Friday, October 1, 2010

Find the Best Materials to Master Fine Technical Skills

Choosing the best tools will open the gateway to creating better works of art. Mastering your craft as a printmaker is essential to making good technical prints. Without these skills some artists may never attempt printmaking. Good tools, and knowledge of your process allows you to determine the what to, and how to create a work of art.

When I first started woodcut printmaking back in 1990, I did not consider much of woodcutting, nor did I think this would become my primary printmaking medium. I was in love with etching at the time as it was all that I was trained to do. When I graduated college I realized the toxic etching chemicals and press I needed to set up a home studio was expensive and unrealistic. I switched to linocut and woodcut printmaking to satisfy craving for printing in a non-toxic manner. I purchased what a lot of beginners choose,..the basic, plastic, interchangeable cutting heads made by Speedball Co. Early on, these worked fine for a while. I found them clunky, not very sharp since they were made so children could not injure themselves. As an adult, I needed better materials and I finally began to change my perception when I found there is something better. 

I found woodcut to be a medium that was very compact initially. I could work on carving a print on my lunch breaks at work, and hand printed on the weekends. The only material I needed was the woodcutting surface and the cutting tool. My early woodcut works tend to be very small, and filled with lots of detail. I soon noticed that my cutting materials were setting me back. I would have skips with the cutting knives that sometimes destroyed part of the design. (My early woodcut tools have been buried in the local dump for years)

On a unrelated visit to my local retail store dedicated to Japanese tools, I was searching for some garden knives. I noticed several groups of printmaking chisels, and I decided to purchase a few to give them a try. These tools made a world of difference and centered my focus on woodcut printmaking. The tools had so much more to offer that it changed the way I carved, it changed the images in the artwork, and it changed my whole look at printmaking. These tools gave me the immediate ability to make more advanced prints, and combine printmaking techniques. These woodcutting tools have harder steel, a finer and sharper point, a wider variety of sizes and are even more comfortable and balanced in the hand.

Paper has also played an important role in how I print. I was taught to use 100% rag papers, and typically French or Italian. These papers are fine quality, and heavily sized....perfect for running through a press. But these papers also have a drawback for me. Because they are so thick and heavily sized, I could not print using the white line technique. I once again gravitated towards Japanese papers. Like most fine papers in the world, The Japanese papers are made by a rich family tradition with the techniques being handed down through generations. The Japanese papers are also made of rice or mulberry paper pulp, and the natural properties of these pulps make a stronger paper, and a much thinner paper. The thin quality allows me to print without pre-soaking the paper which has lead to more inventive ways of printmaking. This paper also has its drawbacks, sometimes wrinkles will form in the printing process that I do not like. This typically happens when a lot of medium is used the ink gets sticky, or when I work on a hot day the ink remains tacky on the printing plate and pulls the paper fibers and sometimes rips.

Inks are different from one brand to another too. I have found Dick Blick inks work fine, but if you would like a more rich and concentrated ink I suggest Daniel Smith. I use both and combine them when mixing colors. Dick Blick inks are ready to go straight out of the tube, while Daniel Smith inks are tacky/sticky and need to be cut with medium to get the desired texture to roll it out.

Experimenting with different tools also helps. Forget your local art store and you may find something that works great for you, the way the product was never intended. Here are a few tools in my studio that I have adopted to continue my printmkaing process. I found chopstick rests to be the perfect tool for resting a wet brush, common hardware clamps to secure large printmaking plates when cutting and printing, a wooden spoon has doubled as a baren since I began woodcut printing. Nails, screws, punches, awls, routers, and dremel have all been used to create unique works of art.

Find your own materials, learn how to use them, and use them in a creative manner to the best of your ability.

Make an "Art" of your art to Remain Unique

Being an Exhibitions Director for a few years, I am confronted with a lot of great art and a lot of art that I consider uninspiring or even inartistic. What is the difference between inspired and uninspired art? Does it matter? And what is the mastery they are exposing in their creation? Just being creative and throwing paint around does not make a good work of art anymore. It may have worked for Jackson Pollock,....but consider that was over 60 years ago, and his work was created with a strong Abstract Expressionist statement that vaulted the conceptual meaning of his work as "progressive" for the time.  What I am getting at is, just how strong and committed is the hand that pushes the ideas of creation?

