More on Turning Your Journal Sketches into Prints

May 7, 2009

Left: A scan of a burrowing owl print that I made using the Print Gocco from a journal sketch I made at the Bell Museum of Natural History. Click on the image for an enlargement.

Last night as I was drifting off to sleep I realized that I didn’t fully explain some of my actions when turning a journal sketch into a silkscreen or Print Gocco print. I want to expand my discussion on a couple points today, as well as look at two other journal sketches that I happen to have on hand, so that you can see how they translated into prints.

Yesterday I explained how I traced my French Bull Dog sketch on acetate and scanned it. What I didn’t mention is that I could have just photocopied it on a toner copier. I needed, as you’ll recall a toner master, or final “copy” from which to burn the screen, but you don’t always need to go into the computer, and there are some drawbacks to doing so.

Keep in mind, if you scan your drawing and work on it digitally in the computer when you print it out you can’t print out your toner master as a grayscale tiff or you will get a halftone effect in that printed image: your master image will be made up of a lot of little dots. The problem with this is that it will show up just like that when you expose the screen. Some folks like that artifact to be present. And it can be exaggerated and used to cool effect. My goal, however, when translating my nature sketches into prints is to try and maintain the quality of the original sketch line.

So if I worked in pencil I definitely don’t want to have the lines broken into halftone dots! I have various work arounds for this and I am sure, just as there are 12,000 ways to do the same thing in Photoshop, other folks have other ways to approach this, and with a little bit of fiddling about you’ll find something that works for you. But I want to explain what has worked for me and when you need to think of it and when you don’t.

When I did the first year of Daily Dots (Daily sketches of my Alaskan Malamute bitch Dottie, selections of which can be seen here.) I made a small edition of handmade books that took some of those drawings and put them in a facsimile sketchbook. I simply used the photocopier and enlarged and reduced as necessary. They were black pencil drawings (Creatacolor Negro, now Nero, pencil which is carbon black pencil and a wonderful black pencil) and I had a fantastic Sharp copier at the time (it has since died after many, many years of great service) that would enlarge and reduce in 1% increments and was crisp, and well just everything it did was spiffy. (It was a sad day when Becky—yes it's a Victorian Lit. joke folks—died and the copier repair man said he couldn't get parts for her any more!) So I sized my art on the copier, and I pasted the resultant copies up into a printing master which I then used to print the edition on the photocopier. (For more about this process see my post on photocopier books and imposition). The resultant output was a copy of a copy, but the copies were such great quality I didn’t have to worry about anything.

Later I had a need to do a much more involved book of a larger range of those sketches on the computer. I needed to make up the pages in QuarkXpress, and not have any manual paste up. Because of that I needed to find a way to get the sketches to print so that they looked like the pencil lines I had originally drawn, not broken up into dots. I found that by taking the scans into Photoshop, doing any clean up for dirt and balance necessary, and then turning them into grayscale (to verify contrast), and then into bitmaps (both of these operations are MODE changes) that I could retain the roughness of the line quality so that the printed piece ended up looking like it had been sketched with a black pencil. (Experiment with dither and with threshold to see what output works for your needs.)

FrenchBullAprilCLOSECR Right: Here's a closer look at the scan of the Bull Dog sketch before any work was done to it. See the jagged edges at the sides of the strokes as well as the contrast issues. You should see a fuzzy square stepping up of the line at the outer edge of the strokes. The jagged edges would get worse as enlarged, but also, if you printed this image out it would come out as a halftone, gradations made of lots of little dots.

When I wrote yesterday of altering the dog image in Photoshop and playing around with it as a bitmap I did this because I was looking for that type of line quality that would enable me to get around those half-tone dots. Bitmaps are printed as black and white only, it is not a grayscale mode in which a tone is output. You get either black or white. Because of this no halftoning is done on the output. You're essentially getting black and white "line" art. (It just might not be the line you want.)

