Smells Like Victory!

Smells Like Victory!

Risograph: The Future Look AND Smell of Printmaking

The smell of change is in the air. A global printing revolution is taking place. A device called the Risograph, a printer that makes unique and inexpensive multiples, has invaded the practices of artists of all ages. Risograph print shops have sprung up wherever there’s a critical mass of contemporary artists, comic artists and printmakers.

What's a Risograph?

Imagine if a Xerox machine and an offset press had an ugly baby. To look at a Risograph printing machine, one doesn’t see much — has a familiar and fairly bland form factor, similar to that of your office photocopier.

However, if you look at the prints being produced, it’s another thing entirely. The inks in Risograph prints are layered, gorgeous and highly distinct -- and even have a unique smell. Risography has even spread to universities, where only the most out of touch programs have no Risograph facilities or classes.

Want to simulate Risograph in your digital art?

We worked closely with Risograph printers and artist to create the ultimate Risograph digital brush set. You have to see it to believe it!

Learn more about the Risograph Brush & Texture Kit

Risograph printer

The surprisingly banal form of the Risograph printer hides tremendous versatility.

One of the oldest art techniques known to humans is stenciling. Humans were using hands as stencils in cave art from around 12,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Skip ahead to 1876, the year that Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call. While the telephone gets the glory, there’s another invention that will also have a pervasive effect on culture. A contraption called Autographic Printing was patented in 1876 by none other than that elephant electrocutioner, Thomas Alva Edison.

The following year, in 1887, the A.B. Dick Company of Chicago manufactured the Edison Mimeograph, the first commercial stencil duplicator -- and printing things suddenly became a thing for people other than newspaper magnates.

Cave art of humans stenciling hands

Hands, stenciled at the Cave of the Hands, Argentina.

Depending on how old you are and where you lived, you might have a strong sense memory tied to mimeographs.

I grew up in the 1970s in Appalachia. The schools there did not have Xerox machines (although they existed by this time, they were relatively expensive). Instead, we had mimeograph with its distinctive purple ink and the smell that came along with it.

It was nearly impossible to resist raising a mimeographed page to your nose and inhaling the methanol and isopropanol residue from the printing process.

Early advertisement for Edison Mimeograph

An early advertisement for the Edison Mimeograph.

Risograph Stinks!

Let’s stop the presses here for a moment to reflect on the underground history of smell in 20th century art, from Marcel Duchamp through Warhol to Christophe Laudamiel’s presentation of a “scent opera” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

One of my teachers in art school made reference to a Duchamp quote calling painting “olfactory masturbation.” Whatever Duchamp may have meant, I took it to mean that the smell of oil paint was an essential part of the experience of making a painting.

Maybe there is an art historian out there with a nose for this kind of thing who can help clear up this stink. Puns and history aside, it is true that artists are highly engaged with smell, whether it’s oils in ink and paint or any of the other myriad of materials with which we work.

Risograph is no exception. The soybean oil-based ink used in Risography has a distinct smell all its own. Pick up a freshly produced Risograph print and the odor hits you in the face.

Riso removable ink drum

The form factor of the Riso inks look like normal office supplies. Each color of liquid, soy-based ink must have its own dedicated, removeable printing drum.

Smell aside, the mimeograph is simple machine.

A stencil is created by typing or drawing onto the special stencil paper, thereby producing tiny holes. This stencil is then fitted to a drum, and when spun, either by hand or by electric power, ink is forced through the tiny holes in the stencil and onto the paper.

The cheap paper stencils begin to wear out after a few hundred copies, degrading the image quality until it’s illegible. At this point, if more prints are desired, a new stencil would have to be produced from scratch.

By comparison, the Xerox machine (or electrostatic copier) was a completely different animal. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that the electrostatic principle works on positive and negatively charged electrons. That’s a lot different than cutting tiny holes.

Riso masters

The form factor of the Riso inks look like normal office supplies. Each color of liquid, soy-based ink must have its own dedicated, removeable printing drum.

The History of Riso

The Risograph was born out of the ruins of Tokyo in 1946. Noboru Hayama named his fledgling printing company Riso, the Japanese word for “ideal.”