What is the difference of inspired and uninspired art? When I look back at the number of artworks I see every week, I can not help but see one similar hand in many different artists work. How does this happen? They are clearly the work of different artists, but they look and feel as created by one. One abstract monoprint looks the same as another sometimes, because it is employing the same technical use of printmaking, and almost similar ideas when creating it. What do I mean? In the monoprinting process. Paint is applied to a printmaking plate and run through a press. Now this process can be done in a very artistic manner where the artist has explored numerous ways of going about printing, developed a strong idea, and a strong image to back up a simple, conceptual or expressive statement. On the flip side (and I am not trying to be negative here, just a bit analytical, so forgive the criticism as this is venturing into opinion) I have seen several monoprint works that start in the same manner, and finish in the same manner. This focus, or lack of focus, makes their artwork look and feel similar. What I have seen is a lot of works that follow one method: throw paint on the plate, run it through the press, see what happens, repeat this process until the artist is satisfied and calls it finished. Is this art? Yes it is, but is it good art, or is it creative art? Each year I see several artists that follow this same method of printmaking, and even in their artist statements they have employed some of the very same ideas as I have just described. Does it matter that several artists use the same technique, process, statement? I think so, as with art, these artists are not making an art of their artwork. Realizing it or not, they are essentially doing what everyone else is doing. My guess is that they are continuing what they were taught, they do not push the boundaries of technical skill, or they are not exposed to the numbers of artwork I am to see their works, ideas, process, and statement resemble several others.

I have discussed Mastering your craft several times on this blog. Why is that so important? It is important to master your craft weather it is sculpture, painting, printmaking, movie making, dancing, acting,..etc, etc. This mastery will lead to more expressive, exaggerated, and creative ideas. This mastery will allow you to carry through every creative idea you have. It allows you to change direction in the middle of your work when needed. This is part of the process in any art. When I create a work of art, I am creating an idea, I am experimenting, I am using my mind to thoughtfully carry out the concept or expression, and I am working with my hands. Without the dexterity to carry out my ideas, I may never achieve the unique look of an independent hand.

Just how strong is the hand that creates? This is the difference that will matter the most in all creative works. Several artists have mastered their independent look to separate their ideas from other artists. This independent vision and mastery of materials, will always be the basis for a strong and unique work of art.

Here are a few of some famous quotes by popular artists:

"Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." Jasper Johns

"The art won't mind." William T. Wiley

"It is not hard work, it just takes time." John Buck

Friday, September 24, 2010

Using a Commercial Steamroller to Print

The Cryptogram, 2010 woodcut 16"x 28"
It is that time of the year again at the(SFCB) San Francisco Center for the Book's annual Roadworks:Steamroller Prints street fair. I have participated for the past 3 years as an artist, and this year I was invited to be one of 18 contributing artists to produce a linocut for a portfolio of special prints with the theme of La Loteria. I am excited to be chosen, but the theme does not immediately appeal to me, so it will take some time to develop the right image. I must consider using a number as part of the SFCB requirements, and how it will look on the final piece. Coming off several new works of art, I decide I am going to enlarge a portion of the artwork titled "The Cryptogram" as inspiration.

Since I am developing an image for a theme, I have to be creative in the way I can apply my techniques, maintain consistency in the portfolio, and comply with the requirements. I have several new punches that I am continuing to use, and I am working on linoleum as wood will not support the weight of a commercial steamroller when printed.

The SFCB  Roadworks: Steamroller prints is exactly what it sounds like. A commercial steamroller is used as a press to print hundreds of artists work in the middle of the street. These prints are sold to benefit the SFCB. So just how do they do it? Well, here is a simple demo.....
9 lino plates are inked at one time
The lino plates are arranged in the middle of the street on a wood bed, and mylar with predetermined spaces for both plates and paper

close up of: San Francisco

The artworks are covered with paper

Blankets are used, just like a normal printing press to protect the paper

Finally, they fire up the steamroller and drive right over

The artwork is revealed to the onlooking public,..oohs and aahs follow...

