Custom-Printing: The Australian Experience 1960–1990s.

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Custom-Printing: The Australian Experience 1960–1990s.


Robinson, Julie.


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



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Custom-Printing, The Australian Experience 1960-1990s

Custom-Printing: The Australian Experience 1960–1990s.
by Julie Robinson

Custom-printing involves collaboration between an artist and master-printer to create an edition of prints, and the nature of this interaction differs with each situation. It is important to remember, such collaboration and the division of tasks in the creation of a print, are not new phenomena. There is a long tradition of collaboration in both European printmaking and Eastern printmaking.

In Australia in recent years custom-printing has become a significant part of contemporary printmaking practice. (It is interesting to note that of the artists represented in the exhibition My Head is a Map, 40% have utilised custom-printing or some other type of collaboration.) The past fifteen years has seen a considerable increase in facilities for custom-printing, with the growth occurring mainly in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Today, some open-access print workshops offer custom-printing, for instance the Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne and Studio One, Canberra. The other important means of custom-printing is through master printers working from their own workshops or studios.

In this short talk I will provide an overview of the development of custom-printing in Australia since about 1960, and will consider some of the reasons for the growth, and some of the issues surrounding custom-printing.

So why is custom-printing a significant part of contemporary printmaking practice?

The service of custom-printing is used both by professional printmakers and by artists without any printmaking experience, perhaps painters, sculptors, performance artists. Generally, it is this latter group, the artists without any printmaking background, who are the main customers, and who are drawing attention to this process. Their excursions into printmaking may be brief or lengthy, intermittent or intense.

For many of these non-printmakers, the fact that they may have little or no printmaking background is not a hindrance. They bring their creative ideas to the medium and through close collaboration with skilled master printers, can explore the medium freely, without too many preconceived notions about making prints. The unconventional ideas explored by these artists help to expand the boundaries of printmaking.

For some of these non-printmakers the experience of printmaking is not enjoyable and they are not satisfied with the results. The medium may not suit the ideas they wish to express. With some there is also the danger that they will simply use printmaking to ‘reproduce’ works already existing in another medium.

However other non-printmakers have been captivated by the new medium. Their efforts have led to the creation of some of the most exciting and innovative contemporary Australian prints and are helping to break down barriers between various media and to raise the profile of prints in contemporary art.

Certainly the profile of prints does need raising, as until recently, they have not made an impact on contemporary Australian art. For instance, major contemporary art exhibitions such as the Biennale’s of Sydney and Australian Perspecta’s have rarely included prints, if at all.

The ‘non-printmaker’ who has made the most significant impact on contemporary printmaking and contemporary art is Mike Parr. He made his first print in 1987 and since then printmaking has become his dominant form of expression. Parr works in collaboration with master printer John Loane of Viridian Press, Melbourne. It is artists such as Parr who have contributed greatly to the significance of custom-printing today.

As I mentioned previously, custom-printing is also used by artists whose main or only form of artistic expression is printmaking, and who generally have the ability to print their own works if they wanted to. For these artists the reasons for and the nature of their collaboration with a master printer is different. The master printer does not usually have as much input (in a creative or educative way) as is often necessary with non-printmakers. Instead the master printer functions more as an editioning service, producing the required number of identical impressions. The term 'editioning' is more often used to describe this type of situation than the term 'custom-printing'. For artists such as these, editioning ensures professionalism, as well as freeing up more of their time for creativity.

The development of custom-printing in Australia since 1960

Since the beginning of printmaking in Australia in the early 19th century custom-printing has occurred, often on an informal or ad-hoc basis, e.g. with artists printing editions for friends or using commercial printers. (For instance Charles Rodius's lithograph Morirang, 1834, was printed by J.G. Austin, Sydney.)

Generally however, Australia has lagged behind the United States and Europe in providing formal facilities and expertise for creating prints. Overseas, particularly in the late 1950s and the 1960s, there seemed to be a flourish of activity, with the establishment of workshops, studios and publishing houses for prints, most of which have grown and strengthened since. These include places such as Universal Limited Art Editions, Tamarind Lithography Workshop, and Gemini G.E.L. in the United States, and Kelpra Studio, Curwen Studio and Editions Alecto in Britain.

In Australia in 1961, the first and longest running access workshop, the Workshop Arts Centre, Willoughby, Sydney, was established. Also during the 1960s, the first serious ventures into custom-printing occurred.

In Melbourne, two commercial galleries set up printmaking workshops which operated for short periods of time, offering custom-printing. The first of these was the workshop at Gallery A, which Janet Dawson established. It operated from 1962 to 1964 and specialised in lithography. The South Yarra Workshop, attached to the South Yarra Gallery, operated for a short time from 1968. It was managed by Udo Sellbach and Alun Leach-Jones.

The most notable independent master printer during the 1960s was the artist Charles Bannon. He specialised in screenprinting at his Paddington Print Studio, Sydney, which operated from 1967 to 1971. (Bannon re-opened business as a custom-printer in Adelaide in 1976 and in recent years has moved his studio to a property near the Flinders Ranges, South Australia.)

