Learn The Secrets To The Age-Old Process Of Lithography

A close look at Susan Te Kahurangi’s handmade prints reveals the technique that revolutionised literacy

In a tin shed tucked beside an infamous brick building that was once part of the Carrington Psychiatric Hospital — now the art and architecture department of the Unitec campus where artistic minds are nurtured — you’ll find apron-clad master printmaker John Pusateri spreading ink on limestone slabs with his giant rolling pin.

Like a pastry chef, he rolls the rubber-clad pin back and forth, spreading the viscous oil ink, squelching as he goes.

Inking is one of the last steps of the somewhat complex lithography process.

The stone slab has already been worked on by the artist applying either a grease-based pencil, crayon or thin paint. Once the work is complete, John applies a chemical solution that etches or drives the oil further into the stone, and makes the greasy image areas water repellent and the non-image areas water receptive so that, when printed, only the image areas receive the ink.

“The process works by water and oil rejecting each other,” he says.

The stone is wiped of excess ink and sponged with water before John lays pristine cotton rag paper on top and pushes the print through the 2m-long printing press. The paper and stone are pressed together under a metal weight, forcing the paper on to the stone, where it picks up the oily marks.

The image that appears on paper comes out in reverse, a mirror image of the original work. Many artists use mirrors as they create their artwork to see how the image will turn out
on paper.

Today John is working with Susan Te Kahurangi, a Hamilton-based artist who turned 70 on the opening day of the Auckland Art Fair. Diagnosed with autism only in 2015, Susan stopped speaking when she was 4.

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She has filled the silence with frenetic mark-making and drawing, but it’s only in the past decade that she has established herself as a prominent contemporary artist with exhibitions in New York, Miami, London, Paris — and at the Auckland Art Fair.

She doesn’t look up when I enter the room, or while I chat with her caregiver and sister, Wendy King. Susan is bent over her detailed print, deep in concentration, deftly moving her coloured pencils in a methodical fashion.

“She moves from one side of the paper to the other in a grid-like way,” says Wendy.

Susan can work in unbroken spells for hours.

“When she was in the flow, I’d just stand behind her sharpening pencils and handing them to her while she drew,” John adds.

Susan is just one of a suite of artists John works with at the Auckland Print Studio — established by him after he completed his Masters of Fine Arts (Hons) at Elam School of Fine Arts in 2006.

The Pittsburgh native, who also works as a lecturer in the architectural department at Unitec, set out to provide a collaborative space for artists to create prints, whether they be lithographs, etchings or monoprints, although lithographs make up the majority of the works made here.

John invites artists to join him in the print shop, then works with them to create their prints and splits the profits.

There are many available works for sale on the website by a range of established and emerging artists, including Emma McIntyre, Mark Braunias, Jason Greig and John’s own work, with prices ranging from $500 to around $2000.

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John also provides contract printing for large galleries, like Gow Langsford, and their artists, such as John Pule, who often works in the studio.

It’s the master printer’s job to answer both technical and aesthetic decisions for the artists, many of whom have never produced a handmade print before.

There can be many challenges during the print-making process — humidity, chemical imbalances in the etching solution, or ink discrepancies.

Though handmade prints sing with the irregularities of the process, reproductions are just that, machine-generated reproductions.

“Reproduction prints are generally made with an inkjet printer and scanned from an original work — they’re more like high-end posters,” says John.

Prints produced here are printed from the artist’s original marks and printed with a hand-run press, and most are editions of less than 30.

“When you’re looking at buying a print in New Zealand, whether it be a lithograph, an etching or a monoprint, the benchmark should be around one of 50, anything 20 or under is more rare and will be more expensive.”

John also advises buyers to make sure the print is signed and numbered and the paper is of good quality — be sure to ask the vendor if the work is made on 100 per cent cotton rag (this will ensure the print has greater longevity). Another way to elongate your print’s lifespan is to have it framed under UV glass to prevent it from fading.

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Most of the prints made here are lithographs — “litho is capable of capturing any artist’s sensibility, while etching is a much larger learning curve,” says John.

Hence the stacks of lithography stones stacked on shelves — they come in all shapes and sizes, each unique stone’s shape and qualities add to the aesthetic of the print.

“Susan has responded to this hairline crack in the slab here by dividing her composition on either side, and obviously the particular outline of the stone will become the border of the work,” says John.

All of the limestone comes from Bavaria, as New Zealand limestone is too soft and would dissolve in the acid.

It comes as no surprise, then, that lithography was invented by a Bavarian. In 1976 Alois Senefelder, a playwright, accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing on limestone in greasy crayon.

“Lithography revolutionised literacy for the masses,” John points out. “It gave artists a way to make more than one edition of an original work.”

Collecting prints is an affordable way of starting an art collection as their price point allows new collectors to acquire works by accomplished artists.

For example, Susan’s lithographs, which are editions of 10, are in the $2000 to $3000 range, whereas her one-off drawings fetch considerably more.

On the way out of the studio, John pulls out samples of Susan’s prints from a set of metal drawers; some are hand-coloured with watercolour or pencil, others are monochrome works — some urgent and expressive, others meticulously detailed, and all marks of the wandering mind made into magical mindscapes through a collaboration between the artist, the stone and the master printer.

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