Two California Poster Artists
Original article by GLENN LONEY, published in American Artist, May 1969. Reprinted with permission.
SAN FRANCISCO is the fountainhead of psychedelic and neo-Art Nouveau poster art. But it is also the home of some most unusual posters, stressing novel applications of collage and printing techniques. These arresting, colorful works are the creations of two young artists, David Osborn and Charles Woods.
As students of art history at the University of California, they became convinced that there must be more to art than counting halos in medieval religious paintings. So they formed a partnership which has resulted in a number of commercial projects— package and product design, advertising, interior decoration—and a handsome array of graphics, ranging from the striking posters to postcards, bookplates, verse cards, wrapping papers, and greeting cards.
The act of creation, with the excitement and absorption it generates, seems the major cause for much of their output; for they discuss various design projects with real affection and animation. Fortunately, their daring use of color and their instinctive feeling for effective composition have made all their creations eminently salable, with the result that they now have charming and crowded stores in the early California towns of Monterey and Nevada City. And how did they get started on collage posters?
Woods: We had been working on a series of banners for a restaurant. They were cut-out collage in black-and-white. Instead of using them for patterns for a printing process, however, we delivered the black-and-white collages with color notations to a maker. Then they were all made just as flags are.
Osborn: Of course, they were rather expensive. Then we got the idea for a more inexpensive method of reproducing decorative works. Before that, both of us had worked in silk-screen, but with an extremely limited output. Fifteen or twenty-five prints would be all we would make of a subject. But it is absurd to say we are going to make only fifteen, and, therefore, they will be more valuable. There is no reason for that. Five thousand of these can be run, really.
Loney: Yes, but isn’t it the collectors’ idea that the fewer there are, the better investment it is for him?
Osborn: Yes, but that has very little to do with it.
Loney: How do you choose a subject?
Woods: We’re pretty well hung-up on subject matter. We keep flying from it, but we have to come back to it. It is some kind of a compulsion.
Osborn: I think we learned that in religious illustration. That is one of the few fields where there is any symbolism that has meaning to a great many people. Here are two figures standing under a tree in a garden-it means nothing. If you say “Garden of Eden,” there you are! Regardless of belief, everybody knows what the symbol is.
Woods: It is more or less a universal symbol.
Osborn: We had been working in religious symbolism for a long time—it is a vast resource. Then we had this commission to do these banners for the Galleon Restaurant. We discovered that it was difficult to do secular symbolism—so that people would look at these banners and not treat them as abstract things, but would have some idea of what they meant. So we evolved the idea that for Galleon we would do seas and oceans. Our sources had to come from outside religion. Fortunately, we were both in Art History, and we began to look at old art, old sculpture, hoping that we might be able, in some way, to symbolize the Pacific Ocean, perhaps by using a turtle. We tried to symbolize the Atlantic Ocean by using cool colors, a derivation of a galleon banner with a Scythian medallion, with Northern Lights. Our poster series of Seas and Oceans was a derivation of the banners.
Loney: And how did you develop the poster technique?
Woods: We originally worked in collage and silk-screen. Our initial idea. was to use offset lithography as a more artistic medium—something we could control, and something that was more direct. So we evolved a simple silk-screen technique applied to offset lithography. By silk-screen technique, I mean that of stenciling. Now, offset lithography is a commercial printing process. Usually the initial copy is set up in black-and-white, either by typesetting or by drawing—some method that gets a black image on a white sheet. In turn, this is photographed in either line, or halftone, which breaks up the continuous tone into small dots. A negative results, in which all the clear areas in the negative are printable areas; the opaque areas are non-printing areas. These negatives are, in turn, stripped into light-proof paper, or vinyl masks.
Then photo-offset plates are exposed to strong light through this negative. Photo-offset plates are coated with a photochemical compound, so that areas where the light goes through the negative will be unable to pick up ink. The areas that the light does not hit reject ink. The resulting offset plates have a full image in positive, just as it will eventually be printed. There are different offset techniques, but, I think this is the basic one.
The plate is now set up photochemically to reject and to attract ink. Mounted on a roller it first passes over a series of inked rollers. They transfer ink across the whole plate. Then the plate continues in its revolution, and is washed with a solution—sometimes acid, or water, or sometimes a combination. After that, all the areas that are to be reproduced have ink on them. All the areas that are not to be reproduced have been washed clean. The plate is pressed again, against the rubber blanket, as it continues its revolution, so that the rubber blanket has the entire image that is going to be printed from it. It has picked up the actual ink off the plate. Then the paper enters the press. A polished roller presses it against the rubber blanket roller. All of the ink on the rubber blanket is transferred to the paper, and the paper comes out of the press.
Loney: Is this a rotary press, or is it flat?
