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When artists become inkjet innovators

Dr Paul Laidler, research fellow at the Centre for Fine Print Research at the University of the West of England, explains how the work undertaken by the centre and its student artists is pushing the boundaries of wide-format inkjet.

Since 1999, the Centre for Fine Print Research (CFPR) at the University of the West of England (UWE), in Bristol, has explored the crossovers between art and industry through investigating new technologies and developing artist-led methods in digital print technologies including inkjet, laser cutting and 3D printing. The application of artist-led methods at the CFPR’s wide-format digital print facility has been developed as an extension of the traditional collaborative printmaking studio for artists.

The collaborative print studio has had a profound impact upon the production and realisation of some of the most innovative prints within the discipline of fine art printmaking. Historically an artist with little understanding of the print process, or access to print facilities could seek the technical knowledge and craft sensibilities from a studio’s master printer. In some instances these unique collaborative pursuits redefined production methods by working outside of existing print parameters and pushed the boundaries of what was previously thought possible through delivering diverse collaborative print projects. This form of collaborative endeavour has contributed to defining the roles, expectations, functioning, publication, output and artisanship for collaborative fine print productions – and has become central to the CFPR’s approach when working with artists and industry to explore the parameters of digital print technologies, develop CPD courses and identify new avenues of research in both the pure and applied fields.

In 2003 the centre set out to investigate the holistic nature of producing wide-format prints for artists in collaboration with HP, and funded through an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant. As part of the investigation, an artist-residency format was used with artists selected through a submissions process with an aim of bringing together an eclectic group of creatives. The appeal - or challenge - of working with artists in this context often stems from the approach to making; artists often want technologies to do things that they weren’t necessarily designed to do. By selecting a variety of artists from a range of different disciplines, the project encouraged diverse responses to inkjet print technology whilst testing the centre’s ability to facilitate and fulfil the artists’ aspirations.

In the case of artist Jack Youngblood, the print production process required the centre to develop a method outside of the technology’s industrial print parameters. In this instance, it was in response to the artist’s disappointment with the quality of black that was achievable in inkjet printing at that time (2003) – especially when compared with a mezzotint black. The centre’s solution was to create a novel, multi-pass method by physically altering a wide-format inkjet printer. This was achieved by removing the printer’s paper sensors, adding a flatbed feed tray and attaching a pin registration technique to enable the print to be built in layers of colour. Having successfully achieved the artist’s aspirations for the work, the print method became a patented technique for the centre, and led to further developments at the CFPR as a pre-test beta site for HP. Through this relationship with HP, the centre developed a research partnership that allowed it to influence the next generation of wide-format printers. It also undertook separate research into colour for HP, during which time the centre had access to HP’s laboratories in San Diego, USA.

In 2007 (after having established the centre’s innovative approach to pushing the boundaries of inkjet print technologies) the CFPR was approached by one of Britain’s most influential artists, Richard Hamilton (1922 - 2011), to see if it was possible to coat a linen canvas with an inkjet receptive layer for his ‘Shock & Awe’ inkjet print. Building upon the relationship with HP the centre was able to persuade the company to undertake the experiment and develop a new product within the substrate market. To develop the canvas, a series of tests were performed to ascertain the suitability of coating, and after consultation with conservation experts at both the Getty Museum and Tate Britain, a suitable substance was developed that would also take a stable, surface protection layer on top, in order to protect the inkjet layer when the canvas was displayed.

In all cases the CFPR has to be mindful of its collaborative ventures and investment in particular fine print productions. In the context of an artist working through a gallery with the CFPR, the economics are usually very simple - the cost of production for an edition of prints has to be less than 25%, or in some cases less than 33% of the total retail selling price before VAT. The production cost of a very small edition can be expensive when taking into account proofing, materials and staff time. If this is a blue chip artist, or the production of the work fits closely to one of the CFPR’s current research projects then the centre may produce the work and keep one or two copies for its archive. If, however, the costs are reasonable and proofing time is small, then a collaboration is viable and the artist, studio and gallery in most cases each own part of the edition. In the case of an artist’s residency when a gallery is not involved - and unless the CFPR has achieved funding from an alternative source - the artist has to pay for the privilege of using the studios. The price is relative to how much of a research contribution is being made to the CFPR’s own projects, and the complexities of the artist’s work.

Until recently the centre had not explored the possibility of publishing prints within an art market context. CFPR Editions (www.cfpreditions.co.uk) was established in 2012 as a collaborative print studio specialising in the production of digital print editions. By publishing digitally-mediated prints using technologies such as inkjet, UV, rapid prototyping and laser cutting, the studio’s emphasis on new print technologies in the field of fine art printmaking has placed CFPR Editions within a unique area of the print production, fabrication and publishing market.

The CFPR’s models of production and collaboration also extend from direct consultancy through to printed components of large-scale public art projects. These have included largescale enamel on metal panels for public art projects that are designed to be permanent and in situ over many years, or projects such as ‘the print that changed the world’ for londonprintstudio’s window display, printed on clear vinyl. For this project the CFPR worked with one of its Knowledge Transfer Partnership collaborators, Ringway Signs. Under consultancy Ringway Signs produced the artwork for londonprintstudio that gave good publicity for a company whose everyday product is difficult to promote.

Other industry partnerships that have utilised the centre’s early adoption of inkjet printing and substrate development involved a Teaching Company Scheme with John Purcell Paper, London - one of the major paper distributors for artists in the UK. For this, the CFPR created inkjet profiles specifically designed to suit a wide range of artist-quality papers stocked by John Purcell Paper. More recently, and from a design perspective, the specialist floorcovering manufacturer Dycem worked with the centre on a KTP to create a new, high-quality floor covering and print products for ‘safety critical’ environments. Through Knowledge Transfer Partnership training at CFPR, the company made an important breakthrough in developing innovative substrate materials that enabled the printing of customers’ logos, patterns and images in-house at Dycem.

The KTP was so successful that Dycem has been able to expand its product range, entered new markets and extending its global reach. Profits in its contamination control product sector are up by £250,000 as a direct result of the project. This collaboration was recognised as one of the UK’s Best KTP Partnerships. The partnership led to the CFPR being the only creative exhibitor at a national manufacturing summit, which in turn led to further research alliances with major technology and print equipment companies.

One of the long-term aims of the CFPR is to improve connections between the artist/designer and industry. Over recent years this has resulted in the centre expanding its professional development courses aimed at print technicians, artists, designers, craftspeople, educators and managers.

The centre also tailors courses for companies or individual professional needs. Tailored courses include subjects not usually offered such as; documenting the creative digital print process, combining inkjet and laser cutting, and identification of print processes for museums and conservators.

The multifaceted approach to inkjet printing at the CFPR, alongside the artist-led inquiries, can be said to test both where technical boundaries lie, and what the next digital print incarnations may be. It is also understood that the print studio often extends beyond just technical proficiency. The collaborative production model is central to the creative philosophy at the CFPR. Perhaps more importantly, the CFPR’s digital print ethos may be best aligned with that of the of the traditional master printer who - as described by academic and printmaker Leonard Lehrer - would have attained: “immense skill with diplomacy and endurance, patience with knowledge; they set the tone of the project, maintain its rhythm, and are expected to have answers for everything”.

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