The World of Northwest Coast Printmaking
With gallery life quieting down a bit over the last few weeks, we thought we would take the opportunity to put together a Spring Newsletter that we have always wanted to write but never quite had the time to give it the full treatment it deserves: the unique and multifaceted world of Northwest Coast printmaking! We’re delving into this remarkable art form, looking at its varied techniques and technologies, and its evolution, from the earliest iterations to the most contemporary releases, to truly appreciate this diverse and colorful medium.
Ben Davidson Print Release, April 2020
Llgaay Gwii Sdiihlda means to restore balance. According to my father-in-law, it applies when we are about to fall, but we manage to catch ourselves before we fall. I chose to name the print Llgaay Gwii Sdiihlda because I believe that even when we are in a state of uncertainty, we still have the ability to regain our balance.
Click here to view our complete selection of limited edition print series and other original works.
Techniques and Technology
Artists and collectors alike consider limited edition prints quintessentially a part of Northwest Coast art culture. For decades, prints have proven fundamental in extending the reach of Indigenous artworks and establishing the contemporary representation of Northwest coast cultures in private and public collections.
Printmaking technologies have deep roots in many cultures around the world, dating back centuries. Many contemporary printmaking techniques have roots in ancient Chinese and Japanese cultural practices that made their way to Europe around the 18th century and then over to North America in the 1900’s. While printmaking was considered a more industrial process used to reproduce images for commercial purposes, American artist Andy Warhol is largely credited with elevating the practice and popularizing prints as collectible, valuable art in the 1960’s.
Interestingly enough, Warhol had quite an extensive collection of Northwest Coast art and had, on occasion, met Bill Reid. We’ve heard, one night, they had dinner at a Northwest Coast restaurant known as the Muckamuck at Davie and Bidwell, back in the early 70’s. It would be intriguing to know what had been discussed at that dinner.
Today, screen printing, or serigraphy, is the most common form of print production in the Northwest Coast print world. To accomplish this technique, an artist uses a mesh screen stretched over a frame to transfer ink onto the surface of a material – for example, paper or silk. The ink, which is pushed through the mesh with the aid of a squeegee, imprints onto the material, except in areas that are blocked by a stencil. Using a series of stencils, each color is applied separately, building the image one color layer at a time.
A printmaker pulls his squeegee along the metal mesh of his screen.
Woodblock printing is just as it sounds – an image is carved in relief onto a block of wood, essentially creating a stamp that leaves behind the mirror image of the carved design.
Not many examples of woodblock printing exist in Northwest Coast printmaking, though Bill Reid was known for creating several series of printed editions using this technique, such as the charming Haida Frog series, printed on Sugi Veneer.
A laser-cut woodblock featuring Bill Reid’s Dogfish design, c. 1980’s.
Giclée printing, a term originating from the French verb “gicler”, meaning “to spray out,” refers to high-quality, fine-art digital printing that developed in the 1980s and 1990s. A high-resolution, large format printer uses dyes or fade-resistant archival inks in a wide gamut of colors to create crisp, vibrant images.
Print Making on the Coast
The practice of printmaking in Northwest Coast art can be seen as a continuation of the long-standing tradition of two-dimensional imagery depicted on dance screens, painted boxes, and blankets, amongst other decorated objects and regalia.
Interior of a Tlingit plank house.
In the late 1960s, a young Robert Davidson, who had learned the basics of silkscreen printing during his high school years in Vancouver, began experimenting with the art form in Bill Reid’s studio on Pender Street, where they had turned an extra bedroom into a print studio.
Between 1968 and 1978, Davidson honed his craft to produce a unique series of art prints, many commemorating milestones in his life. These prints are now highly collectible works, and it is always exciting when they make their way into the Gallery’s collection.
During this time, Davidson encouraged artists in his circle to take on printmaking to promote the circulation of authentic Indigenous artworks, and Northwest Coast prints became highly popular and sought-after works by locals, tourists and collectors. From this point forward, all artists were encouraged to follow the standardized protocol using high-quality materials, and editioning and signing their works to increase the collectability and value of the artform.
