Contemporary Canadian Printmaking | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Contemporary Canadian Printmaking

 In the late 1950s Toronto painter Harold TOWN devoted his energies to lithography, creating exceptional "single autographic prints," unique accretions of various printing techniques, including stencil, linocut and overprinting.
Ouverte au Soleil
Tobie Steinhouse's intricate abstractions gleam through effects of prism-coloured glass, revealing her continuing search for light. Colour etching and engraving, 1993 (courtesy the artist).
Printmaking Studio
Artist Lorène Bourgeois at work in the printmaking studio at the Banff Centre for the Arts (photo by Monte Greenshields/Banff Centre).

Printmaking, Contemporary Canadian

 Printmaking in Canada received wide public acclaim in the mid-1950s following an international rediscovery of the artistic and aesthetic challenges of prints. National and international print exhibitions flourished and Canadian prints won recognition in prestigious international shows. Modern prints differ from earlier prints in their style and subject matter, larger scale, use of more colour, combination of several techniques, and use of photographic processes.


 Contemporary developments occurred first and were most pronounced in Montréal, already a centre for printmaking and teaching. Artist and teacher Albert DUMOUCHEL inspired print artists Peter Daglish, Richard Lacroix, Robert Savoie, Serge TOUSIGNANT, Vera Frenkel, Pierre Ayot, Ghitta CAISERMAN-ROTH, Janine Leroux-Guillaume and Roland GIGUÈRE. The painter Yves GAUCHER pursued printmaking intensively after studying with Dumouchel. From 1960 to 1964 Gaucher created only prints, experimenting with uninked or minimally inked, heavily embossed intaglio prints.

 In the late 1950s Toronto painter Harold TOWN devoted his energies to lithography, creating exceptional "single autographic prints," unique accretions of various printing techniques, including stencil, linocut and overprinting. In the 1950s and 1960s Jack NICHOLS's black and white lithographs impressed the public and critics with a disciplined yet modern approach, their forceful images disclosing humanity's anguish and melancholy. Other early, innovative artists include Moe Reinblatt, Gilbert Marion, Walter Bachinski, James Boyd, Tobie STEINHOUSE, Aba BAYEFSKY, Richard Gorman and David Partridge. Image makers first and foremost, these influential artists were uninhibited about experimenting with new approaches, materials, printing procedures or uses of paper, setting the stage for creative explorations of traditional techniques.

The sincere interest in prints in Québec and Ontario was evidenced by the national print societies, whose membership came largely from central Canada. The societies provided printmakers with professional standards, a congenial artistic climate and exhibition opportunities. The Canadian Society of Graphic Art and the Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers/Engravers amalgamated in 1976, forming the Print and Drawing Council of Canada. At Toronto's ONTARIO COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN (OCAD), print teacher Fred Hagan played a significant role in educating successive generations of printmakers.

Printmaking was not well established in western Canada. Although Gordon SMITH set up lithographic and silkscreen facilities at the Vancouver School of Art in the mid-1940s and with Orville Fisher, Bruno BOBAK and Alistair BELL created prints in the late 1950s, the art community was small.

Victoria's early print artists include Herbert Siebner and Pat Martin BATES. Known internationally, Bates has set an example for younger artists seeking to further their reputation through international open juried exhibitions; like Gaucher, she has experimented with uninked surfaces, which developed into perforated estampille prints. Calgary's Maxwell BATES and John SNOW became self-taught pioneers in lithography after rescuing 2 discarded presses in 1953; Bates's figurative prints are expressive, Snow's lyrical. Through John K. Esler's teaching and artistic efforts, printmaking blossomed in Calgary, which became a major print centre. Serigraphy was introduced to Edmonton in 1948 by George Weber. Presses were unavailable in Saskatchewan before 1965, although Eli BORNSTEIN brought serigraphy to Saskatoon in 1955.

Print Exhibitions

The renewed interest in prints was manifested through the growth of print exhibitions, commercial galleries specializing in prints, university printmaking facilities, graphic workshops and a lessening of prejudices toward innovations like collagraphy, serigraphy and mixed techniques. The relative ease of shipping prints allows printmakers to participate in exhibitions throughout the world. Canadian print societies, public art galleries and educational institutions organize shows exclusively for prints. Unique exhibition opportunities have been provided by the Canadian Printmakers' Showcase and the Burnaby Print show, annual shows such as Graphex and Concours d'estampe et de dessin québécois, or the biennial exhibitions of the Print and Drawing Council of Canada (all now defunct except the Concours d'estamp et de dessin québécois).

