talk about how to realise this.

We had originally spoken of a screenprint; Trent did a test screen to see how this could work with the subtle tonal changes in the monotype. We found that the possible screen dot breakdown from a screenprint screen could not be made fine enough (see below). I don’t think it necessarily looked so bad, but it had a different feel, and was not achieving the richness of tone found in the monotype.

We decided to try photopolymer gravure for the ground image and multiple screenprint layers for the eyes and the character coming in from the lower right. Firstly, where the screenprinted image lands on the ground image, we stripped out the underlying surface from the photopolymer plate. This is shown below from a proof of the photopolymer gravure plate.

The proof here showing the stripped out ground plate where the screenprinting will hit.

I made a line drawing for the lower figure. This drawing was used to indicate where to strip out the photopolymer plate and also for the black line screen layer.

An early charcoal drawing above and then another finer black pencil drawing used for the screen.

I made a drawing for the eyes, at a much larger size. These two drawings were used for the one screen carrying the black. There were two other screens: one for the pink and one for the white.

So that was it: the printing from the photopolymer plate, followed by the printings from the three screens. Problem almost solved, apart from registration of all the elements by Trent Walter.

The title for this print refers to the problem of titling the work as much as anything. I am unable to impose a definition or meaning on this image.

To purchase The Problem view the PCA online store here. Brent Harris’s upcoming exhibition A Backroom Project opens at Tolarno Galleries on 5 March 2016.

Reader Correspondence


Dear editor,

I have read Trent Walter’s story re Northern Editions with great interest. I was overall manager of Northern Editions – which encompassed the CDU art collection (Anita Angel as curator) and the workshop (Dian Darmansjah as manager) as well as the retail operations – from 2002–2004 arriving direct from being managing director of Port Jackson Press in Melbourne. The fate of niche print workshops such as Northern Editions (and indeed PJP which has gone from Australia’s largest print publisher to small retailer) has always been precarious.

The issues I faced on arrival in Darwin (extreme heat, isolation and parochial mentality) were common to many talented artists, academics and arts administrators who often left after a year or so. Staff retention was a major issue for the university in particular and the Northern Territory in general. The complexities of dealing (in practical terms) with often dysfunctional remote communities who were our major ‘clients’ as well as the very limited audience of galleries, institutions and individuals interested in collecting prints meant balancing the books would always be a constant challenge. In the bigger picture of the university’s multi-million dollar budget the internal problems of Northern Editions were far exceeded by the political goodwill in supporting Indigenous and local artists. The publicity successful print projects generated at both a local and international level earned the title for Northern Editions as ‘jewel in the crown’ of Charles Darwin University.

The inevitable bust after an unprecedented boom in the Australian art market compounded by the Global Financial Crisis ensured the Indigenous arts industry in particular suffered a fatal blow on both domestic and international markets starting in 2006–07. I am not surprised therefore that the future of Northern Editions is under threat but a key factor will be whether senior university staff and politicians see the value of the arts as integral to the contribution CDU makes to the cultural life of the Northern Territory.

Greg Mallyon

2016 Print Commission – final call for entries!


Artists are invited to submit digital images of recent work for selection to create a new print edition for the 2016 PCA Print Commission. All forms of printmaking, including digital, are welcome.

Invited judges for the 2016 Print Commission are Roger Butler, Senior Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Australia, and John Loane, Master Printer and artist, Viridian Press.

Hurry, entries close Friday 5 February. Enter via the PCA website here.

Postcards: Mei Sheong Wong’s Greetings from Scotland

clockwise from top: Mei Sheong Wong, Achavandra Muir, 2015, etching; Mei Sheong WONG en route to the prehistoric site of the Bear Cave, Scotland, September 2015; Mei Sheong Wong and Ian Westacott at the opening of Ian’s exhibition of etchings at Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, September 2015.

Printmaker and PCA member Mei Sheong Wong reports on her mentorship with Australian printmaker Ian Westacott in Scotland, UK, August–September 2015.

An Arts SA grant facilitated my recent mentorship with Ian Westacott in northern Scotland. En route, I visited numerous cultural sites, while billeted with the Brenner–Bauer family in Cap d’Ail, France. In Oxfordshire, as guest of the Kang–Fiennes family, I viewed historic Broughton Castle, and precious works on paper by Michelangelo, Raphael and Samuel Palmer in Ashmolean Museum’s Western Art Print Room, Oxford.

