Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing using a cylinder or platen press. The raised surfaces of the type or engravings are inked, paper is rolled over or pressed against them, and the ink is thereby pressed onto and into the paper. The depth of the impression can vary from a feather-light touch to a heavy punch, even to the extent of cutting through the paper altogether. An informative article in Letterpress Commons discusses the criteria by which a printer may choose to “kiss” or to “bite” the paper, as illustrated below.
A few examples will illustrate the distinctive aesthetic of letterpress and give an idea of the difference that the impression can make to the overall effect. (Click on the images to enlarge.)
“Impression” is also used metaphorically, preceded by the verb, “to have “ or “to make”, as in “her words made a powerful impression on me.” The concept is the same here in that one person’s words leave their mark on another just as the impression of the type or the engraving leaves its mark upon a sheet of paper. Like an impression on paper, an impression on the mind or heart can be a gossamer-winged kiss or a bite; and a bite, in turn, can be a playful love nip or a puncture wound inflicted by a rabid dog.
Another term in letterpress printing has had a similarly varying metaphorical meaning over time, and its modern meaning is decidedly heavy-handed. In letterpress, to impose is to lay out the type, arranging and assembling it in blocks to make up a page. It is usually done on an imposing stone, a flat, heavy—nowadays, usually metal—surface. “To impose” can mean to place, to lay out, or to lay on (as in the laying on of hands), or, it can mean to exert influence forcefully, so that the object of this influence is taken advantage of, put-upon. A person of authority dressed in full regalia cuts an imposing figure, an imperious ruler imposes laws and taxes by decree, and a party guest who overstays is imposing on the host’s good nature.
So don’t be afraid to make an impression, as long as it’s not an undue imposition. And as in letterpress, know when to kiss and when to bite.