Us twenty-first-centuriers leave a lot of our dirty work to technology. Whether its computing numbers or computerized printing we have taken a multitude of short cuts with Google holding our hand. I could get into my lengthy monologue about why handmade will always be superior to the beautiful mess that is technology or why the road less traveled is better than the shortcut. Instead, I will sum up why we still letterpress into three words: color, quality and creativity.
In a world where people see color on a computer screen, we tend to think about color differently than we used to. The color we used to see in the handcrafted world was once pure pigment. Ground up rocks, shells, and sometimes even bugs.
Now, we get light projected to us through screens. We constantly see virtual colors and can create variations of any color by dragging a bar from side to side on our screens. When we see it on paper we’re looking at tiny dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, which creates the illusion of other colors.
In a way, we have trained ourselves to take color for granted. We no longer consider the time and consideration that goes into creating the perfect pigment in reality. We also ignore the fact that our digital printers never give us the color our computers say they will.
The funny thing about these printers is that they are one of the only technologies that has seemingly gone backward in quality. Granted, it’s great that the speed of printers has increased while the size of the machinery has decreased in comparison to the printing press. Still, we have somehow managed to go from black and white television to 4k HD coloring.
That’s why after all these years that people have forgotten that the printing press exists, we are still here alive and kicking. Letterpress printing is about doing things the traditional, time-trusted way. Each art print is made with earth pigments, linseed oil, and dryer. That’s it. Using pigments to make our own inks creates richer, denser, and longer-lasting colors. Letterpress printers are experienced with making color in the real world, not just on screens.
Through my work, I have realized that the use of computers has made the general population appreciate the handmade even more, actually. Everything used to be handmade, now, the phrase “it was handmade” adds a whole other level of quality to a product. That’s what letterpress printing is all about: putting a different level of passion and quality into a product.
We know that whenever we make a pigment that the color we see is exactly how it will look on paper. We know that each print we make has a little bit of sweat and a whole lot of passion in it from the pigments we choose, the machine we use, or the paper we select. There’s not actually sweat, that’d be gross, but you get the point.
Think about it this way: most of the world has gone digital but the use of a physical business card is still widely used. That’s because when we’re handed a business card we are participating in human interaction. That’s really what makes the exchange so meaningful. Being human! Who would’ve thought! As a result, we are left with a keepsake from this experience that isn’t just a downloadable file or words on a screen.
Similarly, people of all generations still appreciate a handmade card more than digital forms of writing or even a computer-printed card. Why? Time, consideration, and passion went into making and writing the card with the receiver in mind.
Letterpress printing has the same effect. It allows people to choose the colors, textures, sizes, and formats of their product to say exactly what they want to say, even if there aren’t words on the paper.
I had a client come in who originally just wanted simple, personal stationery made. However, after we talked for a while, she shared with me stories of growing up in Hawaii and the personal connection she has to the islands. I immediately thought of my personal art of creating landscape prints and was inspired to combine our two stories. So, we ultimately decided to create notecards inspired by oceanfront, Hawaiian sunsets illustrated in an ombre style. Now, whenever she uses this stationary, there is added meaning and sentiment for her. These notecards say something about who she is even before writing anything on them.
Letterpress printing is about adding personalization and creativity to an art form that we have basically handed over to technology. It is a craft that has been practiced and perfected for over 500 years. Automated printing can’t hold a candle to this art form that was perfected long before our time. In fact, the two are not even comparable: one is art while the other is automation.
Us letterpress printers will do everything in our power to continue the evolution of our practice and ensure that hands-on printing continues to evolve while staying true to the traditions that make it superior in the first place.
Cause damn it, the world needs some color.