Through the Looking Glass

I did my first post on this blog about how ideas turn into drawings (Drawing is Job 1) and a later post about how letterpress printing works (The Dark Arts), but what about the big piece of mystery in between those two:

How does a drawing become a finished design that can be printed on an antique letterpress?

Well. I'm glad you asked! Let's fill in the blanks. 

A drawing is a diving board.

A drawing is far from a finished card design (the way I work, anyway) - it's the raw design material - the jumping off point, if you will.



To do the graphic design-y portion of work that turns a drawing into a card (or art print or whatever), we need to get the drawing into the computer so we can quickly mess with it every which way from Sunday.

And when I say 'quickly' - it's only quick compared to how much longer it would take if we had to do all this development non-digitally - like if we were transported back to a graphic design office in the 1970s or something. It's not all that quick, because there's a lot to figure out. 

Ink it up.

I start by tracing my pencil drawing in ink to get crisp uniformly-dark lines that will scan well. After doing a little clean up of the scanned image in Photoshop, I copy the line work into Illustrator where the design magic happens.

(You're wondering why I don't draw directly on the computer and skip this step of scanning things in? Well, I like pencils and physical drawing and the marks you get from that a lot. But don't think I'm not looking into it...)

In the photo above you can see the pencil and ink drawings for the Amaryllis Christmas card - we'll follow this design into the computer and back out and onto the press.

Blow it up.

Once we're in Illustrator we mess with everything about the drawing.

Here's what my Illustrator file looks like if I zoom out to see all the various Amaryllis ideas I'm looking at as I try to pull the design together. 



How should the composition work?

What size card do I want this design to be?

What colors will it be? How many colors? 

What text will it have and in which typeface? 

How's the text going to interact with the image?

Maybe we should delete some pieces of the drawing and/or add others?

Lock it down.

The magic of the digital world is how quickly you can try out a million ideas. But at some point, even though this is fun, you have to stop yourself and say - it's done, damn it! 

Because believe me, I could mess with a design forever. 

In the image below we have the finished Amaryllis Christmas card design in Illustrator, on the left. The white area is the size the finished card will be.

This particular card is going to be a flat card, rather than a folded card, so the white area is the total size of the future card (not just the front flap of a folded card).



You can see that a lot of the original drawing didn't end up in the finished design, which is pretty commonly the case for me. It's rare that an initial drawing's scale and proportions end up working perfectly for a card composition, I find.

Break it up.

Now we have a design we like! How do we get it out of the computer so we can print it on an antique letterpress? 

Since a letterpress prints one color at a time, first we have to break up our design by color.

Then we'll need a raised version of each color-isolated drawing made out of a very durable polymer sheet (called a plate) that can stand up to being inked and then whacked into our paper really really hard by the press. This pressure transfers the ink from the plate to the paper and makes that characteristic letterpress indent into the paper (called a deboss).

Our Amaryllis Christmas design has two colors, so we need two polymer plates. 

We isolate the red parts and the green parts in Illustrator and include registration marks at the corners so we can align the colors to the paper and to each other on the press. (We'll trim the paper down to get rid those registration marks later.)

Here's what our design looks like in Illustrator when we're ready to have plates made:



I send out my plate files to a nearby printshop where they make the actual plates using some specialized equipment.

First, they make a mirror image of the artwork and print it onto transparent film. (Anything you want to print from has to be a mirror image of what you want the finished print to look like.)

In a platemaking machine (which looks kind of like a copy machine), the film is placed over a sheet of polymer plate material and then exposed to light. Anything black on the film becomes a hardened area on the plate. White areas are not hardened and most of the plate thickness in these areas washes away during the platemaking process.

What's left is a raised version of the artwork. The rest of the plate (everything that was white in my drawings) is now too low for the press's ink rollers to touch, so they will stay white when the plate is inked by the press. 

Here are the two Amaryllis plates below. The raised areas are shown inked up with the corresponding colors, ready to be placed into the press and printed:

And here's what the plates look like printed:

All together now:

And here it is trimmed down to final size and done! 


But wait! I lied.

I said that a letterpress will only print one color at a time. Well, that isn't totally and completely true.

You can do a few magic tricks to get extra colors from the printing process. Here's one: if you overlap two ink colors you can generally get a third because letterpress ink is transparent rather than totally opaque like screen printing ink.

To get your extra color, you include any artwork that you want to be the third color on both plates, so it'll get printed in both colors.

Here's what that looks like below. This design is printed with a pink ink and a pale orange ink. The darker orange areas are the result of the two inks overlapping. Everything that is dark orange was included on both printing plates. 



Alright, there we have it - drawing to finished design to letterpress plates!

If you'd like to see printing plates in action, feel free to look at The Dark Arts post about the process of letterpress printing. There are lots of images of plates hard at work on the press - if you want to go further down the letterpress rabbit hole.


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