With each passing year, I have been working to accept things as they are. My abilities in my rowing class will never match those of rowers who are twenty year my junior. I cannot make decisions for others who are now fully in charge of their lives. And when ink misbehaves, all I can do is try to finish the linocut, letting go of that elusive goal of perfection.
The World Turned Upside Down has been a two-month odyssey in perseverance and acceptance. If you read my earlier blogs, I wrote about ink overextension. With reduction linocuts (and perhaps with any multi-layered printmaking) the behavior of one ink layer completely affects the following layers. If the first layer does not print evenly, the following layers will not either, no matter what pressure you use, what ink concoction you create or whatever sacrifices you make to the printmaking gods.
This large linocut was printed on new, expensive Somerset paper. I purchased the paper in hopes of solving a texture problem I thought was perhaps related to the paper surface. Once my problems began, the paper was already committed, so I made the decision to go ahead with the print anyway.
This wasn’t a decision I took lightly. A block this size takes lots of time to carve and maneuver in the printing process. As I worked through the various ink layers, the textures that were appearing began to work with the image, with some areas having an interesting patina I could not have planned.
Acceptance is different from resignation. Acceptance is the mature recognition that you are not omnipotent, and do not have unlimited energies. It also opens up the possibility of something that you had not dreamed of, something serendipitous.
A collaborative installation. This is what I determined my solo show in April needed. I will be collaborating with Bloomington writers who will be writing in response to some of my latest cloudscape linocuts. (See UPDATE at the end of this post.)
How hard can it be? If our family had a coat of arms, this would be inscribed in some obscure language. My idea was to take some of the words generated by area writers, carve them backwards on linoleum, and combine the words with cloud motifs on Japanese banners that will hang from the gallery’s twelve-foot ceilings. This week I embarked on my part of the installation…
Remembering what I’ve learned
I have done banners once before at First United Church. You can read about this installation at this blog post. As with any of my projects, I learned many things to do, and not to do, as the project progressed. I decided I needed to create some test banners before I began carving and printing my cloud-motif blocks.
Because I will be using a more diaphanous paper than my usual Rives BFK, I knew I needed to test inks. Luckily I had a selection of leftover inks, so I could test how different transparencies and chromatic intensities would look when printed on the paper and hung up. When light goes through the paper, the color can look washed out if it doesn’t have enough chroma.
I laid out all of the leftover inks with my many small brayers. To act as a record for later, I drew a small amount of ink across some scrap paper with my putty knives.
Papers were another variable I tested. I tested both rolls of Kozo and Thai Unryu papers. Each paper has both a smooth and rough side, and I found I preferred the smooth side for my purposes.
Printing on a banner
My previous banners were actually halved sheets of paper that were then joined in the middle. They wasn’t nearly long enough for this project, and I remember the taping process as extremely problematic. I initially thought I would have to print by hand with a spoon, but after doing this with two small blocks, I nixed the idea completely. I am addicted to my press.
So I took a deep breath and had the exciting task of troubleshooting how to print on the long rolls of paper using my press. I used the two blocks from last summer’s Solar Flags project (read about that project here) in my experiment.
Immediately I learned that I had to keep the paper rolled up at both ends, or it liked to creep below the press on either side of the bed and get crushed. Two Carrie Newcomer CDs from my studio playlist came in handy, and no, they do not go under the rollers.
I worried that the ink would smudge as it was gently rolled up, but it did not offset at all if I rolled up the paper loosely. Certainly this process will not allow for any reduction printing, and all of the alignments will be approximate and fluid. Somehow this sounds appealing to me.
Testing my creation
After printing five or six blocks on each banner, I unrolled the papers and let them dry completely over my press. The next day I put a dowel on the top with fishing line for hanging, and set off to climb a ridiculously tall ladder to hang up my tests.
Check back in a few weeks for the next stage of this installation…
UPDATE: Sadly we did not get enough sign-ups for the class, so the installation was cancelled. I hope to find an installation opportunity in the future so I can use what I’ve learned.
Being overextended — at the end of your rope — is a familiar human condition. Managing internal and external demands can be challenging. I met overextension while working on one of my large cloud linocuts, and the results have been challenging.
When ink isn’t quite so juicy
In many of my cloud linocuts, I begin with very transparent layers because I want to make a smooth transition from the white of the paper. I am working on another 25 x 40 inch cloud linocut, and ran into trouble as I printed the first light blue-grey layer. When I printed the first layer onto some very expensive Somerset paper, a strange chalky dry residue remained on the block. When I rolled ink over the block and printed on the next pristine piece of paper, the residue pattern then printed.
Exasperated, I tried cleaning the block, but the problem reoccurred. I tried adding more tack reducer to some of the ink, burnt plate oil to some more, but neither was successful.
