22 December 2005

Happy Holidays

This is me and my dog Ty, who keeps me company in my studio. Ty is quite happy that I've taken up woodblock printing, because he's very partial to wood. He sits under my desk when I'm carving and nibbles on wood chips.

Warm holiday wishes to everyone from me and Ty.

13 December 2005

Those Pesky Fibers

Next I cut out a lot of little squares and applied the last color, a deep teal blue. What a mess! Every time I lifted a printed sheet off the block, little tufts of paper fibers would be stuck to the board. (You can click on the photo above for a larger view.) My first line of attack was to wipe the board after each print, but this wasn't adequate. The fibers rolled up into little balls when I re-inked the block, ruining the next print.

Next I tried washing the block after each impression. This worked as far as getting rid of the fibers, but made it impossible to get any consistency between prints. One of the things that happens in moku hanga when printing an edition is that the pigment builds up on the block and the brush so that after a few prints you only have to add a little bit of paste and/or pigment to get a nice impression. Washing the block after each print ruined that effect.

I wondered if the paper was just too darn wet after having been overprinted twice already, so I decided to dry all the prints and start over. I let them dry overnight, then very very slightly re-moistened them. No improvement! Fibers were once again sticking to the block. I finally finished the edition by washing the block after each impression.

It was a very frustrating experience, but I did manage to get some nice prints. This may in fact be my favorite print so far. Here's the final version:

12 December 2005

Working the Background

This is pretty self-explanatory. I wanted the spiral of "rope" to be yellow, so I printed yellow, then carved away the spiral and overprinted in green. One problem I discovered with doing reduction method moku hanga is that I got a bleed into the yellow from the residue of blue pigment that remained on the board after I printed the feet:

This happened no matter how well I cleaned the board. Of course, that blue is pthalo blue, which is an incredibly strong color. One drop on a pair of jeans in a load of laundry can tint the whole load! Lucky for me, this area will end up covered in a stronger color, so the bleed isn't a problem on this particular print. It's something to watch for, though.

I have one more layer to do now.

11 December 2005

Inking Small Areas

Next I cut away everything that had printed blue through the stencil except for a few small square areas that I wanted to print in a second color. I read somewhere that the Provincetown white line woodcut artists used a method where they painstakingly applied colors with small brushes, so I thought I'd use a small brush to apply color to these little squares. It worked well.

I also changed my print setup a bit after reading feedback from Mike Lyon in the comments two posts ago. Brilliant! Having the paper above the block rather than to the side offers much more economy of movement. Thanks, Mike.

10 December 2005

Using a Stencil

This print, like the previous one, will have some white linework, so I wanted to try and keep all the white lines on one block for perfect registration. However, I don't want the first color to be only "inside the lines." I want this part of the print to look as if the white lines were printed on top of a roughly-shaped field of blue. The way I figured out to do this, with a well-timed hint from Tom K., is to use a stencil.

I found an old pad of drafting film in my studio from the long-ago days when I used to use a rapidograph pen instead of a computer and thought that since film is waterproof and doesn't tear it would be perfect for a stencil.

Here's the inked block:

And then the stencil is placed on top. Note that the kento (registration) marks need to be deep enough for two thicknesses of paper.

Then put the printing paper on top, burnish with the baren, and voila!

09 December 2005

Printing Setup

Everyone does it differently, but this is the simple setup I use when I'm ready to print. The camellia oil actually gets put away once I start, but it's used to oil the baren. The baren (rubbing device) pictured here is a ball-bearing baren rather than a traditional baren. I decided to try the ball-bearing baren when I began to experience a lot of pain in my wrist and arm. This baren is helping a lot, as it doesn't require as much pressure to get a good impression.

08 December 2005

Uses Snow Days Wisely

Tomorrow we're expecting a "snow day" in Massachusetts, so tonight I'm making plans to take advantage of the situation and do some woodblock work. The next print I'll be doing is called The Invitation and I'm planning to do it all on one block with a stencil and several reduction stages. I'll be using this simple sketch as the starting point and then drawing additional elements on the block as I proceed.

Already, after having made just 8 prints, I feel like I'm beginning to develop a method of working that feels natural to me. I'm feeling less inclined to doing lots of intricate blocks like I used for the Power of Tea print and more drawn towards using fewer blocks, working with the reduction method. I've been doing rough color studies on the computer beforehand, since the computer is the medium I know best, and then figuring out the most economical way to execute the design. Thinking about overprints and what order to print things is like doing a puzzle, and once I've sketched out a design I find myself pondering how to cut and print it at all hours of the day and night. Sometimes I even dream that I'm printing. By the time I get to actually creating the print I feel very familiar with it.

