A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Last Call for Radicals, Rebels, and Revolutionaries

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Peter J. Blackburn reveals that stimulating nine letter word for art and offers a frank discussion as to the implications it evokes.

Left: The Red Wall on Walnut Street, 2008 Right: Paper Whites, No. 3, 2010

Above are two dichromate photographs. On the left is a color-rich, reasonably sharp casein bichromate print. To the right is a gum bichromate piece of similar quality. Both were produced in gouache on unsized Fabriano paper from paper negatives generated by an ordinary paper copier. And both were exposed under typical everyday sunlight. I’ve been printing images such as those almost every week for many years. Please understand, the methods are not chosen simply for economy alone. There are actually well considered reasons for my workflow which cannot be elaborated upon in this particular blog. Still, I’m quite sure some of you will judge my printing perspective as unorthodox, primitive, radical—or even worse! That’s quite alright. I trust we can still be friends. Those familiar with my writing on this site will know that I’ve not disclosed anything new.

Actually, what I find rather remarkable is that according to formal teaching and conventional wisdom presented to me twenty years ago when I began my excursion into alternative photography, these kinds of prints employing those kinds of techniques cannot exist. It’s not possible. In fact, were I to take seriously certain material written even more recently, I would pitch all of my gear, burn my remaining art paper, pour the leftover gallon of gum down the sink, and lug every portfolio over to the big green recycling bin. That’s right, the one with the smiley face. Imagine all of the toilet paper Kimberly-Clark could roll from that contribution! Wow, what a sap I’ve been to waste years of time and money.

Let me dig out and explore just two of the numerous handy-dandy examples in my file. One very popular volume published in the late 1970s and still venerated today states quite bluntly, “Traditionally, transparent colors (the author is referring to watercolor) have always been used and are required for continuous tone images. The gouache colors produce strong solid colors that often remove the unique subtle characteristics of gum printing.” (Emphasis mine.) As you might imagine, I take exception to the “we’ve always done it THIS way” attitude expressed by the author—that, and some other heavy handed directives hammered in the same book. The fact is, gouache has been my preference for over 90% of the gum and casein work I generate. I can’t imagine printing without it and I find it irreprehensible to discourage others from at least exploring the gorgeous possibilities of gouache. Although the images on this page, indeed, testify to the bold possibilities of gouache, subtler hues and gentler tones are also rather achievable. In fact, all manner of tonality is feasible with gouache. However, I’ll let my work on this web site speak for itself.

But discussing gouache and pigment—that’s not my point. The point is coming later. Let me continue.

Furthermore, subtle characteristics are not by any stretch of the imagination unique to only gum printing. Again, simply peer into the treasure-trove of artist galleries throughout this cavernous site. Subtle tones are everywhere to be found in nearly every process. In fact, I tend to consider the subtle look as sort of a “default mode” in many alternative processes. Don’t take me wrong; I admire subtlety. Yet, I also believe it a relatively straightforward task to generate soft, restrained, and misty imagery in gum. Virtuosity, in my eye, lies in creating work containing lovely tonality, yes, but also providing highlights which are especially bright and luminous, where shadows reveal secrets, and where sharpness rivals conventional photographs. Watercolor, gouache, dry pigments—ALL are quite capable of yeoman duty when those qualities are the task at hand! Oh well, how much good information can one expect from a book containing two—only two—gum images? Kind of skimpy for a gum-dedicated instruction manual, don’t you think?

Moving along to another volume, this time well illustrated and written by our friends across the pond in 2000, it is found inscribed among the glossy pages that to make a gum print I need to purchase “a small bottle of glue (the sort sold by office suppliers such as Gloy or Stephens). Don’t bother with the traditional gum arabic. It is difficult to prepare and needs a preservative to make it keep.” (Emphasis mine.) Have you ever read anything so outlandish? Fortunately, I never fell for THAT one. Thankfully, neither did Demachy, Coburn, or Steichen.

So, had I heeded the counsel of those words and succumbed to the misguidance of several other well-meaning manuscripts, the images on this page and, for that matter, my complete oeuvre would not nor could not exist. Or, as stated in the manner of Dr. Seuss—

Not here, not there. Not now, not ever.
No prints. No pictures. Goodbye forever!

You see, I’ve always had my heart set on embracing the bright, capturing the vibrant. But all I ever heard echoing in my ear was, “Gum can’t do that, sweetheart. Go fetch yourself some Ilfochrome if you’re that color crazed. And while you’re at it, dearie, would you mind taking out the trash?”

