Exploring Underprinting

Underprinting. Yep, that’s a thing. I have always envied oil painters who begin their paintings with loose gestures of colors — sometimes in a complementary color. The white of the printing paper can be daunting, and I am always looking for ways to create more depth and texture in my work. Enter the underprint.

When I created my new linocut Treasure of Great Price (see below), along with the companion Pandora’s Paradise, I wanted to experiment with something printed underneath that would provide movement and depth to my topography. I have also been thinking about the topographies that humans create — like mountaintop mining — and how harmful these can be to the earth. So I decided my underprinting block would be a fingerprint.

linoleum carved with fingerprint, gold ink

My twelve-inch block with one fingerprint, rolled up in gold.

Underprinting in the world of stamps and fossils…

Underprinting is used in the paper security industry — you might see these marks on stamps or paper currency. It also refers to the impression left by the footprint of a prehistoric creature, fossilized in lower sedimentary rock levels below the level of the initial footprint.

… and now printmaking…

I cut two twelve-inch blocks for this linocut, one that had the fingerprint, and one that would be reduced in my usual fashion. Because I used gold ink, the initial gold marks created a sort of resist as I printed subsequent layers, yielding an interesting texture. The marks are more visible in some layers than others, depending on tone and also hue.

linocut with colorful layers entitled Treasure of Great Price

©Elizabeth Busey. Treasure of Great Price. Reduction linocut. 12 x 12in (image size), ed. of 12, $300.

My small underprinting block’s success has led me to create a 25 x 40 inch block filled with seven fingerprints. I can’t wait to see how this will appear on a larger scale. Finger(prints) crossed.



Deciding which color layer comes next

Deciding which color layer comes next is a very serious decision for printmakers. Especially those of us who create using the reduction method. In the past, I have used test sheets on less expensive paper, or the reverse sides of spoiled prints, to make my color decisions.Each of these strategies has a problem.

Less expensive paper can cause ink to behave very differently — often sitting on top of the surface rather than being incorporated into the paper. Further layers don’t print the same way as on my good Rives BFK. The reverse side of the spoiled prints have a particular texture which actually interferes with the next inking of the block and creates problems for the actual edition.

Creating color test strips for layers

My latest linocut has nine color layers, so accuracy has been important. I now print color strips as I go along to help me. I save the long narrow pieces of paper that remain when you tear down paper for an edition. I use a similarly sized piece of linoleum for my test block.

test color strips

My color test strips for recent linocuts have nine layers of ink, and evidence of lots of testing.

After I print the first layer of ink on an edition, I ink the lino scrap the same way as my block and print it onto my scrap paper. I leave a bit of white paper at the top so I can hang the scrap paper with the edition to dry. When I am deciding on the next color, I use my palette knife to “draw down” some of the color over my first printing layer. I keep in mind that the layer using the knife will be a bit darker than when it is actually printed. When I’ve decided on a color, I can wipe off these draw downs.

linocut topography warm colors

Pandora’s Paradise. Reduction linocut on Rives BFK. 12 x 12 in (image size) Edition of 12, $300.

Nine color layers mean lots of testing

In Pandora’s Paradise, you can see the color decisions I made for each layer. After I print each layer, I make sure to ink and print on the paper scrap in the same way. For this linocut, I used a modified blend roll, using the heel of my hand to blend some complimentary colors. (Read more about this in a previous blog.)

Occasionally I have a color that isn’t exactly what I expected, but as we know from color theory, how it appears will change with the next color. I just remember to print each new color on my color strip, and eventually I find my way.



Getting your hands dirty is sometimes necessary

The gleaming white borders of my linocuts mean that I am fastidious about keeping clean hands and fingers. But on rare occasions, getting my hands inky becomes necessary. In one of my latest linocuts, I am using many transparent layers, and needed to join contrasting pinky orange and a cerulean blue layers.

I use rubber brayers to apply the ink, but need to solve the problem of the hard and unblended edges.


I know that a blend roll combination will yield a sort of greyish-brown, which I really don’t want. So instead I’m using a technique that I learned from printmaker Karen Kunc. Kunc is able to get many different colors and fading techniques from one block by using the heel of her palm.

Dab with the outside heel of the palm


When I use the heel of my palm, I am blending the inks slightly, but I am also removing some of the ink as well. This makes the unwanted blend of contrasts less intense when it is printed.

Reducing unwanted blending

Here is what the block looks like before I printed it. This isn’t an exact technique, but I find that if it is used in the middle of a linocut, or at the end, any variation is not noticeable.

