Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings
“One of the inherent responsibilities of every artist is to continue artistic exploration. Our challenge and our joy is to reach out, to expand our vision, and expand our perspective,” wrote Harvey K. Littleton in 1993.i Known for his pioneering work in the studio glass movement, Littleton forged a connection between glass and printmaking by creating an alternative process using glass as the matrix. He and artist Connor Everts coined the term vitreography.
Vitreous means having the nature of or derived from glass. The use of glass as a print matrix has had some forerunners. In monotype, the artist applies ink or paint on glass and prints a unique impression. The photographic process cliché verre involves manually making an image on glass and treating the plate like a negative; the plate is placed in contact with light sensitive paper and exposed to light, resulting in the print. A close antecedent was in 1797 Glasgow, Scotland, where experimenters replaced copper with glass plates in an effort to find a more durable printing matrix for paper currency.ii
Harvey K. Littleton taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1951 to 1977. In 1974 he led a workshop at his farm teaching cold working techniques in glass. It was made possible with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and support from Steuben Glass Works and Corning Glass Works. One of the many experiments involved sandblasting plate glass using various resists at a monument shop. Littleton made a number of glass plates during the demonstration.
Among his first experiments was the museum’s Trial II (1975), in which he used hot glue and carborundum blasting on the plate. The artist recalled, “These things stayed in my studio, these experiments at sandblasting, for about three weeks when I kept looking at them and decided they really ought to be printed. And so that’s how I got together with Warrington.”iii
Littleton approached printmaker and faculty colleague Warrington Colescott to see if he could print his five sandblasted glass plates on an intaglio press. Colescott reminisced, “The first plate I inked wiped up nicer than metal. I adjusted the press to take its thickness and sent it through. There was a definite crunch. . . and when the felts were thrown back we gazed upon a 12- by 15-inch area of powdered glass.”iv After some further adjustments to the pressure, Colescott successfully printed from Littleton’s plates.
After Littleton retired from teaching and moved to Spruce Pine, North Carolina in 1977 he set up his hot shop, and a designated room for an intaglio press. He began introducing visiting glass artists to this new medium. In 1981, he built a 1,256 square foot space and hired a full-time master printer for a collaborative printmaking endeavor—Littleton Studios.
The relatively inexpensive float glass (or plate glass) often used for windows and shelving served as the matrix. The ideas and development of various techniques were a cooperative effort by Littleton, master printers, and visiting artists’.v They translated cold working methods for surface decoration in studio glass to his new process; hand grinding and flexible shaft engraving power tools with diamond tip bits (like a Dremel) became the means of creating a wide range of lines and textures on the glass plate. Brushing on diluted hydrofluoric acid made subtle tonal passages, similar to a watercolor wash or spit bite aquatint. Like traditional intaglio, these techniques result in recessed marks below the surface of the matrix; the plate is inked, wiped, and run through an intaglio press.
In the museum’s Yen Hen, Shane Fero continued his fascination with birds. The contours and feathers feel reminiscent of lines in etching and drypoint while the fluid washes recall aquatint.
Littleton’s studio explored the application of different resists. Artists brush on beeswax and microcrystalline wax as a resist. Drawing through the ground exposes the plate. The unprotected areas are etched when submerged in a bath of hydrofluoric acid. Similarly, pencils, pins, and other sharp tools draw through a white lithographic ink ground, followed by sandblasting, to incise the lines.
Sand and carborundum come in different grit sizes and generate various degrees of pitting, which will later hold the ink. Master printer June Lambla described it: “’The carborundum blasting technique is, in my opinion, the strongest and most unique aspect of glass printmaking. The spontaneity of applying the ink resist to the plates has an appeal similar to making monoprints but with the advantage of multiple images.’”vi
Funded by grants, Littleton was able to expand the introduction of vitreographs to invited painters who had prior printmaking experience, including Walter Darby Bannard, Louisa Chase, Herb Jackson, and Hollis Sigler.
The museum’s Needing to Make a Change is a dark, haunting landscape devoid of people. Sigler used a combination of techniques; including flexible shaft engraving, hand grinding, carborundum blasting, and a liquid etchant, known as Jack Frost “spit bite.” This was completed just months after her diagnosis with breast cancer.
In June 1995, printmaker Donald Furst visited Littleton Studios and demonstrated his adaptation of the siligraphy (waterless lithography) process for use with glass plates. The design is drawn with water-soluble materials on a prepared glass plate but images can be transferred to the glass plate through laser printing and photo-based processes as well. A silicone mixture is applied to the surface. When the silicone mixture has dried and cured, the plate is washed and the original water-soluble design rinses away. When the plate is inked, the silicone resists the ink, and just the design prints on the paper.
What are the pros and cons of using a glass plate? Glass is surprisingly flexible and strong under repeated compression. It can withstand numerous printings, and the image on the plate does not wear down like softer and more malleable metal; however, it is important to be mindful that any minute debris remaining under the plate can result in the matrix breaking when under pressure. Glass plates are not costly and are less cumbersome than a lithography stone.
Glass does not oxidize like metal. There is no chemical reaction with the printing inks that can potentially alter and muddy the color. The color in vitreographs remains bright and pure, even when layered. The painter Walter Darby Bannard found the “powdery surface”, a result of the pitting in the blasting, appealing. This grainy quality seems reminiscent of tonal areas in lithography, mezzotint, and even pointillism. Artists comment on how quickly sand/carborundum blasting is accomplished versus the more laborious aquatint.
Another unique advantage of vitreography is the transparency. The artist can work on the plate over a drawing, study the design in the correct orientation from the back side, and even assemble the plates on top of each other. The downside is it is more difficult to remove unwanted marks.
Printers enjoy the ease of inking, wiping, and registering the plates. Intaglio and siligraphy can be combined to make a finished work and use the same intaglio printing press. Littleton described, “The glass plate gives all the brilliance of color inherent in the lithographic technique with the textural magic of a highly embossed intaglio surface.”vii
While vitreography remains less commonly practiced than traditional printmaking processes, there are institutions that continue to teach it, like University of Florida. The Pilchuck Glass School’s print shop opened in 1990, and their prints were the subject of a large-scale exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in 2017. A forthcoming book entitled Editional Research will provide a history of vitreography.
Visit FWMoA now through January 22, 2023 to see more vitreographs on display in Vitreographs: Collaborative Prints from Littleton Studios.
i Harvey K. Littleton, “Glass: A Potential for Prints,” The Glass Art Society Journal (1993): 78.
iiSuzanne Netzer, “Prints from Glass Plates,” ICOM Newsletter (March 1989): 8.
iii “Oral History Interview with Harvey K. Littleton, 2001 March 15,” Archives of American Art, accessed October 26, 2022, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-harvey-k-littleton-11795.
iv Warrington Colescott, “Littleton Prints from Glass,” Craft Horizons (June 1975): 28.
v Among the many whose early innovative ideas developed practices in vitreography are glass artist Erwin Eisch, printer Sandy Wilcox, and painter David Lewis.
vi Luminous Impressions: Prints from Glass Plates (Charlotte, NC: Mint Museum, 1987), 11.
vii Littleton, 80.