Fit To Print

Local artist David B. Smith bears royal recognition for his lithographic skills

David B. Smith can typically be found at home in the Honolulu Printmakers Studio inside the Academy Art Center at Linekona, whether introducing students and the curious to printmaking techniques or adding to his portfolio.

Halfway around the world in London, he’s always welcome at his second home in the Artichoke Print Studio, a 300-year-old warehouse-turned-art loft for dozens of print-makers who belong to the exclusive fraternity of artists known as the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers.

The Hawaii artist was welcomed into the society as an Associate Royal Etcher in 2005, the first time he applied to become a member of the prestigious group, which was formed in 1880.

Smith became acquainted with the group while working toward his higher diploma in fine art from the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. One of his instructors was Stanley Jones, deemed the father of modern lithography in the U.K., who worked with many prominent 20th century artists including Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray and Picasso.

Anyone can apply to become a member of the Royal Society, but “out of 1,000 applicants, they may pick 15 a year to become royal printers, based on portfolio drawings and sketchbooks, as well as prints,” Smith says.

One step above the ARE status is the RE or Royal Etcher designation, but no one can apply for the title; it must be bestowed, beginning five years after achieving ARE status.

“Come next year, if I’m not an RE, I’m kind of slow,” Smith says. “It’s not enough to be able to make prints. You have to be able to draw. You’ve got to show you have skills.”

Drawing was exactly what Smith set out to do before catching the printmaking bug.

“I fell into printmaking as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii. I wanted to draw, but the drawing and painting department was all about painting, and drawing was just something you did to get to painting.”

He learned he could put his drawing skills to good use in printmaking, and after one introductory class, he says, “I never wanted to do anything else.”

Although he experimented with all forms of printmaking, the technique that won him over was stone lithography, a relatively new process – at a little more than 200 years old – that involves drawing directly on blocks of a rare limestone from Bavaria’s Solnhofen Mine, which has largely been depleted of its precious ore.

“Limestone is one of the most plentiful types of stone in the world, but this is a very specific type of limestone that only occurs in one area of the mine,” Smith says.

While most printmaking processes are too ancient to be traced to their creators, Smith says, “We know who invented stone lithography and the short history of it.”

He marvels at the serendipitous string of events – which had its origin in some mischief – that led to the discovery of the process by Alois Senefelder (1771-1834).

“(Senefelder) came from a family of theater people. He was a playwright and tinkerer who couldn’t afford to have his plays and music printed,” Smith explains. “He lived in the area of the mines, and the streets were paved with this limestone, so one night he absconded with some paving stones and started playing with them as a surface to wax ink on, and he got one of those strange ‘Aha!’ moments where he got some grease, put some nitric acid on it, played with it and found he got a nice relief image.

“Today, people don’t understand the nature of materials and their properties. Just to run a household (in Senefelder’s era), they had to understand how to make soap and a large variety of goods that we would just go out and buy. But back then they understood how materials interacted.”

Senefelder’s experiments led to gum arabic, the “magic elixir” that caused the greasy drawn areas of the stone to accept ink. The process was originally named chemical printing.

“It came at a time when everyone was looking for a new, cheap, easy way of making prints and reproducing work. It became the chosen method of making illustrations for books,” says Smith.

He likes the idea that one image can produce multiple original works of art that give the artist some to sell, some to exchange and share with other artists for group exhibitions, and some to keep. He especially likes the idea of sharing, which characterizes the printmaking tradition.

“We share the press, we share stones, so it seems set up for a particular personality type,” Smith says.

Whether in London or Hawaii, “We’re constantly sharing ideas, critiques, knowledge and technology,” he says. “The accent is different, and in London, their visual references are different. Work that they drool over, you go, ‘Hmm, that’s OK.’ But as a creative group, we’re far more alike than different.”

The Honolulu Printmakers will present its annual holiday print sale, “Impressions,” Nov. 27-29 at the Academy Art Center at Linekona.

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