The art of letterpress has left a big impression – literally – on the history of both printing and design. Though many might believe that letterpress is antique and old-fashioned, I am here today to tell you that this centuries-old art form is still very relevant to the modern day. I mean sure, it was used to print a multitude of historic pieces, including the Declaration of Independence and different versions of the Bible. However, I feel that in many more modern-day cases, letterpress is simply underestimated and underrated. For example, a wedding invitation printed through a press is going to have that genuine, hand-crafted feeling… something that digital printing will just always be lacking.
What is Letterpress?
Let’s begin with what exactly letterpress is… Letterpress is pretty much as it sounds, a form of printing ink to paper. Letters, designs and special characters are separated pieces of type. These type pieces are either carved out of wood blocks or they are casted into metal. Letterpress artists place these type pieces on the bed of the press after long thought and consideration of the layout. They next apply the ink to the type, this can be done through a variety of different techniques just as rolling the ink directly onto the type with a brayer or with the roller on the press itself. The next step would be to insert the paper into the press and roll it over the type with tight pressure, and that will result in the ink being pressed into the paper and sometimes it makes an impression into the paper itself.
The History of Letterpress
Letterpress printing started way back in the 15th century and was invented by a man named Johann Gutenberg. To begin, the printing press was used as the primary way to communicate or print things such as a newspaper or to mass produce books. For almost 350 years, Gutenberg’s press was used to print with virtually no changes to the design, according to an article by Elation Press. Regardless of the fact that those few couple hundred years resulted in very minor changes, letterpress made a big come back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. During this time, people began to print for more personalized design purposes rather than for practical purposes.
The Modern Letterpress
I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that letterpress is not a simple craft. It takes a lot of thought and it requires multiple different processes in order to produce the best print. I like to compare letterpress to a puzzle, it requires a lot of “putting the pieces together,” not only when putting the type on the bed with leading and kerning, but also when you think about the different layers that go into the finalized print. There is also a lot of trial and error in the art of letterpress, it is not like designing on a computer, you are not able to “backspace” on your mistakes. Another blogger, who goes by the name Snyderel, posted “Letterpress is an art form by itself; an artist is creating an art form with another form of art” (Why is Letterpress Relevant in the Digital Age?). That quote is so well said, because if you think about it, the process of letterpress is an art in and of itself – its not all about the final product. I think that is why those who appreciate the craft are so engulfed into preserving the art and keeping it well known. They recognize that every part of a print is hand-crafted. They take pride in knowing that the print they have is practically one of a kind and very few have anything like it, there is an authenticity and personalization behind the print.
The Digital World
As the digital world grows, most people tend to gravitate towards the convenience of your standard printer and designs created using different Adobe softwares. But many of these techniques and designs created with the modern technology were strongly influenced by letterpress. Much of what we know today of typography stems from terms that originated from the letterpress process. Similarly, digital design is a great way of influencing letterpress prints. Though the digital world might be a huge cause for the downfall of letterpress – it is also a huge part of its rise lately. Through social media, letterpress has gained a lot of popularity. This could even be considered as a discrete form of arts marketing. Social media plays a huge role in marketing and advertising different forms of art. This type of marketing is especially important for the arts that are unfortunately classified as a “dying art,” such as letterpress or ballet.
To wrap things up, I feel that it is crucial for us in the digital age to continue to promote the incredible art of letterpress. This art process is almost as beautiful as the prints that it produces, and it deserves to be recognized that way. Letterpress should no longer be an overlooked art, people should appreciate the craft and process of it, and keep it living strong.
Marissa Bartolotta is a junior at Miami University form Dayton, OH. She is working to receive her major in Graphic Design and a minor in Arts Management. Marissa is very passionate about design, letterpress and the on-campus organizations she is involved in such as Love Your Melon, and Alpha Omicron Pi.