I wrote a few blog posts for Sam Emery's Tree Paper Comics website about the residency I recently completed at their Docklands studio space. Reposting here with his permission.
My name is David Mahler, I’m a Melbourne-based artist and filmmaker with a couple of comic books under my belt. I’ve been photocopying and stapling my own mini-comics for about a decade now, but am pretty new to risography. Sam Emery released a comic collection of mine late last year called ‘Junior Catharsis’, and we’ve been discussing a potential residency at his Tree Paper Comics studio space ever since. Once Sam had comfortably settled into his new Docklands home I strong-armed him into letting me move in and take over the studio for a week of fun.
Having minimal experience with risograph printing I ambitiously set a goal to colour and print the pages of a new comic book, which I’d been planning to release mid-April at the Homecooked Comics Festival. The problem was the book clocked in at 64 pages, including covers, none of which were coloured.
And so it was I strolled into Docklands on a warm Monday morning, a naive smile on my face and literally no clue what I was in for.
Sam was enthusiastic and motivated. I was hungover. Monday started with a tour of the studio and surrounding area - Tree Paper Comics Studio is located at The Districts, Docklands, a terribly developed open-air-mall type tourist area full of poor souls wandering past empty General Pants and Bonds outlets on their way to the Melbourne Star. We grabbed a coffee by the slowly rotating wheel and discussed the week ahead.
In an effort to bring more foot traffic through the area the council pumped a few mill over the past year into developing all sorts of arts-focused initiatives. One big chunk of this blatantly consumer-focused site has now been set aside as studio spaces, galleries and such. Tree Paper Comics is nestled between a contemporary art gallery, a bespoke florist, opposite a hand-made recycled artist’s paper store and down the way from a screen printer. Blender Studios, which once called Franklin Street in the CBD their home, now occupy a large part of the area, and all of these diverse artists and creators come together every Friday night to hold an artist’s market, usually with a gallery launch or two squeezed in for shits and gigs.
These creators have been given discounted rent and other subsidies in exchange for injecting some sense of culture in the Docklands…and honestly it’s working. I was inspired by the general can-do attitude, the positive mindsets which come with freedom and support. Perhaps it was this ambitious positivity which helped me ignore Sam’s look of fear as I explained my plan for the week.
Back at the studio Sam gave me the run down of his little babies. Three chunky risograph machines, relics of technology’s boxy, awkward adolescent phase.
So yeah, what is ‘Risograph’? Risograph printing sits somewhere between photocopying and screenprinting - a black and white design is sent to a large, ’90’s-era photocopier-looking machine either from a computer or the attached scanner. This design is burned onto a disposable sheet of what looks like tracing paper - the master - which is automatically unfurled from a roll and affixed to drums of ink which slot into the side of the machine. This burned image acts like a stencil - ink is pushed from the drum, through the design and onto sheets of paper. The paper is passed from one drum to the next, so you could print a red layer then a yellow layer in one pass for example, and any points where the designs overlap would come out orange.
The machine we used - an MZ 770 - held two drums of ink, as in it could print two colours at once. The drums could be swapped out at any time for different colour combos, but every time a new master had to be a printed. You really had to plan ahead to minimise waste. This limited palette ended up being really inspiring - the opaque colours would combine to create secondary colours, and variations in tone would produce different shades. Allowing the page to dry for a day would make it steadfast enough to go through again, another two colours, four in total, producing a huge range of combination possibilities!
Now, you can whip out pages just like a photocopier, but as the image and ink are of a more-professional level - finer details and higher-quality colours - it’s best to set a delay, catch a page as it flies out and set it aside to dry for an hour or more. To assist this process Sam has fashioned rows of pegs attached to dowel, hung horizontally like shelves. With a wall of pegs up to 500 pages could be printed and dried at any one time.
Now full disclosure, I’ve designed one riso print before, as it were for the opening of Tree Paper Comics back in February - Sam held a risograph-printed poster show and I drew a four-tone print, all in pencil. I was happy with the results, but as it was my first time and there were no second chances it was really a ‘live what you’ve got’ situation. This would be my first time creating for the risograph machine from the ground up, using the experience of this one print. I decided to stick to pencils, as they give a nice variation in tone - lighter shading will make red print as pink, whereas full black would be as strong as the pure ink. There are two ways to colour on the riso, grain touch or halftone. Grain touch is closer to photo-real, and I personally prefer this over halftone despite the history of halftone colouring/shading in comics. Halftone separates tone into dots of different sizes, you may have noticed it while looking super-duper close at an old magazine. This effect would have lessened the softer variations in pencil-shading I was after.
