This is a response to a piece in the Autumn 2009 issue of Quarterly News by John Bryce GAvA, making the case for the inclusion of "Artists' Original Prints" in Guild exhibitions.



Re: A Guild Controversy

I have to declare an interest here, sitting as I am on a vast catalogue of prints and about to embark on lithographic runs Nos.183 and 184, for RAF Benson and Minot AFB(USA), respectively. But John’s article (QN, Autumn 2009) has prompted me to step back and have a dispassionate look at the question.

From its earliest beginnings in Ancient China, printing has evolved into a wide spectrum of different but often overlapping processes….Relief , Intaglio, Planographic, Stencil, Mixed Media, Photo-Mechanical ……each with multiple subvariants. Relief processes, for example, comprise woodcuts, wood engraving, linoleum cuts, stamped prints…and are the oldest and most basic. The photo-mechanical processes are at the other extreme, and include the offset lithographic and giclee( ink-jet) technologies now used to produce our books and magazines as well as fine art reproductions.

Within most of these categories there are certain claims for prints to be deemed “original” by virtue of their production being more heavily weighted towards the artist’s hand than towards more remote/mechanical procedures, or because the final products differ from the starting artwork. But again the distinctions seem largely relative. There is always some recourse to mechanical assistance, and the gap between the initial artwork and the end product is often due more to the physical limitations and character of the process itself than anything else. The old manual relief procedures, for instance, are very limited in their scope and can only yield relatively simplified imagery with any effectiveness, and degrade anything beyond that. Subtle gradations of colour, tone, lighting, atmosphere, depth…the hallmarks of high aviation painting…are largely forgone. It is simply the nature of the old methods, and is no cause for blame, or celebration. It is not a matter for surprise that a Gypsy Moth does not perform like a Hawk jet, or vice versa.

Which is why printing has long ago moved on, and now incorporates techniques and technologies which require their own extended knowledge, expertise and skill. Even with the most advanced digital technologies, the human eye and brain and hand remain the final arbiters throughout as painstaking checks and adjustments are made at every stage to prevent deviations of the image. Yet try as we may, the end product is never quite an identical twin of the firstborn. Although the reproductions still generally tend to fall short of the original painting, embarrassingly, these hi-tech reproductions can sometimes be serendipitous improvements on the original paintings, especially when the latter are relatively mediocre to begin with. Also, the occasional malfunctions on the mechanical presses can create unintended visual effects which an Andy Warhol would leap at. And yes, sophisticated paintings are also conceived from the start with a view to creating prints as a final product. One only has to look at the commercial print market.

In the end, a print is a print, the outcome of artwork plus some technology of replication. The issue seems to boil down to the intent of the artist. If he/she intends/perceives the product to be “original”, then it must be so, in the same way that unmade beds and arrangements of bricks become works of “art” because they are offered up as such. If you “buy” it, that is.

But I don’t think our late chairman Stephen was troubled about fine distinctions. Nor was he against added interest in our exhibitions. Most of us seem not to be fully aware of the sheer uniqueness of our Guild of Aviation Artists. We stand out miles from our fellow aviation art societies, not just in terms of the overall scale, breadth and quality of our work, but in the consistent success of our exhibition sales. More than anyone else, we actually live by our art, which must be the ultimate accolade for artists. I belong to 3 other of these aviation art societies, here in this country and overseas, and with all respect to them, they don’t come even close. The ASAA, for instance, fields just 50-60 exhibits ( to our 400 )at their ostentatious annual shows in America(as if to prove the point, some members regularly recycle their remanent Guild exhibits through smaller overseas shows to gain prizes and kudos against the more congenial odds). Stephen , astute ex-businessman that he was, clearly appreciated this precious heritage, and on his watch robustly defended it from anything he perceived may dilute or threaten its integrity and success. In these times of “quantitative easing” it is not hard to see his concern about prints.

There will always be diverse viewpoints, and thank goodness for that. Thoughtful debate on such issues in the wider forum of QN is to be welcomed, and not just left to the vagaries of the committee rooms and infrequent members’ meetings. Things would be even more democratic and enriching if we update our Guild website to include an open online forum for more immediate comment and exchange over matters of concern to members. This is now a common website feature and I’m sure it would serve well an organisation of our size and range.

Ronald Wong GAvA
18 Oct 2009