|Black is night skies, gloom, shadows, caves and dungeons; blackboards, witchcraft, chimneys, a punch-to-the-eye. It is negativity, formality, convention, sophistication and seduction. It is the printing press, pigment and photocopiers. It is earth, oil and dirt; life, death, mourning and melancholy. It is darkness, the absence of light, all colours amalgamated and yet no colours. It is a void, a deletion, a censorship, a secret, a mystery. It is the end. And it is the beginning.||In the world of print, black is also synonymous with ubiquity and universality: a colour to embody all colours. Black is words, black is images. It’s a catch-all, an involuntary go-to. We rely on black instinctively to dash off a printed version of a document (you don’t after all resort to printing it in red). If we consider the invention of the Gutenberg press as one of the most significant innovations of the modern world, an invention that ultimately allowed people to communicate in a way they had never previously been able to, then the invention of a stable, indelible, and above all black ink, must play a noteworthy role in that success.||
Alongside ink and press is the engraver. The engraver was tasked with representing the visual world – in all its colourful glory – through black alone. This was a translation of colour, form, chiaroscuro and texture from real-life or paintings, through the use of line, cross-hatch and dot. These marks explored all variations of regular / Irregular, thick / thin, curved / straight, continuous / discontinuous, vertical / horizontal / diagonal, in multiple or alone. These images would have appeared as plates in publications, on billboards and latterly in newspapers. Before photography, this reductive exercise was essential in creating cost-effective and speedy reproductions for print and relied on the incredible skill of the engraver to conjure up in the eye of the viewer, the full gamut of the rainbow, from the sparsest of colour palettes. Later still, Ben Day Tints became the primary means to add shading to line engraving for letterpress printing for almost a century. Patented in 1878, this set of around two-hundred mechanised celluloid tones were used as a way to add tints and shades to chromolithography and photo-engraving. The tints were again patterns of dots, lines and stipples, which were then laid on a lithographic stone with ink.
A Polychromy in Black takes Bideford Black – a unique, natural pigment mined in Devon – and explores its qualities as an ink on a press. As part of my research, over the course of this Arts Council England funded year-long project, I developed a useable letterpress ink from Bideford Black, which is both permanent and quick-drying. The project is also an investigation into light, dark and colour, as discovered in the tones and textures of a selection of paintings, prints and drawings from the Burton Art Gallery & Museum’s collections. Nine artefacts were gathered specifically for both their relationship to Bideford or Bideford’s inhabitants and their exploration of representations of shadow, gloom, darkness or tone. Each artwork subsequently informed a unique graphite drawing, created to form a set of tones for Bideford.
|These Bideford-inspired tones are presented in the gallery as a stack of nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine artworks, printed in the Bideford Black ink on newsprint and free for gallery visitors to take away with them. In keeping with the ephemeral nature of glooms and shadows, newsprint was chosen both due to its association with printed billboards and its volatile nature. Exposed to sunlight, it discolours and warps over time. The tones have also been employed to create a number of Bideford Black-printed collages. These printed collages are adhered directly to the walls of the gallery and will only exist for the duration of the show. Like a shadow, they are not to be permanent or owned.||
Liberty Smith was comissioned to make a documentary film about the artists and their work with Bideford Black. You can see a trailer to the film here. The blog for this project can also be visited here.
Special thanks to: Paul Collier, Letterpress Technician at Plymouth University for his support in printing with my Bideford Black ink; Warren Collum at Burton Art Gallery & Museum for granting full access to the museum's archives; Liberty Smith for documenting all the artists' journeys; and Carolyn Black and Claire Gulliver for their support and interest in the project from the outset.
|Shadow created from Bideford Tones 2003.5977 (The Strange Family Bible) [Bideford ink letterpressed on paper]||Shadow created from Bideford Tone 1991.164 (Bucks Mills Roofscape) [Bideford ink letterpressed on paper]||Shadow created from Bideford Tones 2015.01 I, II (Judith Ackland Looking Out to Sea from The Cabin)||Shadow created from Bideford Tone 1991.90 (Edge of the Punch Bowl) [Bideford ink letterpressed on paper]||Shadow created from Bideford Tone [Bideford ink letterpressed on paper]||Part of the installation, with stack of 999 artworks in foreground||A Polychromy in Black [Publication cover]||A Polychromy in Black [Publication spread]||A sample of Bideford Black||Baked & ground Bideford Black, prepared for ink-making||Making Bideford Black into letterpress ink [Photo © Liberty Smith]||Bideford Black letterpress ink||
A selection of various shadows& darknesses, Burton Art Gallery & Museum
|Creating shadows, glooms & darknesses [Studio view]||Printing final letterpress shadows with Bideford Black ink [Photo © Liberty Smith]|