Invited by Australian printmaker Tony Linde and Leicester Print Workshop manager Lucy Phillips, I gave an artist talk at LPW on the theme of Revenants in the Scottish mediaeval ballad Clerk Saunders, explored through the materiality of print media (my honours research, 2014), and on my residency at the University of Hawaii in 2015 (facilitated by Helpmann Academy and Prof. Charlie Cohan).

Curator Simon Lake kindly showed me the renowned collection of German Expressionist prints in Leicester New Walk Museum. Nearby, King Richard III’s remains (buried by Grey Friars, after Battle of Bosworth, 1485) had recently been discovered, in an unprepossessing car park, before ceremonial entombment in Leicester Cathedral.

Other places of interest visited were: Leeds; Harrogate; York Minster; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Glasgow Cathedral; Loch Lomond; Loch Ness; Fort William; Inverness; Dornoch Cathedral; Dunrobin Castle Museum; Embo Cairn; Edderton Churchyard; Orkney Islands – Kirkwall, Skara Brae and Stromness’ Ring of Brodgar.

It was delightful to attend Ian’s exhibition opening at Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh, and to admire his work at Browns Gallery, Tain. Also viewed were Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery and Joseph Beuys’ exhibition, Timespan Regional Gallery, Helmsdale. After trekking up to the prehistoric Bear Cave, we travelled across the Highlands – via Bonar Bridge, Rosehall and Oykel Bridge – to Lochinver on the rugged west coast.

En plein air, we drew onto copper plates until way too chilled to grip an etching needle. Respite from inclement weather usually took the form of steaming hot chocolate or single malt whisky. Several plates were etched and proofed, before a last-minute ‘chine collé demo’, at the end of my too-brief sojourn!

This enriching experience was enhanced by Ian’s familiarity with Pictish, Celtic and Neolithic sites; his profound knowledge of great ancient trees; his printmaking expertise; and his boundless generosity. His wife Sue and their son also made me feel most welcome. Still working on my copper plates, I plan to develop a body of work for exhibition, based on this marvelous journey.


PCA Member Q&A: Ying Huang

Sleep Well My Princess, 2015, etching and screenprint on steel, 20 x 28.5 cm. This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission. It is available to purchase through the PCA store.

‘I started learning calligraphy when I was about six years old, and then went on to learn traditional Chinese painting … I wasn’t exposed to printmaking before I left China.’ 

Ying Huang lives in Victoria

Why do you make art?

Art has always been part of my life since I was a child. I come from an artistic family and I grew up with art. I started learning calligraphy when I was about six years old, and then went on to learn traditional Chinese painting. After I left China I travelled around the world, living in various places, and stopped making art for some years. I started again when I came to Australia and haven’t stopped since.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

I used to see myself as a painter and drawer – I wasn’t exposed to printmaking before I left China. The first time I drew onto a copper plate and etched it at school I knew I’d found my medium! I now identify as a printmaker first rather than a painter.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

My interest in printmaking was sparked during my study. I used to love etching but during my last couple of years at RMIT I started to explore blending different mediums and I began screenprinting onto steel plates as my main medium.

Who is your favourite artist?

I love a lot of artists and my ‘favourite’ keeps changing. It depends on what medium I am working in at the time, but Rembrandt and Alberto Giacometti are two favourites.

What is your favourite artwork?

I have so many favourite artworks. I love Ruth Johnstone’s etchings and Jazmina Cininas’s linocuts. They were both my lecturers at RMIT. They inspired and guided me throughout my study. I also love Hertha Kluge-Pott’s drypoint works and Alice Neel’s paintings.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I get inspiration from a wide range of sources, such as film, song titles and lyrics, pop art, other artists’ work, mass media and iconic photography, other cultural media and major events around the world … I basically find everyday life and personal experiences very inspiring.

What are you working on now?  

I am continuing a body of work that I started this year for my solo show. These works are exploratory and will continue my hybrid practice which I call ‘Polipanda’. I am using aluminium, raw steel and etched steel. I manipulate my digital images and sometimes blend screenprinted and digitally printed imagery on aluminium and steel plates. The subject matter of these works is playful, rebellious and humorous. My next solo show is at Tacit Contemporary Art gallery in March 2016.