My palm blended layer after printing.

I still have to be careful to keep the white edges clean!


Meditating on Land and “From the Ashes”

Life is not linear…and neither are the ways of inspiration.

It all started with a landscape-themed invitational show at the Krempp Gallery in Jasper, Indiana. The curator of the St. Meinrad Archabbey in Ferdinand, Indiana saw my work there, and contacted me to see if I would like to have a show in their library next January.

Since I have some time, and because of the particular spiritual nature of St. Meinrad’s, I thought I would take the next nine months or so to develop a special body of work for this exhibit. I had started working with topographical themes again at the end of 2017, and I didn’t feel finished with the topic. Then John Mellencamp came to campus…

Can you tell whether this topography was created by nature, or by people?

What does John Mellencamp have to do with land?

I should explain that John Mellencamp lives outside of Bloomington, Indiana and owns land adjacent to my subdivsion, which he bought in the 1970s to prevent the subdivision from getting any bigger. He was in his mid-twenties at that time, and was protecting what was then land recovering from farming from becoming more split levels and ranches. There are now hiking trails through this land, and I appreciate his forethought.

Recently Mellencamp was on the IU campus to introduce a screening of the documentary From the Ashes, which looks at the US coal industry, and how it affects disparate areas of the nation as well as the environment as a whole. I wasn’t able to attend the screening, but discovered I could easily purchase the documentary on Amazon. (You can rent it as well on many streaming services.) It is worth your time to watch this documentary.

Land isn’t only on the surface

Coal is land. Burning coal is the biggest contributor to climate change. Leaving coal in the ground — admitting that clean coal is economically not feasible — stopping mountaintop removal — protecting water sources from pollution … all of these topics center on land.

How we think about it.
How we use it.
How we share it and profit from it.
How we protect it.

Two new topographical studies began with the pattern of a human fingerprint. Who knows if this will work…

I’ve started two small studies of topography, thinking about land not only as a surface, but also imagining what is underneath. How can I talk about this three dimensional question in a two-dimensional medium?

This new direction may be meandering and uncertain. But it feels important to take the journey.


How to get (and stay) in your groove

One of my goals for 2018 is to develop a more consistent and intentional studio practice. I imagine myself like those famed artists and writers who march off to their studios each day to produce great art. I find it hard to create in the bits and pieces of time that my real life often provides.

I find I can really concentrate on airplanes. Not a good daily option, however.

What does the Emperor have to do with studio practice?

I often feel just like the Emperor in the Emperor’s New Groove. Remember the memorable scene with John Goodman as Pacha, who discovers an old man hanging upside down from a fabric banner? (more…)


Why are some inks more opaque than others?

Why are some printmaking inks more opaque than others? I’m currently working on a commission that won’t be unveiled until after it is delivered to its new collector. Without giving away the details, I found myself needing to shift from a middle blue tone into much darker greens. Enter the yellow opaque ink…

Gamblin’s Relief Ink Hansa Yellow Light is quite opaque.

Opacity vs transparency : not all inks are the same

After using Gamblin’s relief inks for a while, I intuitively know that yellow, napthol scarlet and titanium white will be the most opaque. Other inks like quinacridone red and phthalo blue will be very transparent. For me opacity means that it will cover up the color underneath more completely, and combine with it less. Even with opaque ink straight from the can, you will never get the color on the paper that you see on the glass. They aren’t completely opaque.

I wanted to answer the question of why some inks were more opaque than others. It was remarkably difficult to get such an explanation without jumping off into a discussion of physics for which I was not qualified.

Getting to the why of opacity and transparency

Mixing in some transparent blue didn’t make my yellow much less opaque.

Two on-line sources got me closer to an explanation of why inks vary in opacity. Why Some Paints are Transparent and Others Opaque, a page from Natural Pigments on-line store, has the most complete explanation. The Anatomy of Paint: Pigment and Binder from Essential Vermeer 2.0 has a discussion with a bit less physics.

The answer has three variables

Relative Refractive Indicies

Remember that all pigments whether naturally gathered or industrially created all start out as a powder. The powder is combined with a binder to allow the pigment to be applied to a surface. With printmaking, burnt plate oil (a heated version of linseed oil) is the binder.

Both pigments and binders have a rating for their ability to refract — or scatter — light. The more similar the number, the more likely the created ink will be transparent — or not scattering the light. Linseed oil has an index of 1.479 so pigments that have a very similar index will allow the most light to pass through, appearing transparent. Other pigments like zinc oxide, have an index of 2.00, and therefore appear opaque — not allowing any of the light through.

