How Robin White learned to make prints

Robin White Self-Portait Print
This is me at Kaitangata | Screenprint
Credit: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1979/66
In 1981 Dame Robin White was living near Dunedin at Portabello on the Otago Peninsula.  The series of silkscreen (screenprint) prints that White was in the process of completing are now some of NZ's most famous and valuable editions (see  previous article on the record price for a NZ print at auction) - a roll call of instantly recognisable works such as "A Buzzy Bee for Siulolovao" (1977), "Florence and Harbour Cone" (1975)  and "Mangaweka" (1974). In addition to her reputation as a painter White's silkscreens, taken together with the prints of E. Mervyn Taylor and Gordon Walters, are the most significant bodies of work by New Zealand artist printmakers.

In part of an interview she gave with Alistair Taylor for the long out of print monograph Robin White: New Zealand Painter published in 1981 I was delighted to find White telling the whole story of how her printmaking progressed from where she had just "mucked around around with a few things" at teachers' college to producing what are now among the most sought after editions for collectors of New Zealand prints.  

The story of how her printmaking practice evolved was recounted in such illuminating depth (and with plenty of fascinating detail for printmakers about the technical challenges of mastering the screenprinting method) that I asked Dame Robin her permission to re-print verbatim the questions and answers from the interview in NZ Art Print News. She very kindly gave me her permission and I am extremely grateful to her to be able to share this unique insight into NZ printmaking history with our readers.  I hope publicising this wonderfully candid discussion of how she began and developed her printmaking pratice will be an inspiration to other NZ printmakers because through reading this discussion you quickly realise that even for such a revered printmaker in the NZ canon the journey to artistic and technical mastery of the printmaking medium had to start at the very beginning - and cross many practical and inspirational hurdles along the way.

Perspective: Robin White talks to Alister Taylor* 

Alister Taylor: And then, in 1970, you began producing editions of screen prints. How did all that come about, because in some circles you're best known for your prints?

Robin White: I'd done a little bit at school, but not very much, so it was at teachers' college that I explored screen printing in a little more detail. Not to a very great extent, but I mucked around with a few things, then thought nothing more of it. I was at Bottle Creek doing a series of drawings and watercolors and oil paintings of state houses surrounding the school. At 3.30pm school would finish, and I'd stay on, after all the kids had left. School was empty, and I used to sit in the grounds and draw the hills surrounding the school, for a couple of hours until the sun went. Then I'd go home. Initially the hills were bush clad and parts of them were being bulldozed and in square geometric kinds of shapes. The hills in Wellington are very sensuous, much more so than the hills down near Dunedin. These hills where I live now are ancient looking, whereas the hills in Wellington really go up and down, they're very lively-looking. And the stark geometric houses in front of the hills had quite an attraction for me. I began drawing them and painting. It struck me that these images might work well as a mass produced kind of item. Just as the houses themselves were mass produced. And that got me thinking about how you would reproduce an image:  what's the best way? From there, I thought I'd look into screen printing again. So I did that. But in fact the first print I did wasn't one of those Porirua things, it was the Boatsheds at Paremata, which presented quite a simple format. Just a plain hill, a very lovely kind of simple solid shape. And then the elongated shape of the boat sheds in front. So that was my first print. And then I did the Mana Railway Station after that, and then went back to Porirua, and did some prints of the houses and shops there.

Alister Taylor: Did you do the prints as a completely separate thing from your painting, or complementary to it?

Robin White: As a completely separate thing. I've always thought of prints being completely separate. Initially, there's an idea; it may be the Mana Railway Station. If I do a drawing of it, or a painting, or a print, they're all separate, even though they're of the same image. They're all different inasmuch as each medium requires a different approach, a different way of translating the image. I conceive them separately; like the Mana Railway Station. The first image I produced of that was a screen print, then about eight months later I started a painting.

Alister Taylor: So the drawing isn't necessarily a preparation for the painting?

Robin White: In some ways it's a coming to terms with it, but always the painting presents its own battle, its own requirements. And a print is never a reproduction of a painting. It makes its own demands, it has its own life, its own thing going for it. This whole idea is becoming more and more pronounced in my work. Like this latest print I've done - Mere and Siulolovao - there was no preparation for that, the print developed almost as a painting. I did a linear drawing, a sort of basic format for the print, but I didn't do a complete drawing, not did I do any colour rough for it; the print was worked out as I went. When I started off the initial planning for that print, it involved something like 32 colours. It ended up with an awful lot more, because I changed the colours as I went. I overprinted and I reprinted some of the areas as I saw the print develop. So the prints are becoming more and more like paintings in a way.

Alister Taylor: Have your prints changed all that much technically since you started?

Robin White: Very much so. Well, obviously to start with, with the very first prints. I was not only trying to put an idea down on paper, but I was also trying to find out how to print. I was restricted by my own limited knowledge of screenprinting.

Alister Taylor: You hadn't learned that at Teachers' College as part of the course?

