Third Bay’s “Print Is Alive” poster is a tour de force in letterpress

[Tom Biederbeck] An exceptional creative achievement, a particularly adroit maneuver, a difficult feat: The definition of tour de force — perfectly describing the masterful poster produced by Martin Venezky and Third Bay Letterpress. Here, I talk with Third Bay’s proprietor Jeff Towner about the printing dimension of the project … and unexpectedly get an education in letterpress.

Last week we spoke with Martin Venezky about creating the art for the poster. What’s your take on its very overt message?

Print has taken a hit as far as media dollars go, people cutting back on budgets. I wanted to do a poster that celebrated that print is alive. It’s still here and very viable.

Doing the poster letterpress makes it that much more “present,” because it’s a touchy-feely thing. You can look at it and “read” dimension. It talks to you.

Tell us about the technical challenges involved in producing the poster.

There were five colors: two blues, a black, a yellow and red. The darker blue had to be run as two separate passes for coverage and control. This is serious business — anyone who does letterpress will understand it’s not an easy thing to do.

If you design within the parameters of letterpress, you can really have a blast. There are some things you can’t do as well. Registration is difficult. Each time you feed a sheet of paper into the press to place an image, you’re pushing the sheet — you’ve distorted the sheet; the surface has changed. With each subsequent imprinting, it will continue to distort. You always need to be concerned about surface.

The stock we used on this project [see more below], Strathmore Writing, really handled the pressure well.  We used the 130lb, which has enough mass to take an impression, but it’s also stiff enough that it doesn’t distort. It holds up to a pounding.

[Printer Jim Wehlage at the Heidelberg KSBA cylinder letterpress]

My partner Jim Wehlage, our pressman, has been doing letterpress for 40 years. He relates back to the early ’80s, when people started to ask for letterpress to be debossed into the stock. Before that time you really weren’t distorting the paper. The textural element is really pretty much the reason why people want to do letterpress today.

How did the exchanges between you and Venezky affect what could be done within the technical aspects of letterpress?

This is the sweet part of the project: the fact that Martin’s design could live with whatever we came up with on the press. It didn’t have to be perfectly registered. The art didn’t have to have the blue or yellow dead-on, side-by-side, no overlap.

If you look at the poster, one of the words, ALIVE, is rendered in green. By trapping the blue over the yellow, it created green. Martin knew if he overlapped these colors, he’d get a secondary color. Some people might look at it and say, “That’s out of register.” But it’s totally part of the art.

That makes me my job a lot easier. Making micro moves on a letterpress can be difficult. Martin definitely designed with that in mind. If there are overlaps or if it’s slightly off, it’s psychedelic in the best sense of the ’60s, where you sit there and kill your eyes.

I think he lets the printing process take its own twist and add to the progression.

[Wehlage and Towner with the finished poster]

Any fun moments you recall from the project?

We’re signing the poster after it’s finished, and I put my pen down to look at Martin. He has his hand over his mouth, and he says, “Your signature is beautiful. It really looks good.” He starts analyzing my signature … so much so that he says, “Yours looks better than mine.” He’s serious. I ask if I should work on my signature, and he says, “No. There’s nothing wrong with your signature.” I say it’s just my signature. “But look how you curved the J and you pull up the T ….” It was hilarious — shows you how focused he can be.

Technical specs:

• Printed by Third Bay Letterpress, designed by Martin Venezky
• Printed on 1967 Heidelberg KSBA cylinder letterpress w/soy-based inks & solar power
• Strathmore Writing, Ultimate White Bristol Cover, 25% cotton, 130cb (352gsm)
• 17 x 22 in.
• Signed by Martin Venezky; available at the Felt & Wire Shop

Learn more about Jeff Towner, Jim Wehlage and Third Bay Letterpress here. In addition to his experience as a printer and art director, for two decades Jeff Towner has taught printing for artists and designers at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

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