To coincide with our recent Rigby Graham celebration, this week’s Making post looks at the many printing techniques Graham used throughout his career.
Hailed by the great John Piper as a real graphics man, Graham produced a wealth of wood and linocuts, lithographs, etchings and one-off prints throughout his career, generally with little thought to their commercial appeal but with the desire to prove the importance of graphic production as an art in its own right.
Listed below are brief descriptions of the types of prints he worked with, their basic processes, and Graham’s own peculiar applications in each medium, from his stubborn need to work against the natural grain of a woodblock to the sudden fancy of cutting linocut prints into a pair of Wellington boots.
Brighton Pier – Rigby Graham woodcut
Perhaps Graham’s tour de force, the woodcut constituted the greater part of his graphic output from as early as the late fifties.
Woodcutting is generally thought of as the oldest known printing process. An image is carved using gougers, V-tools and sharp cutters into a polished wood block which is then inked up and printed from. Two basic methods have prevailed, each depending on the different qualities of wood available. One method uses hardwoods such as pear and boxwood which are cut into small knot and grain-free logs. Once polished these woods can be as smooth and hard as a metal plate, allowing for very fine, intricate carving work.
The other method deliberately seeks out inconsistencies and natural grains in the block, using woods such as oak and sycamore cut length-ways into planks. Cutting the wood this way reveals natural grain lines which can be used to great effect, but which make carving into the surface extremely difficult when working against the grain.
Graham produced numerous woodcuts in the latter method for illustration and as stand alone prints throughout his life. The technique was one he stuck with right up until his final few months, gouging out blocks in his bed and hand burnishing them with a spoon whilst leaving wood chippings for his nurses to clear from the sheets.
The process was a favourite for its relative cheapness of materials, the limited range of tools required to cut the wood, and the bold designs such cutting lent itself to. He wrote of the uncooperative nature of his wood blocks that they bit back with the ferocity of a rabid dog until they were brought to heel, the resulting work being something of a duel between artist and material.
Minotaur – Rigby Graham linocut
Closely related to the woodcut in terms of technique and process, the linocut (lacking the grain of natural wood) is slightly easier to work with, producing images with a smoother edge and flatter, less textured planes of colour.
Graham’s linocuts have almost always been in colour, sometimes from separate blocks, but frequently by the ‘progressive’ or ‘reduction’ method whereby a block of linoleum is cut, printed, re-cut and reprinted again and again, the area of lino being reduced as the coloured image of the print builds up.
Often he has combined both methods, printing from separate and from ‘reducing’ blocks. While the lino rolls themselves have little texture, Graham sometimes used applications of caustic soda to distress the block’s surface, as in his Big Foot, Malta print.
Not content with limiting himself to pure linoleum, Graham also used industrial rubber belting, polyvinyl, offset blankets and Wellington boots to produce prints. (This last has resulted in particularly angular and geometric imagery because the boots have to be cut entirely with a knife and tweezers, as opposed to the traditional curved and V-shaped gouges.)
Horse, Connemara – Rigby Graham etching with aquatint
3. Etchings and Aquatint
Graham was able continue working in the processes of linocutting and woodcutting from the comfort of his own home, needing only his printing blocks, cutting tools, and sufficient printer’s ink to keep preparing prints.
Etching and aquatint, however, were not so easily domesticated. The waxed copper plates which would be etched into using an engraving tool required submersion in an acid bath before their final image could be tested. The acid ‘bites’ into the plate where wax has been scratched away leaving grooves which suck up and hold the ink for printing on damp paper.
Aquatint offered further developments in tone. An acid-resistant resin is rubbed over certain areas of the plate before being melted. When the plate is submerged, these areas do not entirely repel the acid, leaving many minute pits in the metal that pick up small amounts of ink producing shadowed effects on the print.
As with many of his other print methods, Graham’s etching subjects remained familiar landscapes or machine-worn vistas, the dark tones of aquatint and the etching process lending images a deep texture and dusky quality.
