This year I was invited to participate in the University of Calgary's 2011 Santo Mignosa Scholarship Portfolio. The portfolio was originally created to honor Santo Mignosa, a former and well-respected professor, with proceeds from the sale of the portfolio funding a student scholarship that was established in his name. The tradition of creating portfolios continued as a way to replenish the funds for the scholarship. Here is how it shakes out for the 2011 rendition. A total of 24 artists, including a selection of students, instructors, graduates and established artists, each create an edition of 27 prints for exchange. Each of the 27 portfolios contains one print from each of the participating artists. Every artist who participates gets a portfolio. Of the three remaining portfolios, one goes into the University's collection, one into a proposed major museums collection, and the other is used to raise money for the Santo Mignosa Scholarship via a raffle.
Although it is always exciting to be involved in a project like this, for me this was an opportunity to get back into a studio environment, apply my creative thinking to a different medium, and have some fun. As I started creating this print project the similarities between interaction design and printmaking became surprisingly apparent. Elegantly put, they both rely heavily on one's ability to embrace the journey while maintaining a vision. It is really about having a clear goal, problem-solving, and taking full advantage of a collaborative environment.
The art to defining a problem involves avoiding solutions
An example that always resonates with me regarding problem definition comes from product design. I remember a professor saying: "You are not designing a chair, but a seating device." The word 'chair' brings up all of your preconceived notions of what a chair is, how it works, and what it looks like. A 'seating device' on the other hand provides the opportunity to be creative and not be hampered by what already exists. It is a way to zero in on the problem and goal.
The same is true for interaction design and for printmaking. In interaction design we focus on the user's goals; in fine art we are often focused on the message.
For this print project, that overall vision was captured in a sketch, which was about 'sense of place'.
A well-defined problem can turn an unexpected detour into an asset
Sketch in hand I arrived at the studio to develop a preliminary map of all of the processes required to etch the image into the copper plate. Breaking it down into stages, each stage was aimed at accomplishing a certain goal. One was to create the line work, another was to create a background. As with technology, pretty much anything is possible given an abundance of time and resources. When you don't have an abundance of either, creative problem solving is critical. My first challenge came with the realization that the acid was exhausted — it wasn't etching the copper plate as quickly as I needed. An etch that I expected to take 20 minutes was taking closer to two hours. I needed stronger acid to do the second stage of the print — something I didn't have.
In printmaking and in technology there are often multiple ways to achieve a goal. This really is both the challenging and fun part — seeking an elegant solution. It requires flexibility, room for discovery, and having a clear goal — one that isn't defined by how you are going to achieve it or the medium you plan to use. In interaction design, the medium can be the platform or technology, in printmaking the medium may be the type of metal or process used. The medium generally has an impact on the selected approach but doesn't necessarily alter the end goal. The ultimate goal was to create a print that addressed the idea of 'sense of place'. The goal of this stage was to create a background to differentiate one area of the image from another. Fortunately, there are multiple ways of doing this that don't rely on acid etching into the copper plate. After weighing the options I landed on chine-collé, a process of adhering a different sheet of paper to the image while printing it. This solution overcame the constraint, established a background, and added colour, bringing the print closer to its intended goal.
Be open to discovery
Ah-ha moments don't just come out of problems. Within interaction design it could be a different interpretation of a sketch that yields a different user interface. In printmaking it was the way I had to block out the plate to resist the acid. The dark hard-ground on the plate created an interesting use of positive and negative space. Although I wasn't able to incorporate this into the print, I pasted it into my sketchbook to remember for the next print.
The best solutions often require collaboration
Now, etched plate in hand, I was ready to print it! Given the processes I used to etch the plate this should have gone smoothly. Alas, it did not. There are numerous small things that can affect the printing process and I had run into at least one of them. Fortunately, like Habanero's team, the printmaking studio is very collaborative and its strength comes from the experience of the people within. Printmakers are problem-solvers and part of the challenge was trying to figure out what small thing needed to change to make it work. Harnessing the collective experience, everyone in the studio suggested solutions. I tightened the pressure on the press, tried different ink, removed the plate from the hotplate before wiping it, added linseed oil to the ink, tried different inks, etc. Throughout this process I continuously referred back to the goal to determine when I had reached it. Two tubs of ink, and eleven sheets of paper later, I was back in business.
Surprisingly, the final print is better than I had originally planned. Often elegant solutions come from searching, responding, and adjusting to a process — this is true in technology and in printmaking. And whether designing user interfaces or creating prints, I've found that true gratification is nestled in the collaborative effort of working with your peers to find creative ways of achieving end results that surpass expectation.
A huge thank you to the University of Calgary's printmaking students who shared their space and ideas, professor Bill Laing, studio technician Rick Calkin and the Fine Arts Department for a fantastic opportunity.