The process I developed was not the typical creating of an image and then making an edition. Most art print methods may produce some slight variations, however offset lithography is a technique to reproduce commercial images and, in those days, to make many copies of things like form letters and office forms. In the work I did with offset lithography each image is different. I used the flaws of offset lithography to create my books and prints.
I was a printmaking major at the Cleveland Institute of Art (class '70), studying under Carroll Cassell. However I was also working part time at a Cleveland area manufacturer of farm implements (the Empire Plow Company) where I learned how to operate an offset press. This was before Xerox became the primary means for reproducing documents and long before word processing.
In my 5th year drawing class with Edwin Mieczkowski, Ed said to me, "Karen, you operate that machine...why don't you do something with it?"
Printmaking, especially intaglio, requires a lot of trial and error. An image emerges after much drawing, scraping, biting, burnishing. I loved printmaking with all the various techniques, including the inking and wiping process. Since I had access to this machine I began to pay more attention to the images. Even if they were catalog pages or form letters I saw some potential to create something different. I came up with an idea that grew directly from the offset process itself.
Offset is not like most other forms of printmaking where when you print a plate or a block, or from a drawing on stone. Those processes give you a mirror image of your drawing. Even the old mimeograph process was a reverse process. You needed a negative to make a positive.
Offset printing is a lithographic technique...water and oil. But with offset printing the plate (made either of paper or metal) prints the image onto a rubber blanket giving you a negative as in other forms of printmaking. However, then the blanket prints the negative on to the paper now producing a positive. It was an efficient commercial technique to make large runs of printed material before there was Xerox. A secretary could type a form letter on a special coated paper, then hundreds or thousands of letters could be reproduced very easily.
When you have to print a large quantity of different types of documents, i.e., form letters, notices, office forms, catalog pages. you have different plates for each document. In a day's work I would do many different jobs, and I needed a separate plate for each job. When it was time to change plates I would clean the old image off the blanket with a special substance. But there was an easier way to clean the blanket, it's called "runoff". If I let 10-15 sheets of paper go through, I could see the old image slowly disappear and a new image appear.
I used an IBM Selectric typewriter to type a single letter of the alphabet repeatedly until it formed, more or less, a square shape with fairly equal rows and columns. The letter was my motif. Once I had my motif, and sent it off to have a metal plate made, I was ready to begin. I ran about 200-250 sheets through the press with one image on each sheet. Then jogged them back together and put them back on the press.
The second time through, I got a double image on each sheet...but not the identical double image because there are subtle differences due to misregistration. I might even get a couple of sheets where the paper twisted slightly and caused some diagonal activity. Eventually I learned how much to loosen the guides to get variation in registration. Each time I would take 8-10 sheets off of the pile and put them aside; reload the rest and begin again. I did that over and over. maybe 12-15 times, removing a few sheets each time, until I had a stack of sheets, all unique images.
The images ranged from simple, crisp images all the way to inky black and slightly smudged that looked three dimensional and reminded me of intaglio. So now what? I got the idea to bind them all into a book. Please take a look at samples from several books in my videos under Artist Books.
I was still living in Cleveland but I came to New York to have the books bound by Richard Minsky founder of The Center For Book Arts. I provided the fabric and end paper, and he did a beautiful "flexbind" which has held up very well. There were no artists books at the time. The Center for Book Arts and Franklin Furnace really put artist books on the map. I did this between the years of 1970 when I graduated from the CIA, and 1975 when I moved to NYC to attend Hunter College.
Addressograph-Multigraph Model 1250 Offset Printer
This is a picture of a Model 1250 Addressograph-Multigraph Duplicator. It is a picture from UI Public Surplus. However, this picture could have been taken in the office room at the Empire Plow Company where I did all my work. This is exactly the sort of place it was. A small factory office.