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.
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.
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.
Clouds move. They may appear static, but they are really being driven by wind — a force which we cannot see. In my latest linocut, I play with repetition in the form of a diptych to think about cloud movement as an illustration of that that illusive wind.
Repetition and two images are the key
As I noted in a previous blog, a diptych is a pair of images that are created to be displayed together. Here I chose to stagger the same long cloud formation, where part of it is somewhat repeated in each image. I was not concerned with making this repetition apparent, so you can only see the actual repetition in a few places. What I wanted you to see is your eye perceiving separate frames, like Eadweard Muybridge’s famous running horse demonstration.
If one is good, two must be better. My latest linocut, Iridescent Argosy, is comprised of two 24 x 13in blocks that are intended to be framed separately, but be hung close together to create one display. This is my version of a contemporary diptych.
The origins of the diptych begin in antiquity, when lesson books were two wax-coated plates linked with a hinge. Later, low relief artwork that was related in topic was used. In the Middle Ages, clergy began using this format, allowing for the safe transport of icons. Several famous altar pieces are actually three joined panels, or a triptych. In these examples, one side was related to the other, but each side could also stand alone.
Using two blocks is also logistically helpful in some ways. Smaller blocks are easier on my hands and elbows, and smaller paper and framing materials are less expensive. But I’m mostly drawn to the notion that this image was just too expansive to be contained within one frame.
Art-making is compromise. Those who say that you can make whatever you want are simply mistaken. Art making is a compromise between what you have in your imagination, and what you can accomplish with your materials. In reduction printmaking, this compromise has to do with the number of shades, colors or details you would like versus the amount of ink your paper is willing to accept. Apply too much ink, and you are finished.
What is an overzealous printmaker to do? In many of my linocuts, I turn to metallic inks to finish the piece, even if I wasn’t quite finished myself.
Why metallic inks are different
Metallic inks are different from other printmaking inks. The pigments are not ground as finely as other colors so they can reflect light. Gold inks are simulated with combinations of copper and zinc (yielding a sort of bronze) and silver inks are made from aluminum. As these inks dry, the metals rise to the surface.
How shiny these pigments appear depends on the surface on which they are printed. On my very absorbent Rives BFK, the inks aren’t too shiny unless they are the last in a series of ink layers. With the above inked block, these inks are going over six other layers of ink, so the paper is nearly sealed. If you printed on a very slick surface, the results would be shinier. If a very reflective result is required, you would need to resort to foil printing — a fascinating technique with which I would love to experiment.
Mixing brands of ink — apologize later
Gamblin –the maker of my other relief printmaking inks — does not make metallic inks. I have had my Handschy gold and Kohl & Madden silver inks for years. Straight out of the can they are very dark and strong, so I mix in some Gamblin Relief Transparent Base and some tack reducer to get the strength I need. So far my mixing of different ink brands has not resulted in a visit from the ink police. I also use a bit of metallic ink to make an ink less transparent, without adding white — which can lead to too-pastel colors.
I just applied a layer of metallic gold and silver blend roll to my latest cloud linocut, and I think it is finished. It is a diptych, so I am working on just the right way to display it on-line.
The English language needs a word for that chilly feeling of regret that washes over you, followed by the hot flush that confirms that you just made a terrible mistake. In relief printmaking, this comes when you have carved away a portion of your block that you had not intended. This happened to me recently, and after I discarded the possibility of having a toddler-style tantrum on the floor, I turned to Google.
My trouble came from my carelessness when using a mask or frisket to block out part of the linoleum. A mask is simply a packing tape covered piece of tracing paper that physically covers part of the block so the roller can’t deposit the ink. The result is an ink/no ink line. The actual mask that I created was slightly different from the lines on my tracing paper drawing, but I had forgotten this, and merrily began carving away the incorrect lines. This would mean that there would be a strange white space between my yellow sky and purple mountains. There was no way to glue back the pieces of linoleum with Superglue, which only works on minute areas where the linoleum is somewhat attached.
Armed with my Bondo, I first masked around the area I wanted to fill with blue tape. I mixed a small amount of the white compound from the can, with a tiny amount of the brick red paste from the accompanying tube. I used a Dixie cup as a container and a popsicle stick for mixing and spreading. Make sure to use gloves and have proper ventilation. (Don’t do this inside.)
I quickly spread the Bondo firmly into the channel I wanted to fill and scraped down some of the excess. You will want to leave a raised mound that you can sand. Bondo cures, rather than dries, so I was able to start sanding after an hour.
After removing the masking tape, I began sanding with 220 paper. I was careful not to sand too far down, as then I might get small lines around the filled area that might print. This patch will work if you have relatively small areas to fill, or if you fill in several steps. It might be hard to fill an area that is not surrounded on most sides by linoleum.
After the sanding, I carefully transferred the correct marks to the block, and reminded myself where to carve. It is always better for colors to overlap slightly than to have those unsightly white lines. You can always carve away more later.
After two colors, the Bondo area is still holding well. My diptych of cumulonimbus clouds was saved. If only other problems were so easy to solve with a simple patch and some sanding.
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…”
Saturated Reverie, the last cloud linocut for 2016, reexamines those puffy, cartoon “Simpson’s clouds” of a previous decade. These clouds represent the fluffy cotton balls we used in preschool to portray fair weather formations. In my clouds, only some of the formation is actually white or very light blue. The rest belies what is inside…
The real cumulus
These cumulus clouds are usually signs of fair weather. Their towering, flat-bottomed presence reminds me of ships, sailing in the teal blue of sunny skies. They are filled with ice crystals, water droplets, or both, and are low-lying, occurring at about 2,000 meters (3,300 feet.) The Continue reading “Why clouds anyway?”