Commercial Galleries

The first commercial galleries specializing in print, Agnes Lefort (1950) and Galerie 1640 (1961), opened in Montréal. In Toronto Dorothy Cameron, who opened her gallery in 1959, organized an important print exhibition in 1965 to demonstrate that the best contemporary Canadian printmaking compares with the best printmaking anywhere. Toronto's Gallery Pascal opened in 1963. The Mira Godard Gallery has continuously featured printmaking from its early days in Montréal in the 1970s to the present in Toronto, where it moved in the late 1970s.

Development of Printmaking Workshops

Canadian university print departments are now among the leaders in the world and have greatly stimulated printmaking in Canada. As enrolment increased and as fine-arts departments were developed in the 1960s, printmaking equipment was acquired, and technically competent and aesthetically aware instructors were hired. Print workshops emerged to relieve the high cost of equipment and to provide a stimulating and creative environment for print artists. These shops may offer equipment rental, collaboration with a professional printer and publication of print editions.

Although Roland Giguère founded Éditions Erta in 1949, publishing deluxe editions that included prints, the first contemporary workshops in Montréal were L'Atelier libre de recherches graphiques (1964) and La Guilde graphique (1966), founded by Richard LACROIX. Montréal's GRAFF, established by Pierre Ayot in 1966, is active with working printmakers, demonstrations for school children, print courses for adults and an annual auction. The Great Western Canadian Screen Shop was founded in Winnipeg in 1968 by Bill Lobchuk; many artists now working across Canada began there.

In 1976 Rudolf Bikkers founded Éditions Canada in London as a publisher where artists worked closely with the printers throughout the production process. Ontario's major printshops are Open Studio (1970) and Sword Street Press (1978). At Open Studio artists may print their own images or work with a professional printer, but Sword Street Press offered only the latter option. Open Studio has attracted and influenced artists and printers from all of Canada. Other workshops are located in St Johns, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Québec has long had a flourishing print community. There are more communal printshops in that province than in any other: Atelier circulaire, Graff, and Guilde graphique in Montréal, Engramme in Québec City, Presse papier in Trois-Rivières, as well as others in Val David, Alma, Rouyn-Noranda. In addition, The Bibliothèque national de québec has begun to acquire and house the archives of prints collected by the individual printshops dating back to their foundation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Conseil québécois de l'estampe, which is a provincial print council, is active in promoting the interests of printmaking and in publishing relevant documents.

Contemporary Print Innovators: Their Techniques, Themes, Subject Matter

Contemporary print artists have been very successful in international competitions and are often better known abroad than in Canada. David BLACKWOOD's subject matter is rooted in his Newfoundland birthplace. His large etchings of fishermen, sealers and their families depict human relationships and humanity's battle with the elements. Technically traditional, Blackwood's etchings are credited with attracting many collectors to purchase prints. Jo Manning rendered nature in a contemporary manner in her linear black and white etchings. Ed Bartram's colour viscosity etchings of the boldly textured rocks of Ontario's Precambrian Shield area are a continuation of earlier Canadian landscape interpretations, intimately linking content and process.

Printmaking Techniques

During the 1960s it was common for several techniques to be used in a single print, as may be seen in the abstracted landscapes by Roslyn Swartzman and Anne Meredith Barry, who combine embossing or collagraphy in etchings or serigraphs. Serigraphy, the youngest of the traditional techniques, has gained popularity, its clear-cut shapes and flat colours being most appropriate for works of the pop, op, hard-edge or minimal art styles. Prints by Roy KIYOOKA, Tony Tascona and Rita LETENDRE are examples of such uses.

Although pop art never had a large Canadian following, artists associated with GRAFF, especially Ayot, use serigraphy for their witty pop prints. Works by Winnipeg's Bill Lobchuk, Don Proch and E.J. Howorth incorporate the prairie landscape tradition into flat, partially drawn, partially photographic images. Images by Maritimer Jim Hansen, relying on line and incorporating handwritten words, are first drawn on acetate, then photomechanically transferred to screens. While another Maritime print artist, Roger Savage, experimented with lithography in the mid- to late 1970s, he prefers serigraphy for his works.

