Issue Number: 114
Chris Orr RA, 'Full Steam Ahead!', 2011. Lithograph. © the artist. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Chris Orr RA is showing his lithographs and a film of his working processes in the Tennant Gallery. Here he explains the unique qualities of this medium
Sir Joshua Reynolds, in a classic put-down, described printmakers as ‘mere ingenious mechanics’, but the history of art is full of examples of artists who have made some of their most important work through printmaking. When lithography was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder it was promoted as the ‘chemical method’ of printing. Artists valued the directness and the richness of drawing and painting effects that were made possible, as well as being able to print an image on a large scale.
The process of lithography depends on the physical antipathy between grease and water and some artists maintain that for the best results lithographs should be made on blocks of Bavarian limestone. In contrast to etching and engraving, which translate ideas into line, lithography prints from the artist’s original drawing. Brush mark for brush mark, drawing for drawing, lithography faithfully transfers the intentions of the artist’s hand. The lithograph is a full-blooded ghost of the original work, but it is also a metamorphosis of the work into something that cannot be achieved by drawing alone. The artist has to work directly onto large lithographic stones and once the prints have been made the image is obliterated and the stone made ready for a different image to be created. There is no going back. Lithographs really are limited editions.
Lithography, with multiple colour printing, offers great possibilities for creating space. It is described as ‘planographic’, ie. the printing surface is completely flat, whereas etching and drypoint leave plate marks (indentations in the paper caused by the edge of the plate). With lithography merging and morphing layers of images leave no visible plate marks.
With the awakening of the digital age I started making lithographs combining photo-mechanical and hand-drawn methods. Semiantics (2001) a series of four lithographs, focused on the ‘syntax of collisions’ found on the internet. For example, a news item might appear in a box featuring a disaster while in another corner there might be an ad for Viagra. Information loses its value and simply collides.
My recent lithograph (with additional silkscreen colours) Full Steam Ahead! made at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen, puts fragments of stories within a ship reminiscent of posters for transatlantic liners of the 1930s. Its positive message is a dictum I adopt when making prints and living my life.