Help from the internet
I use relief inks by Gamblin, so I sent a query through their website. Cecilia Hamlin reached out with some suggestions. The first was to clean the block with vegetable oil, and then with mineral spirits. Cleaning a block this size and weight is non-trivial, as it requires hauling the cumbersome block out to the garage. I also tried re-sanding the entire block with 400 grit sandpaper twice. Still no improvement.
I sent Cecilia photos of the ink on the glass and on the paper. Then the problem was made clear. She suggested that I had overextended my ink — using too little pigment in too much tint base. The addition of too much tack reducer also meant that the pigment did not disperse evenly, but rather clumped together and stuck to my linoleum.
Ink has a memory
On my latest layer, I followed Cecilia’s advice:
Start with the tint base needed and then add in color. Mix thoroughly. (I have a bad habit of not mixing as long as I should.)
Only then should I add the tack reducer, with a maximum of 10% of the total ink volume. I tried to use less.
The result seemed to be better. Unfortunately, the ink on the paper now affect how much new ink transfers from the block onto the paper. So you get these strange textures. The next linocut will be the true test of the new ink strategy.
In the meantime, I must use all of my creativity to salvage the current work. I’m already thinking of some radical measures to make all of the variation work for the image.
Patience and perseverance are the words for February in my life. What are your words?
How do you work through ideas? Some people run. Others have long conversations in coffee houses. Many artists make art. I used to think that my explorations in art were more about the materials. But if I look at my work more retrospectively, I see my own thought processes come into focus.
Trying an idea one more time
My most recent linocut for 2017, Walking the Freedom Highway, was a second attempt to use a sketch originally inspired by rice paddies. I am especially drawn to the sinuous rhythms of the fields in Asia, where less available land means more creative agricultural layouts. Rice fields in the U.S. are sometimes sinuous, but mostly bordered by a familiar quadrilateral. As I printed, the forms began to remind me of many places I have visited throughout the United States.
How does the paper change the linocut?
This linocut is long (10″ high by 33″ wide) and requires oversized, expensive paper. I discovered that I had a limited quantity of western cotton paper, but I was so eager to begin, that I decided to experiment once again. This time I used some Thai Unryu paper (which translates as “Cloud Dragon”) that I had in a roll. This paper has thick fibers running through it which show up subtly in the printing.
As you can see, the Thai Unryu makes the linocut softer and more velvety. Some of the pinks on the cotton paper are quite bright, so this softness may be appealing for some people. In the interest of clarity, I have named the three on Thai Unryu paper Walking the Cloud Highway.
What does patriotism have to do with rice paddies?
It is my practice to carve and print in the morning and early afternoon, before my hands, shoulders and mind get tired. I listen to an NPR program called 1A (in reference to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.) As you might guess, many of the topics led me to think about what it means to be “an American…”
I began my exploration into art as an adult in a watercolor class. The fast, loose, unpredictable medium was difficult for me to master. Yet I have been delving into the physical movement properties of water and pigment recently with my latest work.
My silk is stabilized on a piece of wax paper, and is laid across a large light box. Underneath is a reverse of the test print of the linocut that will go over the colored silk. (It is necessary to use the reverse because the silk will be flipped over when glued down.
Using dyes to flow like skies
I discovered that if I wet the silk with plain water, and then touched color in specific places, the dyes spread out in a way that said clouds to me. Each piece in the series will be different, using blues, purples, pinks, yellows and oranges to create different moods and times of day. (This work merged some orange and blue, giving me a bit of green sky. I’m choosing to embrace this.)
After painting five pieces of silk, I have stopped to let everything dry. The colors are stronger and darker when they are off the light box, so I will need to experiment with the linocut block more before dyeing and printing the remainder.
So far I am enchanted by my “clouds” and hope the effect carries through the end of the process.
I had a birthday recently. It wasn’t a momentous one, but pretty close. As I work on my latest large linocut, I am increasingly aware of how much wear and tear printmaking can have on my body. Blocks are heavy, and need to be slid from the table to the press rather than lifted over shoulder height. Large blocks mean large areas to cover with ink using brayers. This motion can put a great deal of stress on my hands and wrists. Luckily I learned a few years ago that good rollers can save your wrists.
Water is not a friend of relief printmakers who usually print on dry paper. Water sinks into the fibers of printmaking paper and makes it buckle and ripple. After this, registration is a problem. So when I set about glueing silk fabric onto Rives BFK, finding a glue with a large enough open time and low enough water content was a challenge.
Cutting the silk
(See Why would you want to print on silk? Part 1 to see how I stabilized and dyed the silk.) Before glueing, I had to cut the silk down to the size of the block so it would register. Using the block as a guide, a very sharp Exacto blade was a quick way to trim the dyed silk down to size.
The secret glue recipe
After trial and error with PVA (an archival white glue), rice paste, and methyl cellulose, I settled on a three-quarters PVA and one-quarter methyl cellulose mix. The PVA provides a strong bond, but dries almost instantly in the very thin layer that is needed for my purposes. Methyl cellulose, which creates a hair gel like substance when mixed with water, put enough water into the mix to allow for a very brief open time.