Informal custom-printing arrangements continued too. For instance, Noel Counihan’s drypoint The good life 1969, was printed by Arthur Boyd. (Counihan never owned his own press. Other artists who printed for him were Alexander McClintock, James Flett, Eric Thake and Fred Williams.)

Commercial printers were also an option. For instance, the artist Alun Leach-Jones worked with the apprentice screenprinter Larry Rawling at Mal Studios, Melbourne. (Rawling continued to make artists’ prints as a sideline in this leading commercial screenprinting business which he eventually owned. Since 1984 he has worked exclusively as a master printer for artists.)

Also in the 1960s and later, some artists, including Arthur Boyd, were fortunate enough to be able to collaborate with printers overseas, although this option was probably too expensive for the average young artist. (Arthur Boyd’s St Francis series of lithographs was printed by John Watson of Ganymed Press, London.)

1966 was a significant year for Australian printmaking, being the year which saw the formation of the Print Council of Australia. In the first issue of its journal Imprint the Print Council listed as one of its aims, ‘To establish print workshops for artists’ use and the production of prints for society members’. The Print Council remained aware of and committed to this need but due to a lack of funds was never able to implement the aim. Imprint did however provide an important forum for disseminating information about overseas workshops and printers, publishing reports from Australian printmakers who had visited these studios, and encouraging other members to visit.

The 1970s saw the emergence of a variety of print workshops but due to financial and other difficulties, such as changes in staff and the impermanence of premises, many of the ventures were short-lived or evolved into other ventures. The workshops included many politically-based screenprinting workshops and poster collectives, as well as fine art print workshops, many of the latter providing some form of custom-printing. There were also a number of independent master-printers. (Too numerous to name all but some of the main workshops/printers included: Zero Printworkshop, Audrey Dickenson’s Print Workshop, Whaling Road Studio and East Kangaloon Print Workshop in Sydney; Druckma Press, Intaglio Printers, Molesworth Press and Victorian Printmakers Group Workshop in Melbourne; and Beehive Press in Adelaide.)

From the mid-to-late 1970s the momentum for custom-printing increased, and while the names changed and workshops moved addresses, a core group of master-printers continued to work throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, and into the early 1990s, affirming their roles as pivotal master-printers.

Two such master printers, John Loane and the late Neil Leveson, had a long association with the Australian Print Workshop, Melbourne. This influential workshop evolved from the Victorian Printmakers Group Workshop which was established in the then unrenovated Meat Market at North Melbourne in 1977.

The Australian Print Workshop and these two master printers played a crucial role in encouraging and facilitating custom-printing, and it is largely through their efforts that Melbourne has been the main centre for custom-printing during the 1980s and up to the present day.

John Loane was founding Director of the Victorian Print Workshop, and now runs his own custom-printing business, Viridian Press. As previously mentioned, the main artist he has worked with in recent years is Mike Parr.

Neil Leveson was a printer at the Australian Print Workshop for many years and Director of the Workshop from 1988 until his untimely death earlier this year. Leveson excelled as a master-lithographer, and his death is a great loss to Australian printmaking.

Other important master printers in Melbourne are the screenprinter Larry Rawling and Bill Young, a specialist in intaglio processes. As well John Robinson ran Lithos Press, specialising in lithography, for five years from 1983.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, Sydney was the hub of custom-printing, mainly due to the activities of Port Jackson Press. Port Jackson Press was established in 1975 by David Rankin to publish prints by Australian artists. Master printers such as Fred Genis, Max Miller and Diana Davidson printed a number of editions in association with Port Jackson Press, and these printers have continued to make prints with artists since.

Custom-printing ventures were not established in Canberra until the 1980s. Open-access workshop Studio One, run by printer Basil Hall is the principal facility for custom-printing. There is also Spring Printworks, a custom-printing facility exclusively for the use of Aboriginal artists, run by Theo Tremblay.

In Adelaide, Beehive Press run by master-lithographer Rob Jones continued until 1988, and in 1992 Dianne Longley opened a print studio for custom-printing.

Few custom-printing studios developed in other states of Australia, although various types of open-access workshops have flourished. Artists in those regions sometimes travel interstate to make prints with a master printer or make informal custom-printing arrangements with other local artists.

Why the growth?

The growth of facilities and opportunities for custom-printing has been supported by the growing acceptance and acknowledgment of this practice by the printmaking community.

This growing acceptance has been reflected in the many articles and references to custom-printing in Imprint over the past eight years (since about 1985). Indeed the theme of the most recent issue (Sept 1992) was collaboration.

Also, Postmodernist theories have challenged ideas about authorship and originality in art. The influence of these theories may have helped remove some of the suspicion and reticence concerning collaboration with a printer.

Master printers, publishers, dealers, art advisers, and fellow artists have played a large part in encouraging artists to become involved in custom printing. However, custom-printing can be expensive for artists, especially if the whole edition is printed at once, as usually happens with lithography. Fees vary, but a print could cost between $5 to $50 to produce. So some of the people who encourage artists to make prints, may also provide some type of financial assistance towards this. Usually this takes the form of publishing or co-publishing options.

