In praise of backyard presses and the long way round.

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In praise of backyard presses and the long way round.


Maddock, Bea.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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In praise of backyard presses and the long way round

In praise of backyard presses and the long way round.
by Bea Maddock


I’ve titled this talk ‘In praise of backyard presses and the long way round’.

I’d like to deal with the last part first, an example of the long way round, and take just one aspect of my work which I’d taken up in the last… Actually it goes back a fair way - the making of paper for the business of printmaking.

The first slide shows the simplest equipment that one needs for the making of paper; right on the left a drill which you attach a beater to and put in a plastic bucket. Some moulds and decals, and a vat, and underneath the bench a very small screw press.

It was with this sort of equipment, in fact slightly cruder than that; in fact a washing machine and a flywire screen from a resident window that I made my first paper. The actual mould and decal is a simple frame which the firm, which called itself Mould and Decal, developed in Melbourne. And it was in Melbourne that I first began to slightly improve the slightly crude technique with which I had begun.

This shows the decal sitting on the mould and the reverso shows the back of that apparatus. It’s very simple and easy to make, and I now make all of my own moulds and decals. The material for this very basic paper is in fact paper, that is recycled paper, and of course the better the original material the better the final paper.

The first piece of paper that I made in that infamous washing machine was made with the most crude paper you can possibly find, which is the daily newspaper. Upon that I printed a relief print which is titled Too much comes from the back.

A more recent work using this same very crude paper which is recycled newspapers is called Impressions of forty working days, which is a boxed set of 40 sheets made from the front page of the local Launceston newspaper, and impressed with the date and the number of hours that I worked on giving up a teaching job. It got me into a very good routine of working on my own again.

The next section of slides simply shows you how simple the technique is. There’s no mystique about making paper. The only thing is that you get very wet. You in fact lift the beaten mixture from a vat, as in this slide. These slides were in various workshops where I have endeavoured to pass the non–mystique onto other people.

You ‘couch’ onto felts. You can see a very simple couching bench there, made with a brick and some bent Masonite and a handmade mould. You press the ‘pile’, the pile being paper, felt, paper, felt, paper, felt as high as you go, or as many felts as you have. This is my current workshop in Dunolly in Victoria, which has a bookbinders press as a manual press. From there you air-dry, or at least I air-dry the paper, and this is a stack drying rack. You simply pull the whole thing down when you unstack it. In between that, of course, you have to lift the very delicate, wet paper from the felts onto the drying racks, perhaps the only real skill required in the business of papermaking.

When you want to make better paper you must of course seek better fibre than the recycled fibres. Here I am the proud owner of a Hollander, which was acquired through a Visual Arts Board grant. It’s a small Hollander but holds about five gallons of pulp and around about a day’s papermaking quantity. Again, this is in the Dunolly Paper Workshop.

You’ll see behind that vats don’t have to be terribly sophisticated; a galvanised bath which has been painted and a conventional laundry sink. The moulds and decals are the type that I now make with brass wiring; a little more sophisticated than those earlier ones.

If you want to use natural fibres, and I spent something of eighteen months searching around for a workable fibre which was also in large enough quantities to make repeatable sheets. You must collect and cut the fibres and boil them up in caustic solution, and endlessly wash them to remove the caustic solution once you’ve extracted the fibres. This sort of gear, which really came down to me from once being a potter, I use in the business (of handmaking) with natural fibre.

The chief fibre I now use is New Zealand flax, which grows quite well in Tasmania. The other fibre that I like to use is cotton; raw cotton. Used cotton, should I say. My friends and relations keep pouring bags and bags of cotton upon me, much to my delight. Having collected and sometimes washed the cotton you have to cut off anything which has been machined, which is a very Zen process but very good if you want to sit around cutting cotton for hours and then torn or/and cut up into round about one inch squares before it’s beaten in the Hollander.

All this laborious work now that I no longer teach satisfies my mind, and in the end I produce stacks of paper that go into my little storage area, usually destined for some sort of project that gets turned around and turned into something else but mostly for the business of bookmaking.

In this stack you see New Zealand flax in three different sizes, the top size being A4. In this next slide the top one is cotton, the yellow colour is recycled envelopes, and the blue to grey is cotton. Blue coming, of course, from blue jeans which is, in [the] mid-to-late twentieth century, the best available cotton in the most quantity, but unfortunately very, very blue.

As I said, mostly I make paper for books and I’m interested in printing books, in writing in books et cetera, et cetera and I have developed some simple methods of binding. Of course the books behind are simply the inspiration for the binding and the small books in front are hand–bound with handmade paper.

So, one of the ‘long way rounds’.

I next talk about the Backyard press business. I’ve always wanted [to do], and do my own printing and find it difficult, in contrast to Colin, to work with other people. Wherever I’ve moved, and I’ve had many, many working places over the years, I always have produced a set-up where I could work in solitary confinement.

This is the simplest set-up and was set up, I think, about two weeks after the Macedon bushfires. I wanted to get straight on with some work and the only requirement is a few good rollers and a glass slab. I proceeded to do some small multicoloured block prints. You can graduate to a screw press but I rarely used that press. I still prefer to hand-burnish. Many of the relief prints for which I was best known in the 1960s were produced from, in this case, sheets of masonite cut and hand-burnished, using Japanese papers.

Because I’m interested in words and use words a great deal in my work I always try to have some type around. It varies from very large type to small book-size type. I did do a short course with some apprentices in Launceston some 20 years ago, and learnt the rudiments of setting type et cetera.

I now have a small proofing press for type which I also adapt when I’m working on blocks, and sitting on top of it, uncustomarily, is a small signature press, which is very suitable for A4 or smaller than A4 paper. The type is ‘locked up’ in traditional fashion, and for larger work it’s locked up into a ‘chase’ on the bed of a larger press.

