Monica Oppen: Hits & Misses, 2014


A Codex Australia 2014 symposium presentation. The Codex Australia symposium was held over the mornings of 1 and 2 March 2014, with a fine book fair following each afternoon. An account of it is published here.  This paper, the third of the six in the symposium, was a primarily visual presentation (as were all the others) and the text has been slightly edited for ease of reading. Three of the six presenters have their papers published here on Pretext: Caren Florance, Lyn Ashby and this one by Monica Oppen.

Hits and misses: the challenge of realizing and enhancing content through the book’s design and the choice of production processes and materials.

Today I want to talk briefly about my impulse towards making books and the challenges I encountered. Then addressing the topic of the talk, I will discuss at length one particular book with specific reference to how my patched together skills, my initial lack of knowledge and limited or lack of access to various trades lead to what I now think of as hits and misses in its production.


We have all entered the world of making books in our own specific way. I became interested in the book form at art school in the 1980s. One of the first books I made was in connection with classes I was taking, specifically printmaking and drawing at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School).  Book arts was not part of the curriculum but happened spontaneously. If there were students in the class who were interested, a project was generated.

After I finished the certificate course at East Sydney Tech where I’d majored in printmaking, I went on to do a bachelors degree in visual arts again majoring in printmaking (etching) at City Art Institute (now the College of Fine Arts).

There was no book arts component at City Art either. I was the only student making books and the teachers left me to myself. They did not link me to or mention other artists who were making books or who had made books; perhaps because they did not know of any; however in the art schools I went to books were not part of the mindset.

My interest in books was sparked by my introduction to printmaking, a medium I had been oblivious to until I went to East Sydney Tech where printmaking was one of the core subjects in first year. The editions we were required to print and also a propensity for creating work in series made the book for me a logical way of presenting work.  These works were not proofs or earlier states bundled together album-style but works created from series of narrative-linked prints. I wrote the text and created the images.

OppenThe first fully editioned book I made was a picture book. It was not a difficult shift. If you ask what kind of book has pictures? The most obvious answer is a child’s picture book. This took two years to complete. The story was written at the beginning of my full time study at East Sydney Tech in January 1986 and editioned in 1988 after I had completed the 2 year course. It was a story of a cockatoo and consisted of 29 large etchings.

At this point my experience of books was solely commercially produced books. I did not have any knowledge of traditional book making practices; that books were made differently in the past was obvious; most things had been made differently. Letterpress printing was an unknown to me. That books were sewn was obvious because the stitching could be seen deep in the centre of sections. I remember studying the stitching, trying to work it out but not daring to strip a book down to uncover any hidden secrets.

The first books I made, two humble sketchbooks, initially were a bundle of single sections, which I then thread together with strips of cloth. I realised I’d missed some crucial stage in the process of sewing which would’ve linked the sections together! They were without doubt the worst books I would ever make. When I discovered that a local TAFE was offering a hand bookbinding course, two evenings a week I signed up.

Without knowledge of letterpress, let alone that such facilities still existed, I was immediately struggling with how to get text onto the page. This was the biggest challenge. It is still if you don’t have access to letterpress equipment or screenprinting and your paper doesn’t fit through a printer. In the following images I will show the various ways in which I overcame this ‘problem’.

One-off or unique books


  • Handwritten text directly into the bound book.
  • Type written text on other sheet of paper and stuck into bound book  “Where are you Hundertwasser?” detail
  • Rubber stamped using kids’ letter stamp set. The numbers were hand cut into Staedtler erasers.


  • Letraset also known as transfer lettering which was common in the graphic design industry before the advent of computers


  • Photocopied text. Initially photocopied from the original source then cut the collaged onto the sheet to be re-photocopied onto a page before binding.


Editioned books

Text was rubber stamped onto paper using a set of alphabet stamps from a rubberstamp manufacturer, then transferred onto transparent film. Etching plates with a photosensitive ground were used.

11RD 12RD

In “Rebecca’s Diary’, the handwritten text was written directly onto an etching plate prepared with a hard ground then etched. I also used digital set text transferred onto transparent film then transferred on photosensitive plate then etched. When I started this book I didn’t have access to this new technology. When I made the foreword to this book, I finally had access to letterpress.