The prints are left to dry and sold.

Thousands of people attend each year to watch

Prints for Loteria on the top row, and other various artists works on the bottom

My artwork has to conform to La Loteria, but I still have artistic license to work within my style. I have chosen “The Moon” as my title and the number 0(zero) to make use of the natural circle a punch makes. This way I can concede to the guidelines without destroying my artwork. I really like the idea that “The Moon” can be translated in many ways as the punches produce moon shapes, and the subject matter is a butt, otherwise know as a moon in slang terms. 

While working on the linoleum, I am aware that this block will only be printed in one color, so the punches are used to the best of their ability to show a direct light source. I do this by overlapping patterns the punches make. This work is very loud, with the hammer striking the metal punch, and the work moves slow, as my ears begin to ring after an hours worth of work. After 3 days i have something to print.
State 1: The Moon, 2010, 12"x12"
I am a little unhappy with the results; one, I made a punch at the very bottom between legs that I did not intend on doing, and two, I am uncertain an actual butt can be clearly deciphered. I continue to work for 3 more days adding small punch marks here and there until it looks like the butt is covered in diamond dust and glowing from the light of a full moon. It is RTP, or ready to print.

State 3 printed in dark blue: the finished image

It is time to turn in the lino-plate so it can be editioned, and sold with the portfolio or as an individual piece at the SFCB.

Each year I look forward to participating in this event as an artist, that brings relief printmaking to the public right on street.

Discovering new creative inspiration by revisiting and updating earlier works

Beagle in the House!

Introducing Gilly, our new beagle. She was rescued by way of and I am printing/bloging with a new partner now.

I have been stuck in the creative process for new material and new ideas for content as well as developing my woodcutting technique further. This past week I found both. I looked at some older artworks as potential subject manner due to the fact my carving techniques are producing different looking images than previous artworks. The difference is made by a number of reasons: I am using 2 plates to print one image which allows for a richer and deeper look because the layered inks can provide opaqueness or transparencies as intuition dictates. I am also using 4 different sized circle punches, and 3 different awls, which provide an infinite number of patterns.

I found a great new inspiration from looking back at my sketchbook from the late 1980’s, when I used Van Gogh’s Self Portraits as subject matter. I thought of the ways that Chuck Close has used the same image presented in a different manner each decade, and the way that artists build a body of work. Several artists have changed their painting style as their inspiration grows, but several make this change by using the images of artworks from their past to update them with new style, or technique.

In the past, I thought some of my older artwork had lost its relevance because my focus on printmaking had changed, my style had changed, and my subject matter changed. These so called relics of my past are perceived in 2 different ways, either junk from your past or still loved but where is the present connection to your current artwork? By recommitting myself to some older images, I can build a connection to my past through my present artworks. I am going to do a number of new artworks based on older pieces. I have decided to take only small sections, mostly portraits from previous artworks, enlarge them, and see what images will inspire me to create whole new artworks in my current working style. For subject matter, I choose the Van Gogh Self Portrait again. I made several paintings in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I started my drawing dissecting the image and allowing my present mind to forget all the previous times I used the same subject manner. I convinced myself that any new approach to an older image will produce a completely different piece, because stylistically and artistically, I have grown.

This is my printing area, to the right is my drawing.

In this new print I have expanded my carving in one different way. I am no longer isolating the type of cuts on each plate (previous work included isolating white line cuts to one plate and the second one, a punched plate). I am now combining both cutting marks on both cutting plates. I have reduced my printing to hand painting each space for each plate printed. In order to achieve a final look, I have printed several spaces overlapping each other, and left some blank on each plate in order to emphasize depth, texture, and color.
Detail of print showing how color is layered

Detail of print in progress

detail of plate #1 
My printmaking process is all painting. I am mixing colors with a brush and palette, and I am printing with my trusty old wooden spoon to use as a baren. I am focused on making sure there is a strong light source present, how to add contrast where some colors will be overlapping, and how the patterns that are carved will produce different visual effects. I am concerned with how opaque and transparent colors will play out on the final piece.