Thanks to several bookbinding videos on mounting silk onto paper, I learned to work fast with a rubber scraper, pulling the glue from the center across the silk and off onto the newsprint. (You need to use new newsprint for each piece of silk.) Any globs of glue will squeeze out when run through the press, so an thin even layer is critical.
A chine collè of sorts with silk
After getting the silk all glue-y, I had to work fast to orient it on my block (glue-side up please!) so that it would register later with my lino block. On the first pass I made the mistake of having the block lino side up, which gave a much more embossed effect, but less consistent glueing. The registered printing paper is gently lowered onto the glued silk, run through the press, and then you get…
Taking the time to dry right
Here the silk is adhered to the paper (above), but remember we still have the freezer paper on one side of the silk. To make sure that the silk dries as flat as possible, I sandwiched the newly glued paper/silk combo with newsprint and blotter paper, and let this stand under old lino blocks over night.
Finally the linocut takes shape
After everything is dry, you can carefully lift one corner and pull off the freezer paper. A corner or two may need a bit more glue… Now it is time to add the lino block. Here are several versions as I thought about seasons, and had a bit of fun with colors that you don’t typically see in the forest. The topo lines are taken from an actual place in the Deam Wilderness (near Bloomington, IN) poetically called Cope Hollow.
In my painting, I used a reversed image of the block as a crude guide to have the colors follow the topo lines. Lucky for me, the colors seem to move through the silk for a long time, and the merging effect is better that I could have imagined.
An art-group friend asked why I was insisting on glueing down textiles instead of letting them float freely. I don’t have an answer to this yet, but perhaps some hanging silk will be in my future. For now I’m enjoying the free-flowing intense colors that dyed silk brings to my linocuts.
I’m waiting…I needed to order more linoleum for another large cloud linocut, and of course this is taking longer than expected.
So as I wait, I’m exploring more ideas to incorporate into my printmaking. I have several drawings of rice paddies, and thought how nice it would be if there could be a watercolor effect in the paddies that are flooded. This type of blending with relief printmaking is nearly impossible. As my mind turned toward all things originating in Asia, I thought “SILK!”
Painting on silk is harder than tie-dying
My daughter and I have painted silk scarves with Procion dyes, often used for tie-dying. A e-mail exchange with the folks at Dharma Trading Company prompted me to purchase Jacquard (Green Label) dyes because I wanted to make sure all the colors were going to be stable. Blues (again!) are often the problem.
Working in multiples has the unfortunate consequence that when you fail, you fail in multiples. For every few linocuts I create, there is always a series that doesn’t work out. Maybe the image doesn’t read right. Perhaps it is boring. There are others in a successful series that have poor registration or inking problems. The paper I use is expensive, and when you are left with a stack of linocuts not destined for frames, it is hard to know what do with them, but also hard to throw them away.
If the paper is large enough, I simply put the stack away, later to be flipped over and used as tests for the next series. I’ve heard of people who have an annual bonfire of their less successful work, and that has its appeal although it is clearly not environmentally friendly. My friend artist James Campbell has used old art magazines as the basis for sculptures, and I have considered cutting and stacking my linocuts, adhering them in some way that I could then sculpt them.
The carving and printing of my monster cloud linocut continues. While most of the colorful land has been printed, the monochromatic clouds make up the majority of the work. I’m trying to capture the moody pre-storm clouds with a range of blues. Blues are one of those pigments that have always given artists fits, and I am no exception.
Midway through the clouds, I have had two Gamblin Artists Colors to choose from: phthalo blue and Prussian blue. Both pigments lean toward the green side, which is challenging when working with clouds. Prussian blue, when intense, actually leans toward black. I’ve had to use both quinacridone red (a cool red) and napthol scarlet (a bright orange) to drag the blues away from the green side, and into the blue-gray. It also doesn’t help that the tint base I am using is slightly warm (tending toward a yellow.)
Gamblin used to make an ultramarine blue relief ink, but has stopped. I don’t know the reason, but today’s synthetic ultramarine pigments are said to be at risk of discoloration in more acidic environments. I had previously relied on ultramarine blue for any blues that were neutral or leaned toward indigo…
There is one piece of hope, not for this linocut sadly, but for the future. A blue pigment called YlnMn was discovered by accident by chemist Mas Subramaniam and his lab at Oregon State University. It has now been licensed for commercial use, and the lab has given it to some local Oregon artists to try out. You can see a printmaker use the pigments here. This new blue, which tends toward neutral blue to cool (purply) blue is stable and non-toxic to manufacture. I know it would be a wonderful addition to my printmaking palette.
Another interesting characteristic of this new pigment is that it reflects a large amount of infrared light, making it perfect for roofs that can keep buildings cooler. Can’t wait for blue roofing materials to hit the market either.