The art of printmaking

Singapore-based printmaker James Tan gives PIA a glimpse into the world of fine art and fine photography printmaking.

James Tan is one of the very few in Asia who is a certified printmaker under the Master Photographers Association (MPA). The MPA is an accredited organisation in the UK for the professional wedding, portrait and commercial photographers. Led by master photographers, the organisation body imposes the strictest qualifications to recognise leading professional photographers. Tan has worked with New York galleries and the likes of National Geographic photographers to bring their work to life. Most recently, he was a judge on MPA's International Photography Competition.

PIA: "What exactly is a printmaker?”

James Tan: Printmaking is still a very niche industry. The term itself is generic. It applies to a small group of people who actually do different types of print. Some are fine arts printmakers, who do whatever it takes to produce an art piece. For me, I focus more on colour management and reproducibility of a photograph.

There’s an actual science and technique behind it, and we aim to master these skills in order to be able to produce predictable good prints each time. When the prints are consistent, it maximises the potential of what is given to me – be it a negative or positive file. I make sure that I print the photograph to the best of its potential. That is printmaking in a gist, below it is the understanding of the technique, science and the craft.

“How did you get started in printmaking?”

Before joining the MPA, I was a professional photographer specialising in architecture. As a photographer, having just digital photos are not enough; the end print is important as well.

I became interested in printmaking once I started to print my own photos. It was only then that I began noticing all these flaws in my photographs. In terms of crafts and skills, you need to learn to print in order to become a better photographer. When you learn to print, you will begin comparing what makes one photo better than all the rest. The next time you go out to shoot, you’ll be more conscious of all the elements that make a great photo.

Most of the great photographers out there print their own photos. The most famous perhaps is Adam Burton, who is well-known for his beautifully intense landscape photo prints. He is a great photographer, and he’s an even better printmaker.

That spurred me to want to understand and ‘master’ this technique. I decided to dedicate 10 years of my life to learn the art of printmaking. Now I’m at my 9th year, so I’d like think we’re on track to get there before my beard turns grey.

“How important is the machine is the art of printmaking?”

The machine takes up two aspects. The first is the printing resolution, the second is the colour gamut. The type of ink that you have in the machine governs the colour gamut. If you have a wide range of inks, you will have broader colour gamut and better gradation. This means a smooth transition from one colour to the next. With a good machine you can achieve both of that.

“What machines do you have?”

In the world of fine art printmaking, there are really two main players: Epson and Canon. I started out with the Epson large format printers, which I still have in my studio, and is useful for larger 64-inch prints.

About two years ago, I purchased the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-500, a photo printer which prints in A2 format. Even though I’m accustomed to using the Epson printers, I tend to gravitate towards the Canon.

“Why the preference?”

One simple reason: ease-of-use. The Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-500 is so easy to use. If anyone were to start to learn to print, no questions asked - go for the Canon.

If you're learning to drive a car, would you learn on a rally car on a track? No. A rally car would kill you. You would do much better learning in an automatic car, where you just have to press an accelerator and the car moves. It gets you from point A to point B, it moves and it is safe. It’s the easiest way to learn.

The Canon is the embodiment of the automatic car. It takes care of everything that you don’t have grasp of yet, and it will slowly ease you into being able to control more of the printer. If you try to learn printing on an Epson machine first, you will commit suicide! That's what we did, and we wasted a lot of money on the ink, on fine art paper – which is not cheap. One paper goes in, two papers come out. We had those sort of issues before.

“Besides ease-of-use, what else do you appreciate about the Canon imagePROGRAF Pro-500?”

The Canon has good paper handling. It is also compatible with a lot of papers, be it matte or lustre finishes. I can also use it with media from other paper manufacturers, not just from Canon, as long as it meets standards for the imagePROGRAF Pro-500. Paper handling is another crucial factor; some machines will chew the paper.

The Canon printhead has been known to not clog in this itself saves a lot of money. Having a printhead that does not clog saves a lot of paper as you don't want to be printing half way and then you see these lines. You’ll just waste ink and paper.

This also has built-in wifi which means I can dump it anywhere in the office and start printing immediately. With other printers I typically have to lay down USB and LAN cables. Having no cable in the office, especially mine with not much space to spare, is very liberating.

“What advice do you have for newbie printmakers?”

Some of the questions I get asked a lot are things like how much does the printer, ink, paper cost? And within that short conversation I would then ask them what is the cost of their camera equipment. With just the cost of one lens, you can buy a printer with change to get a few papers too. You’ve already invested so much, yet when it comes to the final printing stage for the star product, you’re asking about price.

There’s a preconception that print is expensive. It is not. In the grand scheme of the entire photography process, printing is not the most expensive portion. Yet it is one of the most important elements in producing great photography prints.

Please, please, invest in a good printer that will produce a good print.

Read the full version of this article and more print news in Issue 9 of Print Innovation Asia.

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