Making holiday letterpress cards: Behind the scenes

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I started working on this year’s Christmas cards in August.

Well, that’s a little deceptive: I didn’t start the physical labor until last weekend, but I started thinking about them in August, after the former members of one of my favorite Britpop groups, Sugababes, posted a lyric video for their new group’s new song, “Flatline.”

Depending on who’s singing — Mutya, Siobhan or Keisha — the animated onscreen lyrics materialize in cyan, magenta or yellow text, respectively. But the coolest part about the video is that during harmonies, the colors are overlaid much like they would be during a press run — in fact, cyan, magenta and yellow make up three of the four inks* used in your typical press run.

* The fourth ink is black. If you’ve ever heard someone refer to a “CMYK image,” that’s short for cyan/magenta/yellow/black, a sign that it’s been converted to print settings. (In all my newspaper years, I never did get a good answer why black is K, and not B.)

During a press run, the crew takes pains to register everything as closely as possible — when the plates are aligned correctly, a reader shouldn’t be able to see where any single color begins or ends. But I liked how this video stacked the layers haphazardly, which made the effect more visible. (Click on the “wave” image at top to bring it up, big, in its own browser window to see what I mean — the magenta is higher than the others, while cyan is way over on the left.) And that’s when I knew I wanted to try to duplicate that effect somehow.

I’ve been a regular at Letterpress Central for about a year, since I took a class on printing basics in October 2012. A few months later I returned to make my 2012 holiday cards there, letterpressholidaycardinspired by a period typeface I had seen on a gift wrap they had created (and sell online). I was really pleased with the result, and my friends seemed to like them too, so I’d been eager to return to the studio to do another project.

So in August, I emailed Cindy screen shots from the Mutya Keisha Siobhan video — the photos at the top of the post, in fact, which have been on my computer desktop for four months now — and asked if she thought I would be able to re-create the effect in a printing. She was very enthusiastic about the idea … and then I couldn’t figure out what exactly I wanted to print.

Instead of writer’s block, I had artist’s block. Every time I turned on my computer, I’d be confronted by the shots of Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan, nagging me that my creativity was lacking. And yet, I’m not a professional artist — there was no demand for me to get something out there immediately, so I had plenty of time in which to ponder. And, mostly, to procrastinate.

I put it off until after Thanksgiving this year, but that’s when the timeline really sank in. I hadn’t ever asked whether open studio time was available in December, for starters. And with the preholiday mailstream as crazy as it is, I moleskinnotebooksneeded to get in the studio — soon. I sat down with one of my trusty Moleskin notebooks (one of the three-for-$7 ones you can pick up on a whim at Target, not the spendy kind) and started writing down all the holiday-related words I could think of.

I also knew the cards would need to be just under 5 inches square, because I’d be packaging many of them with the holiday discs that have been an annual tradition since the late ’90s.

It took about two days to play around with all the different ideas, but eventually I had a great idea or two ready. And Letterpress Central had studio time open last weekend, so I started my Saturday there at 9 in the morning. It took five straight hours to print the cards using four inks, but I am delighted with the results.

Because I didn’t order my own cans of ink — “get me 100% cyan, stat!” — I made do with what Letterpress Central already had in stock, including a red and a blue that each had been cut down with transparent ink, to transform it from its normal total opacity to something more sheer.

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Part of the fun was watching the card come together; I took cellphone photos as it progressed, then also played with how layering the inks would result in totally different looks. I decided the bottom ink should be the blue (top left). Pretty, right? Layering the red (top right) led to something that made it look like I should be providing 3D glasses with every card.

The fluorescent yellow (bottom left) was the last step of the three text layers, but the ink’s yield-sign brightness was so scary (and relatively opaque) when I was applying it to the platen, I decided it deserved to be documented by itself. Yellow atop just the blue created a nice kiwi color (bottom right), while yellow atop just the red ended up a vivid orange (not pictured).

And the final result:


I used a rich brown ink for Saint Nick — and am grateful that Letterpress Central owned a “creepy Santa” image, as I had hoped. They also had the perfect envelopes to slip the cards in: Just over 5 inches square, in a rich brown color. After a day for the ink to dry on the cards, I had everything addressed and ready to go. CREATIVE HOLIDAY WIN.

WHAT SAM WORE: 12/17/13
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The shirt: Gray corduroy button-up, from Uniqlo in New York.
The pants: Black khakis by AG Adriano Goldschmied, from Last Chance.
The shoes: Black square-toe loafers, from Banana Republic.

2 responses to “Making holiday letterpress cards: Behind the scenes

  1. Pingback: “Stranger With Candy” Holiday Cards | By Sam Mittelsteadt

  2. Sam you are so amazing buddy! Your talent never ceases to amaze me!!

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