Mistake Vs. Happy Accident: Technique Vs. Art

Oftentimes, a student begins to print and the inking is too light or too heavy, a linoleum carved image is coming out with stray marks, the hand set type contains letters that are wrong or upside down, the paper has fingerprints. And so on. When I learned to be a printmaker, I had teachers who stressed clean hands and perfect inking, and I dutifully followed their instructions. If I said, "But I like it like that," they explained that the viewer needs to know the marks are intentional; the viewer needs to understand that the maker knows what s/he is doing. My teachers helped me train my eyes and hands to see and do. But there is always a tendency to accept the first attempt—hey, it looks good to me because I have nothing to compare it to. And it's exciting to see the plate or the block transformed into a print for the first time, no matter what it looks like. But we have to be able to read it or see it clearly, and what we print today will be compared to all the printing we have ever seen.

The problem here is not one of art, it is one of technique. In printmaking, like many other art processes, there is good and bad technique. The image must print as intended, which is clearly, cleanly, and distinctly, even if they are meant to be scribbles or scratches. The markings are where they are intended to be: no fingerprints, smudges, or stray lines. Usually the intention of printmaking is a clean, clear print. Even a monotype, a painterly print, needs to be printed well so that the art will shine.

Mistakes in technique have nothing to do with happy accidents. Happy accidents include deciding that the final print doesn't have to look like the print you planned in your head. Happy accidents are part of the creative process, not the technical one. Happy accidents are part of the art. Accepting a happy accident can lead you in a direction you never thought to go.

But poor printing is poor printing, not a happy accident. Acceptance, in this case, does not lead to growth. Wrong letters make it look like the printer didn't proofread. Why not practice more? Why not aim higher? Why not continue to learn? It's an ongoing process. By accepting the first print you see you've shut down the process. Same with writing; you're probably going to have to throw out the first sentence, maybe the first paragraph, maybe the first draft in order to refine your craft. You have to challenge yourself. And stay open to both refining your technique and exploring new paths.

From Lightning Strikes A Butterfly, 2002 


Lizzie said…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about good technique.
I was lucky to work with Mariann Johansen-Ellis, a printmaker whose work I really like, for a week last January. She was running some lino-cut courses at her studio in Spain and I went over for the week, to join in.
I was so impressed by her technical knowledge and her clear way of explaining. When I was back in Spain last October, I dropped in to visit her for a short while. She was in the middle of preparing for an exhibition and an open studio event; I was surprised to see her tear up some apparently good prints - but to her, these were not good, because they had some technical error, which made them fail to meet her high standards. In her printmaking instructional videos, she also refers to such issues - and shows herself destroying faulty prints in an edition.
I think it can take courage to maintain the integrity of your work, to be stern with yourself about the quality of your work. But it's only through such resolve and determination that you can keep your work at the high standard that you would like it to be.
I guess that's the difference (one of them!) between a professional and an amateur artist. You have to be prepared to take your work that seriously and to accept no sub-standard work. Even such "greats" as Picasso would destroy items that were not up to scratch!
A lesson for me to take on board, I think...
Anonymous said…
I find I hate a print project when I first complete it, probably because of the gap between my intention and the physical result. I've learned to allow some time before I destroy them, as the some of the flaws recede with time as I learn to distinguish between the happy accidents and the mistakes. Thanks for this clear statement of the difference!