Robin White: Only the very basics. What I hadn't come to terms with at teachers' college was the problem of precision in registration. Nor had I bothered about the kind of paper to choose really - that sort of thing. So my first prints were pretty hairy, technically. I was using cotton organdie stretched over the screen, and cotton organdie is pretty coarse; and I was using Heatset dye, which is a water-based screen printing dye for printing onto fabric. The effect was really nice, but it had certain disadvantages. The coarseness of the cotton organdie on the screen, and the kind of semi-transparency of the ink I was using gave a really nice feeling of the screen on the paper; you can see the grain of the organdie. That was rather nice. But I was working with a very limited range of colours because of this problem of registration. I hadn't really figured out a good system to use, it was really just a trial and error thing. I was just making mistakes and figuring out how to put the mistakes right, and that's how I learned. The first print, that one of the Boatsheds at Paremata, had only about six colours, I think, and the Mana Railway Station had about seven: they got a little bit more complicated as they went along. As I solved some of the problems with registration, I started to use more colours, but this provided a problem, because the ink I was using was water-based - it tended to soak into the paper and I got problems with shrinkage, which again presented more problems with registration. So I had to devise ways of placing objects side by side, and using lines to cover the inevitable discrepancies in registration I was getting. Generally I was very limited, so I did two things to solve these problems. I really looked into the business of the kind of paper I was using and started to use a much heavier paper, and I also changed to using Morrison's oil base screen printing ink, which is more stable on the paper - it doesn't make the paper buckle or do funny things; it has a much more bland kind of finish, sort of opaque. Its finish is not as lively, perhaps. It's different, much thicker and more 'painted'. But the result was that I could increase the number of colours, which in turn means the complexity of the print increased. I was given a lot more freedom.

Alister Taylor: And how did you solve the problems of registration finally?

Robin White: Well, the problem of shrinkage almost vanished. However, unless you've got a temperature-controlled working area (which I don't have), your paper will vary in size according to the temperature and humidity of the day. You anticipate these kinds of things happening. So when you cut the stencils you allow for the colours to overlap in some places, and you put a few lines here and there where you might have trouble, and you hope for the best. The results are never perfect. There are always some mistakes.

Alister Taylor: And they add to the individuality of the print anyway.

Robin White: Right. I mean, you just have to be philosophical about certain things. You've got to say this is a hand-produced item which is bound to have certain defects which are consistent and therefore an acceptable part of the print. When I became more confident I upped the number in each edition. The first edition had about 15 prints, and now I produce 50 - well, I aim at getting about 50 good prints from an edition, usually. I don't always make it. Depending on how complex the print is and how many mistakes I anticipate in the course of the print, I choose somewhere between 80-100 sheets of paper to start with, so I'm printing about 80-100 prints and from these I try to get 50 good ones.

Alister Taylor: That must take a hell of a long time to produce, in terms of hours, apart from the pre-production work and conception.

Robin White: Some more than others. This last one I started in the beginning of March and worked on it full-time and finished it about the first week of April, so it took me well over a month - working every day, eight hours a day or sometimes more.

Alister Taylor: Why do you spend that amount of time on a print?

Robin White: Once I start on a print I've got to keep going. It's not like a painting. I can't stop and go and do something else and then come back to it. What I do is have the whole thing basically worked out in my head, but I make a note on a piece of paper of more or less what each run will be. In order to keep that sense of consistency going in my head, I've got to work on a print from beginning to end without a break, otherwise I'm afraid of losing the thread of what I'm doing. A decision you make about one colour at the beginning of a print may not have repercussions until towards the end of the print, so just to keep that thread of consciousness - and to keep control of it - I've got to keep going with it. Especially considering the complexity of some  of the ones I'm doing now. That last one I did was a hair raiser! If you make a mistake with colour you can go over it and reprint it but if you get one colour off register it throws the whole thing. You build up a sense of tension, and that tension in itself creates a kind of close relationship between yourself and the work, which is good.

Alister Taylor: And the sort of decisions you make along the way means that you wouldn't want it to go to anyone else to be printed?

Robin White: No. One print has been printed by someone else (the Print Club edition of Allan's Beach) and I still don't think of it as my print.

Alister Taylor: It's a basically simple print too, in terms of numbers of colours and complexity.

Robin White: Yes. The kind of print I've just done could never be printed by anyone else but me, because decisions are being made as I go. OK, I have the basic scheme in my head, but there are a million minor decisions which are continually being made and changed and redone and rethought as I go. 

Alister Taylor: Any other reason why you prefer to make your own prints?

Robin White: Yes, for example in prints involving large areas of landscape sometimes I paint directly on to the screen with shellac; when I'm building up textured areas, like the large Hoopers Inlet print, there are areas on the print where I paint directly on to the screen; that's something no-one else could do for me really.

Alister Taylor: What's the purpose of painting directly onto the screen, to change the image as you go along?

Robin White: One of the technical advantages of painting directly on to the screen is that you don't have to change the stencil. If you've got an area with three different colours, you can print the first colour over the whole area, block out parts of it, print the second, block out a greater part, and print the third colour. The alternative is to produce three separate stencils, but by painting directly on to the screen, somehow the effect is much more together. And it's also that you feel very much closer to the whole process - to what's happening. The final image has a sense of immediacy and closeness. Screenprinting can be repetitive, boring work. What makes it interesting is this kind of close contact with the final image. The fact that you're seeing it evolve, not as a preconceived idea, but as something growing organically of its own accord as it goes.

Alister Taylor: So in effect you'll carry on making your own prints rather than getting someone else to do them?

Robin White: I think so.

*Excerpt from an interview with Robin White by Alister Taylor, published in Robin White, New Zealand Painter, 1981, reproduced with the kind permission of Robin White 2012.

1 comment:

  1. This really clearly explains how a print can be an original work of art and plenty of work too.Thanks Robin!