Anatomy of a Print

Artist Lance Letscher and Slugfest team up to produce a labor of something like love

1. Lance Letscher watches as Slugfest's Margaret Simpson applies paper to the inked block of limestone.
1. Lance Letscher watches as Slugfest's Margaret Simpson applies paper to the inked block of limestone. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Lance Letscher runs his X-Acto blade along the outlines of a lithograph. He slices deeply into the paper, excising a drawing of leafy twigs, cutting as carefully as a surgeon performing an autopsy on the body of a fairy. There are more lithographs beside this one, the same beautiful, realistic rendering of arranged tree parts, all of them awaiting the artist's knife.

2. The actual twigs, atop the pages of text their printed versions will later occupy
2. The actual twigs, atop the pages of text their printed versions will later occupy (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Letscher had recently gotten the call. Not the call to Art, the way priests are said to get the call to God and then devote themselves to a lifetime of worship. Letscher had gotten that call many years earlier; that's why he's studied art and practiced it for so long, why his works are part of collections at Houston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Richard/Bennet Gallery in Los Angeles and elsewhere. No, this was a more mundane call: from Tom Druecker of Austin's Slugfest print studio.

"Every now and then we'll invite an artist we like to come and do an edition with us," says the amiable Druecker, rolling his wheelchair expertly through the maze of offices and printing equipment that comprises this multiuse art space. "How this place works, ... well, we have all this equipment, and anybody from the community can come in and use it. They can pay us by the month, and we give them a key to the place, or if they have a specific project to work on, they can come in for the day or half-day. Most printmakers, you know, don't have all this junk -- or a place to put it in. So they have to use us or some other facility like Flatbed or UT. And that's the main thrust of what we do.

3. Letscher renders the twigs in two dimensions of grease upon the stone's smooth surface.
3. Letscher renders the twigs in two dimensions of grease upon the stone's smooth surface. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"But sometimes, too, we invite artists to do their work here. And we'll work out a deal where the artist takes half of the finished edition, and we keep half, and no money changes hands. And that's the sort of thing we did with Lance. Because we've always enjoyed his work -- he does great stuff." The "we" includes Druecker's partner and co-founder of Slugfest, Margaret Simpson, who teaches printmaking at St. Edward's University -- sometimes when Druecker is busy teaching lithography at UT. "So we gave Lance a call," continues Druecker. "What Lance ended up doing for this project is very nontraditional printmaking. It's more an edition of a collage, with a printed element to it."

Letscher is a collage man, and a very particular collage man at that. What the Austin native tends to do is layer things: bits of magazines, posters, antique texts, arranged in repetitive patterns to form an abstract field of strata -- like the cross section of a many-ored mountain, like the visual equivalent of a Philip Glass composition. In responding to the Slugfest invitation, he decided to create prints that would be incorporated into a collage: drawings of twigs and leaves, pasted onto part of an old book, permanently fixed upon a board.

4. Slugfest's Tom Druecker applies a nitric solution to the illustrated stone.
4. Slugfest's Tom Druecker applies a nitric solution to the illustrated stone. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

He began by rendering these natural objects in gorgeous, penciled realism (he's an excellent draftsman), not on paper but on stone. "With traditional lithography, you draw directly on a block of flat, smooth limestone," explains Druecker. "This one --" he gestures toward the rectangular boulder atop a nearby worktable "-- comes from a quarry in Bavaria. And you draw on it with, in Lance's case, a greasy crayon. A litho crayon. There's wet media you can use, too, there are different methods; but Lance used a crayon to draw his image. Then we treat it with a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid: We spread it out all over the stone. This makes the stone water-loving wherever there's a negative, unmarked area, and grease-loving wherever it was drawn on. Then we wash away the crayon drawing with a solvent, and now -- as long as we keep the stone wet -- the stone will accept ink only where the image was."

So ink is applied to the stone, the paper (or other printworthy material) is laid on top, and the whole shebang is run through a litho press that, well, presses the paper onto the inked stone. Carefully remove the paper and you have a copy -- a proof -- of the image on the stone. Re-ink the stone, and you're ready to pull another proof.

5. Rolling ink onto the prepared surface
5. Rolling ink onto the prepared surface (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"You can pull hundreds and hundreds of proofs," says Druecker. "The stone will never break down -- that image is there until you grind it off with grit. You have to keep it wet, put on some Carborundum, and use a levigater to grind on the image until you microscopically grind down another layer of stone."

After producing what Druecker calls "just a small edition, really" -- about 25 lithographs -- Letscher returns to the large, well-lit studio he shares with his wife to cut each printed image completely out of its paper, running his blade meticulously along the thin and complex outlines of the many-forked twigs and their attendant foliage until the illustration -- and only the illustration -- is released. Again and again he does this, for print after print.

6. The printed twigs, after painstaking excision from their paper ground
6. The printed twigs, after painstaking excision from their paper ground (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"Labor-intensive" is the term that's demanded here, and the evidence of all that labor is at least as compelling as the visual beauty of the finished object, of the lithographed twigs partially obscuring their small fields of text.

But why? Why go to all the trouble, all this low-tech, traditional-print fuss? As opposed to just running the drawing through a Xerox machine and copying it onto an already-printed page?

7. The finished work: one of a very small edition
7. The finished work: one of a very small edition (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Letscher looks a bit uncomfortable; he's not a very talkative guy. He shrugs. "This is what I do," he says.

But why not just go down to Kinko's, for chrissakes, and --

"This is what's necessary for what I want to create," says Letscher.

Motes of dust dance slowly in a shaft of sunlight.


"I think a lot of it's the process," says Slugfest's more loquacious Druecker. "Lithography is the most directly translatable medium for people who draw or paint, in that they can draw directly on the stone. And lithography captures so much of the subtlety, and it allows for more creative use of materials -- with the inks, the papers or whatever you're printing on. But mostly -- for me -- it's the process itself. I like the looks of the end result, but I also just like fiddling around with the stones, the plates, all of it. I imagine that's true for most people working with lithography. Or intaglio or letterpress or any traditional method." He laughs abruptly, shakes his head. "People who do this stuff are insane," he says, smiling. "It's like we're building a bridge to the 18th century."


Slugfest also conducts printmaking workshops and holds exhibits in the on-site Slugfest Gallery, 1906 Miriam. Call 477-7204.

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