FAQs about printmaking

By Sarah Sakurazawa

This art form involves creating multiple copies of a picture by impressing ink onto paper from images engraved into a metal plate, a block of wood, or other media such as stone or linoleum.

Jean Kubota Cassill learned lithography when she attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Lithography is where an artist draws on a large block of limestone. The drawing is etched into the stone with acid. Because stone is so durable, it is possible to make hundreds or thousands of impressions.

“Marshland,” a linoleum block print done by Carroll Cassill’s college friend Ed Essex in 1952, is an example of block printing. Both studied at the University of Iowa with Mauricio Lasansky. Essex, who had served in World War II as a B-24 bomber aerial gunner, went on to teach junior and high school art in Seattle, Washington, for more than 25 years.

With woodcuts, sharp tools are used to cut lines into a large flat piece of wood. Ink is rolled onto the wood and paper is pressed over the wood to transfer the image to the paper. 

Carroll Cassill occasionally did woodblocks. Later in life, he created what he called print drawings, where he combined media, starting with a woodblock print and then painting and drawing on top of the first impression.

“Morrissey” is a block print of the beloved pet cat of Erik Takuichi Wallace, Carroll and Jean Cassill’s grandson, made by Erik’s partner Whitney Flinn. Flinn is a graphic designer and designed the Cassill Artwork logo.

The artist creates a preliminary drawing of their concept. 

Then they apply a coat of varnish or resist to a metal plate, usually copper or zinc. They use a variety of techniques to etch the drawing into the plate with sharp tools or textured materials. 

The plate is then put in an acid bath which eats away where the varnish has been cut away or removed, leaving lines, grooves and texture in the metal. The artist rinses off the acid and cleans off the varnish with turpentine and sawdust. (Carroll Cassill built a large sawdust bin from the wooden crates in which his press was shipped from France!) 

The plate is heated on a large hot plate and covered in ink. The artist rubs the ink into the grooves left by the acid. Then the artist uses a large ball of gauze, called a tarleton, to wipe off the ink on the surface, leaving only the ink embedded in the lines of the plate. (Jean Cassill notes that the tarletons they used were from a business that sold fabrics for theatrical productions. The same fabric that was used to sew tutus for ballet dancers was used to clean up the plates!) 

Then the plate is laid on the bed of the press on a sheet of felt and covered with a sheet of paper and another sheet of felt. The plate and paper are rolled through the press under tremendous pressure. 

The artist takes the printed paper and tapes it on the studio wall to stretch and smooth out the paper. Once it dries, the print is cut down and can be framed or stored. 

After Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press democraticized access to the Bible and books in 1440, art was not far behind. Printmaking brought art to the people, or at least the middle class.

“The illiterate faithful had for centuries been instructed by wall-paintings and stained glass, but the vast multiplication of images that was made possible by the printed woodcut put this form of communication on quite a different footing, at once more widespread and more intimate,” says art historian Kenneth Clark in “Civilisation.” He explains Albrecht Dürer and his hyperdetailed images of plants and Biblical scenes pioneered making art more accessible in the early 16th century.

Photo of “Revelation of St. John – The Adoration of the Lamb” by Albrecht Dürer from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

So art was no longer just for the nobility. A middle-class merchant might not be able to commission a Rembrandt portrait, but he could afford a Rembrandt etching. Likewise, in the 20th century, few could afford a Picasso painting, but you can get one of his 1958 “Bouquet of Peace” posters for under $100 on eBay. 

Sketches and notes highlight correspondence in the 1950s about transporting the press from the LeBraque studio in Paris and the Cassills’ studio in Iowa.

Every print offered on CassillArtwork.com was printed by the artists on their 100-year-old-plus LeBlanc press. In the LeBlanc atelier’s glory days, its printers produced the artwork of Picasso, Rouault, Braques and others in early 20th-century Paris, but that august printing house fell on hard times during World War II. Carroll Cassill’s older brother, Verlin Cassill, an Army veteran who had studied on a Fulbright fellowship in Paris after the war, discovered the press on his second trip to Paris and was able to buy it for 70,000 francs (about $200) and had it shipped to the University of Iowa, where Jean and Carroll were grad students. For more about the press, watch this video.

Under the byline R.V. Cassill, Verlin Cassill was one of the founding members of the Iowa Writers Workshop, went on to head the creative writing department at Brown University, and published numerous novels and short stories and countless articles in The New York Times Book Review and national magazines such as Harper’s and Esquire.