On this print I left both plates UN gesso-ed/un-fixed and this may have been a mistake, because the ink is adsorbs into the plate which means I have to paint a smaller area to print, and adds time. However, the un-fixed plate also produces a softer look, and I can still get a real hard edge by applying the ink while it is still pretty stiff.
Stage 1

Stage 2

Stage 3, Plate 1 is printed, time to start printing the second.

Detail after first plate is printed

Stage 4

Stage 5, and completed

My excitement is contained by the number of hours to finalize one print. So far I have printed 3 in a 3 day period working about 6-8 hours on each piece. The slow process allows me to take an analytical look as the print begins to develop. This slow and time consuming practice appeals to me more than creating an edition of several exact copies. I am now producing much larger and more technical, more concentrated works and producing a smaller number of unique prints from each plate.

BTW: Gilly slept the whole time at my feet, what a good girl!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Develop a Vacation Art Studio

For many years now, I have packed up several art supplies to bring with me on vacation to just pass the time by with no specific purpose of developing any of the ideas into finished works. Over the years that has changed from a few simple drawing materials, or a small woodcut, or a travel easel, to a packed car full of way too many supplies. I have even gone to the extent of taking along a portable or desktop printing press(about 100lbs.) to get my artistic energy working. A lot of artists will take a sketchbook, a camera, or a watercolor box since they know these items are small, and can be packed away easily for any trip. I tend to over pack on vacation as I know I sometimes have no idea what will inspire me or what materials I want to use. This time, I planned on woodcut printmaking only and I managed to pack everything I needed into a small box, and an artists portfolio case, minus the large paper and actual wood woodcut plank.
My most recent vacation entails renting a small studio house half way up the hill, and along the northern Californian coast, overlooking the famous Russian River. This peaceful and relaxing spot has allowed me to focus on one print over the next 6 days. I planned for this at least a week ago, and managed to carve or cut my latest work(see previous blog) prior to setting out on my trip. Therefore, I only needed the printing end of my studio. However, my work was large and I would need a fair amount of space and a great setup spot to finish.
When working on larger pieces, I can not stress the importance of having the right equipment for the job at hand. I can not bring a 600lb. press with me, nor is it practical to bring massive inking rollers. Those are the right tools to produce a woodcut large print, but there is no practical means so I have opted for the full manual process using hand tools only. This will add time, and inconsistency in some of the printing depending on how I manage. I have a 2 plate woodcut print to finish printing in 6 days, and 5 sheets of 25”x39” Japanese mulberry paper.
Day 1: on the first day I get right down to work claiming the sunny corner where the breakfast table is, and quickly arrange all the furniture to suite my purpose. My goal is to print 3 different colored prints of the first plate. There are many quick lessons to learn when working large, and little time to make big adjustments. I am not to specific about the color choices I am printing other than I want one or 2 yellow copies and one or 2 peacock green copies.
Inking a large plate like this will take about 3x to 4x more ink and about 5x more time to lay the ink to the surface(My work is just under 30”x18”.). The important steps here is make sure you are adding enough printing medium: Extender to thin out the ink, and Retarder to allow the ink to dry at a slower than normal rate(use about 1/5th of total ink used).
Once the block has been inked, The paper is gently pressed against the wood and flattened out. Some papers tend to warp or wrinkle, make sure your paper is flat before using any pressure to prevent creases. When I use a hand pressing method, I choose an old stand-by, the back end of a large wooden spoon that has been used for pressing small blocks for many years. The challenge here is making sure you continue with even pressure and the ink does not dry up on you while you are pressing the piece, or stick to the surface and tear the paper. It takes at least 10-15 minutes to fully cover the plate by the hand pressing method, and I’ve had to stop at a few points near finishing it because the muscle in my shoulder was burning. I am reminded of the master woodcut artist John Buck’s quote, “it is not hard work, it just takes time.” How true. These words kept me going and working through “the burn” of aching muscles. Even though my muscles were soar, the task at hand just needed time to develop the final image. Over the next few hours, I repeat these steps 3 more times, and come away with 3 good prints: one in yellow-gold, one in mint green, and one in peacock green. My wife convinced me to print a 4th copy after seeing the print in peacock green, and she suggested black to add more contrast of the woodcut work. I decided this was a great day because with the few successful prints, I am also walking away with one print in red-black that I never intended on printing,…like an added bonus. I clean up and into the hot tub to soak those soar muscles.
Plate 1 in red black

