The rapid evolution of printmaking began almost instantly after the revolutionary technology was first developed. Only 50 years passed between the establishment of early printmaking (circa 1400) and the mass production of various objects of cultural importance, from playing cards and devotional images to engineering schemes and medical records. By the early 16th century, printmaking started impacting art history, playing a critical role in the start of the great art historical period known as the Renaissance. The newly widespread availability of images from the Classical past reproduced as prints allowed, for the first time, a diverse range of artists to study the ancient works, to be inspired and learn from them, and to develop and refine their own skills accordingly. The technology continued to progress over the centuries, eventually introducing colour into what had previously been only a black and white process and refining the production technologies to make them accessible to an even wider population. Today, 21st century printmaking represents a multitude of functions and variations and is recognised as one of the most popular and accessible art mediums to have ever existed.
19th century print press, Nationaal museum van de speelkaart, Belgium
There are four main categories of printmaking: relief, intaglio, planographic and stencil. Relief printmaking is the oldest type, achieved by carving on wood or metal and then printing on raised surface. The intaglio method soon followed, under which multiple techniques were developed: engraving, etching and drypoint. Engraving involves carving onto a metal plate to create a design which is far more detailed than relief printmaking. Artists such as Albrecht Dürer practiced that technique alongside their regular painting practice. By the 18th century, etching became more popular and was used by the most acclaimed masters of the time, including Rembrandt. The technique, which is considered an easier process than engraving, involves the use of a strong acid or mordant to dissolve away the parts of metal surface that are unprotected to create a design. Over time, mezzotint and aquatints introduced half-tones and various shades of grey into the usually black and white images, and intaglio artists started to use dotting, cross-hatching and stipple to achieve more subtle and detailed effects. Lithography is one of the first planographic methods of printmaking, in which the non-image portion of the design is created first, and then inked and pressed onto a surface to create the image.
The 20th century saw rapid advances in technology which in turn greatly influenced printmaking. These new technologies, as well as modified traditional methods, gave rise to new media and the introduction of novel methods and materials into familiar processes, creating innovative techniques such as linocuts and silk-screen printing. In the latter half of the century, this tremendous technological development eventually led to the paradigm-altering introduction of laser and ink jet printers into the equation, with the endless possibilities of digital printmaking currently being explored by new media and digital artists.
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, From The Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut
These new possibilities are what initially inspired Josh Rowell to create his first-ever print – the visually arresting Virtually Fragile #17. The inspiration came from the digital aesthetic of the series itself and the link to technology which is emulated through the printing process, tying the conceptual element of the medium with the practical side of its creation. The print is a part of Rowell’s ongoing series – Virtually Fragile – which depicts images of broken laptop screens with the intention of exploring the boundary between the real and the virtual, where the screen is understood as the final barrier between these two worlds. Through these seemingly abstract – but in fact totally real – images of actual broken laptop screens, Rowell stresses the fleeting nature of the virtual world. At any given moment we are potentially seconds away from dropping our digital device and losing our connection with the virtual, hence the title of the series which seeks to illuminate the fragility of this connection.
The Virtually Fragile #17 print started as a painting on paper which was then scanned by an incredibly powerful machine called a Cruse scanner. The scanned image was then taken to the print studio at Jealous Gallery, the most experienced printmakers in London for fine art prints, where it was digitally printed onto Hahnemuhle paper. The last step was a varnish overlay, applied by hand on each individual print, to give the image the same vibrancy as the original painting. Rowell hopes that with the release of this print his art will be able to reach a wider audience, in keeping with his and the Neon Team’s belief that art should be made accessible to everyone. He greatly enjoys the printmaking process and the refreshing immediacy that it provides, as his paintings are incredibly labour intensive and generally take months to produce.
Josh Rowell, Virtually Fragile #17 (VF #17), 2021, digital print
Prints, as with all works on paper, require careful treatment due to their fragile and delicate nature. Rowell stresses the importance of framing prints in order to prevent damage from UV light (which will fade the colours), dust, humidity and pollution. Just as with any work of art, prints should be treated with care to avoid physical damage which can result in paper folds, tears, scruffs and dirt marks which are sometimes impossible to remove. Rowell suggests that a simple frame, either plain black or white, will work best for Virtually Fragile #17 as it will not interfere with the vibrant colour palette of the print. However, he encourages conversations with trusted and experienced framers who can suggest other possibilities.
The Neon Gallery team is extremely proud to release this stunning work and hopes that our friends, collectors and visitors will share our appreciation and passion for the enormous power and significance of print, which Josh Rowell is pioneering within the Neon collection.
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of a Woman after Cranach he Younger, 1958, linocut
(Image copyright: Succession Picasso/DACS 2021)