Pig water.

Look, here’s what I am trying to say. To excel in YOUR chosen alternative process, to push the envelope of YOUR imaginings, you ultimately must resort to a revolt. Ah, yes, and that brings us to (ring the bell) our nine letter word for art—r-e-b-e-l-l-i-o-n. Unless you wish to be the head digit among the paint-by-number crowd, or wallow in anguish over some “impossible” roadblock backing up traffic within your chosen alternative sphere, then mature development of both vision and process requires some unrestrained, good old-fashioned rebellion. Is where you want to go in your preferred medium worth a struggle? I hope so. Join the masses and start a quiet riot now. The American Revolution wasn’t achieved in a day or even a year! Likewise, I suspect your own uprising will require significant time to ignite and burn, blazing a trail within your heart, mind, and work.

Go ahead. Read your books. Learn from those articles and lectures. Listen to the teachers and respect your mentors. But remember this, my friend. One day, some day, you must bend to the right or to the left, up or down, even inside out, if you are to forge your own unique path. And you must think of that veering as a form of rebellion. Polite rebellion—civil rebellion—gentle and sincere rebellion—not quite an Occupy Wall Street type of rebellion—but rebellion nonetheless.

Bending means to challenge the status quo! Rid yourselves of “shop talk jive” which restrains you from emerging and advancing. Embark on a search for new means, improved systems, outside-the-box materials, and a distinctive mindset. And remember this, too. Many processes contain fastidious, more than you care to count, mind-twisting variables. And that precious detail alone renders as sheer, utter lunacy the notion there is only one, two, or even just three ways to “correctly” perform any particular process. Don’t let ‘em box you in or tie you up! The best way is the mode which works for you, and often enough that mode evolves as a result of your own hard labor, creative adaptation, revision, tweaking, reinventing, seizing of the moment, and, on occasion, downright mutiny.

So, in your quest to achieve extraordinary art, start now to question—question everything, even the paper it’s scribbled on! Questioning is good; doubting is better; but outright rebellion is oftentimes best.

In the next blog we will conclude this series by answering the question, “Do I see what you see?” Until then, your comments and insights are most welcome. Please start the discussion—cheers and jeers!

5 thoughts on “A Prolegomenon for Gum Printers and Other Visual Alchemists: Last Call for Radicals, Rebels, and Revolutionaries”

  1. I embarked into the world of alternative processes with no mentors and teachers with little knowledge about the subject. Luckily, I was able to push on in the dark thanks to my immediate and undying love for the processes, and some very interesting failures. Thanks for being a light in the dark. Very inspirational story!

  2. Hi Henry! I really appreciate what you wrote. Oh yes, I would heartily agree with your name selection of pioneers. I have enjoyed their significant and lasting contributions to our realm—and so many others, too.

    I also understand your contentment with mainly leaving footprints. I suppose yours might take us to the top of some the same summits as our pioneer heroes. But hopefully, your footprints will, at least, lead to a slightly different vista on the summit—one that will exhibit your viewpoint, your style, and your unique contribution(s).

    Best wishes to you, too!

  3. Bravo – every area of human endeavour needs its rebels, revolutionaries, pioneers, pathfinders, explorers. But after the pioneers come the settlers – the people who (like me) prefer to live in community, learn from one another, make progress together. Without people like Judy Siegel, Christina Anderson, Diana Bloomfield, Mark Nelson, my feeble gum printing efforts would be even more feeble and a lot less fun!

    Please go on blazing a trail, but leave the occasional footprint…

    best wishes


  4. Thanks, Scott, for your comments. Rule breaking has a long and honored tradition in art. Well, maybe not honored so much as expected. Advancement, whether great or small, expects some sort of revolt. Impressionism is probably one of the more celebrated and romantic revolutions in art. From Degas to Monet—all were rebels in their viewpoint and production.

    Likewise in photography, movements and methods can be traced primarily through intellectual or conceptual “uprisings.” I believe the same can be true on a micro-scale within our own work. As we evolve in our own growth, some of it comes as we “break the rules,” becoming our own person both in vision and method.

  5. This blog invites failure…. and I love it! I am failing miserably right now with one process and am learning so much. It is telling my the “rules” are the rules and which ones are just the result of one person’s unique process that somehow became the “only” way to do it.

    When someone says, with suprise, “you did that, with THAT? How?” They are seeing the end result and are shocked that the rules were broken. You are revealing the beginning of the process, the first step that, if it works out, will yield similarly dumbfound comments. What a pleasure this blog entry is.

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