Safety in printmaking.

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Safety in printmaking.


McKenzie, Laural.


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



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Laurel McKenzie: I haven’t got any visual aids to enliven my talk withso I’ll try and make it brief

The education of printmakers.

Laurel McKenzie


I haven’t got any visual aids to enliven my talk with so I’ll try and make it brief.

I’ve been asked to speak to you on the subject of education, that is formal education in the printmaking field. So, I should tell you that I’ve been involved in teaching printmaking at secondary, TAFE and tertiary levels. Most of my 16 years of teaching have been in the TAFE sector.

I’m aware that many of you here are presently or have in the past been involved in formal art education, and I’m also conscious of the difficulty of making generalised comments on how printmaking is taught in this country without an intimate knowledge of each of the many courses conducted in the many institutions in Australia.

What I would like to do is describe to you a particular personal experience; the process of developing for accreditation a new course of study in the printmaking field and then maybe stick my neck out a bit and extrapolate from the Australia–wide research that went into that project to make a couple of generalised assertions, which may be relevant to all of us concerned with the continuity of printmaking in this country.

The course I’m going to talk about, or the course that I have been involved in developing, is the Assistant Technician Printmaker. In 1981, after observation of custom printing workshops in Europe — I’ve never had the opportunity to visit those in the USA — and discussion with people locally, I decided that there could be justification for a course of training for printmaking technicians, here.

Now, the procedures for developing a new course in TAFE in Victoria are very clearly and strictly prescribed. I think the procedures vary from one State to another but are probably similar. There’s a heavy bias toward vocational training in TAFE and this has caused some obvious difficulties with the development of art courses in general but technician training falls clearly within the vocational guidelines, so it seems like it’s viable.

The first stage in the process of developing the course was establishing an industry advisory committee. This consisted of John Loane, who was Director of the Victorian Print Workshop, Graham King whom you know, Bev Kenner who was a Co–director of the Editions Gallery in Melbourne, Gary Coleman who was Technical Assistant at Prahran CAE, and David Kelly who is still, I think, Technical Assistant at the Philip Institute of Technology.

With the help of this Committee, and with a very small grant of funds from the Victorian TAFE Board, a survey was compiled which was designed to ascertain the viability of the proposed course. I should point out at this stage that at the outset the Committee judged that the potential employment and self–employment opportunities for trained printmaking technicians would be very limited, so we surveyed Australia–wide.

The survey document was sent to tertiary institutions with printmaking departments, custom printing and access printing workshops and cooperatives. It asked questions such as whether a course of the type proposed was necessary, how many technicians that organisation could envisage employing over a given time span, how long such a course should be; whether it should be full–time, part–time et cetera.

The survey also included a sort of occupational analysis. That is, it presented a list of tasks, prepared by the Advisory Committee, which were thought to represent the range of activities which may be performed by the Printmaking Technician or Assistant Printer. The respondents were asked to indicate how important or unimportant those tasks were in his or her operation and how frequently those tasks might be performed. Space was also given in the survey for respondents to add tasks that we hadn’t included, and to make additional comments.

The response to the survey was excellent; better than 50% return which I’m told is unusually high, and a very positive reaction was indicated. The following year, the data collected was analysed and eventually a report was prepared and published. The report contained the data collected and a proposed course outline for a two year full–time, or equivalent part–time, 26 unit course. This was submitted to the TAFE Board and, in 1987, a grant was provided to develop a detailed course curriculum.

The tasks from the original survey, plus many others that were suggested by the respondents and other people I had discussed the project with, were then phrased in the form of questions. The questions are: What needs to be done to perform the task? In other words, the sequence of activities, the knowledge and skills necessary to perform that task. What tools and equipment are needed to perform the task, and how well should the task be done? In other words, to what standard, or how can it be assessed that the task has been correctly performed? Recommended references and resources were also sought.

The questions were organised in this way to enable me to more readily transform the information gathered into the correct format for curriculum documents. Course content has to be set out in terms of measurable, (behavioural) objectives, not always easy when you’re dealing with an art course.

