All About Risograph Printing

jasmine floyd risograph print
© Jasmine Floyd @jasminefloyd

Risograph printing or Riso as it is affectionately known by its devotees, is often described as a cross between screen printing and photocopying. Despite being around since the 80’s it is still a relatively obscure printing method and actually it has more in common with offset printing than photocopying since as it uses wet ink rather than toner. But the machine itself looks very much like the sort of thing you might find in the corner of an office and they fire out prints in a very similar fashion, so the analogy is kind of valid.

Risograph printers were developed originally as a way of printing high volumes more quickly and cheaply than photocopying. They were popular in schools and educational establishments where there was a need for speed as well as low cost per copy for printing simple newsletters and posters. As the price of photocopying came down and the speed increased, the risograph became a less attractive option; the photocopier’s double-sided copying ability and ease of use threatening them with obsolescence.

But as their office appeal waned, so the artistic community discovered the creative possibilities they offered, a medium that produces bright, tactile prints with a unique and imperfect charm. An ability to layer colours and create textures in an affordable alternative to traditional printing methods.

You’ll find risograph printing in many fanzines and used for posters because of the cost-effective way it produces larger numbers of prints. Artists also favour the unique colours it produces because where laser printing works with just four colours – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) – Riso can mix a number of different colours, often around 20, to produce interesting variations and shades.

esther mcmanus risograph print
© Esther McManus @esther_mcmanus

Some of the results are simply beautiful. The Elder is a great example of the striking results you can achieve with Risograph, a mostly wordless comic, reminiscent of woodcuts and other traditional processes telling the tale of an ancient forest dweller, drawn and printed in multi-coloured riso by Esther McManus.

esther mcmanus risograph print
© Esther McManus @esther_mcmanus

And these illustrations of fish tins by Jasmine Floyd show the layering process to amazing effect, the colours both overlapping and precise.

jasmine floyd risograph print fish tins
© Jasmine Floyd @jasminefloyd

In simple terms the process involves passing ink through a stencil, rather like those old stencil duplicators or mimeographs you used to see in schools, chugging out leaflets and newsletters. With a Risograph, the machine scans the artwork and creates a master which is then wrapped around a drum containing the coloured ink. As the drum spins, the ink passes out through the stencil on to the paper as it passes underneath.

Because each colour is printed separately, care needs to be taken with the position or registration of the artwork otherwise there can be overlap or gaps between each colour, although that often adds to the charm of the process. This is where the comparison with screen printing comes in – where each colour is printed through a mesh stencil or screen. Risograph in this sense could be described as a sort of automated or digitalised screen printing.

The other factor that makes risograph printing interesting is the use of vegetable or soy inks. The machines only use these inks making them more environmentally friendly and popular with those wishing to avoid commercial chemical-based ink. It does mean that only uncoated paper can be used though which together with the maximum A3 size makes the process a limited one (an A2 machine is now available but extremely rare – see below). They also use less electricity since no heat is involved and there are no ozone or toner emissions as you have with a laser printer.

If you are having difficulty visualising the process, then have a look at this video where the enigmatic Olivia and her feather duster go through the whole process in detail.

Risograph Q&A

Who invented the Risograph?

The Riso Kagaku corporation of Japan, initially a manufacturer of stencil duplicators, developed the Risograph machine in the 1980’s. Riso means ideal in Japanese.

How do you pronounce Risograph?

Ree-so-graf in the US, possibly Ry-so-graph if you are British. Most artists just call it Ree-so.

How much are Risograph machines?

A brand new 2 colour drum A3 machine will set you back around £9,000 but a refurbished machine more like £3,500. Most people lease them though. The newer A2 machines cost around £24,000 and there are only about four in the UK.

Where can you buy Risograph machines?

If you want to look into buying or leasing one try Apple Office.

Where can you print Risograph?

There are lots of independent printers out there offering a Risograph print service. Try the following places: based in London based in London based in Manchester based in Glasgow  based in Birmingham

Why not also check out... for lots of useful info on the world of Riso.

  1. I had sort of forgotten about this process, but I have seen it in action. When we were in Nova Scotia in 2008, my wife insisted on visiting the studio of artist Joy Laking Wyatt Smith Cupcake Whatever- she was not there, but her partner was, and when my wife expressed an interest in buying a print, he ran one off for us, on a risograph machine, before our very eyes. Took a while from memory… The print got back to the UK safely and has been framed and hung high on our kitchen wall ever since. I would attach a pic, but the iPad won’t let me. I’m amazed at how rare the machines are over here though.

    1. I just Googled Joy Laking Wyatt and Risograph to see her prints and it gave me a picture of Gavin Williamson. Most puzzling. I’ll have to wait for your iPad to co-operate Wal.

  2. The Risograph is a wonderfully fast and robust machine running on ink not toner and producing 120 impressions a minute. If you want to find out how they work read The Gunfire Gazette on Amazon Kindle ebooks £2.99, a very funny book in which two Fleet Street journalists use one to turn out a magazine exposing sex palaces in the English countryside.

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