PCA Member Q&A: Annette Cook

Striated Pardalote Net, 2015, etching, aquatint, linocut and stencil, 55 x 50 cm (image size) 62 x 56 cm (paper size). This print was selected for the 2015 PCA Print Commission. It is available to purchase through the PCA store.

‘The potential to create pattern and emphasise or dilute an idea through repeating and repositioning a print interests me.’ 

Annette Cook lives in Victoria

Why do you make art?

Making art is about having a visual conversation with myself. I enjoy this form of communication and investigating ways to interpret the connections I see between natural and social environments. I make art in starts, often driven to continue when I see other artists’ work that challenges and incites me, and other times when I want to play.

What’s your relationship to printmaking?

Printmaking for me is a place of random success and failure on both a small and massive scale. I like this risky business and enjoy pitting myself against the odds. The process demands that I articulate with skill, restraint and constant revision. Part of printmaking’s appeal is the finite plate and hence the forced conclusion of the image. I appreciate this and enjoy working within those limits. Paradoxically, printmaking is about the multiple and the endless variations possible when reprinting the matrix. The potential to create pattern and emphasise or dilute an idea through repeating and repositioning a print interests me.

How did you get interested in printmaking?

In art school I was exposed to a wide range of print techniques and was drawn to the chemical and material processes that intervene in the image making. The transformational moment of printing plate to paper and pulling a print was, and still is, captivating. Drawing is a strong component of my practice and has common sympathies with printmaking. I was given a press and printmaking has dominated my practice ever since. I have also taught printmaking for many years.

Who is your favourite artist?

I have many including Fiona Hall, G.W.Bot, Yayoi Kusama, Kiki Smith, Gabriel Orozco, Dorothy Napangardi.

What is your favourite artwork?

One favourite is El Perro (The dog) Francisco Goya. The painting is particularly enigmatic.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Museum collections, Tasmania, nature, a farm in Central Victoria, books, galleries, online, conversation with other practitioners.

What are you working on now?  

A portfolio print for Eventide curated by Rona Green to be shown at the Mornington Peninsula Art Gallery. I am also preparing for a curated exhibition called Graphic Nature for 2017.

A Two-Way Thing: An Interview with Rick Amor

A page from the original interview in Imprint (Spring 1996 Volume 31 Number 3) featuring Rick Amor‘s Self-Portrait, 1995, drypoint, etching, 41.2 x 28.5 cm, ed. of 10.

‘I always had a vague suspicion of printmakers who made images that were satisfying technical exercises but had no heart in them.’

Imprint Spring 1996 Volume 31 Number 3.
Cover image: Hertha Kluge-Pott, Portrait of a Silent Personage, 1996, drypoint and chine collé, 64 x 89.5 cm, ed. of 6.

This interview was conducted by Gary Catalano in April 1996 and published in Imprint Spring 1996, Volume 31 Number 3.

Rick Amor was born at Frankston in 1948 and studied at both Caulfield Technical and the National Gallery schools between 1964 and 1968. He staged his first exhibition in 1974 and is represented by Niagara in Melbourne.

Amor’s prints, which form a significant part of his oeuvre, were surveyed in Selected Prints 1968–1991, a show which toured a number of Victorian and Tasmanian regional galleries in 1993 and 1994. The following text is an edited version of an interview recorded at the artist’s house in Alphington on April 23, 1996.

GC: Whenever we’ve talked about your printmaking in the past you’ve always insisted that you want to be regarded as a painter–printmaker. Can I ask you once again what you mean by this term?

RA: Well, I think the painter–printmaker uses printmaking as a way into paintings and his painting as a way into prints. Fred Williams used to base paintings on prints and prints on paintings. It’s a two-way thing. An idea developed in a print will, because of the nature of the medium, force an image in a certain way which maybe a painting wouldn’t have. Printmaking helps you to find another way into painting. And vice versa, the tonal range of painting can force you to be more subtle with your marks on the plate.

GC: Do you also mean by that term that you don’t want your prints to be seen in isolation from your paintings?

RA: Not generally. I mean, they are physically, but generally they should be seen as a follow-on, a starting point, or an end point.

GC: How common is it for a print to precede a painting of the same subject?