13love 14love

“A Tale of Love” was similar to the previous process except the text was ‘written’ with letraset then transferred to transparent film then onto the photosensitive plate then etched. I also cut text in lino.

Photopolymer plates arrived at the art school just as I was leaving. Recently I produced Stabat Mater using photopolymer plates both as relief plates and intaglio plates. In Dark Forest one of the texts was done with photopolymer plates that had been prepared as relief plates but were inked and printed as one would an intaglio plate.

16Stabatmater 17stabatmater 18stabatmater
As well as using photopolymer plates I used screenprinting in Stabat Mater. The book is a concertina book and both sides of the concertina are used.
Digital technology has swamped the world. It is very useful at times.
19river 20Case

Both text and images have been printed using litho offset.


Imagine a world in which standardization did not make production cheaper but more expensive. All manufactured items would vary in design, size and materials used. The whole thinking around the making of an item would be different. No two books would be the same; a set of identical books would potentially be an exotic and very expensive collection indeed.  I’m not sure this would be a better world than what we have but it would be an interesting place to be for a while. Would everything needing to be different be as bad as the economics requiring everything to be the same?

As makers of books we have the choice to exist in a world somewhere in between these two, to take greater control over the production processes we use, the materials we use and to break away from standardization that locks commercial publications into predictable formats and production processes.


Rebecca’s Diary



Now I wish to discuss one particular work and come more specifically to the title of my talk; hits and misses: the challenge of realizing and enhancing content through the book’s design and the choice of production processes and materials.

Rebecca’s Diary started as a text written for a “visual project” prepared for a City Art Institute theory class in November 1988. I used to keep a ‘sketch’ book in which I stuck a copy of my written pieces.  It was the days before computers! In this book I found a copy of the original piece submitted for the project. It includes the text and a commentary describing the illustrations.

In the introduction of the assignment, I wrote, “The starting piece for the project is the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of ‘Cinderella’. The intention is to enlighten the possible personality of the pubescent girl, giving her a new dimension, which can be related to other young women. Also underlying this intent is a desire, on my part, to re-establish the link with nature that humans seem to have lost, which has led to the belief that it is unnecessary.”

24RD 25RD The story takes place before the balls at the king’s place. It is not a first person rewriting of the Cinderella story but almost a prequel. It has no plot, the narrative is time passing. What links my piece to the original story is the reference to events; the death of her mother, the arrival of the stepmother and her daughters, the twig that Cinderella’s father brings her from his trip to the markets, which Cinderella plants on her mother’s grave and the birds which keep her company there. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this version of the tale; Cinderella’s father does not die, there are three balls not one, there is no fairy godmother and the ending is both happy for Cinderella and gruesome for the stepsisters.

Key right from the beginning of the project was the desire to capture the voice of this girl, so it is written in first person. In working honestly with her voice and her situation, I wrote completely oblivious to an audience. She does not explain anything or fill in any background information other than to state who she is on the first page.  And of course, because Cinderella or Aschenputtel is a nickname she gives us her real name, which enlightens nothing, if anything further masks the link to the fairy tale. This lack of information became a real block to readers getting the significance of the story. I suspected it would. The concession I make is the accompanying booklet, A Foreword to Rebecca’s Diary,  which gives the missing explanation and also a translation of the significant part of the fairy tale. I shall return to this later.

26RDSo how did Rebecca’s Diary get its form? The number of pages was calculated; the 28 leaves, a leaf being the recto and verso of a sheet of paper, 2 pages. They represent the 28 days of the lunar month and also the menstrual cycle. So there are 56 pages. The book is broken up into 4 sections of 7 leaves, 14 pages, which represent the 4 weeks of a month but also the 4 seasons of the year. Nowhere is any of this stated. It is simply an underlying structure. At first I imagined the book would be literally made of 4 sections bound. But anyone who knows anything about books, and this shows how little I knew at the time, knows one works with units of 4 pages and anyone who can do basic math knows 4 is not a factor of 14!

