I am constantly experimenting with printing. I never seem to be content to develop my next project in a way that will consolidate the new skills I have learned, but rather I keep wanting to jostle up against the boundaries of what is possible. Inevitably, this is as frustrating as it is interesting- long stretches of faffing about without much to show for it in the way of satisfactory finished product. But every once in a while it all comes together and seems worth doing the hard way.
My latest exhilarating reward follows a long, tedious engagement with setting type in vertical lines, instead of the horizontal that everything in letterpress is designed around. I've seen pictures of others' vertical work so I knew it must be possible. A more experienced printer might not have taken three days of trying and being disappointed, trying and failing, trying a different way, failing again and almost giving up, getting violently ill and while immobile figuring out yet another, ultimately successful, way to spend another day on it once back in the studio. But then, I console myself, a more experienced printer might not have even bothered to do something so damn weird.
The goal was to print covers for Love Falls, the vertical flag book I've been working on for a while. I wanted the covers to give an impression of water falling. For some reason that I no longer remember I decided to set it in a galley (a tray open at one end) instead of the chase (a closed frame), possibly because the area I wanted to print was almost as big as the chase leaving not much room for furniture, and the one hint of 'how to' I had gleaned in relation to vertical type was that I wouldn't be able to lock the type in anyway.
Taking proofs of the first few lines confirmed that I was going to get the look I wanted so I persisted with the infinitely slower and more fiddly type setting. It's slower and fiddlier because even though 18pt is all exactly 18points high, to line up in a perfect row, every letter is a different width and so doesn't come close to lining up in a perfect column. See what I mean:
It's not easy to get the l and the i to not slide around in the big space that the m is holding open. My technique involved using up all the little spacers I could find and then screwing up tiny pieces of paper to wedge around the letters. Not elegant. Not quick. But eventually it did work.
Because the type, even wedged with hundreds of bits of screwed up paper, could not be locked tight enough to sit in the vertical bed of the Arab press I ended up printing on the flat bed of the trusty proofing press (after some disastrous experiments on the etching press). Once I finally got everything to behave, it all worked like a dream and I printed my twenty or so cover sheets (pictured below) in about an hour.
Way back weeks ago when I started setting this vertical type I was setting the words of the poem to be contained in the covers, and when I ran out of those words I was making up new lines as I set them. There were no gaps between the words but in the manner of a 'find-a-word' puzzle, it was possible to read sense into the lines. However, my repeated disastrous attempts at printing kept dislodging the type. Often visitors were chatting to me as I was wedging the letters into place again and very quickly I lost any attachment to maintaining the meaning of the words. I was just trying to get type to stand up straight in columns and not move around on their own account.
But in parallel with my line setting activities at TKPT I have been meditating on Buddhist concepts of non-attachment, particularly in the context of romantic love- the subject of Love Falls. The printing process washed most of the sense out letters, leaving the waterfall-like pattern unattached to meaning and thus providing a conceptual continuity between what I was thinking about love when I wrote the text on the pages (years ago) and what I was thinking about love as I was making the covers.
The problem with the putting all this effort into the outside of Love Falls is that when the book is displayed, the covers won't be visible. Yes, I invested all that time and effort for an subordinate element of the book. Which is typical of book making- often the most time consuming elements are invisible.
But as a printer I was all fired up from my hard won success and wasn't about to just take my three days of typesetting apart and disperse those letters back into their compartments and move on, nope, not quite yet. Not to mention I had mixed up a big old puddle of blue-grey ink too good to waste. So I kept on printing and experimenting. I printed the pattern repeatedly on long strips of paper and big wide pieces of paper: learning something aligning the edges of the pattern. I printed on little strips used to mask out chunks of the pattern on bigger paper. I overprinted multiple layers, experimenting with density. I printed on old paper bags. I printed on shiny, matt, thick, thin, light and dark. I printed more in one day than I ever have before.
Some the printing was pretty ho hum and some of the prints made me dance around the room because my delight was too great to be contained. The beauty of the letter-forms and their unconventional, mostly non-sense arrangement on the page is quite seductive and having so much patterned paper at my disposal seems to have unleashed a new wave of inspiration.