Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Letterpress Challenge

Last week, I had the pleasure of taking a letterpress class for writers at The Center for Book Arts, here in New York. Letterpress dates back to the 1400's
and is the oldest form of printing.  I had no idea it was going to be such a different class experience unlike any I had ever taken before. This five day, 30 hour class was challenging, exhilarating and as with any class, an opportunity to grow mentally and creatively.



The workspace is filled with various letterpresses and endless drawers of type in a myriad of typefaces and sizes.


Each typeface is stored in a draw that is sectioned off to contain each letter (lower and uppercase), punctuation and spacers.


Each letter is transferred to a composing stick, right to left creating a reversed image of your content. A little confusing, overwhelming and time consuming; however, it challenges you to stay in the present moment and  focus, focus, focus.




You print from a raised surface of letters or images that are made from metal or wood, although polymer plates are used today, as well.



Periodically, as your composing, you transfer the type to the press to proof it, taking great care that the individual type pieces of type stay together. You literally stop breathing, or at least I did every time I did this transfer process.
Although, that's not my type below, this is what it looks like on the press.




The type is secured in place with surrounding furniture (black metal bars in pic) and adding just the right tension using coin expanders (the thin silver bars with the center hole).

It is not until you print a proof sheet that you see the fruits of your many hours of labor. Mistakes and all, I was elated to see the first attempt of my printed page.
The  proofing process requires considerable time too. Upside down letters and mistakes with "b" "d"  "p" and "q" and "u" and "n"   are the most common type corrections.  And the spacing procedure that requires careful precision to ensure every line is exactly the same length can be very intense and frustrating as well.

From the start, I decided to keep it simple, composing a simple poem I had written using one typeface and left justification; my intent was to absorb the process without losing my way in design conundrums.




Prior to taking this class, I had only a textbook understanding of Letterpress; a gazillion years ago, I had majored in Graphic Communications and learned about the history of printing. So all these years later, it was nice to be able to connect textbook knowledge with hands on learning.

By day four, I produced my final printed page and then I exhaled:)


I went home relieved. The next day was devoted to putting my type away which is just as time consuming as composing the text. The cover design was a joint effort by the classmates that had finished printing and putting away their type ahead of time. It was complicated due to the mixes of typeface, but they stuck with it and it got done. I love it! 

Each of us made multiple copies of our work to share with our fellow classmates.




Overall, it was a great and very different experience. Although challenging and incredibly demanding it reaffirmed my love for handmade composition. Stepping out of your comfort zone is a good thing.

Have you taken on any creative challenges lately?