Lithography expert shares the value of handmade prints
For Jill Graham, there’s a big difference between a copy and an original. “The posters you buy at IKEA or a gift shop are just reproductions of an image created by an artist,” she says. “What I do is all original art work. The printed piece exists solely as an original art work, conceived and executed in print—there isn’t a painting or a photo of it somewhere else.”
Still, she’s aware that the majority of folks don’t really get what it is that she does for a living. “Most people don’t understand what fine art printing even is—never mind lithography,” she says. As a master printer, Graham is hired by other artists to create lithographic prints of their work. It’s the printmaking process, though, that’s particularly confusing.
“It’s a difficult process to explain,” she says. “Lithography is a printmaking form that’s done on lithographic limestone slabs, which were originally quarried in Bavaria. The stones have a particular quality of being both water and grease-loving stones, meaning they will accept both. The artist will create their drawing on the stone using greasy, waxy drawing materials.”
The next steps are done by the master printer, and involve etching, sponging, and something Graham refers to as a “chemical de-sensitization of the stone.” After hours of physical labour and close observation of chemical reactions, the prints are finally ready to be made. “When you place your paper in and run it through the printing press, what is offset onto the paper should look exactly like the drawing on the stone,” she says. “Well, that’s the cheat-sheet way of explaining it!”
The work naturally requires a pretty significant set-up. “The stones are expensive,” Graham says. “Most people who work in print will join a shared studio that has the equipment.” Graham is the technical director of such a place: Open Studio in Toronto, which is self-defined as Canada’s leading printmaking centre. “Print isn’t dying by any stretch; it’s actually very active and alive,” says Graham. “But as universities have started to sell off their equipment, the facilities are harder to access. That’s why a place like Open Studio is such a huge asset to the art community.”
Graham first encountered lithography while completing her undergraduate degree at Concordia University. Since then, she has gone on to help open three different studios in Elliott Lake, Sarnia, and Toronto, and has spent over a decade as a master printer. While she’s quick to point out that printing requires an “endurance and stubbornness,” Graham notes that the structured approach of lithography was part of what drew her to the art form in the first place. “When I describe the steps, it can sound obsessive,” she says. “Sometimes it can take three to four hours just to prepare the stone. But that suits my nature.”
The detailed process of lithography allows Graham to blend physical exertion, science, and art, and wind up with a truly unique result. “The fact that a place like IKEA just stretches canvases and sells them as prints really bothers me. It’s like going to a supermarket to buy an oil painting. It shouldn’t exist,” she says. “We’re a disposable culture and people want beautiful products, and they want them fast and cheap. But if they looked at the quality of an original print and bought it because they loved the work, it would be an investment that they could hold on to for years, and it would grow in value. A reproduction, on the other hand, has no value at all.”
Thanks to Moosehead for making this series possible.