On Thursday afternoon I spent my NUCA time with Sarah, the drawing workshop manager, and the laser cutter in the LRC. I had been told about the laser cutters potential for printmaking by Joe Baker who had used it to engrave on plastic which he was then printing with intaglio. I wasn’t too sure about the results but I was interested in the idea of using a machine to produce a cut print-a computer meets the wood cut.

I am interested in the idea of the hand drawn mark, the autographic mark, being transcribed by machines in some way and I am always interested in the way an idea gets changed as it interacts with technology. It is a way of finding out about technology and the assumptions embedded in the design of the machinery. Of course this is true of paints and pencils and all the other ‘minor’ technologies that are so old and that we are so used to that we barely consider them technologies at all. I have a lesson script for the history of the pencil that I unroll for the children which tries to point out that the pencil has a relatively short history, back to the Henry VIII and a thunderstorm in Cumbria. Most children and a lot of teachers think technology means something you can plug in these days, the word has been usurped.

But anyway. I am interested in this interaction between idea and translation by machine especially as I tend to be a gestural mark maker the idea of a computer translating marks into a material seems intriguing. I took a photo of one of the big drawings that I made at the end of last term with Payne’s Grey acrylic on 50 x 60 cm cartridge paper. These featured in the NUCA show in April. This set of drawings were meant to be somewhere between Lasker and Matta and Guston. Particularly the tiny little forms in the back of some Matta drawings I had seen at the SCVA. They were meant to be cartoon free-associations, comic-book automatism.

Glyph image for the laser cutter.

Glyph image for the laser cutter. Originated as a painted image with acrylic and brush then fiddled with in Photoshop to reduce the colours.

I thought they would work in the laser cutter by being relatively bold and straightforward. I meant the image to be what I believe is called rastered out which means that the laser burns way all that is white in this image so that only the black bits are raised up. Then a roller would be used to put a layer of ink across the raised area, a piece of paper put on top and burnished so that the ink is transferred to the paper. The classic wood cut, as loved by Modernist Expressionists like Beckmann and Co. Another part of the appeal – to take a method associated with hacking and carving and expressive marks in this tradition and rendering it coolly computer generated at several removes from my original mark.

However, part of what is going on here is that I don’t really understand the machines raison d’etre. It is a piece of industrial plant ¬†designed to cut things out and perhaps do a bit of engraving but not really to render woodcuts for me. Rastering out the white bit of the image would take a long time, make a lot of smoke for the extractor fan and would still require sensitive printing to get a result. Sarah suggested cutting the image out of 3mm medium density fibreboard and then gluing the pieces down to make the relief printing block. This, for this image, is a great idea. Sarah had made some tests with a jpeg image I had sent her and when I got there she presented me with this rather fantastic great 800 mm piece of wood with the image cut out and another piece of wood underneath ready to have the top bits glued on, burnt to show where the bits should go. This all done in one go with the laser set to burn through the top piece but not the bottom piece.

Laser Cutter 01

Large laser cut image with base board helpfully scorched ready for top pieces to be glued on.

I was surprised by this as I had been thinking about the prints being 8 x 10 inches, like the etchings so that they obviously fit as a series and we spent the afternoon experimenting with the bits of plywood that I bought with me. The cutter didn’t like the plywood very much and wasn’t happy cutting through it. We had another go with the 3mm mdf and it went through it like no bodies business and I took away tow successful cuts, the large one and a small one.

We also talked about trying to make the accompanying text image into a print. This was part of my interest in the machine aside. If this can render text as a relief print then I could make prints that have that ‘teacher voice’ on or overlaying images. It seems a taller order than I thought and I left Sarah with an Illustrator file to think about it. She pointed out that the text didn’t really full encompass the difficulties of the process and this is true. I hadn’t forseen the complexities of the process at all and I was also thinking about how one would describe it to year seven as well. There is a possibility of a fuller and franker explanation though that wouldn’t be a classroom description. We briefly discussed the idea of a range of signs, each explaining how the previous sign had been made so the wood cut was explained by a screen print and the screen print by an etching and so on.

Large laser cut print.

I haven’t been to school since so it is all in the boot waiting to go to school to be glued down. The car smells strongly of burnt wood. Thinking about it I realise how little I understood the machine. I am disappointed that it won’t practically raster an image and I am prepared to have another go and prepare an image that would need less wood burning away which might help. I like the way that the edge of the brush marks has been rendered by the machine. The gesture is still there but it has been digitised. I am still interested in the idea and I will pursue it further. I like the large scale of the image Sarah cut. It wasn’t my intention but it seems to be part of what the machine can do that my hand can’t. It can cut a far bigger image than I could be bothered to cut by hand far, far quicker. There is also the possibility of experimenting with the machine replicating marks into pattern and repetition. The point has to be what the machine can do that I can’t? What does it extend your capabilities to do? ¬†What is in the nature of the machine that will give the images a distinct look that perhaps reflects the tensions between the history of the Expressionist wood cut, the translation of a brush mark into a cut mark and so on?

I still have a large etching in the print room with an aquatint on it waiting for its final immersion, cleaning and printing plus two 8 x 10 inch plates with grounds on knocking about, waiting for images. There are nine days of school to go and then I am teaching on an ARU summer school and then I shall have a month to ‘be an artist’ for a bit.

The laser cutting through the 3 mm wood to make the second smaller print.