The 56 images are paired. But I have flouted traditional book design in that the pairs do not face each other across the gutter but are printed recto and verso of a leaf thus maintaining the physical significance of the leaf being the representative unit of time or event in the book. This was a very conscious decision. All the plates were prepared in pairs and are matched but they are not matched to the subsequent pairs so there is not necessarily a harmony of image across the gutter. Obviously there are images facing each other across the gutter that look nice but also there is disjuncture that I left to sit uncomfortably. My intention was to remain true to the form I had chosen, not to book design tradition nor to make it a more pleasing or comfortable reading experience for the reader. The girl writing the diary is working in her own world, unaware of these book traditions.


Why etchings?

In a way the answer is obvious. I was majoring in etching. But I could have used lithographs or linocuts. But linocut was too bold and graphic. I wanted a softer drawn line rather than sharper cut lines. Lithography was out because of the size of the project, both small, the image size is small, and large, the number of plates is large.

In lithography we used the facilities of the school studio, the stones and plates and presses etc. There was no possibility of claiming a set of plates for such a long period of time and the plates sizes were too big anyway. I also knew from the outset that I wanted to edition the work away from the art school, outside of the assessment process. Only proof sheets were ever put forward for assessment. Also I needed to have the whole book realised in plate form, to have it complete, before I editioned it. This would not have been possible working in lithography department where I would have had to edition the work as I went along and reuse the plates. So I bought zinc etching plates and cut them to size. The book in this form weighed about 14 kilos, which I lugged on foot to and from school.

The problem of the text

Although it now seems hard to imagine, if I’d had access to letterpress I would’ve had the text typeset. Firstly, because that’s how proper books are done and I wanted this to be a proper book. Secondly, my handwriting was not very attractive and I would have to write backwards which would mean it would be worse. But I bit the bullet and went with handwriting, justifying my decision saying it suited the text. I had to have a reason beyond “because I had no assess to type”.

I could have done what I’d previously done in the cockatoo book, rubber stamping the text then transferring it. But I knew it would not suit and it was also very tedious to do.

The colophon for the book was done much later just before editioning and in the interim I’d gained access to my brother’s computer and his help and so it could be typeset, rather badly!

Writing backwards proved not to be so difficult and very quickly I got used to reading backwards. The roughness or naivety of the writing captured a younger person’s script without the fakeness of trying to make it look younger. I worked the drawings at the same time as writing, so text and drawings are integrated just they would be in a diary. At all times I wrote and drew to my best ability so the work would have an authenticity rather than a faked juvenility. So I would say this decision to use handwriting is a hit, a ‘good’ decision.

The problem with etchings

I imagined a small, thin book, a book a girl could hide in her pocket and keep out of sight. The plate size is the actual size of the book I imagined. How did the book get to be so big?

29RDThe high pressure required to print an intaglio print means that printed surface is embossed and debossed, giving a wonderful three dimensionality to the print. The edge of the plate is very prominent in an intaglio print. However, if an image is printed on the back of the paper the three dimensionality of the first print is flattened. To have pages facing each other with no blanks the “page” has to be created from two sheets backed up to each other and this is what I did. This meant there was a fold on the fore-edge of the book instead of at the spine, which is normal, and would consequently lead to binding challenges. It also meant that immediately the book was twice as thick.

As I mentioned before the mindset at the art schools did not include books. There were other mindsets which dominated teaching practices in the printmaking departments.

Mindset 1: We were told in order to get a good intaglio print the paper must be damp when printing and a soft, spongy cotton paper. Usually we used 250 gsm BFK Rives paper. For my small book this paper was too thick. The thinnest paper readily available was about 145 gsm, still a thicker paper than I really wanted.

A few years ago I came across Idyllia with poems by Hugh McRae and illustrations by Norman Lindsay. The illustrations are intaglio prints printed beautifully on a thin, hard paper.  The impossible! Also William Blake’s illustrations in Edward Young’s Night Thoughts are printed on a stiff, thin paper.  The images, some of which are printed back to back, are also bleed prints, which brings me to the next mindset.

Mindset 2: that the image is sacrosanct, not to be touched and to achieve this it is bordered by clean white paper. Although in my mind the girl writing the diary handled her book thoroughly, this handling clashed with my printmaking training. It just seemed wrong, even terrifying, the thought of readers actually touching the printed pages. The intense intimacy was akin to violation.

Yet now reading Bruno Leti’s Tobacco Shop is exhilarating because the bleed printing fills the page with an almost overwhelming richness and brings you very close. The white borders in Rebecca’s Diary push you anyway towards an aesthetic experience rather than drawing you closer in.

