“In this profession, a millimetre matters”: Printing with precision at AOM

It’s another scorching day at AOM and printer Kim-Lee Loggenberg is in the workshop bright and early, ready to roll.

This week Kim-Lee is editioning Mischa Fritsch’s “Pointless”. As with printmaking in general, the process is very specific and demanding of a well-trained eye. She begins by preparing the ink, checking for hard, dried pieces to remove from the mix.

Kim-Lee prepares black ink for editioning “Pointless” by Mischa Fritsch.

After that, Kim-Lee “registers” the plate. This requires high precision, as she marks out a number of barely visible lines on both the plate and the acetate (which is taped to the base of the printing press) so that each edition will be printed in exactly the same position and with the same margins.

Kim-Lee aligns the acetate on the printing press.

“What’s more”, Kim-Lee says, “is that with ‘Pointless’, the print is made with two layers – first gold, which takes about a week to dry, then black.” Today she is doing the black layer.

The gold layer of "Pointless", drying on the rack.

The gold layer of “Pointless”, drying on the rack.

“And then there’s the paper”, she adds: “the more water the paper absorbs, the more it stretches. I time this part at exactly ten minutes because, in this profession, a millimetre matters. The paper must stretch to the same capacity for every edition so that no mark is inaccurately registered.”

Before applying the black layer to “Pointless”, the paper soaks for ten minutes.

Kim-Lee also explains that the black layer is put on top of the gold layer, as opposed to the other way round, so as to “mute the shine of the gold dust which sits on the surface of the page once it dries”.

Between making each edition, Kim-Lee wipes the copper plate completely clean to remove excess residue so the next print is crisp. The point is to ensure the visibility of the very detailed lines etched into the plate.

Kim-Lee polishing the plate for "Pointless".

Kim-Lee polishing the plate for “Pointless”.

Aligning the paper with the plate before running it through the press.

Pleased with the result, now for stapling the print so it can flatten and dry.

Working diligently beside Kim-Lee is Neo Mahlasela who is doing the final editions for Robyn Penn’s “Nine Views of a Cloud”. He shows me that, much like with “Pointless”, he is working with two plates to make a single print. He is carefully applying the ink and wiping it away in specific areas for a hazy precipitation effect.

Neo preparing the plate for Robyn Penn’s “Nine Views of a Cloud”. He is inking up the plate with a shimmering navy blue, made up of karat gold and Prussian blue.

For the top part of one of the plates, Neo makes sure that there is no ink added whatsoever by placing a precisely cut out paper shape on top of the area before applying the ink – “I call it the cloud hat”, he chuckles.

Neo applies the ink mixture to the plate with the exception of the top area, which is covered by the "cloud hat" stencil.

Neo applies the ink mixture to the plate with the exception of the top area, which is covered by the “cloud hat” stencil.

Notably, where the process for “Pointless” and “Nine Views of a Cloud” differs is in the methods used for layering the plates. With the former, Kim-Lee is hyper-exact so as to give the impression that a single plate has been used. With the latter, Neo is printing slightly off-kilter so the cloud looks like it has shifted.

So, what makes a good printer great?

I put it to Kim-Lee that any printer worth her salt has to be a perfectionist. Her reply was, “yes, 99% of the time you’ll find that to be the case.” She added that “printers tend to have very strict personalities – the kind of people who wear a simple, staple outfit every week” – presumably one that is perfectly aligned, cropped and flattened.

Fellow printer, Sbongiseni Khulu chimed in: “You don’t have to be a perfectionist per se”, he said, “but you need a strong eye for detail. If you’re a perfectionist you’ll never finish a project”.

Meanwhile, Sbongiseni is hard at work trying to mix the perfect shade of violet to edition “Misregistered” by Mary Wafer.

Mixing violet ink for "Misregistered" by Mary Wafer.

Mixing violet ink for “Misregistered” by Mary Wafer.

Sbongiseni mixes his inks opposite a framed edition of "Misregistered" by Mary Wafer.

Sbongiseni mixes his inks opposite a framed edition of “Misregistered”.

He does a number of colour tests. This requires mixing the ink and testing the most recent mix next to the sample colour, which has been preserved from when the previous print was made.

The colour test.

To the untrained eye, there is little to no difference in these colour tests, but Sbongiseni soldiers on, adding tiny amounts of blue to darken the mix and achieve the exact shade required.

Sbongiseni then dries each colour test with a hair dryer to compare the colour with the sample in a dried state, when the ink's hue can change.

Sbongiseni then dries each colour test with a hair dryer to compare the colour with the sample in a dried state, when the ink can darken.

At lunchtime, Sbongiseni works on a linocut, which he has personally designed.

Sbongiseni demonstrates how to carve into a linocut. Here, he is creating the effect of thick, moving flames.

Sbongiseni demonstrates how to carve into a linocut.

Here, he is creating the effect of thick, moving flames.

Here, he is creating the effect of thick, moving flames.

Meanwhile, intern Martin Motha is also developing a personal project. Once his prints are dry, he works into them with white pencil and paint. They are depictions of Jacob Zuma.

Marin with his prints in progress.

Marin with his prints in progress.

All in all, it’s been another hard-working week at AOM where we are in no short supply of creativity and dedication – and, it must be said, the non-perfectionists are rather few and far between.