Monday, August 17, 2015

Making the Most Important Print (of my life)

This is a post several months in the making. I had intended to sit down and write this out as soon as I had the prints made, but I'll be a duck's uncle if life didn't have other things in store for me instead! So, better late than never: Federal Duck Stamp Prints: The Making. You can imagine that in a booming move announcer voice, because it was no small task!

Making Federal Duck Stamp Prints has been an enormous piles of lessons, learning, and no little angst. All wrapped up in a conservation burrito! The first agonizing decision was where to have my prints made. The Federal Duck Stamp Print process is entirely independent of the government (USFWS) run Duck Stamp program, and so the choice was mine to make. It was no easy decision and it involved many long nights of research, phone calls, and crunching my financials. In the end, I decided to go with a semi-local printing company that has a reputation for creating high end art prints. I felt it was very important to proof and check the prints in person, which would not have been financially possible for me with a printing house that was not within driving distance. After I first met with the folks at Register Graphics (in Randolph, NY) I was convinced that they were experts with their machines, and that they would treat me right! They also understood the importance of the print job and from the start went above and beyond to do it right.

After having the duck stamp original painting professionally digitally imaged, the printer ordered the special paper we would need (a heavyweight cover with an archival certification) and inks (also archival). They also ordered a finer screen that would allow for a greater DPI than normal.
When creating an offset print, the paper is rolled through a large press with a number of rollers (depending on the number of colors the press is equipped to handle) which layer the image on in ink dots to build up the final image. The screens are what the ink is squeezed through, so a finer screen results in a finer print. See this off-site image for a basic visual example of the screen resolution. It is similar in many ways to other types of printing technology.

Checking the original against the match proof and press proof. Is that enough "proofs" for you?
On the day we were ready to print, I traveled to Randolph early in the morning and began the long process of "proofing" the print. This was a process of carefully trying to match the colors of the print against the original. Since the original had already been imaged, I brought it framed just for added protection. All of the lighting we used were special color-true lamps so that the type of artificial light didn't adversely change the appearance of the printed colors!

Before modern computer technology, this process was very arduous indeed. The printing plates would need to be made (one for each color, generally 4-8 in most cases) from a photo of the artwork, and tuned while 'on press', by varying the amount of ink put down by each roller. If the colors were "off" by too much, an entirely new plate would need to be made. This process was not only a huge time investment, but many materials were wasted, including tons of paper. The bad prints and plates are destroyed. What a headache, and a waste.

The process we can use today saves many of these materials! The worst of the proofing occurs before the print goes to the large press. Small adjustments can be made on the computer via the digital image, and single "match proof" prints can be made from a high end inkjet printer. Once this printout matches the original artwork as closely as possible, a digital process is used to etch the printing plates onto metal using the tweaks made, and then it can be put on the large press. Small color adjustments may still be made by varying the ink levels, but far less paper and plates are wasted!

The proofing process itself actually ended up taking most of a day. There were many jokes to be had about the tubes of "ImpossiBlue" pant I used to create my work, as some of the blues proved to be very tricky to match. By the time we arrived with colors that we were happy matched the original, it was too late to fire the press up and actually print the prints! Yikes. We called it a day and vowed to start fresh in the morning.

The next day started bright and early again with a trip to the Randolph printers. We got things dialed in just right, and ran some proofs off of the big press. With just a tiny bit of fussing, we were there! Time to run the Federal Prints... thousands of them.

Checking the press proof with a loupe.

The prints being made, right before my eyes!

Bigger than pictured: this press is bigger than it looks. It just finished with one of many stacks of Federal Prints, ready to dry and be trimmed.

While the whole process took over two days, and was quite tiring... the real work was just about to begin! Cover "folios" (high end sleeves) had to be printed, as did Certificates of Authenticity. And in the interim, I had a lot... a lot... of prints to sign...

Just a few of the stacks of prints made, waiting to be trimmed... 
As it turns out, keeping track of many thousands of prints, all of which must be hand signed and numbered, and who gets exactly which ones, is a daunting task! When I gazed at the finished stacks of prints, and the many, many boxes of folios, certificates of authenticity, cover sheets, and so on... I tried to image where I might possibly store and sign all of these prints in my home. And I couldn't! My lone small dinner table just wouldn't be enough. Fortunately, the folks at Register Graphics went above and beyond for me yet again. They offered me their conference room to sign and number prints in. I was so relieved and thankful for their generosity!
We had to wait for the prints to fully cure before they were trimmed to size, The next week, my mom volunteered to help me check prints and make sure the numbers were correct. Her help was surely appreciated, and kept what ended up being a solid week of work from being two weeks if I had been by myself!! I want to stress that my mom didn't sign any prints (only I can do that!) but helped me keep track of the numbers via a database we printed out. 

Mom Miller (pictured) checking numbers for me as I take a break! Some of the prints had tiny flaws and were discards. This is only a tiny fraction of the total number.
What an incredible, rewarding, terrifying and interesting process it was! A lot more work that I had ever imagined went into making these. The only other process that I do not have any photographs of was the process of making the gold-plated bronze medallions. The Medallions come with certain editions of the print (such as the Medallion Edition) as a way for collectors, supporters, and enthusiasts to have a special token that they can display with their print. That process involved having a custom engraved die made to mint the metal medallions (in the same process that coins are engraved and minted!). This was also a very interesting thing to have made, and it was neat to see it come together (if, perhaps, a little terrifying in the pocketbook). The only photo I have from that process is the final die that was used to mint the medallions, as a photo sent from the medallion maker.
The Die that was used to strike my Medallions. As engraved by a master engraver, the final product is plated in gold, and gold and silver, respectively. 

Up next: The First Day of Sale Ceremony!