The Art of Letterpress

Alan Kitching’s bold, colourful style has made him one of the world’s foremost practitioners of letterpress typography and printmaking. Over a 50-year career that has included work for The Guardian, the National Theatre, British Library, Tate Modern, Penguin Books, and Royal Mail, he has built up an international reputation for his distinctive prints.

Musical Types, from the series Entertaining Types, 2009

Each word in the image is either the first or second name of a famous entertainer, and the title of the series is of a typographic play on words. The collage-like composition was inspired by a billboard site with overlapping torn posters.

Hamlet poster, London Globe Theatre, 2007

The inspiration for this poster for London’s Globe Theatre came from the words of William Shakespeare’s play. Having seen a film version, I was much struck with the double image on screen of the two Hamlets: young Hamlet and his father’s ghost. The text is the soliloquy spoken by the ghost.

I did not have the right size lettering for the poster, so this is a rare instance where I cut my own letters. The printing was done by under-pinning the red with many printings of opaque white to achieve the density of colour I desired.

The text was approached from my choice of emphasis of the words by using the larger sizes of type then working down through the sizes to fit every word into the “ghost” of the name. Italic was chosen because it seemed to enhance the ethereal quality of the work.

Book Burning, 2011

I was commissioned to do a television graphic for the 2011 programme Books: The Last Chapter – part of Alan Yentob’s Imagine series on BBC One – which discussed the rise of electronic books and the shift in the relationship between book and reader.

I chose this quote from German essayist Heinrich Heine, which is now engraved at Berlin’s Orpenplatz where his books were burnt by the Nazis in 1933.

Work for the National Theatre’s Transformation Season, 2002

The National Theatre commissioned work from 12 emerging playwrights. Each of them was asked to nominate a single word from their play, which I used as a basis for a design for posters, leaflets, programme covers and other promotional material.

Endymion, 2012

Over the years, poetry and prose have found a place within the multidisciplinary context of contemporary art.

I am still struck by the elegance of the words in the first line of John Keats’s 1818 poem Endymion.

Cover for The Guardian Weekend magazine, 2001

This was my first job for Mark Porter, The Guardian’s art director, and my relationship with the newspaper continues to this day.

For this article, the now famously explicit and ruthless exposé of the porn industry by Martin Amis, I needed to avoid departing from the attitude of the article, while also appreciating the sensitive subject matter.

It needed a typographic solution. I chose to combine the big, rough-edged woodletters with ‘brushed inking’, allowing the colours, bold type and splashes of ink to sing loudly from the material.

How it works

Letterpress printing is a method of typographic reproduction from a ‘relief’ printing surface, which is inked by a roller and then paper pressed onto the surface to give a printed image.

Kitching at work

The art of typography is the setting and disposition of types (fonts) in various combination to convey text or message in a powerful and meaningful way.

The setting of metal or wood block types is made very particular because of the awkwardness and the unyielding nature of the material. This very material, and the fact I hand-ink the type surface, gives a very tactile and lively appearance to the finished image. This is not done for ‘effect’ but to strengthen the design and help give meaning to the words.

Broadside Number 5, 1992

Go on then, which bit are you interested in? The Design, the print, or maybe it’s sign-writing? Which ever it might be we have the course for you! We’re good to you, aren’t we? Click the course for more info.

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