I started sketching Dot in the 1990s and over the years the computer software folks have come up with really cool innovations. One of the best ones is the autotrace feature in Adobe Illustrator. (Before we had that there was another Adobe program, Streamline, which did the same type of thing.) By placing my tiff in Illustrator and using autotrace I could turn the drawing into vector art, and I explained yesterday the value of that: smooth lines when you enlarge and reduce.

When you enlarge and reduce tiff and other formats at some point you’ll see the line and image quality degrade and pixelate or get jagged in some way (it depends on a lot of factors I won’t go into but you can read all about it in the numerous great books on Photoshop—I like Deke McClelland’s books).

Since I no longer have that nifty toner copier (we bought an inexpensive inkjet to temporarily replace it until I can find something that does all that I need) I couldn’t just make photocopies of that acetate tracing I’d done of my dog sketch. (I still would have needed the acetate tracing, because remember the drawing went across the gutter and if I had just photocopied it I would have had distortion to deal with.)

Another Way to Approach this: More Low Tech (or Less Tech)
If you don’t work a lot on the computer, all this scanning and messing about in Photoshop and Illustrator talk must be making your head hurt (trust me, if you started working that way you would really, really love it; computers are the next logical tool for anyone in the book arts and I thank my lucky stars EVERY day [EVERY SINGLE DAY] that I was born at a time when I could enjoy all modes of print from letterpress to digital). To avoid giving you a headache I wanted to talk to you about another approach you can take.

With your original sketch in either pencil or pen you can go to a copy shop (if you don’t have a toner copier at home) and simply make a photocopy of that sketch to the size you want it for your layout.

What this means is that you will have to decide what the live area of the screen you are using for your silkscreen print is going to be. If you are using the small Print Gocco like I was you’ll have 4 x 5 3/4 inches.

You’ll need to decide, before you go, if you want a box around your print. Then your artwork will need to fit in that space. You’ll size and print your photocopies (making extras in case there are problems because who likes to keep going to the copy shop—that’s why the first piece of equipment I bought when I went into business was a great copier). Then you’ll need to paste them into that box on your final layout sheet.

The box can be created by hand if you’re neat, tidy, and so inclined, or you can create the box in a page layout program. If you ink your box by hand, you'll have to make a photocopy of the paste up to turn that entire image (art, line, and text) into a toner copy for the Gocco; there are some exceptions with carbon black pens, but I never had any luck with those in this process).

Once you have your image pasted into the box (if you’re going to have a box) I recommend that you take a copy of all of that because with the Print Gocco, cut lines could show. For other screenprinting methods, follow the lead of the expert you’re reading or working with.

I have found, over decades of practice that if your paste up is completely flat (i.e., you use wax, or Studio Tac or other such products to stick it down) that the cut lines only show if you let them attract dirt that the “camera” in the copier sees. You can beat this by having the totally flat paste up AND going over those cut lines with a kneaded eraser to remove dirt.

Once you have this final TONER photocopy of your image you can then set about printing it either on the Print Gocco or some other silkscreening method.

Keep in mind that other printmaking methods might not need the toner photocopy or toner printout. If you were going to take your final black and white layout and make zinc or polymer plates to do letterpress, for instance, you'd need output on film or acetate to use for exposing those plates, but you'd get there the same way, just with a few extra end steps.

I want to close by discussing two examples of other Print Gocco pieces I made as demonstrations during the PAN 2007 Bell Museum Show (February 2007). The participating artists were encouraged to come in during the exhibition hours and demonstrate various artistic processes. I did an afternoon of pen and watercolor sketching and an afternoon of printmaking.

At the opening of this post you see the Burrowing Owl Print I made during my printing demonstration. You can see the journal sketch for this print in the journal section of my website. I frequently go to the Bell Museum of Natural History to sketch from the taxidermy
specimens in the diorama. It seemed fitting that my demo would involve
sketches made there.

