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Russell Maret on Painting with Polymer: Priming, Shading and Layering in Digital Letterpress

Seven color letterpress ruler from Russell Maret's forthcoming book, <em>Interstices &amp; Intersections</em>.

Seven color letterpress ruler from Maret’s forthcoming book, Interstices & Intersections.

Russell Maret makes letterpress prints that originate from his paintings, which he uses as sketches. His prints maintain a painted look—those subtle transitions in color and shading—through a painstaking process of scanning, drawing separations, preparing negatives and plates, mixing inks, and printing layer upon layer of carefully chosen and expertly registered hues. Maret shared his techniques, developed particularly since 2008 it would seem, when someone said about his muted color map in Mediaeval in Padua, “Nice book, Russell, but use more colors.”

Discussing his 2009 book, Æthelwold, Maret showed progressive proof examples of both his failures and ultimate success at preserving the luminosity of his painted sketch in a layered letterpress print. Expecting to achieve luminosity by printing several densities of copper glaze, he found instead that it was layers of varying hues, not varying values, that gave him the look of depth and light he was after.

Maret showed images from Ludwig Lott’s Kunst-Buchdruckerei (ca. 1875), a book that a number of conference attendees had seen the previous day at the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Lott’s progressive prints show the process of chromotypographic printing, a technique similar to Maret’s layered polymer prints, with plates made from hand-drawn textures and photographically transferred tones and outlines.

The final examples were from the book Maret is currently printing, Interstices & Intersections, based on Euclid’s geometric propositions. It was fascinating to watch the layers build and combine, from the solid grounds of color (often yellow to start), to the scumble—plates made from hand-drawn pencil shading, and even from smears of olive oil—to the subtle outlines and highlights and shadows that complete each print.

A final tip (with stunning photo-documentation) was for expert print registration. Maret’s “pinky technique” is: constant pressure on the sheet, with his pinky, to the feed guides.