Robert Townsend is a master printer who works with artists to create original, limited-edition prints. From his business, R. E. Townsend Studio, now in a renovated barn in Georgetown, he has executed work for some of the most important American artists of the last 50 years, including Robert Motherwell, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Dine, Richard Diebenkorn, Michael Mazur, Alex Katz, Joseph Goldyne and Bruce Conner.
Townsend attended New England School of Art and started in the etching department at Impressions Workshop in Boston in 1968. He bought the workshop in 1975 and founded his own business.
His prints are on exhibit through Feb. 12 at Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery. We asked Townsend, who said he is semiretired, about his work.
What printmaking methods do you use?
Intaglio or etching, woodcut and silk screen.
What’s the difference between intaglio and etching?
Intaglio — that’s what I primarily do — covers all the processes that you do to the surface of a copper plate, which includes etching.
How do you make prints?
Typically, the plate is placed on the press bed. You use felt as a cushion between the press and paper, then you run it through the press.
At your website, you list different presses that you own. How old are they?
One of the presses I have is an incredibly good press, built in 1900. It’s a great, big, old cast-iron press that weighs around 10,000 pounds, and it prints very well. The bed is 70 inches by 100 inches, and that’s huge — that’s the size I can print.
How does your studio operate?
I run an open shop or open studio. I open my door to anyone who wants to come in. They can execute works on their own, or I can help them.
How do you charge for your services?
There’s a daily fee or weekly fee, depending on what the project might be. When you invite an artist in, you might be able to market their work. They might take half the edition, and you keep half the edition — you keep half the prints to make profit. That’s typically what happens. Sometimes, you might try to move the prints jointly, but it works a variety of different ways.
How do you find the artists you work with — or how do they find you?
I’ve never had to advertise; it’s all word-of-mouth. The things you do — artists take notice, or things get reviewed in a magazine, or through shows.
How do you work with people in the studio?
An artist like Peter Milton will spend his entire time developing the plate in his own studio, then he brings me a product. In other cases, the collaboration is much closer.
I’ve worked with Michael Mazur for many years, just about weekly. Things are just evolving every day, and he’s putting a lot of trust in me while I’m executing a plate or proofing a plate for him.
The same goes with Peter Milton. His plates are so intricate, he relies on me to get something out of a plate that he can’t get.
Are printing skills taught in schools?
The discipline is still offered at all the major colleges and universities, the very basics of the printmaking discipline, whether it’s lithography, silk screening, woodcut and etching or intaglio.
What is the job market like for beginning printmakers?
It’s very hard to get into this business. As far as the ability of the classroom to teach what this business is about, this is something that takes a long time to learn. It took me about seven years.
How is business right now?
I’ve gone through downturns in the economy, but this one is just bizarre. I’ve never seen such devastation in the art market. Probably 70 percent of the people I worked with have fallen through the cracks. The market has been devastated with this economy for five years now. A few painters just stopped making prints. They want probably to spend more time with their paintings.
Is it a combination of the downturn and new technology?
Yes. Computer technology has taken a big bite out of studios like mine. An artist or painter who may want to consider doing prints may want to have a high-resolution version of a painting made, and then have it printed digitally.
Do you use computers at all?
I do use the technology; it helps me in the developing process. ... But I don’t like to have somebody give me a piece and say, “I want you to develop this in Photoshop.” I’d much rather have you be part of the process.
You’d rather help people realize their vision, than just press a button that says “print”?
What I provide basically, if they come here, they get the knowledge I have of what I’ve absorbed over the last 40 years. It’s this evolving circle. Each artist gives you a little bit different look at things. You take a little piece of that and use it for the next thing. It’s been a lot of fun. I wish I could work with a lot of these people more.
If you go
What: “Turning Process Into Profundity: 45 Years of Printed Work by Robert Townsend”
When: Through Feb. 12. Gallery open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Salem State University’s Winfisky Gallery, Ellison Campus Center, 352 Lafayette St., Salem
How much: Free
More information: 978-542-7890