For this print I created a box and the type in QuarkXPress and printed out the box and type on my toner printer. I then photocopied the sketch from my journal, sizing it to fit the box. This was done on a toner photocopier. I cut the sketch, trimming the paper away from the bird’s breast and back so that it would fit in the square (and butt up against the box rules where necessary). That paste up was used as my master to expose my screen. I applied brown ink to the name of the owl on the screen, but not its Latin name. Everything else received black ink. As you can see from this description it was very quick and straightforward. The photocopier preserved the scratchy line quality of my ink drawing. The eyes did get a bit darker in the final print because of ink flow, but it still has some personality.

For my demonstration I had all the various steps on display, showing how I arrived at the final master. I exposed and printed the master when a crowd gathered. Kids enjoyed walking away with the prints.

The other image I pulled from my journal for that demonstration was a sketch of a Tundra Swan. I followed the same process with that image, making a photocopy to fit my box, then exposing the screen, etc.

SwanGocco Right: This is the print I made of a Tundra Swan during my Print Gocco demonstration.

The original swan journal sketch can be viewed on my website in my journal section. To create the photocopier master for this print I did have to play with contrast while making the copies, because the original sketch was on tan paper. (This could also have been done in the computer.)

I hope this gives you a better understanding of why I went into the computer for one project and not for the other. I'm a big proponent of using whatever tools you have that will quickly get you to the point you need to be. If you don't have the type of copier you need, well that means a trip to the copy shop or some computer work. If I still didn't have a toner printer then I would have had to take my final output from the computer, on disk to a copy shop to print it out that way, because the Gocco needs toner!

Other Matters In Wrapping Up
I wrote today wanting to 1. clarify why I manipulated my French Bull Dog image in Photoshop and Illustrator; 2. provide you with a walk-through of the translation process from sketch to print if you are only using a photocopier; AND 3. I wanted to take a moment to encourage you to look at your journal, not just as a stand alone item (which it is, and a totally great one at that, goodness knows I'm a fan) but also as a repository from which you can draw additional "raw" materials for your artwork.

The tundra swan print was useful as a demonstration piece at the Bell Museum because I have sketched the swans there at the Bell many times, filling in details I couldn’t get in the field (Tundra swans are few and far between up here, and they don’t let you get that close). It was also a good choice because one of the paintings I had in the show was based on this same sketch. You can see that swan painting here.

As visual journalers we can go ahead and make great journal pages (and often bad journal pages), but we can also find in those pages, a way towards other art we want to make. Like poets and writers who have notebooks and work out phrasing, the visual journal can be the first place our ideas begin to manifest. Keep this in mind as you build a relationship with your journal. It’s another option. And it's all about options and choices.

One more point in parting. All this writing about the sketch to print process took longer to write than the entire 150 print edition of that Bull Dog too to print! We are talking about very quick steps here. Remember that I always advocate fitting things into the busy structure of your life. I want to encourage you to do that, because I have found it works so well for me, and because I know you'll get more artwork made if you try it. Just get going on some artwork. Fit it into the spaces of the rest of your day. While I wrote today's post I also baked two loaves of bread and cleared up my return phone calls. Just get going.

    • Christine F
    • May 7, 2009

    Actually I’d love it if you’d write a few words about the decisions you make when you translate pencil drawings into linocut prints. I’ve seen some of these side by side and I’m interested in how you translated one style of mark into print medium. I find this most challenging, while keeping in the spirit of the original drawing

    • Christina Trevino.
    • May 8, 2009

    Roz. Wow.
    I have to read all that about printing. I was away a couple of days.
    I see that you mention the Gocco, but I didn’t read much (tired).
    I was interested in buying a Gocco, but somebody told me they were not making them anymore, so the necessary supplies were not available anymore.
    Do you know otherwise?

    • Roz
    • May 8, 2009

    Christina, start with the post from the previous day. And earlier this same day. You’ll see that I mention a couple times that Print Gocco is defunct!!! Even if someone could get a machine I wouldn’t recommend it because supplies aren’t being made. Someone might find some to use, but hey, life’s too short, best to move on.

    The Gocco was used for my examples because I want to use up my supplies. But you’ll see that when you read the piece.

    The computer work explanations are things people can use either way.

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