Printing for artists.

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Printing for artists.


Leveson, Neil.


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



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Neil Leveson: Haven’t worn my glasses before so it’s a choice betweenlooking at you people or looking at my nose

Printing for artists.
by Neil Leveson


Haven’t worn my glasses before so it’s a choice between looking at you people or looking at my nose.

I’ve not stood before so many people before since I was a rock in the Julius Caesar play, about twenty years ago. So, if I become a rock again you may ask me some questions. It might make it easier for me, okay? 

I’ve been asked to speak on custom printing and I’d like to do so firstly as a printer, and secondly as the Director of the [Victorian Print] Workshop. The best way to do that is to say how I got into printing, because everyone probably comes at it in different ways.

After art school, some travelling and teaching I decided that, contrary to some of the opinions about the democracy of prints, filmmaking was probably a more democratic form for the visual arts. One, because of the audience it could reach, and two because all of the people who work on the film get a credit, unlike printmaking sometimes, and it is never a commodity in the sense that most other visual art forms have increasingly become.

You begin in the dark and you end in the dark, and that’s probably the story of my life, a bit sometimes. So, armed with this idealism I went to England to make my great epic on the human condition. At film school my first project was to direct an interview, hardly the epic I envisaged before leaving Australia. Anyway, after considerable anguish I decided to interview the spider–keeper at the London Zoo.

As it turned out, he was ill, and instead I was obliged to interview the elephant keeper, which is a bit like the small prints versus large prints. Anyway, full of enthusiasm I set off with my crew and collaborators to the zoo. It suddenly struck me that this was the first time that I had had to share my vision, and democratic ego, with others.

Arriving at the concrete elephant enclosure, which was a bit like an inverted swimming pool, and certainly echoed like one, we set about the business of collaborating. We put the elephant keeper up in front of his favourite elephant, adjusted the lights. I discussed framing and angles, zooms et cetera with the camera man, and went over to my subjects with the sound recorders to begin.

I was a little hesitant because I was being observed by what seemed to be about 6,000 London school children. However, I eventually croaked out ‘Action!’ and the interview began. The lights went on and nothing happened how I imagined it would. Pointing straight at the elephant the lights served the double purpose of half–blinding the poor creature, while at the same time throwing his shadow onto the wall at about ten times his size.


Traumatised by what he took to be a giant predator, or the ghost of one of his ancestors, he spun madly around in circles, almost trampling the keeper and causing panic amongst the onlookers, my collaborators and myself. In the safety of the cutting room, I looked at my rushes. They’re a little bit similar to proofs, rushes. The sound was completely inaudible, and apart from the lens zooming in and out to the elephant’s bloodshot eye, all else was blackness.

My first attempts at filmmaking were almost the end of my efforts. I resented entrusting my vision to others, and the financial constrains that restricted the time needed to perfect things. I did go on to actually enjoy collaboration, particularly when I was the boss.

So, after about 8 or 9 years of slightly more successful filmmaking I returned to Australia. I really knew no filmmakers when I got back, although I knew some artists. I had the opportunity of working for Crawfords or Grundys and making soap operas, and a couple of friends of mine, the artists John Robinson and George Baldessin had set up a press called Druckma Press, and asked me if I’d like to earn my bread and butter trying to make some prints with Fred Williams.

Our first few attempts were similar to the elephant film in that there seemed to be an inordinate amount of blackness. It was a luxury then; we probably worked with Fred for about eight weeks. Eventually we turned out a suite of 12 lithographs. I think the last two were very good and they were in colour, which was amazing. I didn’t know you could do that, at the time.

So, with the relative success of printing those, and Fred’s esteem that brought us in more printing, with artists like John Olsen and particularly John Brack, who supported the workshop a lot through that time. Charlie Blackman and Noel Counihan. However, although we did many editions the work was not consistent enough for any of us to live on. Printeries at that time — there were a few other printeries — got it in dribs and drabs.

When George [Baldessin] was killed Druckma Press broke up, and John Loane came to see me and asked if I would do a day or two’s lithography at the [Victorian Print] Workshop, which I did. Eventually, when John left, I left RMIT to take up the directorship, about a year ago.

I think the workshop was originally set up as an access workshop, and there has been a little bit of criticism that we’re doing custom printing from time to time but, I mean, there was still nowhere for artists, particularly to do lithography.

Fred Genis was doing it North of Sydney, but he co-publishes with his artists. For artists who wanted to work with a printer and just pay a fee, there was nowhere to go. And also, the Government subsidy was about $50,000 a year, if I remember rightly, when John started. It was still $50,000 a year last year, so the custom printing had to grow to make up the shortfall in real money.

A major problem with custom printing is that it is very labour intensive and good printing takes time. Therefore it is expensive, and I think the way it works now is very unsatisfactory because too often the artist and a printer are inhibited by cost. I think the big challenge for me at the Workshop is to talk to dealers to see if they really want to put money up and help their artists to make prints, or we’ll have to encourage artists to work with printers on a basis where they co–publish and wholesale to the dealer.

The average money coming in on prints for the workshop is approximately ten percent, on an edition, of whatever an artist sells it for. It usually works out, at point average, at around ten percent of what the artist sells it for. I think it should be nearer 20 or 25% to equate [to] that energy to coming in.

At the moment, there are several dealers who are very enthusiastic about their artists making prints, and they’re helping. The other way we can do it is to seek sponsorship. The workshop has never very actively sought sponsorship, and one of the ways we’ve thought might help it is to change the name of the workshop, which we’ve just done two weeks ago, and it’s now going to be called the Australian Print Workshop, because some of the sponsors wanted to associate with something more national. So, in a couple of weeks it will be called the Australian Print Workshop.

John [Loane] covered collaborative printmaking very well, I thought, because what interests me, and it did in films too, is what I would call ‘the search’, and printmaking demonstrates this fantastically, and collaborative printmaking fulfils this for me completely.

People will think my speech is very short but people have been quoting Proust a few times over the last few days. One of my favourite quotes of Proust’s is ‘People of this world are so involved with their own stupidity that they can only appreciate artists who are not of their own world.’

The mood of this symposium has demonstrated a marvellous camaraderie, and a celebration, and when we leave here I hope we can maintain that.

Thank you.


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