It was time for a bit of experimentation. I’d already ordered the pages in photoshop, formatting the pages of the book so they could be printed and stapled together. That’s what you see here, the third page of the book on the right, the third-final page on the left. I printed two copies, then using pencil I shaded areas for a red layer on one, and blue on the other. The final result is below.
This experiment was a great place to start. We first tried printing the image from the scanner on top of the Risograph machine. Interestingly this produced a bit of pixellation, surely as we were scanning from a second-generation image on an old school scanner, the line work had already been printed once off of a computer. We then used Sam’s A3 scanner to import the layers into photoshop and print them from there, which produced a nicer result despite still being a second generation print. I’m sure it would have been even more crisp if we had only scanned the pencil layers and combined them with the original inks in Photoshop.
As both layers contained inked black line work, the coloured lines overlapped producing a dark purple. Also the areas where the colours combined were noticably heavier from the amount of ink, and they showed through a bit of the other side of the 80gsm enviro-care paper. This was something to consider, as the book would be printed on the same paper, with up to three layers of ink on each side. Perhaps some pages wouldn’t need to be printed in each colour, only blue for example?
I spent the rest of the day working on a second print, playing with the pencil. I experimented with three types of shading - hatching, smudged and pencil-shaded. All look great; smudging produces really interesting, soft results. Hatching looks the best I reckon, but tended to look a bit messy when layered at different angles.
The final print is on the bottom. I added a bit more red on the left to close-in the composition.
It was an eye-opening first day. I learned a lot about the printing process, shading and colouring, and most importantly, how to think for the risograph. I realised by the end of the day that I would need to re-format the book, to take into account the logistics of the machine - if two layers can be printed at once, which colours should be printed first for a four-tone page? If pages need to dry before printing more layers/the other side, which pages/layers/colours should be printed first? When you print a full page landscape image, such as the boy eating dinner above, you need to cut the image in half, one half goes on the left of one page, the other on the right of another. When these pages are stapled in the middle and opened like a book you have your full page spread. But if the other half of this page is only a single-colour image then you’re basically wasting half of a master. To fix this, the pages would need to be re-ordered with all the multi-layered pages together in the centre of the book and the single tone images at the start/end.
After re-formatting the book it was time for some printing. Sam expertly supervised as I whipped out the first 4 pages of the book, single blue layers.
Between pages I spent some time redrawing a sketch from the day before. I was really struggling to come up with a cover design but was feeling this array of fruit and veg. Inspired by the day before’s print I upped the ante with a three-layer design, using each fruit to explore a different shading technique/variation in tone. I was most pleased with the orange (the fruit, not the colour), which was mostly smudge-shaded, and had part of the red layer erased to let more yellow through. This created a diffused highlight, which I think turned out really well. The most important thing I learned from this print was to keep blue light, light, light. The lighter the blue the better it mixed with the yellow to create green. Darker blue was just too overpowering. I tried different opacity combinations with the various brown food - the acorns, mushrooms - and in the end worked out the perfect ratio for brown, which is a lighter blue, strong red and mid yellow.
This print felt like a big step forward, but I was a bit daunted that it’d taken half a day to draw three layers of pencils. I decided to put some limitations on the project - three tones max, primary colours only, with no black. The lack of black would create a consistent, colourful and engaging aesthetic, and the restriction of three colours - and their multiple combinations - meant I’d have to get creative to fully utilise the colour spectrum. This still meant that I’d have to draw three unique layers per image, then scan and edit them each before sending them to the risograph machine. Minimal photoshopping became another limitation, embrace the happy accidents and save time meticulously editing everything to perfection. Three layers a page was still a bit hectic, so I decided to cut the multi-tone pages down, and after a bit of a reality-check it became clear some pages would need to remain line-art only. No stress, seeing as we were a third of the way through the residency with all of one page properly coloured!
After a day of printing it was time for drawing night which Sam runs at the studio every Tuesday - it was a great time, with a couple of familiar faces and plenty of new friends to make. I’ll definitely be back to see everyone next week, you forget how fun and inspiring it is to hang out with and doodle with other creatives!
Stay tuned for the next post; more experimenting, mistakes made, lessons learned, hand cramps.