In the Printshop:
Robert Blackburn's Letterpress

In the Printshop:<br>Robert Blackburn's Letterpress

Today we’ve put together some photos and stories from a day we spent in the printshop with artist Amy Barkow and master letterpress printmaker Amber Heaton at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Studio in Manhattan. Amy and Amber are collaborating on their first edition together -- a letterpress series created by the artist tracing the outlines of text from books (and one magazine), transferring these line drawings to polymer plates and inking the images onto paper through a letterpress. Amy was attracted to the letterpress process both because it best preserved the fine line quality of her work and because of the connection between letterpress and the printed word -- the books and magazines that are the inspiration for her work.

The history of letterpress printing goes all the way back to Johannes Gutenberg’s pioneering movable-type printing press in the 1440s. The printing press based on Gutenberg’s design became the first mass communication technology, and the technique remained the world’s favorite way to put ink onto paper until offset printing began to replace it in the years after World War II. The emergence of photopolymer plates, in the 1980s, provided new opportunities for letterpress printing. The technology allows digital images to be transferred onto plates that are inked and pressed onto paper, replacing the raised-metal type of the old school letterpress. Although letterpress’ five-hundred-year reign as the top of the printing world is likely over for good, the technique remains popular for bookmakers, wedding invitations, and artists who prefer the look and feel of letterpress to offset and inkjet printers. 

The history of the Robert Blackburn Printshop is also impressive. Founded in 1948, the printshop has focused on providing access to leading printmaking equipment and education for all. Classes are available across many printmaking mediums, from etching to photolithography. Amber will be teaching an intro to letterpress class this April.

Measure twice and cut once. Amy and Amber begin planning the registration of each plate.

Among many presses in the studio, the Robert Blackburn Printshop has this beautiful old Vandercook letterpress.


Polymer plates are attached to the bed of the letterpress and then inked and printed in one sweeping motion. It takes some time to get the hang of this. Did we mention Amber is a master printer?

After each test proof, Amy and Amber look for imperfections until they get to a BAT, or bon-à-tirer, which is French for “ready-to-print.”

The results are clearly pages of text, but without any of the content of the words -- only their shape remains. This paradox of meaningless words is most clearly illustrated in the pieces based on the dictionary, a book whose purpose is to assign meaning to words. Amy is trained as an architectural photographer, and some viewers have observed a similarity between her Sugarlift pieces -- with their focus on form and empty space -- and architecture.

She created six different images -- two from the American Heritage College Dictionary, two from Gray's Anatomy, one from the biography of Robert Irwin, and one from a 2013 New Yorker issue. They are each 12" x 16" and are available in white, black and maple frames, or unframed. (When we hung the pieces for the gallery, we chose white.) The black-and-white pieces stand out with their striking clarity and minimalism, and were some of the favorite pieces on view at our gallery opening in November.

Check out all of Amy’s letterpress editions here.