Following are a few examples of the type of infrastructure that has been important in encouraging custom-printing.

One of the publishers is Port Jackson Press, which moved its operations to Melbourne in the early 1980s. Many established Australian artists have had prints published by Port Jackson Press over the years. The company has also encouraged a number of Aboriginal artists, both urban and tribal, to make prints, beginning in the early 1980s with artists such as David Milaybuma, and Johnny Bulu Bulun, from Maningrida, whose screenprints were made with Larry Rawling. As well, Port Jackson Press provided the catalyst for artist Juan Davila to make his first Australian prints in 1988 (also with Larry Rawling).

As well as specialist publishers, dealers too have sometimes played a role in stimulating and supporting artists to make prints. Ray Hughes, director of Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney, encouraged and provided the finance for a number of his artists, including Davida Allen, Joe Furlonger and William Robinson, to make prints with Neil Leveson at the Australian Print Workshop. Hughes had previously introduced a number of his artists, including Furlonger and Robinson, to the notion of collaboration in art, through a collaborative ceramics project, Artists Make Ceramics, with the Queensland ceramicist Errol Barnes in 1988. Democratic and economic factors also underpin Hughes's encouragement of printmaking. Creating prints enables the artists' ideas to be available for more affordable prices than one-off works of art such as paintings and drawings, and therefore the chances of wider distribution are increased.

Economic reasons are probably also a factor in a number of open-access workshops offering custom-printing. The revenue raised from this may help to support the workshop's other services.

Master printers often directly approach artists with whom they would like to make prints — artists whose work they are interested in and have an affinity with. To be able to make prints with these artists fulfils some of their own creative needs, but as well is part of trying to run a successful business.

In recent years the interest in Aboriginal art has grown, and this has also flowed through into printmaking. People such as art dealers, master printers and art advisers have encouraged members of various Aboriginal communities to make prints in collaboration with a printer. Sometimes the materials are sent to the artists, sometimes printer travel to the artists’ community and on other occasions the artists visit custom-printing facilities in the cities, e.g. Theo Tremblay's Spring Printworks or Studio One, Canberra.

Throughout the 1980s, concurrent with and linked to the increased availability of custom-printing, there was a proliferation of print portfolios. This seemed to peak in 1988 with the production of many folios either commemorating or reacting against Australia’s Bicentennial year. Two of these folios, ‘The Bicentennial Folio’ and ‘Aus Australien’ played a major role in introducing new artists to the print medium and in forging links between prints and contemporary art.

Twenty-five artists participated in ‘The Bicentennial Folio’, ranging from those such as Ray Arnold, Barbara Hanrahan and Ann Newmarch, who had been making prints for years, to those like Mike Parr, Jenny Watson and Susan Norrie who had not previously made prints. Production of the prints was co-ordinated by John Loane at the Victorian Print Workshop.

For the folio ‘Aus Australien’, published by European curator Rene Block, eight artists made five prints each. This allowed more scope for the exploration of ideas. (Artists John Nixon and Vivienne Shark LeWitt made their first prints for this folio.)

Given the abundance of folio’s it is worth considering whether they are beneficial.

Folios provide an opportunity for many artists to make prints, including non-printmakers and this allows their works to reach a wider audience. Creating prints for portfolio commissions does not usually involve financial outlay by the artist so it is beneficial to them. The marketing of prints in folios helps to reach new audiences, particularly corporate clients, and clients of charity organisations.

However on the negative side, prints in folios are not usually available individually, so while the unit price of each print is low but the price of the whole folio may still be very expensive. The restrictions of size, themes, number of colours etc., may limit creativity. From the point of view of public collections, folios can lead to unnecessary duplication of collections. (It is preferable for collections to represent artists by different works.)

Another method of custom-printing — as yet relatively unexplored in Australia for fine art printmaking — involves industrial or commercial printers. They have been used occasionally by Australian artists for various reasons, sometimes because an artist has not had access to any other means of printing editions, sometimes because artists wish to make very large editions and/or want the work to have a mass-produced look, and sometimes because of technical factors, such as the use of unconventional materials which require industrial methods. However there is still a large amount of suspicion and resistance to this method by many artists.

The advent of new technology in printmaking, such as computers, photographic means and photocopiers, has brought with it new problems regarding access to equipment and technical skills and so has opened up new forms of collaboration in the making of a print. Rather than, or in addition to, the traditional artist/printer collaboration, artists may work with people such as computer experts or photocopier technicians.


Since the first tentative custom-printing ventures in Australia in the 1960s, the facilities for and acceptance of custom-printing has grown immensely in Australia. This has been encouraged and facilitated by publishers, dealers, art advisers, master printers and by the proliferation of print folios. In the early 1990s the heart of this activity is in Melbourne.

Specialist printmakers may use custom-printing to ensure a professional quality edition, but it is contemporary artists without any printmaking background who are the most significant customers. These newcomers, unhampered by knowledge of printmaking techniques and traditions, are often more vital and experimental, challenging the boundaries of the medium.

Custom-printing has become a significant part of contemporary printmaking practice and is likely to remain so for some time.

© Julie Robinson, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.