Day 2: I don’t have a completed plan in my head for the way the second plate will be printed over the top of the first. I know the method, and the practice, but seeing a finished piece in my head is impossible right now. Everything is very immediate, unplanned, and basically a test of both woodcut blocks. The second day work goes very slow as the process for printing each color is very time consuming. I manage to finish about ¾ of one print on the second day.
Day 3: I finish the first print and have inspected the final image and how both plates interact with each other. After surveying the image closely I notice that the first plate does not show itself as the second plate does. Its dominating presence makes the print look very regular to me. While I am happy with the final printed results, I am stuck for the next print on how to make more of a balance of each printing plate. I immediately notice in the first print how the 2 figures and their color dominated the image, and looked overworked, and also destroyed much of the beauty of the first plate. Finding the balance for the second plate will require leaving more of the first block to show itself. I set up the next print with the paper only so I can begin at any moment.
Day 4-5: Over day 4 and 5, I thought about color placement a lot, and how I can use the beauty of each plate to balance each other in a finished work. I started the printing on the peacock green proof, and I have completely reversed my normal method of working from light to dark, to dark to light. I imagined that I would be able to see the print develop better using darker colors first, and it will allow me to choose which elements of the first plate to be left alone and shine through on their own. Since I am printing less of the second plate, the print does move quicker to completion, but I have to stop at several points and second guess what I am doing and if it will work in the end.
When is a work finished? I asked myself this question several times while examining the print and in the action of printing it. Do I need to print more? Do I need to make colors richer, etc..etc. These questions let me walk away from the work and leave it until morning.
Day 6: Very little work was added, just a few small spots to make some of the existing colors a little stronger.
The working process of printing allowed me to see what can be done in the middle of completing a work no matter if it is going bad or good. It also allowed me to mentally develop different carving techniques for future works…..How did that happen? While printing I was able to see what the final print would look like or how the plates may overlap each other in different ways, so now, I can emphasize these ideas, make changes, or fine tune them for the next work.

Always be thinking about the next work…..

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inspiration from mastering your craft

I recently experimented with a variety of hardware store punches, and awls to produce a woodcut plate. I have printed several copies of the finished piece and provide photos below in the order they were printed in: #1 Yellow, #2 orange, and #3 orange-gold.(note: a total of 2 plates were used to print each image, the first plate or background color=woodcut plate made with punches/awls. The second plate is done using the white line method)
impression #1

impression #2

impression #3

With the initial results being promising, I have decided to produce a new image for an upcoming exhibition. Inspired by the basic awls and punches, my mind has constructed a number of different possibilities for the surface to be cut. One element from the first experiment remains. I have decided to continue dividing up the initial cutting space into a grid so I can produce the desired pattern in the proper space intended. It does not take a lot of effort to use a punch or an awl. I am simply lining up the awl or punch like a chisel in my left hand, and striking it down with a hammer. This motion creates a dot for the awls, and circles for the punches. I am using 3 different sizes of punches: 1/4, 3/8, & 1/2. The awls have very similar looks, I have a variety of 3, and my favorite has become a solid steel piece that has a graduated point. The graduated point is especially nice since I can strike the awl hard and produce a large hole, or alter the strength and get a smaller hole. These holes do effect how the final print will look.

Here are a few close ups of the actual plate(after cutting), prior to sanding down the complete block in order to show how varied the surface can get using a variety of different size punches, and awls. The emphasis is on variety as the results of the first printings has shown this detail to be a great success.
almost full view of plate

close up of bottom center

close up of top center

You can see I am able to add definition of shape and space by means of creating a unique pattern for each intended space. These unique patterns play a great role in where light and dark will be when the second plate is printed over the top of this one.

