The Metropolitan Museum of Art on its website defines printmaking as ‘an artistic process based on the principle of transferring images from a matrix onto another surface, most often paper or fabric.’
Believed to have originated as early as the 1st century during China’s Han Dynasty, printmaking has influenced artists, graphic designers and book publishers for centuries. The earliest example of printmaking is a Chinese woodblock print on silk dating to this time in history. The first print on paper is said to have been made in the 7th century. The beginning of the 15th century saw the use of woodcut prints to make paper playing cards in Germany. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press is said to have revolutionized the art of printmaking through the Gutenberg Bibles where gothic type prints were designed to replicate the impression of hand calligraphy.
Printmaking has had a seismic impact on the world of art. The 16th century witnessed the growing popularity of printed maps prepared through printmaking to guide travelers. Ukiyo-e, the popular Japanese art form developed from refined woodcuts gained widespread recognition in the 17th century. During the following centuries, printmaking enjoyed a glorious peak with several renowned as well as emerging artists adopting the art and blending it with their signature style to produce highly stylized artworks. Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Albrecht Dürer, Katsushika Hokusai, Rembrandt van Rijn, Edvard Munch, William Blake, Henri Matisse, Francisco Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, Marc Chagall, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Andy Warhol and Georges Rouault are some artists who have created unique artworks through printmaking.
In an era where cameras, copier machines, and scanners were not available, printmaking served as a simple way for artists to reproduce and disseminate their works of art. With time, printmaking developed into an art form in itself and now enjoys a huge fanbase. It has revolutionized the common man’s ability to access art and literature. The technique gives artists the flexibility and freedom to create identical images or recurrent motifs and patterns in an art series. Though they can exist in multiples, each piece is considered a separate work of art.
In the process of printmaking, an image is engraved onto the surface of a block of wood, a metal plate or a stone. The design is created on the matrix or template through chemicals or tools. This design is then covered with ink and transferred onto the preferred material. This requires the application of pressure, which is often but not always achieved through a printing press. The print is, thus, a mirror image of the design on the matrix or template. Printmaking is usually done on paper but fabric, plastic or parchment can also be used.
Today, printmaking is used to create atypical effects and deliver the thought behind the artwork in an unconventional manner. Woodcut, etching, lithography, and engraving are traditional techniques employed in printmaking. Modern artists have included linocut, drypoint, mezzotint, photogravure, pochoir, digital print, collagraphy, aquatint, monotype, and screenprinting to these techniques. Each technique of printmaking has its characteristic style and needs creativity as well as mastery to ace it.
Printmaking in India
According to the book Paper Trails: Modern Indian Works on Paper from the Gaur Collection, printing arrived in India in the mid-1550s during the Imperial rule and gradually created space for printmaking with the rising demand for printed illustrations. Oriental Scenery in India – a six-volume series of aquatints by Thomas and William Daniell, and Twelve Views of Calcutta – a collection of their works, was the first time printmaking techniques were explored on a large scale in the country.
By the 19th century, a vernacular print culture had emerged in the country that incorporated both texts and images. This was most prominent in Calcutta, the capital of the colonial empire in India.
In the mid-19th century, five art schools were established across the country – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Lahore and Jaypore. These art schools imparted education in printmaking in India to develop a native workforce for Colonial presses in the country. Though creative endeavors were discouraged, many students passed out from these art schools and went on to establish art studios that catered to Indian clients. The artworks that were developed in these studios came to be known as ‘Art Studio Pictures.’
Towards the late 19th century, printmaking became popularized due to the growing demand for calendars and books. With time, printmaking turned into a medium of artistic expression in the Indian subcontinent rather than just a medium of reproduction of works of popular artists such as Raja Ravi Varma. In the later years of the 19th century, Verma established his lithographic press called the ‘Ravi Varma Press’ in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) and copied his religious paintings as oleographs for mass reproduction.
In 1917, Gaganendranath Tagore published a lithographic collection Adbhut Lok at Bichitra Club, which considered printmaking as a medium for creative exploration. Nandalal Bose created a relief of Bapuji (Mahatma Gandhi) in the 1930s and created posters for the Non-cooperation Movement along with Ramkinkar Baig, thus, making printmaking a political instrument.
After independence, artists started exploring mediums and techniques to find their voice. The Society of Contemporary Artists, Calcutta, made a significant contribution to printmaking during the 1960s. The Indian Printmakers Guild was also set up in 1990 to promote printmaking.
Gradually, printmaking developed from a reproduction technique to a means of creative expression to the voice of politics, and later philosophy. Some of the most popular Indian printmakers include Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, Anupam Sud, Haren Das, Jyoti Bhatt, Krishna Reddy, Zarina, Laxma Goud, and Somnath Hore.
Well-known printmaker Anupam Sud said, “The relevance of printmaking in the modern times comes from the creator. The creator chooses the best technique that becomes the medium of the expression of his/her inner feeling. A few creators are best in watercolor, some are best in sculpture while others are good in printmaking — it depends a lot on the creator as to what techniques in printmaking they use to project their image to the the viewers, buyers and collectors.”
Art critic Georgina Maddox shared, “Printmaking is a very demanding art and it’s been undervalued for too long in India. It needs to get as much appreciation as other art forms like painting and sculpture.”
Yuva Sumbhava – an exhibition of printmakers
The Raza Foundation arranged the Yuva Sumbhava – an exhibition of 60 specially chosen printmakers from 1 – 13 October 2023 at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. Yuva Sumbhava was curated by Yusuf and coordinated by Manish Pushkale. Renowned printmaker Anupam Sud inaugurated the show and released the catalog.
The exhibition provided a platform for upcoming and established printmakers to showcase their works to a wider audience. Most of the participating artists were trained in printmaking at colleges and art institutes across the country.