Printmaker’s Perspective: George Cornwell

Printmaker George Cornwell, Photo by Jensen Hande

When we hit the Warhol section of portraits, I’m attracted to the Edward Kennedy. The background is red, white, and blue. “Oooh,” I say, “There’s glitter in this one.”

“Diamond dust,” George says, “Warhol used to mix diamond dust with an adhesive and the paint when he did the print.”

I take a closer look and see that it’s very, very finely ground glass. Warhol indeed did not raid an entire craft store’s supply of glitter. This is exactly why George Cornwell is with me. He’s made his living printmaking, from New York City to working right here in Jacksonville, and he’s here to walk me through the series of print exhibitions currently at the MOCA Jacksonville. When he was in New York, most of the work he did was commercial fine art printing working with publishers, but he moved to Jacksonville with his wife to be a punk rocker, and today, during the day, he collaborates with local artists to make fine art prints.


There’s a clarity and intensity in the smaller Josef Albers prints that Cornwell enjoys. It’s skilled printmaking, but the color blocks illustrate the basics of the art—colors working together. It’s the first set we look at, and a curious security guard wanders over to ask what we’re doing. She and I listen as he analyzes the prints: “The colors are pretty dynamic. Even today, you’re not going to get that from a digital printer. This is screen printing. And it’s priceless.” He compares it to Rothko, albeit on a smaller scale and in print format. The smaller scale means that the intense colors aren’t overpowering for the viewer, and the variety of square images work as a set.

Warhol – Flowers

George explains the basic printmaking process to me. Each color in printmaking is added one at a time. By layering colors, you can get secondary colors or darker shades. So if you have yellow and blue, you can use those two colors to create green in the areas where they overlap or you can put a light brown over the yellow to create a variation in shading. A skilled printmaker can create a number of secondary colors and shading in the work with just a 4 to 9 color process. Of course, some artists want you to know they went to a lot of trouble, or they are meticulous about mixing each color separately rather than layering, so you’ll find works like Chuck Close’s pieces that involve a staggering number color processes. Sending a piece of artwork through that many times increases the chance of print misalignment, especially if it’s very large.

If you understand printmaking, George tells me, the larger the piece, the more impressed you’ll be. George looks for breaks in the pieces, small, often infinitesimal places where elaborate fades are joined with the other half of a piece. He tells me that some larger prints can involve a steam-roller. This makes them far more epic, in my eyes, than they were previously.

When it comes to discards, in printmaking there are apparently a lot of them, depending on the difficulty and size of the piece. Whenever you see on the edge of a piece 33/40, that means that this is number 33 out of 40 prints. But the artist probably didn’t make just 40. Some that don’t make the grade will be thrown away—sometimes on the first or second color (so that it’s never finished) and sometimes it’s botched at the very end. I wonder how many printmakers were driven to the depths of despair having done everything right through 63 colors on a print, and messing it up on 64.

JRosenquist working on Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil
JRosenquist working on Through the Eye of the Needle to the Anvil

On the Mao portraits from Warhol, I spot a lot of texture. George says, “You can print with different thickness of inks, heavier deposits of ink, literally a type of paint format. The tones aren’t very sharp, but it adds to the character of the piece.” Sometimes, something like print misalignment or a even a blotchiness in halftone is done deliberately. You can see it in Warhol’s pieces, especially the Marilyn portraits and “Electric Chair.” What would normally be a mistake for most printmakers is a choice on Warhol’s part. “I could never get away with that,” says George, “But he’s Warhol.” Sometimes, though, when Cornwell is working with an artist to re-create art in a limited edition print, he’ll make one of those mistakes and be ready to throw it in a discard pile, when the artist says, “I like that! Can you do it again?”

There are several new/old trends making a comeback. One is multimedia, using printmaking as a base and adding in other elements, like the rhinestones of Mickalene Thomas’ portraits of Condoleeza Rice and Oprah, or James Rosenquist’s use of collage. Cornwell says that Rosenquist is thought of as “sort of the father of multimedia.” You’ll also see this multimedia trend in the modern prints by women in the exhibition entitled The Other: Nurturing A New Ecology in Printmaking.

One of the other trends is use of printmaking in messy abstract pieces, something that surfaced for printmaking in the 1980s and is showing up again in modern pieces. Traditionally, more abstract pieces in printmaking tended to be like the graphic and crisp, playing with definite lines and strong colors, but slightly more Pollock-like pieces are sprinkled in the exhibitions.

There’s sometimes a misconception that printmaking is merely a reproduction of a work of art, that it’s less valued because there can be more than one. For artists, who put a lot of time and effort into a work of art, it’s a way to make more money without devaluing an original piece. But it is, make no mistake, an artistry in itself. What can be done with printmaking simply can’t be achieved with a digital copy of a work, as you’ll find when you go to the MOCA Jacksonville to view these stunning works.

Words to know when you go!

As you look closely at the prints in the MOCA Jacksonville, you might notice color trapping. This occurs when the edge of one color is adjacent to another, and instead of there being a gap, the colors combine in a small area. Sometimes the trap is larger, because the artist wants to create a specific color combination, and sometimes it is very small because the artist doesn’t want you to notice it.

Halftone simulates tone through the use of dots, varying either in size or in spacing, generating a gradient-like effect. Can be done dramatically, as in Warhol’s “Electric Chair,” or very subtly, so that the dots are only visible with a magnifying glass.

Etching means that acid was used on a metal plate to etch lines, and an acid resistant substance such as wax is used to keep the blank spaces from being etched. Before it was applied to printmaking, it was used in metalwork. Says Cornwell, “It’s very physically taxing and the chemicals are pretty nasty. You can do some fine work, but the number of colors you can do is often limited by the process.”

Aquatint is a variant of etching. George Cornwell says of the process, “You’re able to get texture, and as the plates are worked, it’s challenging to do a large run with uniformity. They come in smaller editions.” There are different techniques used in the process.  Painting the acid unevenly over the prepared aquatint surface, is called a spit bite aquatint. This technique has an effect similar to watercolor wash. If the artist paints a liquid soap mixture on the plate instead of varnish to protect parts of the plate from the acid, the print is called a soap ground aquatint. Soap breaks down in acid, resulting in irregular tones. A sugar lift aquatint is made by painting on the plate with a solution of sugar and water. The sugar solution must be removed, or lifted, before the plate goes in the acid. The printer then applies the aquatint, and the acid bites into the places that were painted by the artist with the sugar solution.

A lithograph uses an image drawn with oil-like substance or wax onto the surface of a smooth limestone, then treated with a mixture of acid and gum arabic gum arabic, etching the parts not protected by the oil-based image. When the stone is moistened, these etched areas retain water; an oil-based ink is applied and which is repelled by the water. The ink is finally transferred to a blank paper. Modern fine-art printmakers use the same basic principles. George finds that “Lithographs lack the high color impact of screen printing, but they can get amazingly accurate images.”

Wood cut is one of the oldest printmaking techniques and is a type of relief printing technique. The carved portions aren’t used; it’s what’s left raised on the wood is that the ink is applied to, then the inked block is pressed to the paper to create the print.

Print misalignment can be found most dramatically in Warhol’s Marilyn portraits. The outline of her eyes or lips are one place, and the color meant to be applied to them is set outside those lines. In most prints this is a mistake, but Warhol chose to do it deliberately.

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Missing Event Data
Missing Event Data
Missing Event Data


About Erin Thursby