When I was artist-in-residence at Sydney College of the Arts I produced a series called Pages which was a combination of letter press printed on an Albion press, and coloured etchings of which this is the last plate.

At Macedon I had a larger press which was mechanically controlled at the inking end, but hand-operated across the plate, and it’s where I produced the series of self portraits of which only one survives which is upstairs in the exhibition. They were four colour etched lino blocks. This type of press enables you to get accurate registration by locking the block up and adjusting the registration of the paper on the roll.

This is the print I’m talking about, which was also printed as a poster for the Access Studio, which I ran at that stage. You can run huge numbers from that kind of press, which doesn’t really suit my philosophy in relation to editions, where I normally only print ten of anything.

I tend to be one of those printmakers who likes to use all the processes not because I sort of fickle and move from one to the other but because I find a need for the various processes in the progress of the work. I learned to work from stones in London at the Slade School. I came back to Launceston with neither presses nor stones nor anything.

When I say ‘nor anything’ I did bring all the materials. You see in the back shelf there some Hunter Penrose tins of various things, which I knew you couldn’t get in Australia at that time. But I was given a single litho stone and I worked on this table with a hole cut under the stone and all the excess water ran into a bucket underneath.

I heavily etched images and produced quite a large series of prints with fairly deep etching onto the stone and hand-burnishing [of] the image. Etching really is my media, which I turn to mostly. Eventually, in Launceston after some four or five years returning from England, I found an old copper plate press in a print house, very similar to the one which is upstairs. It was minus a handle so we had to put on a hay-cutting; chaff-cutting handle. It’s direct drive and very hard to operate, but all my early Australian etchings were printed on that very small press, as is this slide of the Melbourne drypoints.

One acquires tools for working on the plates; favourite ones, and ones which aren’t used much. This gives you an idea of the sort of range of tools I use for working plates, plus a small Dremel; an electric tool, not photographed there.

Aquatint boxes, usually handmade. This which I acquired was made by somebody else, but just with a simple turn-around fan with which you beat up the dust and then place the plate in.

My current etching room is a glasshouse in the garden, which I found the most poignant answer to the problem of fumes in a studio. The whole structure is lifted a little bit above the ground so the air goes underneath and goes out the top, and so you have a natural ventilation. Also, being in the sun it warms the acid up very quickly so you can bite the plates much more quickly.

The sign is for any children who may stray into my garden. The whole structure had to be painted with bitumen but otherwise it’s quite acid resistant.

I’ve always contrived means to speed up the etching process because this is one of the really tedious parts of the business. There is the infamous rocking tray which Pat Gilmour has spoken about on some occasions for etching the lino blocks at Macedon, but this was produced by David Marsden, another printmaker, from a windscreen wiper motor run on a DC battery, and it rocked the plates that were used to produce the High Court mural, which had to be etched very deeply. The words on that mural were impressed into handmade paper one by one and then applied to the surface so a fast etching method was required.

I leaned how to handmake ink in Slade, London. I’ve always kept to that tradition, always wanting to adjust the ink according to the type of etch on the plate, and to hand-grind it myself. For that purpose you need a hotplate. This is the set up for heating the plate: a couple of thick steel slabs. One is hot, and the other is cold as you go down the line, with a marble slab for mixing the ink.

This shows the Hunter Penrose press which, again, was a Visual Arts Board grant to me early in the 1970s, and which was housed at the Macedon studio. It was a beautiful press, very reliable. It came with me to Canberra when I was here at the ANU, on the back of a truck, so it was portable, semi.

The only problem was it took fifty revolutions to go down but, you know, it kept you pretty fit. It was a very good press. Of course it was lost in the Macedon (bushfire) but it enabled me at that time to produce much larger images, something I’d been yearning for. My current press was custom–built in Hobart, not for me but for another printmaker in Tasmania, which I acquired, has a bakelite bed and is very nice to use, chain–driven, built from standard engineering parts and very reliable.

The way I dry my prints I print only on unsized paper and can air dry prints. They are stacked in a similar rack to the one I use for drying handmade paper.

Anyone who knows my work will know that from the 1970s on I have used photo process quite extensively and therefore need fairly not complicated but at least well stocked darkrooms to work in. I’ve had many, of which this was the custom–built one; the Macedon one which also doubled as an etching room.

This was the other end of the Macedon darkroom which had the enlargers and also, just on your right, not very visible, a handmade vacuum press with a rubber suction area, driven by a vacuum cleaner. The light source was UV sun lamps, which worked quite well.

This is one panel from the encaustic work We live in the meanings of, belonging to this gallery. Most of my work nowadays requires fairly sophisticated photographic equipment. The lower cibachromes there were made in my own studio by an assistant.

This is the darkroom I now have which is a converted bathroom and laundry, in the house which I converted into a studio. The lightbox and cetera were made from a dismantled copy camera and the sink, built over the bath, is a stainless steel shower base. You see there the cibachrome processor, which is really the highest piece of technology I’ve got in the set up.

Outside the door, this is the high bit. I this time purchased (a) back–in frame which fits nicely against the wall, an ‘O’ light, and a little computer. Such grandeur, but it works beautifully. At night time I have to pull across this black plastic curtain, not to protect me but to protect the neighbours who thought that I was taking off for space, I think, because the whole studio lit up with a glow of ultra–violet light.

I also have now a more sophisticated copying set up, an MP4 which some of you would know of. It works very well. In the corner you can see my little book–binding (frames), two of them, very unsophisticated book–binding methods.

I’d like to close with this statement:

If one aspires to the philosophy of backyard presses and the long way round one must have or acquire an infinite capacity for taking pains, literally and metaphorically.


© Bea Maddock, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.