Tom Niblick, Kaua‘i’s Printmaker, carries on an illustrious tradition6se 

With Xerox, scanning and libraries filled with millions of replaceable books, it’s easy to forget that the task of reproducing text and images was not always so easy or inexpensive.

The history of printmaking, the art of reproduction, is a long and astounding story that has yet to end. Tom Niblick, of Kaua‘i’s Printmaker in Lihu‘e, has spent decades in a business that is marked with evolution and transformation due to on-going advancements in technology. What for most artists is an inescapable and essential aspect of recording and profiting from their original work is Tom Niblick’s sole craft and business.

Printmaking originated in China after paper was invented (about A.D. 105). Relief printing first flourished in Europe in the 15th century, when the process of paper-making was imported from the East. Since that time, relief printing has been augmented by various techniques, and printmaking has continued to be practiced as one of the fine arts.

From the first century onward, the techniques of printmaking have exploded from days of stone rubbings and woodcuts to highly technical and chemical processes in etching, lithographs and silk-screening. It has been in the last 15 years that the craft has taken on its next stage of growth through the miracles in digital technology — affording digitized photography and eight-color ink printers.

Tom Niblick began down the path of printmaking by majoring in industrial photography and design during art school. Born in Philadelphia, Niblick followed the traditional path of apprenticeship and journeyman with a multitude of type houses and publishing companies such as McGraw Hill.

“Each place I worked, I gained more experience and tools, but the goal was always to have my own business,” Niblick said.

Settling and opening his shop in art-savvy Santa Fe, New Mexico, Niblick worked with prominent Santa Fe artists, galleries and museums, producing high-quality reproductions and catalogues throughout the ’80s.

For many artists working on Kaua‘i, Niblick is an ally and skilled technician. He explained how advancements in technology have made printmaking less expensive and more accessible:

“Back then we would shoot paintings with a 4×5 camera and then develop a print from the film. Lots of chemicals and lots of materials all equaled high cost. It was very exclusive, and only certain artists or galleries could afford to do those types of reproductions.

“When the digital revolution began, lots of people lost their jobs — mainly because the computer replaced manpower. But it also meant less chemicals, less expense, and that’s better for the clients, better for the environment. The film-based printmaking was so labor intensive … now I can do a much higher volume of work within the same time,” Niblick said.

When printmaking in America began, one-of-a kind original pieces were the mark of a serious artist. But with Pop Art painters such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, that trend changed. Suddenly, artists could sell prints from a limited edition, making more profit from a single image than ever before — yet keeping the integrity of their art first rate.

Niblick described the same advantage for local artists he works with.

“With the giclee print, the final product is stretched on canvas and framed. It’s very high-quality work and the artist can sell one print for $200 instead of $5,000.”

The other type of print Niblick makes is on watercolor paper.

Niblick’s relationship with local artists is one of the main joys the printmaker finds in his craft.

“It’s really exciting being often the first person to see the new work. That’s something I’ve always truly enjoyed,” Niblick said. “Even though we are making reproductions, it has always been my intention to maintain the integrity of the original piece.”

And it seems he has been successful, as finding the original from a group of prints would prove to be an arduous task.

An artist himself, he has put the exhibiting of his own photographic work on hold so as “not to compete with my clients. I think it’s just better to focus on this aspect right now.”

Niblick’s business partner, Debborrah Gia, is also his beloved wife. The couple met on Kaua‘i when Niblick first arrived.

“I was helping Rita Peeters set up her press at Night Owl T-shirts, and I was introduced to Debbie through the manager of the store,” Niblick said. They later met up on the Mainland by coincidence and the rest is history. “We said, ‘What are we doing here? Let’s get back to the island,’” Niblick laughed.

The upstairs studio at Niblick’s Printmaker houses what would be sci-fi to printmakers of Renaissance Italy or Elizabethan England. Capturing 309 megabyte files with a digital back, Niblick’s camera is so powerful that what used to take sheets of film to capture now downloads an accurate image in seconds to his computer. From there, the file is printed either on canvas or watercolor paper as glicees with an Epson eight-color printer.

“Just 15 years ago, we would have had only a four-color printer,” he said. “… It’s really amazing how much the craft has advanced.”

The visual world as we know it — from posters to television to the newspaper in your hand — has been reproduced and “printed.”

For the monks who spent a lifetime meditating over the transcription of the Bible, or the Japanese Ukiyo-E woodcuts that introduced the East Asian culture to Parisian eyes in the 1870s, Niblick represents the cutting-edge of the modern world’s printmaking tradition. In his small studio adjacent to Kukui Grove, Tom Niblick carries the torch of nearly 1,000 years in image, art and the printed word.

To contact printmaker Tom Niblick, call 245-7203 or stop by the studio at 4365 Kukui Grove Street, Suite 105, in Lihu‘e.

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