 Painters Gordon Smith and Toni ONLEY have used prints, particularly serigraphs, to bring their art to a larger audience. Both have explored nonobjective or abstract subject matter but are artistically strongest in their personal depictions of West Coast landscapes. Newfoundlander Christopher PRATT's high realist works use subject matter from everyday life: crisp clapboard houses, quiet interiors or harmonious seascapes. In Pratt's serigraphs, superimposed layers of colour achieve subtle chromatic and textural effects. Ann McCall and Laureat Marois have also created outstanding realistic serigraphs.

Photography has long been used in commercial screenprint processes. During the 1970s especially, artists such as Michel Leclair began to explore photographic techniques creatively. A founder of Open Studio, Richard Sewell incorporates serigraphy, lithography, photography and even 3-dimensional imagery in his highly original prints; Judy Gouin uses her own landscape photographs, often incorporating unusual vantage points and reflections, as the basis for her prints. Ottawa artist Leslie Reid has used photoserigraphy and photolithography for her monochromatic naturalistic works.

Serge Tousignant, who worked with Dumouchel, pursues formal explorations of space and favours serigraphy and photomechanical processes. Walter Jule and Lyndal Osborne of University of Alberta, using different imagery and techniques, explore the possibilities of mixed media in their art and teaching. Unlike many technically excellent print artists, Jule is able to join technique and content without rendering his imagery subservient to his technical virtuosity. Carl Heywood works mainly in screen print etching and photo litho using photographic and drawing techniques. His work has evolved through photo-realist symbolism to neo-cubism to idiosyncratic expressionism.

Lithography became the most popular technique in the 1970s. Such artists as Don Holman, Bob Evermon, Charles Ringness, Bob Rogers, John Will and Dan Dingler came to Canada from successful American lithographic workshops. Teaching in Halifax, Rogers has contributed to contemporary awareness of lithography, as has Maritime artist Frank Lapointe. Printmakers Jack Cowin and Charles Ringness work in Saskatchewan, Ringness making serigraphs or lithographs on which he applies drawing and collage. John Will combines many separate realistic images in a larger one, and frequently includes clever words or sentences. Evermon often presents his nonobjective lithographs, with their beautiful, coloured transparent washes, as diptychs. Otis Tamasauskas has mastered the subtleties and forcefulness of both lithography and intaglio. His dense, colourfully abstract compositions usually cover the complete surface of the stone and sometimes of the paper.

Never exclusively a printmaker, Jennifer Dickson has had a significant influence on the visual arts through her art and her teaching. With Irene WHITTOME, she was a pioneer of photographic techniques in etching, and continues to combine these methods with serigraphy, embossing or painting.

Relief printing, the oldest print technique, has not experienced the same revival as other techniques; nevertheless, relief artists such as Pierre-Léon Tétreault, René Derouin and Noboru Sawai excel. Tetreault's more recent print work is in wood, both relief and engraving, but he is also known for the stone lithographs that he produced at Gaston Petits's workshop in Japan in the mid-1970s. A student of Japanese techniques, Derouin blends the oriental with the occidental and produces highly stylized, richly coloured contemporary images, some of conventional size, others very large. Primarily an etcher, Sawai intriguingly contrasts the firm linear qualities of occidental copper etching with the softly coloured, oriental-style woodcut. The 2 cultures also figure in his unique subject matter: engraved images based on paintings by European old masters are contrasted with woodcuts depicting oriental erotic encounters.

Printmakers are conscious of their paper, ensuring that the paper's texture is appropriate for the image and that the composition is correctly placed on the sheet. Some artists, however, have begun exploring other aspects of paper. Helmut Becker makes his own printing paper; Paul Lussier makes multiples out of paper; and Betty Davidson, reconstituting rag paper into pulp, creates cast paper prints, which are then hand-coloured.