The Advisory Committee then helped me to draw up a list of people across Australia with expertise in specific aspects of printmaking and related practices. The related fields included history and theory of art, business practices, display and gallery management, chemistry, safety, equipment maintenance and construction, paper–making, book–binding et cetera.

The task questions were then distributed to those people, each of whom had agreed to undertake the work and each of whom was paid a small amount of money from the grant for their efforts. The information provided in this form enabled me to write up the 26 detailed units of study. The complete course document has not yet been published.

Around the end of 1987, just before the TAFE Board of Victoria underwent a major reorganisation and emerged as the State Training Board of Victoria, the State Representative for the Arts, who got the sack in this reorganisation, took the printmaking course proposal before what he perceived to be ‘the industry’ for it’s endorsement. It’s a normal requirement in TAFE that relevant industry bodies, that is employers, unions et cetera be consulted about any new developments in a given field. In his wisdom this person, without my input, placed the printmaking technician course proposal before the printing trade.

The printers who, as we know, occasionally print what they term ‘limited editions’; reproductions of work by known artists, and often make a good amount of money out of these efforts, saw the fine art printmaking activity as one which may transgress into their territory and take business away from them. They have no understanding of fine art printmaking and clearly do not constitute the relevant industry. However, their refusal to endorse the proposal at that stage meant that the project has been left in limbo, shelved until such time as I can get it placed before representatives of the arts industry.

The formation of NAITC, the National Arts and Industry Training Committee, and in Victoria VAITC, the Victorian Arts and Industry Training Committee, provides light at the end of a very long tunnel. These organisations represent government recognition of the arts as industry.

I’m hopeful that the course outlined will eventually be given the necessary approval to be conducted, and will commence. Incidentally, the survey conducted indicated, as we expected, that the number of technicians who could be absorbed at the completion of their training Australia–wide might be around 10 to 15 every two years. So, it would only ever be a very small course and students would have to complete their two year course before a new intake could be enrolled, to avoid possible overtraining.

I think, however, the course could fill an important gap in printmaking education in this country. The general observations which I would make, which flow out of the research I’ve described, are these:

Firstly, health and safety. This is the subject of another talk to be given by David Leaver from Melbourne University on Monday morning and I don’t intend to go into any detail on this subject except to say there was considerable emphasis placed on health and safety by the many people who were involved with the project I’ve described to you. We all seemed to agree that safe practices should be observed, and that technicians need to know a great deal about occupational health and safety to protect themselves and other workshop users.

If technicians need to know these things, why don’t artist printmakers? It’s my view that many teachers of printmaking, and I include myself in this, are insufficiently well–informed on the subject and, as a result, we’re not equipping the students in our institutions with sufficient knowledge to practise safely in the future. This is something that I think we need to address.

A five-day ‘health and safety in the arts’ curriculum has been drafted by NAITC and is, I believe, to be piloted shortly. This, along with some intensive in–service training for teachers and lecturers, could go some way toward solving this deficiency in our current teaching strategies.

The second point I want to make, and this is where I really am sticking my neck out, is on the subject of skills and techniques versus content. To follow on from the first point, if a printmaking technician needs to know how to perform thousands of different tasks, should not a young printmaking graduate, who will most likely need to be able to do everything to do with the production of prints for him or herself, be well–equipped with a broad range of practical skills?

When I was a student, printmakers were regarded as the poor cousins of painters because they were said to be more involved with the craft of making the work than with the intellectual processes of developing the content of their imagery. The criticism was probably deserved but, in my view, as a result of this criticism the pendulum has swung the other way, and away from the teaching of technical skills and leaving some graduates poorly equipped to use their chosen medium for the full expression of their ideas.

While it is certainly not a bad thing for graduates to continue to acquire skills and to learn beyond their initial training they should be able to perform in the art world with a degree of technical competence. If we’re not providing students with these skills we’re failing in a major aspect of our profession. As a few of our colleges are demonstrating admirably, teaching basic skills does not have to be incompatible with encouraging conceptual development.

Thank you.


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