Although it started as a printing company, according to company PR, Hayama despaired of the availability of ink for mimeographs in Japan at that time. As a result, he transformed his company into a manufacturer of mimeograph ink.

With the introduction of the Risograph AP700 in 1980, the company became a manufacturer of printers and a global phenomenon began.

Riso logo

Similar to mimeograph, Risograph employs stenciling to create a disposable “master,” or stencil, in the process of printing various colored soy inks onto paper, albeit at a rate of speed that would have astounded that rascal Edison.

These masters can be made from scanning in art, similar in form to a Xerox machine, or in later models, electronic files in the form of PDFs can also be sent straight to the printer to make master, bypassing scanning and allowing for more precision.

Once created, the master is fastened to an ink drum that is loaded into the printer. This is where things get interesting, and why the Risograph has become so popular with artists.

By making multiple masters with different color ink drums and printing these layers on top of each other, you can get amazing depth of color in your prints, and at a high rate of speed -- more than one page per second.

Example of Riso printing in comic

This overlay shows that the translucent Riso ink allows colors to be built up in layers.

Why use Risograph in your work?

With a Risograph printer, artists can layer various translucent colored inks, creating increasingly complex works, just like in offset printing.

While the standard CMYK inks of offset don’t have analogues in Risograph, you can come close. This lack of CMYK, rather than being a stumbling block, has maybe created even more opportunities.

Savvy artists and printers use incredibly clever color combinations to come up with quite stunning prints that are as rich and subtle as anything made by offset. Guides books and web pages filled with tips and tricks abound as the people using these machines become increasingly experienced.

Riso comic with loop

A loupe allows a closer look at how the best Risograph works are produced.

There are downsides.

The first is expense. Risograph print shops charge to create print masters, and then charge per printed page. These rates change from place to place. So, too, does the level of experience and expertise that is brought to bear in physically producing the prints.

Another limit on what you can do practically is the availability of ink and types of paper. Not all shops have all the inks, and some inks are incredibly rare.

There’s also a learning curve to working with Risography. Understanding how the ink layers, interacts with the paper and working with registration, which is particularly complicated, requires experience. While there are lots of Risograph prints and printers, there are fewer great quality prints and experienced printers.

Risograph printer digital display

The form factor of the Risograph printer is similar to that of a Xerox machine. Inside, however, they are nothing alike.

Another issue is access. While Risograph is pervasive, it’s not everywhere. Maybe YOU don’t have easy access to a quality Risograph print shop. You could work by mail, sending them your art, specifying the colors and then hoping that you get a result back that you like.

For best success, you need to be there. While cheap compared to offset printing, making a multi-color Risograph print still has a relatively high cost associated with it, depending on what you’re doing, it could be hundreds of dollars – maybe more.

Simulating Risography in Digital Art

With the new RetroSupply Risograph Brush & Texture Kit, you can have your Risograph cake, and smell it too, in so much as you can create graphics with a perfect Risograph work WITHOUT the uncertainty of working by mail, paper choices, availability of ink colors and registration.

You can make graphics for screens, even animations, with that distinctive “riso” look, without the expense and possible frustration.

Another good use of the Risograph pack is to create mock-ups for planned prints – especially helpful if you’re working with a printer by mail, or if you’re working on a tight budget.

If you are new, learning to plan and layer your works with the RetroSupply pack will certainly help when you make a move to create your own physical Riso prints. 

At the end of the day, the Risograph pack is a tool that will let you make works with the distinctive and highly desirable “Riso” look, regardless of whether you’re making works for screens or print. The RetroSupply Risograph Brush & Texture Kit stinks! It smells like victory.

About Christopher Sperandio

Christopher Sperandio is an artist, writer and university professor. In 2015, he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop at Rice University, where he teaches art and comics.

Pinko Joe, Sperandio’s first graphic novel, was published by Argle Bargle Books in 2020 and called “laugh out loud hilarious” by Broken Pencil Magazine. Volume two of this series will appear in 2021 via Follow Sperandio on Instagram, Twitter, or visit his website.