After a fall of experimentation, I have officially learned how NOT to print onto dyed silk. Economists talk about “sunk costs” — time and resources that have been used and cannot be regained. A month’s worth of work has been sunk. After licking my artistic wounds and engaging in some serious self-care, I now need to acknowledge all of the things I learned if only to avoid ever doing them again. Here’s a visual of what went wrong, and my interpretation that follows:
Always test all of your materials before a big project
My first mistake was that I used untested materials in this linocut project. I had used a very lightweight silk for my Cope Hollow series, and blithely thought that if some silk was good, then a thicker silk would be better. I hypothesized that a slightly thicker weight fabric would be easier to control. It was easier to iron, but when I tried to adhere it with my combo of PVA and methyl cellulose, it stretched horribly no matter which way I worked with it. This lead to wrinkles in the fabric as it dried on the cotton paper.
Water was my Waterloo
Cotton rag paper like the Rives BFK paper that I use has no sizing, so it quickly absorbs water. I knew when I began this experiment that any water would make the BFK ripple. I did need some methyl cellulose (which contains water) in my glue mix because the PVA was too thick and dried too quickly. On my smaller Cope Hollow series, the amount of glue mix use didn’t seem to make the paper ripple terribly. But with a 10 x 33in block size, the increased amount of glue mix made the entire paper buckle, despite being dried amongst blotters with added weight. Making something multiplicatively bigger often multiples the problems as well.
Distance magnifies mistakes
I should have known that my registration set-up was going to be problematic. With my registration jig setup, some sacrificial paper is needed on one side for the attachment of the plastic tabs with masking tape. To most efficiently use my expensive paper, it made the most sense to put the tabs on the short edge. I learned many linocuts ago that it is very easy to misalign a long linocut because I’m placing the paper down from the side, and not head on. With the already warped paper, while I could manage to print the linocut in one color, I was completely unable to register the next color. Each attempt just got worse and worse, until I gave myself a studio time out and then decided to abandon the project.
Moving on and making plans
I still like the image itself, so one option I have is to cut another block the exact same size and use it to create the colors, printing my existing key block last. For now, I’ve put this block aside and have been coaxing some cumulus clouds from a similarly long block.
Why is learning often painful and expensive? Thankfully there is always another linocut to distract me…
I enjoy getting lost in cities — at least on foot. I delight in the unexpected finds that are off the typical tourist trail. But sometimes life demands a predetermined order, and my life has felt like that of late. I have been wanting to do another linocut featuring the undulating forms of rice paddies, and my current project demands structure in the form of a key block.
For printmaker who use multiple blocks, a key block is a familiar element. In Japanese printmaking — especially Ukiyo-e — the key block carries all of the final graphic information and is usually printed last in a dark color. Printmakers will also use this block to transfer information to other blocks so they will know where to carve away for each color block. April Vollmer has written a terrific book on Japanese printmaking called Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop if you want to read more about this technique.
No key blocks for reduction printmaking
I never use key blocks with reduction printmaking. First, remember that I am only using one block. Sometimes the final stage of a block will look as though it is a key block, as I usually print the darkest color last. But I didn’t start with this last stage in mind; rather, the block evolved throughout the process.
My latest linocut has a key block though. I will be using hand dyed silk to create the floating world imagery that my imagination has been clinging to. With these dyes and the silk, colors can flow easily into one another in way that is impossible to create using my typical techniques. The large blocks of dark ink are where I am considering having some rice that remains to be harvested, while the other areas are reflected water.
Carving as therapy
Carving a key block during this particular week has been a tonic. It is my equivalent of cleaning my house — a repetitive activity that has a tangible result at its end, but requires reduced thinking during the process. Like a working meditation, my mind can wander, my breath can slow.
Now I wait for longer paper to be delivered and prepare to allow the silk dyes to flow unimpeded through the fabric. A peaceful process for a peaceful image.
My love affair with clouds continues. Clouds encapsulate the emotions of human life that more static entities cannot. They can be majestic or tender, suffocating or fleeting. In the Midwest, we say that clouds are our mountains. But unlike mountains, clouds are ever-changing.
My latest linocut,Emancipation of the Sun, highlights clouds that I saw over Lake Michigan earlier in the summer. My daughter had joined me at the Krasl Art Fair, and after the tiring job of setting up the festival tent and hanging the work, we retreated to the lakeshore. As we walked the waters edge, conversation flowed as the scenery changed, finally culminating in the darkening clouds lifting away, releasing the sun to shine on other shores.
The Great Lakes are so vast that to our human eyes, they are simply freshwater oceans. The sun was setting over Chicago as well, but was still high above the West Coast and beyond. We have no control over the sun. Imagine how grateful early humans must have felt when the sun rose in the morning, and how terrifying it must have been when it left. They had to create stories and rituals — their own sort of faith that the sun would return.
Today we know that the sun returns. Our cell phones tell us exactly when to expect it. We celebrate or curse our society’s penchant for time changes. But the rising and setting is still the most breathtaking part of the day. It is a small acknowledgement that much as we wish to control everything about our lives and the people in them, we cannot. We must let go.