Printmaking in the Northwest Coast art community today is prolific and has created space for artists to experiment with traditional designs and colours. It allows for the creation of unique and often affordable works that extend the reach of the art form.
It’s impossible to talk about prints in Northwest Coast art without a focus on the contributions of Coast Salish artists. Salish designs are entirely unique and are easily differentiated from the more northern formline style of the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Tsimshian and Tlingit cultures that many affiliates with coastal Indigenous art.
Comparative imagery courtesy of Perpetual Salish: Coast Salish Art in the Classroom. http://uvac.uvic.ca/gallery/salishcurriculum/
Where the language of northern-style formline comprises u-forms, ovoids and tri-negs to create the outline of the designs, Coast Salish formline tends to represent designs in the negative space in between, using ovals, trigons and crescent shapes.
Inspiration from the Past
A commonly referenced image in Salish work is the circular spindle whorl. Spindle whorls were an everyday object in Salish households, often decorated with designs ranging from simple geometric forms to elaborately carved figures. Women used these tools to spin the fine mountain goat and dog wool fibers that were used to weave intricately designed blankets. Blankets were considered a sign of wealth and prosperity amongst the Salish, and the reinvigoration of traditional weaving practices continues to place importance on textiles in modern Salish culture.
Woman spinning yarn at the Coast Salish village of Musqueam. Charles F. Newcombe, December 5, 1915.
Spindle whorl, before 1912 from the Seattle Art Museum Collection
Spindle Whorl Installation (1995) at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) by Musqueam artist Susan Point
Renowned Musqueam artist Susan Point has featured this Spindle Whorl design in over seventy of her print editions, emulating the centrality of weaving in Coast Salish customs that continue to this day.
Many Salish artists, influenced by the prominence of Point’s work, integrate the Spindle Whorl imagery into their own print series and continue to evolve traditional Salish formline design to create images that represent who they are as contemporary Salish people. Susan has even passed on her dedication to printmaking to her own children, continuing a family tradition and ensuring that Coast Salish works reach audiences far and wide.
Prints and Originals
It is often the case that artists create print editions based on original work, though sometimes the opposite is the case. There is no real standard in terms of dating a print series that has a corresponding original work; many artists feel that the prints should be dated to the date of the original, not the date they are created, while other artists feel differently.
Robert Davidson working on an original canvas.
An excellent example of this process is seen in Robert Davidson’s limited edition print, Mouse Woman, that he released in 2016. Davidson created the original acrylic painting in 1983 and revisited the design 33 years later to release the print edition. It’s interesting to note that, at such an early point in his career, Davidson was already experimenting with the manipulation of formline format with the original Mouse Woman painting, pushing the boundaries of what many considered traditional.
Similarly, Bill Reid created this Raven painting in 1972 that he gave to his printmaker as the original reference to his Raven print edition. In early print making, artists often concentrated on making a series of prints, and were not so concerned with an original painting. In this painting, you see that this is more of a working drawing rather than a fine-line painting as Reid has changed elements of the design, cutting out pieces of paper and gluing them on top to alter the image.
Cree artist Val Malesku finished the original painting to her popular print series, Salmon Eggs Unleashed, in 2020, seven years after the print series was released. Given the original concept was created in 2012, Malesku dated the canvas to 2012 but made a reference note on the back of the piece indicating the painting was not completed until early 2020.
Paintings, however, are not the only originals that can inspire, or be inspired by, a print series. Jay Simeon (Haida) recently completed this dynamic panel which he has entitled Still I Rise, a self-portrait piece that speaks to his overcoming adversity. The panel itself is deeply carved and very dimensional, while the imagery would translate beautifully to a limited-edition print series. Maybe we’ll see this as a print series one year.
We are open…
We hope you are all doing well in these uncertain times. Although the doors to the gallery are locked, we are still working inside with reduced staffing and physical distancing practices in place to make sure we are available to clients wishing to make purchases online or pick up items from the gallery. We continue to update our website and ship works within Canada, and internationally, using FedEx and Canada Post.
Last week, we launched a new re-design of our website! If you haven’t visited the site lately, this would be a great time to see the new look.
Let us know what you think!