When you are working with something experimental a great lesson can be learned from mastering your craft. No matter what your craft may be, if you feel inspiration to change your craft as the thought occurs to you, and you are able to carry out the idea successfully, then you are on the path to creating something unique. The point is this, as artists, we must experiment a lot to get our artwork perfected. Even without a clear vision for a completed work, the means of mastering your materials will provide you with the skill needed.

For the woodcut plate (3 photo details shown above), I threw out a lot of conventional concerns about creating this work. A punch or an awl has no intended purpose for creative use in printmaking. It is however, a woodworkers tool and fortunately I saw an alternate and creative means for their intended use. I followed my most immediate impression of what punch or awl strike mark would look good next to each other and the space around it. I used a combination of both tools in areas that will receive more light in the final print. This way of working has allowed me to relax during the final printing phase because I have noticed that each plate acts as a counter balance to one another.

I will be very eager to print this once I have the time and energy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Little Procrastination, Fear of Results, Produces a Good Print

Experimenting with a new creative process can sometimes delay your natural thought process to see/comprehend all artistic, and technical details to be "finished" work of art in your mind. The idea of the "unknown" can be a positive influence as the level of expectations or even seeing a good result after many attempts, can be naturally lowered. The range of defining a good result is often undetermined. This openness also allows me to modify the "typical" technical printing method on the fly to some thing that is immediatly "workable" with sometimes imaginative and unforseen results. This print worked as a double positive as the artistic process and the technical process were being developed as the artwork was being completed simultaneously.

For a few weeks I have been delaying the printing process due to some technical factors, primarily registration. I decided to use one registration method for 2 blocks so I can be consistent on my allignment. I decided to use the White Line printmaking method of registration by securing a "tape hinge" from the printing paper to the printing surface. So, after I worked out some of the details in my head for the printing process, I was ready to start. I am making a woodcut print from 2 different plates. The first plate, I already described in an earlier post, was created with a variety of hardware store punches, and awls that gave me a variety of different marks on the wood. This plate was printed using a regular brayer to ink the surface, and I altered the color after each printing. This process was quick and took no more than an hour to produce 4 prints in yellow, orange, gold-orange, and gold-red. (photo of yellow orange, plate #1 )
After printing the first plate the real time consuming challenge sets in, as I have far more color options with the second printing plate. I have a basic idea where I want some of the lights and darks to generally exist, but because there is so much printing to do and my color choices change quickly, a true finished work is almost impossible to conceive.

I begin by printing some of the light colors first and immediately notice how the texture of both wood surfaces from each plate are sometimes fighting each other as well as blending with each other in various places. This wood grain texture changed the printing style and direction with the inks. I experimented with the opacity of the inks, allowing some of the first plate to show through with very thin inked areas, or condense the ink and made very opaque
(Left=photo of printed image after a few areas are completed)

The process for printing the second plate is very slow. Each space is hand inked, the paper is registered, and then it is hand printed with the back of an old wooden spoon. This step is repeated for each and every color. Development of the final print moves very slow, similar to a painting, and then there is a tipping point where more than 60% of the second plate is printed and the "final image" begins to take on a look. Like developing a photograph, the print begins to reveal itself. withe each new printed color and space. As the print get close to completion, I am more focused on sharpening up dark colors. This plate took about 5-6 hours to complete the printing of woodcut plate #2 and below is a progression how the print developed from this point. (left photo=full view of woodcut printing plate #2)

(photos stages 4,5 &6)


(Close up photos)
After each hour or so, I stopped to take a look how the print was developing to correct any areas that looked out of place. I took a few close up photos of the plate and the print to show the details of the paper and the wood plate as it was being worked upon.

Eventually, I could do no more, so…now this print is off to the drying rack. I am now actively thinking of the second print with the general idea that the color scheme can not be the same. The challenge will be working with the color from each printed proof of the woodcut plate #1......and I need to find another 6 hours.