RA: It’s about fifty-fifty. Often I’ll base a print on a painting and then base a painting on that print.

GC: What kinds of print are best for this preparatory work?

RA: Etchings, I think. You can develop a tonal range and detail in etching …

GC: That’s comparable to those in a painting?

RA: In a way, yes … and mezzotints, too, because of their tonal range. Tones are important, I think. With woodcuts you haven’t got a lot of tonal range; you’ve just got black and white, so it’s a different problem.

GC: Okay. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t a detailed drawing be just as adequate as an etching?

RA: No, it’s not the same, because the mixture of metals and acid and ink seems to have its own qualities.

GC: So etching helps you to distil your conception of a painting?

RA: Yes. It renders it differently to a drawing, even to a pen and ink drawing, which superficially looks like an etching because of its hatching. The intervention of the materials makes all the difference.

GC: Can you think of a painting whose conception you had to alter in a significant way after you had produced a preparatory print?

RA: There’s a painting called The Telephones. I did a drawing first, then a print. Then I based a painting on the print, but because there were some areas in the painting I didn’t like I changed it and did another print based on that print. In the initial print there were certain things that were wrong with the perspective and the placement, which I only noticed when I made the first painting from it.

GC: So printmaking often serves to clarify your ideas for a painting?

RA: Yes. The reduced scale helps. It distils an image and forces you to be a bit broader and change your approach to an image.

GC: How thorough was your introduction to printmaking at the National Gallery School?

RA: Pretty thorough. Prior to that we did a bit at Caulfield Tech, but it was so basic that I hardly remember it. At the National Gallery School we did most forms of etching, except mezzotint. Murray Walker taught us. I’ve subsequently discovered that his method was the same that [Graham] Sutherland used; it comes from Samuel Palmer and involves a lot of scraping back and re-biting, so that you have a really rich look on the plate with a lot of cross-hatching and little white dots amongst all the darkness. Murray taught us that and I didn’t like it much at the time, but when I began to etch again in the late ‘80s I found it was more to my taste.

GC: What kind of printmaking did you enjoy most then?

RA: Oh, etching. I remember I fiddled about with silkscreen at home. I picked it up myself.

GC: Have you kept any of those silkscreens?

RA: No, but there’s some floating around the place. I used to draw on the silk, with glue or something. But silkscreens are pretty awful. They lack the artist’s touch and are so anonymous.

GC: I asked that question about what you enjoyed because when we look at your print oeuvre we find that until as recently as 1988 almost all of the prints you produced were relief prints. There’s a handful of etchings from your student years – and apparently no lithographs at all.

RA: Well, I couldn’t afford to do any etchings when I was young, because I didn’t have a press. Woodcuts and linocuts are easy to produce; I could do them at home and print them myself. When I began to etch again I could afford a press, so I bought one.

GC: How do you go about producing an etching? Do you make a separate drawing beforehand, or do you draw directly on the plate?

RA: Sometimes I do, if I’m feeling bold and daring. (Smiles) But normally I draw, with compressed charcoal, on a piece of paper with a rectangle the same size as the plate marked on it. Then I put that face down on a plate with the resin ground on it and put it through the press so that the charcoal is pressed on the plate. Then I start to draw over that.

GC: Can you think of some etchings in which you drew directly on the plate?

RA: There’s lots. Normally I do my self-portraits straight on a plate. The prints that are meant to be rougher and a bit lighter … I just scribble them on a plate, because that’s the look I want. But I’m a bit more careful with the ones I intend to use as ideas for paintings, because I want to develop the idea with a bit more caution and care.

GC: There were a lot of very good relief prints produced in Melbourne in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Did you find yourself being influenced by any of that work when you were producing your linocuts and woodcuts, or were you always more interested in the woodcuts of Munch and some of the German Expressionists?

RA: Oh no. I was a big fan of Counihan, of course. He would have been the only one locally that I had much knowledge of. I didn’t know anything about the ‘20s and ‘30s until more recently; I mean, I’d seen them reproduced, but they weren’t an influence.

It was Counihan’s way of drawing with the lino that I found interesting, the way he cut shapes out. I’ve lost a lot of interest in his work, but when I was younger I thought it was terrific – especially those early linocuts of the miners. They’re very direct and daring in their cut.

GC: Which one of your woodcuts satisfies you the most?