Particle Size

In my previous post on gold ink, I noted that my favorite one — Charbonnel’s Etching Ink Gold — had almost noticeable particles. It is very opaque, and this makes sense because the light is being refracted off the (larger) gold pigment particles, and can’t make its way down through the ink layers to the white paper.

Imagine all of those light particles struggling to make it through to the white paper!

Distribution of Pigment

This variable is obvious to me, as I liberally mix transparent base into my relief inks to increase the transparency of any color. Even still, I can never achieve the transparency of a phthalo blue with the yellow or white inks. This is probably because of the above two variables.

You can see that this mixed ink is fairly opaque because I can’t see any of the support buttons that are beneath the glass on the table,

I’m not sure I completely understand refractive indicies, but I do get a kick out of imagining the light rays trying mightily to penetrate my layer of ink and make it to the white paper.

Now back to my commission and to some new work. Science class is concluded.


Looking for a new gold ink

I love gold ink. There, I’ve said it. I’m not a flashy person in personality or dress. But in my studio practice, gold ink is a necessity.

Is one gold ink better than another?

To answer this question, I put three inks to the test.

Hanschy RichGold (now Hanco) litho ink (Hanco CS-951 $26.55 Blick.com)
This was my first gold ink. I was taught to do relief printmaking with lithography inks, and I’ve had this one for about eight years. Until October, it was my go-to gold. Straight from the 1lb. can, it is strikingly green-gold and moderately thick. Little evidence of grainy pigments.

Handschy RichGold has been my go-to gold for quite a while.

Cranfield Traditional Relief Ink Gold (75 ml $15.21 Blick.com)
I just received this one, and I was looking for great color in a true relief ink. The color on the tube matches the ink itself — it looks like copper. When squeezed out of the tube, you do see evidence of some grainy pigments.

Cranfield gold looks like copper…

Charbonnel Etching Ink Gold (60ml $18.36 Blick.com)
I have been using this ink for a few months. Out of the tube, it looks the most like gold and is thick and stiff, with lots of grainy pigment.

Charbonnel etching ink is quite stiff.

Putting the ink to the test

I don’t usually use gold ink as a first layer. It would sink into my thick cotton paper and lose all of its reflective qualities. I wanted to see how each ink behaved when printed over previously printed colors. Luckily I had some unfinished bookmarks left over from this year’s Open Studios Tour that I could use. I modified each ink with a similar amount of Gamblin’s tack reducer, until each ink was viscous enough to be rolled out.

When similarly modified, each ink was rolled out and used for printing a bookmark. Left: Handschy, Middle: Cranfield, Right: Charbonnel.

When rolled out, the difference in inks is quite apparent. The Handschy ink on the left is not very reflective, and looks more greenish-brown than gold. The Cranfield in the middle is more reflective, but is still quite coppery and dark. The Charbonnel on the right was the most difficult to roll out. It never gets buttery when mixed on the glass and rolls out into a stiff rectangle.

The proof is in the print

When printed onto the unfinished bookmarks, the difference is even more clear. Both the Handschy and Cranfield and very dark and not at all reflective. By contrast, the Charbonnel is lighter, and its reflective surface contributes to a feeling of depth in the bookmark.

Which ink do you prefer? My heart is with the Charbonnel.

The Charbonnel is so superior to the others that I can’t see when I would ever use the other two. When you want a reflective surface, the ink with the most pigment is the one to use. Hands down.


The truth about exhibiting art

The New Year has dawned…and I’ve been on the road. I am fortunate to be in several group shows this winter, two of which are in the southern part of greater Chicagoland. Because my work is large and heavy, shipping is not an option.

snow covered county road

With no highways running east to west, I have to trust Google Maps when it sends me out on a snow covered county road.

Woody Guthrie and I

My first car load of work was headed to a show at the Victorian House Art Gallery of Olivet Nazarene University, which is located in Bourbonnais, Illinois — a village of Kankakee. All along my drive, I just couldn’t get the “City of New Orleans” lyrics out of my head.

“All on the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields…”

With temperatures in the single digits, plus wind and blowing snow, Google Maps took me on a journey across very rural parts of Indiana and Illinois, and got me safely to my destination. The patterns of the corn stubble against the snow gave me ideas for new work, although relying on the white of the paper to represent snow can be tricky….

