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…..