RA: (Long pause) None of them really. The one of Andrew Southall isn’t bad … and I suppose the one of the runner [Runner, 1984][1] is pretty good. But there isn’t a lot that I really like all that much. I always think of doing them again and doing them better.

GC: You haven’t done any recently, have you?

RA: No, I sort of lost interest. But just recently I thought I’d like to do some more. I was thinking, too, about New York. I’m just speculating, but it could be good to do a series of woodcuts based on the drawings I’ll make there, because it would force me to be economical with the image. That’s one option I’ve thought of.

GC: Won’t you be painting in New York?

RA: Just gouaches and watercolours, that sort of thing.

GC: You produced a lot of posters and cartoons for the labour movement in the ‘70s. Do you think that work has influenced your printmaking in any way?

RA: At the time I saw things in that social realist manner. I’ve got woodcuts about the police and being on the dole and that sort of thing, but they were the ‘70s and I grew away from that in the end. I’ve kept examples of those things because they reflect the time, but I wouldn’t do that sort of thing anymore. It just seems a bit overstated.

GC: Were those woodcuts you referred to conceived as works of art or as illustrations?

RA: Both. They were meant to illustrate the iniquities of society and to be aesthetically pleasing, but I tend to think the message got in the way of the aesthetics.

GC: Your 1986 exhibition at Niagara was composed exclusively of woodcuts. Was that your idea, or did your dealer suggest it?

RA: I think it was my idea. I’d had a burst of activity doing woodcuts, so I was probably thinking it would be a nice show to have. It was a good show, too; I was pleased with it.

GC: What sort of response did it get?

RA: Pretty good. Sold well. It had some prints in it that I’m quite proud of. I’ve always thought the one of John Perceval was pretty good … and the one of Manning Clark is all right.[2]

It might be good to do a show of woodcuts again at some stage. I’ve done about half a dozen based on a series of drawings I did in England in 1985 which are in a folio, and it might be good to show them one day.

GC: In some of your woodcuts it looks as though you’ve tried to down play the kind of dramatic impact to which the medium lends itself by introducing a bit of tonal variety. I’m thinking of the shallow cutting in parts of Runner and the sandpapered area in Gardens (1988)[3].

RA: I didn’t want to be Käthe Kollwitz all my life with heavy black and white; I wanted to be Gauguin for a while. (Laughs) In the prints he made in Tahiti he used sandpaper and all sorts of things and hand-printed them, so you have much lighter pressure in some parts and get a much more subtle print. I’d never really liked the fact that lino was just black and white. The sandpaper and files are another way of varying the surface and making it subtle enough to hold the viewer’s attention.

GC: They also make the image slightly more mysterious.

RA: Yes. The accidental aspect of it is important, too. You make marks that you can’t always control.

GC: Even if you take into account the economic considerations you mentioned earlier, don’t you find it strange that you waited until 1988 before you took up etching again?

RA: I doubt I would have done it if I hadn’t been asked to contribute to the Murray-Smith portfolio [Port Jackson Press, 1988] and probably would have gone on making woodcuts. I had this feeling that I didn’t really like etching, which in my mind was this rather laborious method I’d been taught at art school. And I always had a vague suspicion of printmakers who made images that were satisfying technical exercises but had no heart in them.

I like things with a bit of heart. Often prints will be technically wonderful, but you think: why did he bother doing it? I determined to etch the simplest way I could – no aquatint, none of that business – and just draw on the plate. It’s the drawing that’s important to me … not the fancy biting but the mark-making.

GC: How long did it take you before you began to feel comfortable with the medium?

RA: I still don’t. I have periods when I don’t etch for a long time, and when I take it up again I more or less have got to start again. I rack my brains: How do I do this? How do I do that? So it’s a thing that you accumulate knowledge about, but it’s pretty slow … or it is with me anyway.

GC: Do you prefer to work on copper or zinc plates?

RA: Oh copper, just because it looks nice. I like its rich colour, and I like to see the plates lying around the studio.

GC: Do you go in for retroussage?

RA: Yes. Sometimes I wipe the plate with scrim and then put chalk or whiting on the heel of my hand and clean up all the excess ink, but at other times I stop at the stage of the scrim and leave a bit of plate tone on the plate.

GC: So you do manipulate the plate as much as you can?