Woods: This is flat. The actual printing in a rotary press is the same. By rotary, we simply mean the feeding method, which is continual.
Loney: But are these posters done a sheet at a time?
Woods: Yes. In using a commercial printing process, we felt it would definitely be much easier to get works reproduced. By using the silk-screen stencil technique, we can control the reproduction. We can make it less mechanical, by having less precise edges, keeping almost the craft effect of an original poster. I think I should explain our actual method of creating. First, we usually do rough sketches in black-and-white. I learned this technique from Cameron Booth. We used to do oil paintings in black-and-white, and then apply color on a second painting, having chosen a color palette. It is a backwards way of painting. Some people would call it decorative painting, but it is hardly that. I don’t know quite how to explain it. It is an odd way of working. It really is a Germanic approach. I think Booth learned it from Hans Hoffmann.
Osborn: I think the mistake we make is that half the time we should leave things in black-and-white.
Loney: But don’t the colors sometimes fade out some of those values?
Woods: Yes. Then the result is not the same at all.
Loney: My feeling about several of your posters is that some of the chosen colors are too much alike. But, I guess you know what you’re doing.
Woods: Well, I hope we do!
Loney: If there were stronger contrasts of color these posters would be more interesting to me.
Woods: Anyway, the second step is to finalize our rough, black-and-white sketches. We do a full drawing on a light-colored or white paper. In some cases, we go to a third step, which is doing a collage—to get that cut-out feeling that all of our things have. I think it’s a sort of Polish race memory on my part—the Poles are great paper-cutters. We do the collage in black paper, over the sketch, using a light-top table, so we can reproduce, generally, the positioning and character of the sketch. I would say at this point, when we do the black-and-white collage, that the poster begins to form itself—we begin to know what it will really look like, as far as the configuration of shapes and line.
While we are doing this, we have to keep in mind that it is eventually going to be in color. It is like three-dimensional chess at this point. When we are done, we should have a rather accurate black-and-white collage. Then we normally choose a color palette—in some cases with only three colors, and, occasionally, five or six colors.
Loney: Doesn’t that make a difference in what it’s going to cost you to print the posters?
Woods: Oh, of course. The more colors, the more cost, and sometimes, we use too many colors—we might do better just using one or two.
Loney: Is there a difference in the price of posters, or do they all sell for about the same‘?
Woods: That is a continual problem; we have to average it out.
Osborn: We prefer never to analyze what the eventual thing will cost!
Woods: Right! After choosing the color palette, we make color notations on the individual areas on our collage. When we begin choosing colors, additional notes are sometimes necessary. For instance, in one of our posters, once the whole collage was done, and we had noted the colors, we thought we would need another color background, or other areas in color. So we made notations on a separate piece of paper that we were going to add additional color that did not show in the collage. We have to visualize how these colors will look. It really is a strange way of working, but I think we are able to get a more controlled color than if we just “messed around.” As for doing actual collages in color in advance, it’s almost impossible, because we’re working in a print medium, using a collage only as a technique to get to the print. I think doing a full-color collage would give us only a full-color collage, which when printed would not look that way.
Loney: Because some colors would be showing through, wouldn’t they?
Woods: Yes, you would have some showing through, because the ink, in some cases, is transparent.
Our fifth step is to lay the lightproof masking sheets, which are used in offset lithography as a medium to hold the negatives. We use them as straight masking sheets. We lay them on top of the collage—again on a light-top table—and we copy or we outline the general areas and outlines of each one of the colors that we intend to use. Each one goes on a separate masking sheet. We keep these in register by using simple pins in the corners, like those lithographers use. We then punch holes with a regular paper-punch, so that we can keep all the colors in relationship to each other. Then we take the masks off. It is an additive process in copying. You can add one sheet on top of the other, until eventually you see the entire poster-—all in outline form—-but with each color separate. You can do this because you can see through these light-proof masks.
Osborn: This is the principal reason for using the light, anyway; it is a convenience.
Woods: Then we cut out the areas we want to print. What we are really doing here is making a stencil. We’re duplicating the role of the photographic negative in the process. Once we have these cut out—this is true of the majority of our posters—we simply give the masks to the photographer for the lithographer, and he uses them as he would a photographic negative, to make one lithographic plate for each color.
While there are multi-color presses now, this sort of thing really has to be done by small printers who want to fuss and who are interested. I don’t know how we really keep printers so long using this process.
Loney: It’s very demanding, isn’t it?
Woods: Yes, it is very demanding. We’re a great bother to have around.
Loney: If the printer is careless and sloppy, the whole thing is ruined?
Woods: Most printing plants are used to turning out commercial printing.
Loney: They like to run through 5000 copies in about ten minutes?