In the 1980s and 1990s artists have developed an interest in combining several techniques within a single print and also in exploring the idea of the print as a three-dimensional image. Hence, artists are creating sculpted, cast, or constructed prints, three-dimensional mixed media pieces, and installation works. Many have also become interested in creating monotypes which offer the freedom of painting directly onto the plate (glass, metal, or other hard surfaces) to achieve a greater range of tactile effects. As is the case with other artists, printmakers are experimenting with new technology (seeART, CONTEMPORARY TRENDS) to enlarge the scope of printmaking, and artists not primarily known as print artists have also contributed to the medium. By exploring printmaking processes, either independently or with a professional printer, these artists have achieved more exposure for their own works and for prints. Contemporary Canadian prints do not exhibit a national style or subject matter, though in both temperament and preoccupation distinct regional characteristics may be discerned (seePAINTING). In general, however, printmaking in Canada is the product of an individual artist's creativity and aesthetics. See alsoINUIT PRINTMAKING.


Recent Developments

The past 25 years has seen a resurgence in the print as a medium used not only by printmakers but also by artists who normally work in other media. Two reasons for this are the potential of print media to enhance the artist's current practice, and the financial need to gain access to those areas of the art market where prices are lower for multiples.

Much of the print activity in Canada comes out of the co-operative printshops connected through the national artist-run network, as well as private printshops. A list of over 50 printshops can be found in Impressions: A Canadian Printmakers Handbook (1991).

Most of these printshops offer a variety of services to professional artists - fully equipped facilities to rent, exhibition and sales venues, educational programs and custom printing assistance. Many also provide visiting artist residencies, which offer artists in Canada, including those from culturally diverse communities, the experience of creating a project using print media. Selections for exhibitions and residencies are usually made through a submission process.

Printshops continue to play an important role in the transition from school to independent practice. Due to the cost of establishing their own print studio, artists rely on co-operative shops to facilitate their printmaking practice. Printshops support creative endeavours, pay artist fees, provide community support and become a forum for the exchange of technical and aesthetic concerns.

Printmaking programs are still included in many post-secondary art departments; however, in recent years, some of the smaller institutions have scaled down their print facilities. Many of the printshops have now increased their educational programming to fill the demand.

Trends in recent years have focused on the development of new technologies and on pushing the boundaries of print process - the print as integral component of installation projects, sculpture, bookworks, and new extensions of the matrix into digital technology. There also have been changes in the studio practices of artists who are concerned with the environment. Water-based printing inks have improved studio environments that in the past were at times unbearable, especially in screenprinting studios. Clean-up with vegetable oil instead of mineral spirits, as well as the use of ferric chloride as an acid, has helped etchers keep airborne toxins to a minimum.

There is a relatively small market for original, hand-produced prints in Canada - a situation reflected in the art market in general. Some galleries that regularly exhibit prints include Canadian Art Galleries (Calgary), Ciparis/Lennox Gallery (Toronto), Edward Day (Toronto and Kingston), Emma Butler (St John's), Harbinger Gallery (Waterloo), Mira Godard (Toronto) and Scott Gallery (Edmonton). Prints tend to be marketed primarily in the larger urban centres through independent art consultants. Recently, publishers like Paul Conway (Toronto) have re-emerged, publishing portfolios of prints by some of Canada's foremost contemporary artists: Stephen Andrews, Cathy Daley, Jeannie Thib, Kim Moodie, Micah Lexier and Mitch Robertson.

Even though images advertised as prints can be bought at any local framing store, they are usually reproductions of artworks done in another medium, eg, painting or watercolour. Discussions still go on about the difference between original limited editioned prints and signed reproductions.

There are few major Canadian printmaking exhibitions. However, since 1995, Ernst & Young, in collaboration with Canadian Art magazine, has sponsored the Great Canadian Printmaking Competition, which offers annual cash prizes to 3 artists, and an exhibition. Winners to date have included (year/first, second, third prize) the following: (1995) John Hartman, Lorène Bourgeois, Robert Achtemichuk; (1996) Liz Parkinson, Sean Caulfield, Stu Oxley; (1997) Ludmila Armata, Steven Dixon, Karen Dugas; (1998) Ina Levytsky, Sandra Rechico, Tracy Templeton.

The Sightlines Conference, organized in 1998 by the University of Alberta, brought together Canadian and international print artists to discuss new trends from different countries and see the works of their contemporaries.


Authors contributing to this article:

Interested in the arts?

Further Reading