RA: Well, sometimes I do … and at other times I don’t. I remember Hopper saying to use the blackest ink and the whitest paper and just wipe it clean and print it. Maybe I should be a bit more like him … less effete. (Laughs) But it depends on what’s happening on the plate.

I don’t do editions that are exactly the same. I’ll have some plates hand-wiped and some left a bit dirty with the plate tone. It’s never going to be exactly the same, so it may as well be a little different.

GC: Have you ever thought of producing some sort of ground etchings?

RA: I have actually. I should do more with it, because it’s a nice way to do things. Often I’ve sketched ideas in a soft ground and then worked over the top with normal etching.

GC: What works were they?

RA: Oh, there’s quite a large self-portrait in which I’m drawing myself drawing myself. That started off as a drypoint, then I worked over it with a soft ground, then with etching, and then with drypoint again.

GC: You love Whistler’s work, but you’ve never tried to emulate his way of making a print.

RA: Well, these days I’ve thought of doing so, because everyone does these enormous prints with sugar lift and tons of ink. It’d be nice to do a little silvery plate which is just touched with a line, just breathed on the plate, as an antidote to all that seriousness.

GC: I think it’s strange you haven’t used aquatint more often, considering how well Gardens (1988) works.[4] What exactly are your reservations about it?

RA: It’s just that it’s an easy way to get a bit of tone. Often you’ll see a print with aquatint, and if you take the aquatint off it just falls apart a bit. The drawing won’t sustain it. To me the drawing is very important. I feel a little bit reserved about technical help. It’s ridiculous and illogical, but it’s the way I feel about it. I just like the line. (Smiles)

GC: Perhaps you haven’t found the subject matter which makes it really necessary.

RA: Well, I seem to be able to do okay without it. If I need to have a tonal picture I’ll do a mezzotint, which is really tonal and much more subtle than aquatint in its gradations.

GC: What led you to take up mezzotint in 1990? Surely that wasn’t accidental also.

RA: Well, it seemed to suit the sort of work I was doing. I mean, you associate mezzotints with romantic imagery and landscape. Both Turner and Constable had their works editioned in mezzotint prints.

GC: It seems the right medium for you in so many ways. Having to work from dark to light is a perfect metaphor of the way in which you recover incidents and experiences from the darkness of time.

RA: That’s one way of reading it. The black is so black and mysterious that it’s irresistible as a method of working.

GC: Are you also attracted by the arduousness of it all, the fact that you have to spend so much time on them?

RA: Oh no, I hate all that.

GC: But you don’t like art to be made easy, do you?

RA: Well no, but I’m not going to grind my own paint or weave my own canvas, am I? (General laughter) The aesthetic decisions should be hard, not the practical ones. They should be made easy.

GC: Mezzotints also lend themselves to that slightly ominous or menacing quality that you like your works to have.

RA: Yes, it’s perfect. There’s a tendency in modern mezzotint for it to be a demonstration of technical finesse, so people do bunches of artichokes and asparagus and all sorts of weird and unusual things, but I rather like to do what I do with it. You know, nocturnal scenes.

GC: So which of your mezzotints particularly pleases you?

RA: There’s two – The Sighting[5] and Tokyo at Night. If I could get the plates prepared for me I’d do more mezzotints. I’m working on a plate at the moment and I do a pass with the rocker every couple of days or once a week or whatever.

GC: You’ve produced a few limited edition books and folios over the years. Have you plans to do any more in the future?

RA: I like to do those sorts of things, but the market for the artist’s book in Australia is pretty small. It’s a real shame, because they’re great things and wonderful to have. I’ve seen computer generated things and whatnot in books, but you want to see beautiful drawings and typography. You want an aesthetic experience. I always think about doing them, but the opportunities are so small that, you know, you do them for love.

 

Rick Amor has been exhibiting regularly since 1974. He is also founder of The Rick Amor Print Prize – ‘a celebration of excellence and diversity in the field of Printmaking’. The 2015 finalists exhibition is currently on display at Montsalvat.

 

[1] For an illustration of Runner, see Selected Prints 1968–1991 (exhibition catalogue, 1993), cat. No. 8.

[2] Amor’s woodcut of John Perceval is reproduced on the cover of Overland, no. 103, 1986.

[3] See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 13.

[4] See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 16.

[5] See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 42.