Corfe Castle – Rigby Graham lithograph
For Graham, who was at heart a draughtsman, lithography remained a favourite method of printing, being as near to drawing as you could get in a printing process.
As the name suggests (‘lithos’ is the Ancient Greek word for stone), lithography was originally a method of producing prints on stone. Today, zinc, aluminium and plastic sheets are preferred. The process relies on the antipathy between water and grease. The artists draws directly onto the plate using a greasy lithographic pencil. These lines and marks are then, by a chemical process, bonded to the plate and made receptive to oil and resistant to water.
When printing begins, the plate is dampened with water which adheres to the unmarked areas of the plate as is repelled by the resistant lines. The plate is then prepared with an oil-based ink which is attracted to the oil-receptive marks but is repelled by the water.
Unlike printing methods where the image is carved into a block or plate and thus appears in reverse when printed, lithography can be printed direct (straight off the block) or offset, where the image is transferred to a rubber roller before being printed again onto paper, keeping its original configuration.
Having worked directly with atelier printers, in his latter years Graham would work on lithographic plates at home, sending them off to be printed one colour at a time until an edition was complete. As with other print methods, the medium offered great scope for experimentation and a tonal quality that reflected an affinity with Graham’s love of direct drawing.
Reculver – Rigby Graham monotype
By the late forties and early fifties, when Graham was an art student, interest in monotypes had reached such a peak that they were regularly featured in exhibitions in commercial galleries.
Graham worked on monotypes throughout his professional life and even in 1970 published an essay on the process, published by the Brewhouse Press, in which he describes many of his working methods. The technique, which results in a single, unrepeatable and unique print, involves transferring an image composed in oil-based ink on an impervious surface, such as glass or marble, to a sheet of paper.
Monotyping offers the artist a huge range of flexibility in constructing his image. Ink can be applied directly to the plate using any sort of implement – brushes, rags, combs and rollers – or removed by swiping away or spraying solvent onto the image. Other methods include placing the sheet straight onto an inked up sheet and then drawing on the back of the paper with pencils and sticks, leaving uneven lines of displaced colour when the paper is peeled clear of the glass.
The technique clearly spoke to Graham’s championing of graphic media as original art forms in their own right and not merely tools for reproduction. In his Monotypes essay he wrote of how [the] monotype requires clear decisions and a speed of working which only the most confident possess. It is necessary to have a mental agility which will see, integrate and use accidental effects as they occur and to stop them at the point beyond which their progression would detract from, or ruin a print.
One would normally say that the word monotype means that there is only one print — it would not be untrue to say that there is only one chance.
three of seven stained glass windows by Rigby Graham
6. Stained Glass
Having spent his years painting and observing the old churches of the British Isles, Graham was well aware of the thematic and aesthetic conventions of traditional stained glass windows.
So when, in 1999, the Goldmark Gallery commissioned him to make a series of stained glass designs on any subject of his choice, Graham leapt at the opportunity. After two months’ thoguht, the first designs were mocked up in pencil before being shown to stained glass maker Nicholas Bechgaard, whom Mike Goldmark felt would work well with Graham, at his Stroud workshop. As ever with Rigby Graham, the enthusiasm for the commission grew and the original three windows soon became seven.
Unusually for stained glass, the windows were not to be site specific. The size of the finished window had been decided but other than that Graham was free to make whatever he wanted. The final cartoons were produced through a drawn out process of etching, sandblasting, painting with metal oxides, fusing layers of glass together and multiple structural leadlines.
Part of the difficulty in stained glass is firing each separate colour at progressively lower temperatures so as not to melt the colour before; the more colours used, the trickier the process. Unfortunately for Bechgaard, Graham was always a firm proponent of bold colour combinations, something he had picked up perhaps from the German Expressionists whose work he so admired, and the resultant windows made full use of his available palette (as well as an untraditional host of imagery – these are perhaps the first stained glass windows to have ever featured a chinook helicopter).