Woods: Well, five thousand an hour, and have it done and over with.
Osborn: It is also not economically possible for them to do otherwise. The only reason that we got started in this, is the fact that we both worked in a lithography printing plant.
Loney: So you know the processes, and what the possibilities are. But that means that you then have to seek out somebody who cares to do something on the side that is a little special.
Woods: Exactly! But this is very pleasant, and a lot of printers do.
Loney: About how long does it take —I mean in minutes—to print a four or five-color poster—with “due care”?
Woods: That all depends.
Osborn: One of the problems is that when we are changing something, or working on our masks and cutting out, we are tying up the press while we are puttering around the light-top table.
Woods: The actual printing part of the process is terribly short. Most presses run 5000 or 6000 impressions per hour.
Loney: Does the press have all the plates on it, or does it only print one color at a time?
Woods: One plate at a time. There is a problem of changing, but that is done very rapidly.
Loney: In other words, in a run of a hundred, you print up one color on a hundred sheets and wait until they are dry? Then you keep doing this for each color?
Woods: And each time the press has to be washed up. It’s great fun. Then you have to change the plate, and “make ready”—which is a dreadful word.
Osborn: You have to run through about a thousand to get a good hundred.
Osborn: To get the print adjusted.
Woods: You see, the ink flows across the press, and it is picked up by the rollers, and then transferred to the plate. Some areas take up a lot of ink, and some areas take very little ink. In a small run of a hundred sheets, I would say that you probably have to run two-hundred-fifty sheets to get a hundred good ones.
Loney: And the paper is expensive?
Woods: Not particularly. Paper is cheap. It is the cheapest part of the whole process.
Osborn: Also, when you are setting up your press, you don’t always use the good paper.
Woods: You use the same sheets over and over again, to get the ink adjusted properly, and the water—if water is used. The proofs become very interesting. You can get great color ideas by looking through old press sheets—color relationships and color overlappings that you would otherwise never conceive of. We do the colors one at a time, and either the printer or we mix the color swatches. Sometimes the ink needs slight alteration, but that again is part of the joy of being right with the printer, and being able to change color right on the press.
Loney: Changing color on the press? That means you have to wash all the plates again?
Woods: Sometimes you don’t have to. In lithography, we usually try to run our lightest colors first. They are transparent colors. They vary in transparency, of course. If we put down a really dense color—in lithography, the darker the color the denser it is—the lighter ones wouldn’t appear at all. Part of the color planning and choosing of the color palette step is determining in what sequence the colors are to be laid down. With silk-screen, we discovered, we did exactly the opposite—we laid down the darker colors first, and the lighter colors afterwards.
Woods: Working at the press gives us a real opportunity to alter shapes. As you can see these things laid out on the press one color at a time, quite often you see changes that you really would like to make. So, you can at that point—when one color is done—take the mask of the next color that is going down and put it over the print on the light-top table, to check where the shapes are falling. We can see if there are any alterations that we want to make. Then we make them in the mask. Or, we just rub them out of the plate, which in some cases, is possible. But, it is very difficult to add to a plate. When all the colors are printed, and the poster is nominally done, we sometimes find it necessary to add another color.
Loney: For accent?
Woods: For accent. In lithography, it is called a “correction plate,” but we don’t like to think that we make vast errors. This plate being the last, it can, in some cases, make the whole composition hold together.
Osborn: The picture will reveal itself.
Woods: In our two silk-screen poster series, we added usually one additional color, and, in some places, two colors. So in planning posters, we usually try to use fewer colors than we think we want, knowing that we will probably add more in the end. Using the offset process does enable us to use a photography technique in areas where we feel it is necessary. On some of our posters, we simply cut out printing type as collage. In others, we want the contrast of the more mechanical type against a rough, craft-like outline. In those cases, we simply had the type set, or designed the type in black-and-white. Then it was photographed and stripped in as a negative onto our hand-cut design.
Osborn: A number of our series have really been almost studies in type. That’s how we created the ticket series.
Woods: Yes, they were an exercise in flat color in a ticket format. Flat color was done, as I outlined, with cutout masks, and then the type was added as an exercise in typesetting and type-contrast.
Loney: But you haven’t done anything quite like this since then, have you? Woods: No, we haven’t.
Loney: How long ago was that?
Woods: Oh, several years . . .
Loney: Was that an early thing with you? You gave it up and have gone on to collage posters‘?
Osborn: No, in our commercial work we have used type.
Woods: Yes. In some of our posters there is a lack of tortured type, which is in such vogue at the moment. I think type has such integrity, that I like using it just for itself. I really hate altering it too much, except where the demands of the design require it. I don’t think it should ever really take over the design of the poster.
What else to say? That’s the process. Basically, it is a silk-screen process used for lithography.