Art Term Tuesday: Risograph

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

While walking through the current exhibition, A Year of Making Meaning, you may have run across an unfamiliar term on labels: Risograph. 

A print of a large, yellow flower. In each of the four corners are white polka-dots.
Judy Ledgerwood, American, b. 1959. Perfect Posture. Risograph, 2017. Gift of Terry R Myers in honor of James Alan Myers and Mary Jane Myers, 2020.93.4. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

It may be surprising to learn that the Risograph machine is a piece of office equipment. Today, artists around the globe are using it to create comic books, zines, artist’s books, posters, and small-scale prints. In some ways, this Risograph Renaissance feels reminiscent of the recent wave of letterpress print shops artists have opened, like The Hedge and Heartell Press here in Fort Wayne. They are both examples of artists embracing discarded equipment for its availability and unique aesthetic. 

A photo of a printing shop.
Perfectly Acceptable Press’s print studio, Chicago Illinois. Photo courtesy of Perfectly Acceptable Press, Chicago, Illinois.

In the mid-1980s in Japan, Noboru Hayama, founder of Riso Kagaku Corporation, introduced a digital duplicator, known as the Risograph 007, to compete with the Xerox machine. Boasting high speed, a modest price, and the ability to print large runs, Risograph machines were commonly used in schools, libraries, and other businesses.   

Digital color copiers using electrophotographic technology made gains in speed and volume and offered full color at a reasonable price. By and large they replaced Risograph machines in business environments, setting the stage for artists and independent publishers to purchase them used off eBay and Craigslist. 

The Risograph copier is a descendant of the old mimeograph machine and a relative of silkscreen. It is part manual and part digital. When the Risograph receives a digital image from its scanning bed or from a computer, it makes a stencil by burning the image with a halftone pattern onto a master sheet that is wrapped around the cylindrical ink drum. Akin to a stencil for silkscreen, the burned area on the Risograph stencil is now permeable to ink. The rotating drum transfers the ink through the stencil to the piece of paper, which feeds flat through the machine. A drum holds one color of ink. As in printmaking, artists can add more color, but in this case, it requires one pass at a time using a different master and colored drum changed out by hand. Some Risograph machines, however, can house more than one drum. 

A photo of ink tubes, colored green and orange, being inserted into the Risograph.
Ink drums. Photo courtesy of Perfectly Acceptable Press, Chicago, Illinois.

What is the appeal of Risographs over toner-based electrophotographic copiers? For one, there is a tactile quality to the prints as the ink sits on the surface of the paper. This materiality is something you cannot achieve with toner-based color copies. Inks are translucent and can be overprinted, which extends the available color range beyond the factory issued standard colors. You may notice how vibrant the colors are, and the ability to print with fluorescent and metallic inks.   

Misregistration, smudging, roller marks, uneven ink coverage, and graininess are the quirks and imperfections that can arise and give Risographs character. Many artists welcome these “happy accidents.” Others push the medium to its limits and produce carefully crafted works. Risograph machines use environmentally friendly vegetable inks in place of petroleum based, give off lower emissions than toner, and consume less power. 

Brett Bloom of Fort Wayne and Marc Fischer of Chicago founded the art group Temporary Services and Half Letter Press, which uses the Risograph to print and publish books. Perfectly Acceptable Press in Chicago, open since 2013, is a print studio and small publishing house that offers 26 standard inks and nearly an unlimited number of colors through overprinting combinations.   

Swatches of inks available for artists to print with when using a Risograph.
Risograph Swatchbook. Photo courtesy of Perfectly Acceptable Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Early on, much of the working knowledge of printing and repair was shared online and through word of mouth. Robert Blackburn’s legendary printmaking workshop in New York, known for its work in etching and lithograph, now features a Riso Room and offers classes. Even art schools, universities, and some museums have gotten on the bandwagon.   

Risograph’s popularity with artists, designers, and writers is world-wide. There are international Riso conventions and The Atlas of Modern Risography is tracking print shop activity internationally. 

Want to see FMWoA’s Risograph’s in person? Come check them out in Year of Making Meaning, on display through January 2021.

This print has an entirely black background, with a repeated pattern of a V and M in white, alternating through the whole page.
Amy Falkowski, American, b. 1976. VAWA. Risograph on paper, 2017. Gift of Terry R. Myers in Honor of James Alan Myers and May Jane Myers, 2020. 931. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
A Risograph print that looks like a drawing of what a stage looks like underneath, or the scaffolding.
Kelly Kaczynski, American, b. 1974. Stage (with). Risograph on paper, 2017. Gift of Terry R. Myers in honor of James Alan Myers and Mary Jane Myers, 2020.93.3. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

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