Lithographic printing is it’s own art form

Lithographic printing is it’s own art form

Parks Reece, left, and Geoff Harvey examine a sheet after printing a run of dark green paint, at the Sunlight Graphic shop in Livingston.

By Liz Kearney
Photography by Aaric Bryan
Published Spring 2011

Parks Reece and master printer Geoff  Harvey, both passionate about their respective work, love to talk about the process of creating art through lithographic printing.

“I have to show you.  If I try to tell you about it, your eyes will glaze over.”  Harvey, who has a bachelor of fine arts in printmaking,  joked recently in his Livingston workshop.

Lithography is a printmaking process where artwork, transferred to an aluminum plate, is rolled out onto paper between industrial
rollers to which ink has been applied.
This process, which Reece has been using
since 1997, may be repeated with multiple colors across the same piece of paper.  “It gives the artwork more depth and range of color,” Reece said.

The two artists are working on Reece’s latest works – six new lithographs.  The images share the classic Reece style:  a bit of wit, some nature and a trout or two.  The pieces have names like “Venus and Milo” and “Heaven and Mirth.”

But on Wednesday, nearly a month into the process, there was a problem. Reece’s six new lithographs of various sizes are emerging on each 38 by 50 inch sheet.  Harvey dipped a metal spatula into a small can, smearing the rollers with the thick ink in a motion that resembled icing a cake.  He ran a few test sheets, then tried an original.

The green was perfect on five of the pictures, but too dark on the sixth, where it out-lined a trout.  Reece and Harvey were silent for a moment as they pondered the problem.  Harvey suggested switching to a lighter ink, but Reece liked how the dark green was working on the other five images.  To continue would mean sacrificing the sixth piece altogether, which was not an option, artistically or financially.   Finally,  they decided to remove the artwork completely from that portion of the plate and not apply any more green to that image.  Disaster, for now, averted.   “We don’t want to run anything we can’t fix,” Reece said.  The sheets with the overly green art will be destroyed later.  To allow for these mishaps, Harvey explained he will run 250 sheets to get 150 usable ones.

While lithographs do come off a printing press, his are as original as an oil painting, Reece said. “The artist is involved in every step,” he said.

Reece is working on the art pieces as the process moves along, and assessing each step along the way.

He said creating a lithograph is like building a house:  You design it, frame it in and add detail later.

With lithography, the artist builds layers.  The first is Reece’s pencil sketch outlines.  Then he carefully places a clear Mylar sheet over the drawing and starts building.  He uses acrylics, grease pencils and yes, his signature finger-painting, to draw one layer at a time on the Mylar.  Harvey will then ink the rollers one color at a time.

Since the printer will print only one color at a time, Reece has to paint one color at a time.  For example, if he and Harvey agree it’s time to run the yellow plate, Reece has to decide where the yellow is in six different prints.  Reece then takes a fresh sheet of Mylar and draws the yellow parts on the six different prints. But there’s a catch.  Reece has to draw in the yellow bits with black pigment.  He has to picture every layer of color in his mind’s eye because he had to make the template in black.

And when he’s drawing the yellow, he’s looking ahead and thinking ahead about the next couple of layers.

And as he builds, he has to make sure the Mylar sheets are placed precisely over his original.  If things get off-kilter, they’re very difficult to fix later, Reece said.

The image on the Mylar layer is transferred to a thin aluminum sheet, called a plate.  The process is similar to developing a piece of film.  The plate goes onto the press, and Harvey inks the 40 inch rollers and feeds the sheets through them.

Reece was on the 11th Mylar-to-plate-to press run on Wednesday.  He doesn’t know yet how many more layers he will apply, but it could be 15 or more.

Despite the fact Reece and Harvey have been working on the project 10 hours a day, seven days and week for nearly a month, Reece explained the process patiently and with enthusiasm in his North Carolina accent.

During these long work days, Reece said he’s even careful not to eat too much during the day because it might make him to sleepy to work;  he has to be alert the entire time.

Lithography, Reece said, can move between “a little unfortunate to tragic” in a hurry.

Reece will be the first to tell you lithography is a lot of work.  A lot of sometimes tedious work.  But the results are worth it.

“You get effects you couldn’t get any other way.”  He paused for a moment.

“It’s an art technique that’s challenging and rewarding.  You feel good when you pull it off.”

And Reece will have 150 pieces of art to sell when it’s all over.  His repertoire of original lithograph images will now total 30 since he started making them in 1997.

But how does he know when a piece is finished?

“When it’s as good as it’s going to get,” Reece laughed.  “When it tells me it’s finished,  I’ll start looking at and enjoying it.”