And more framing!

The dining room table becomes a cat-free zone as we struggle to frame large work under statically charged plexiglass.

Back at home and I need to get more work framed. Because of the expense of the large frames, I will often switch out the work depending on what is required for a show. I use acrylic (or plexiglass) to frame the largest work, requiring the use of our dining room table to open things up, switch the work, and seal things up again. It has been tremendously cold in the midwest this month, making the house so dry that I would swear lint from the neighbors’ house wanted to leap into the frame. Quite an exercise in patience for me, and my mensch of a husband.

Another trip north…

sun breaking through clouds

After seven and a half hours of driving in fog, clouds and snow, the sun finally breaks through as a visual reward.

With the RAV4 loaded with three large works and six medium-sized, I set off another morning for the Tall Grass Arts Association Gallery in Park Forest, Illinois. Warming temperatures and snow covered fields meant most of the eight-hour journey was completely white with fog and clouds. Thankfully the sun finally broke through during my last hour of the drive.

With everything settled in their galleries, I now have time to devote to a new commissioned work instead of heading out on the highway again. I’ll be watching the weather carefully, hopefully driving again on January 20th for openings for both exhibits. If you are in the greater Chicagoland area, here are all the details:

Water. Fire. Ice. Earth. Air.
Tall Grass Arts Association Gallery
376 Artists Walk, Park Forest IL
Opening Saturday, January 20 from 1 – 3pm
January 19 – February 24, 2018

(impressit) A Group of 8 Printmakers
The Victorian House Art Gallery
577 S Main St, Bourbonnais IL
Opening Saturday, January 20 from 12 – 2pm
January 9 – February 7, 2018


What good does your art do for the world?

What good does your art do for the world? I realize this is a challenging question for artists — at least it is for me. But as 2017 has come to an end, it is just the sort of thing I want to ponder as I make plans for 2018.

Swoon The Canyon • 1999 – 2017. Installation at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

Printmaking meets installation

During our recent arctic blast, I made the 2 1/2 hour drive to the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center to see the work of Caledonia Curry, who also goes by the name Swoon. Curry combines large scale relief and silkscreen printmaking to create large vibrant installations. Spanning two floors, the exhibit also makes use of wallpapers that she designed and had printed near her Brooklyn studio.

Swoon The Canyon • 1999 – 2017. Installation at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

The exhibit, entitled Swoon The Canyon • 1999-2017, is Curry’s first retrospective show. We see her take inspiration from New York City street scenes and subway windows, and then transition to much larger social and environmental themes. Often, Curry combines the creation of the work with some sort of direct social involvement. Her early New York City work was adhered with wheat paste to the very neighborhoods she was celebrating.

Swoon The Canyon • 1999 – 2017. Installation at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

Printing the personal…

Curry looks to more personal themes in the section entitled Medea. The lifecycles of women are superimposed on intricate wall papers as she works through personal themes of love, loss, trauma and forgiveness. An explanatory pamphlet and many audio visual links accompany this exhibit, so I felt both included in the artist’s process and thinking, while still being able to engage with the work on a personal level. As my own children leave me for their own lives, the Medea section was particularly poignant.

Swoon The Canyon • 1999 – 2017. Installation at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

… as well as the political

The final section of the exhibit encompasses Curry’s interest and involvement with social justice, where she seeks to have her artistic practice affect change for individuals and communities. She has done this in Kenya, Haiti, and Mexico, as well as communities in the United States. In the image above, Curry highlights her work in Braddock, PA where she helped establish a non-profit that provides employment for young adults creating architectural and fine art tiles.

I came away both encouraged and a bit daunted. My path to art creating has been different from Curry’s to be sure. I probably won’t be able to affect change on the same scale. For 2018, I’ve decided to keep my eyes open for opportunities to make the world just a bit better. Perhaps one person at a time.

How will you do good in 2018?



Finding beauty in your own backyard

Oil on pavement on a misty day.

Oil on pavement on a misty day.

How do you find beauty in your own backyard? This was a question posed to me by my dear childhood friend Renee’s husband, Henry Styron, as part of an interview for his blog. The blog — Advice for Everyone (and other stuff) is a delightful combination of interviews with regular folk like me, and other things Henry has compiled from the more famous — from William Shakespeare to Ann Landers.

Follow this link to my interview and my advice! 


Pistachios ready for chopping!

Fingerprint cloudscape

Fingerprint cloudscape from Bloomingfood’s parking lot!