Maker Moment: Talking Materials With The Itinerant Printer
How one maker re-imagines his materials and processes to keep creating on the cutting edge
Letterpress printer and perpetual traveler Chris Fritton works differently than most artists, to say the least. Hosted by studios all over the country—soon to be all over the globe—Fritton packs only ink (bright, sharp DayGlo fluorescents) and paper (Mohawk Superfine 100 Cover Ultrawhite Smooth, cut in two custom sizes) as he traverses the nation from state to state.
In the fall of 2019 alone, he covered most of the West Coast of the United States, with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Reno. This perpetual motion inspired the name he gave himself and his project: The Itinerant Printer.
Fritton wrapped up the decade with a visit to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. There, he celebrated the Library of Congress’ acquisition of his entire collection from his inaugural trip, which spanned from 2015-2017 and resulted in the Itinerant Printer coffee table book.
Following in the footsteps of historical “Tramp Printers,” who traveled from print shop to print shop with just a union card to look for work during letterpress’s heyday, Fritton has structured his professional process to allow him to constantly learn and experiment. (Learn more about the fascinating history of Tramp Printers on Fritton’s website, itinerantprinter.com.)
“Sometimes I visit so many places in such a short span, I almost forget where I am,” Fritton wrote in an email from the road.
Travel fatigue aside, Fritton’s energy for evolving the art of letterpress printing is unrelenting. He is fueled not by nostalgia, but by optimism and enthusiasm for the future.
“I think that letterpress printing is always in danger of being/becoming a novelty,” Fritton wrote. “Like any process that’s been outpaced by newer technologies, it’s viewed as obsolete—and this might be true in terms of pure commercial reproduction, but if you regard the tools and the processes as potential avenues for innovation, it opens a whole new world of possibilities.”
Fritton said he uses the analogy of painting, an art whose history people tend to be more familiar with than printing. Once, painting was seen as a method for depicting people, strictly in the most lifelike way possible. But when painters looked at their paintbrushes differently, everything changed.
“It’s not just because painters picked different subject matter—that isn’t the only thing that changed the trajectory of the medium—it’s because they looked at their tools differently,” he wrote. “They looked at their brush and said: ‘How else can this thing make a mark?’” Impressionism, expressionism, and abstract expressionism followed, inspiring a cascade of styles and experiments in their wake.
Working in the spirit of those bold painters, Fritton walks into each new letterpress shop and asks himself how he can use their materials in inventive ways. “That’s the only approach that’s going to allow letterpress to progress beyond being a novelty,” he explained.
One of his signature approaches is to use a series of inkwipes, watercolor-like streaks of ink that create an abstract, colorful work of art. While some printers use this process as a way to clean and refresh their presses, Fritton uses it as a way to push the medium, allowing the resulting pieces to stand on their own or act as backgrounds for more traditional type and ornamentation.
That doesn’t mean that Fritton shuns a traditional skillset. “You need to learn the rules in order to break them with grace,” he wrote.
Not to mention that while breaking the rules may sound fun and easy, the unpredictable outcomes mean that sometimes, he just doesn’t like what he’s produced. For someone as dedicated and principled as Fritton, the experience of failing can feel devastating.
"One of the greatest things about printing (and life) is that it can never be mastered—it’s an endless climb; a perpetual challenge," he wrote. "I’ve learned patience, I’ve learned forgiveness, I’ve learned perseverance, and I’ve learned how to temper my expectations as well as my own ambition."
Fritton wants artists of all disciplines to know that the principles he lives by are available to everyone, even if they don’t want to take on his radical, itinerant lifestyle. He advises:
“Get out in the world. Take every opportunity to work with other people, especially people you admire. Cold call people, cold email people. The worst thing they can say is ‘no.’ Look at everything critically, but in the most open way. Look at your paper, look at your ink, look at your pixels, look at your press, your printer, your pencil, your paintbrush, and ask yourself: what else can these things do? When you realize things can be more than what they are and can be used in completely different ways, your practice will grow. And then you'll have a whole new tool to master.”