The artist makes a limited set or “edition” of prints, usually 10-25 prints. After that the metal fatigues after being run through the heavy press roller. Traditionally, the artist destroys the metal plates after the edition is printed to ensure that no lower-quality printings are made. The print should be signed with the name of the piece, the artist’s signature and the number of the edition. For example, “10/25” indicates it was the 10th print from an edition of 25.

All prints on Cassill Artwork were made either at the University of Iowa, the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1957 until the 1970s when the artists built a home studio in Cleveland, Ohio, or at Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress in Bellingham, Wash., after 2008. 

When Jean moved to Bellingham after Carroll’s death in 2008, she hoped to find a good home for the historic press. Kevin Nelson of Bison Bookbinding, a lover of old presses, made an epic journey to Cleveland, where he and some family members disassembled the LeBlanc press, drove it in a truck to Bellingham, and then re-assembled it in their studio

Every piece from Cassill Artwork is printed on Arches paper, a specialty French paper with a high cotton-fiber content. Founded in 1492, Arches is an Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant, a Living Heritage Company certified for its historic knowledge of the highest-quality paper.  According to its website, “Great artists like Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, René Magritte, Salvador Dali, Pierre Soulages, Zao Wou Ki, Roy Lichtenstein, Bernard Buffet, Andy Warhol, Pierre Alechinsky, and many more, have produced some of their major works on Arches paper.”

All of Carroll Cassill’s and most of Jean Kubota Cassill’s works are printed on museum-quality acid-free Arches paper from France using archival inks that were custom blended in the printmaking department at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Jean Kubota Cassill’s works that were created after 2008 were printed with standard production ink but are printed on Arches paper and with the LeBlanc press. 

Jean and Carroll learned to make ink from Mauricio Lasansky, their mentor and professor at the University of Iowa. Ever frugal, they stored the ink in empty coffee cans. 

They mixed their own ink, using a black-ink powder and stand oil, which is linseed oil that has been specially heated. They bought supplies from the legendary Stanley Hayter studio in New York City. Hayter was a printmaker and painter who established studios and workshops in London, Paris and New York, where Lasansky worked before he went to the University of Iowa. Lasansky learned to make ink from Hayter and then taught his students how to make their own ink. In turn, Carroll Cassill taught his Cleveland Institute of Art students and assistants to make ink. 

Jean says that the custom-mixed ink made “a visible difference, smoother and a richer black. It was easier to work with and soaked into the paper better,” she says. Later, when she moved to Bellingham, she used storebought ink because she didn’t have the facilities to make her own ink. 

Bruce McCombs, a student of Carroll Cassill’s who became a printmaker and teacher himself, shot photos of his mentor at work in the late 1960s. Photo by Bruce McCombs

Most of the frames for framed art on CassillArtwork.com are hand-made by Carroll Cassill. They’re not fancy or professional grade, but they have heart and heritage. 

After growing up on an Iowa farm, Carroll Cassill always took a do-it-yourself approach. For example, he and some students built the large sawdust bin needed to clean ink and resin off printing plates. When it came to framing his and Jean’s prints, he would often scrounge around at the art school to find scrap walnut or maple wood left over from industrial design projects to use for frames. 

Photo of Mauricio Lasansky courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries

No one had greater impact on Jean and Carroll Cassill’s art than their University of Iowa professor and mentor Mauricio Lasansky. In 1966, TIME magazine called Lasansky “the nation’s most influential printmaker.” 

Born in Argentina to Lithuanian immigrants, Lasansky studied on a Guggenheim fellowship in the 1940s with the renowned Stanley Willian Hayter at Atelier 17 in New York. In 1945, he established a printmaking program at the University of Iowa, where he sparked what became known as a post-war renaissance in American printmaking, similar to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jean Cassill remembers that Lasansky had a map of the United States in his office with pushpins that showed where his students had gone on to teach. 

In 1967, an exhibition of Lasansky’s powerful “The Nazi Drawings,” along with show collections by Louise Nevelson and Andrew Wyeth, were the first exhibits displayed at the rebuilt Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. 

Carroll’s fellow student and friend Ed Essex recalls that Lasansky “radiated energy and was loved. He was always positive, with never a critical word.” In the program notes for Essex’s 60-year print retrospective at the Washington State Convention Center, he said of Lasansky, “his classrooms were a dynamic community of people teaching each other, with Lasansky at the center working on his own prints in constant demonstration.” 

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