In Rebecca’s Diary that double layer of the paper forming each leaf and the paper’s weight would have meant if these small images had been bled printed, the book would have ended up rather small and thick. The white border and the resulting larger page size eases us away from this prospect. However, if the drive of the book artist is to maintain an integrity with the subject matter then I would consider this set of choices a miss, a ‘bad’ decision.

In 2011, I participated in an exhibition entitled Happily Ever After. Also based around themes of fairy tales, it required a sequel to a tale. Straightaway I knew it would be interesting to revisit Cinderella. I had one unbound copy of Rebecca’s Diary, which I’d left unbound so it could be exhibited. So I created the [image 39] Aschenputtel Trilogy. Book one, the copy of Rebecca’s Diary was bound [image 40]; book two, from a collection of Bros Grimm fairy tales, I scanned and printed the pages of Aschenputtel, which just happened to fit neatly into an 8 page single section booklet [image 41]; and book three, I created a new work, The Queen’s Journal.

The Queen’s Journal has the same number of pages as Rebecca’s Diary, 56, is handwritten and illustrated with drawings. It is a one off. Obviously working so directly, with no intention of making multiple copies, it was easy to work with a truth to the diary form. I mention it because it is much closer to how I imagined Rebecca’s Diary should have been.

I now realise that key to the failure of the form of Rebecca’s Diary to achieve the best expression of the text was my lack of understanding of the nature of the page and how it differed from the print on the wall, how the page is a dynamic form not a fixed moment in time. In a sense the Diary is 56 fixed moments.

Complications were thrown up by my choice of production method, which was limited to a process I had access to and skill in working with. My fledgling understanding of bookbinding, not only of the craft but of the mechanics of a book’s structure, from the sheets to be folded to the turning pages, and how to work with this structure from the very beginning of the project were also a contributing factors to the resulting clunkiness of the book.

23RDThe turning of the page is the book in action. Closed on the shelf the book is little more than a stack of tied up, inked paper. It is in action that the book comes alive and functions in its unique way, a rhythmic disclosure, allowing only a fraction of the contents to be shown at any one time.

The decision to make the Foreword came about because of feedback from readers of the Diary. As I mentioned earlier I was aware that entry into the work was opaque due to the lack of background information included in the text. In 1990, when I was still in the process of hand-colouring the images in the Diary, I met Nicholas Summers when he came to the bindery where I was working with a binding project. I realised he had a skill set which I had previously had no access to. He had the missing link. This was my introduction to letterpress. He offered the possibility of producing a book that was ‘normal’. Using a different production method the Foreword could be paired with the Diary but would also look and feel different. Its production was straight forward, page size and paper were to be the same as the Diary. It would be a single section book. I left the typesetting to Nick. The images were printed from zinc blocks of line drawings. The binding was matched to the Diary by using the same leather and the two books were housed together in a double slipcase.

Now 24 years after finishing Rebecca’s Diary I am not wedded to any particular production method and do not consider one to be better but rather one more suitable than another. I do not consider myself to be a printmaker but rather a book artist. I am just as happy producing a photocopied edition of books as working with Nick on a letterpress edition or simply making a one-off book, using hand printing, rubberstamping, collage and drawings.

Regardless of the process you choose to work with there will be limits to butt up against, something that will make you struggle to resolve the disconnection between what you have imagined and what is actually possible. When working most creatively there is a constant readjustment, re-visualisation and opening to the new possibilities that appear through, put most simply, ‘making marks’. There will always be hits and misses, successes and failures. This process ideally pushes you towards a wider engagement with multiple media and also towards a greater mastery of your media.

I will end with a quote from Scott Stephens who, although talking about playing Beethoven on period instruments, makes a point that I think, is relevant to all creative practice.

Limits … and a narrower range of choices can often times be the very stuff, the very conditions of the realisation of what is good and what is beautiful and indeed universal.

Thank you for listening!


About the author

An artist herself in the fields of book art and printmaking, Oppen is also a prominent collector of artists’ book. She established a library of artists’ books called the Bibliotheca Librorum apud Artificem, which is based in Sydney and accessible to the public by appointment.