So hopefully tomorrow I'll get a chance to start this.

07 December 2005

Taking the Leap

Making a shift from illustration to printmaking/moku hanga means that I'll need to learn more about how the world of fine arts operates. There are quite a few differences between these two types of work that I hadn't even thought about. Just as an example, here in Massachusetts I don't have to charge my clients a sales tax for illustration work because illustration is considered a service. (I'm not selling the illustration itself, but the right to reproduce the illustration.) But sales tax does apply to the sale of a print, so I need to find out how that system works.

In my search for information about how the art world works I found a great book at my local library called Taking the Leap. It talks about everything from writing an artist's statement to finding (or bypassing) a gallery to the ins and outs of copyright and creating a mailing list. It's the best book I've found so far.

Now to figure out matting and framing...

06 December 2005

Climbing Out of Sleep

Here's the final print. It's called "Climbing Out of Sleep (Self-Effort)." This is actually the second in the series, although I printed it first. The first is waiting in the wings. Here are the process steps on the second block:

First, a light blue on the figure.

Then a green for the overprint of the poppies.

Then dark blue after carving away the hands and feet of the figure. I was afraid that the butterfly would be hard to print, that the shallow cuts would fill up too much with pigment, but with a nice light touch of the baren it was very easy. Next I added black to the figure's hair and the print was finished. Three days to print 24 sheets. (The edition will be smaller once I pull out the bad ones.)

Thanks for watching the process!

04 December 2005

Reduction Block

My idea for this print is for the linework to be white. To keep registration problems to a minimum I wanted to use as few blocks as possible, so I'm reducing the first block here to make some cloud-like shapes that will print over the gold and the bokashi.

Speaking of the bokashi, thanks to Mike Lyon and Tom Kristensen both for the great information on bokashi and goma zuri (see comments on previous post). Next on my list of things to do is to get out some scrap paper and practice the methods they describe. I know I'll be really happy when I get some control over my goma zuri.

Here are the impressions I took from the above block:

Mike was so right about the edges of my bokashi being too pronounced. You can see it in the first print above. What happened was that I accidently turned the brush at one point and I ruined some of the prints. I haven't pulled those out yet, though, and unfortunately I haven't been very discriminating about the photos I'm showing here, so some of these photos show the mistake. I guess that makes this blog a good learning tool!

03 December 2005

I Love This Paper

I spent most of today printing the first block for "Climbing Out of Sleep." I'm using a paper called Echizen Kozo that I got from McClain's and it's great: thick yet soft, takes the pigment really well, and seems very strong. I did three impressions of one block. I decided to try a pale grey impression first, to add depth and some texture. I was trying to get goma zuri (sesame seed pattern) on purpose, but it appears to be easier to get it by accident.

Then I printed the whole block again in a yellow ochre.

And finally, a bokashi (blend) on each side with burnt sienna.

Now I'll start cutting this block some more.

29 November 2005

Closeup View

Here's a closeup of the butterfly. I reality it's about 1 1/4 inches (4.5 cm) across. I love this magnifying visor!
Now I'm waiting for some paper to arrive.

28 November 2005

Second Block for "Climbing"

I wish I had started doing woodblock when I was younger, before I needed reading glasses. A couple of weeks ago I ordered one of those magnifying visors from Dick Blick. I look pretty ridiculous wearing it, but check out the butterfly I was able to carve on this second block! I didn't think shina plywood could hold that much detail. Now I know it was my eyes that were the problem.

27 November 2005

A Visit With Lynita Shimizu

Yesterday I spent a lovely afternoon at the Connecticut studio of moku hanga artist Lynita Shimizu, who was hosting an open studio. Lucky for me it was a quiet afternoon, so I had the chance to quiz Lynita about all the kinds of things a beginner wants to know from an artist with nearly 30 years experience. I got to see how she holds the knife, how much she dampens her paper, how deeply she carves her blocks. I also got to see her prints up close and all in one place, like a retrospective exhibit. I loved seeing the continuities in her work — shapes, colors and themes that have repeated over the years. Lynita showed me some prints by other printmakers, people whose work I know through the Baren Forum (Mike Lyon, Sarah Hauser and Dave Bull) as well as prints by teachers and friends of hers in Japan.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed was learning a bit about how Lynita develops and works with an image. I saw how extensively she sketches, and she also showed me some "failed" or incomplete prints and talked about them. In doing so, she shared some of her techniques for rescuing a difficult or stalled print and I know this will help me a lot in my own work.

While I was there I couldn't resist buying one of my favorites of Lynita's prints, Gadabout Guineas.

If you're in New England and want a treat, Lynita's studio will be open again next weekend, December 3 and 4. I know from experience that if you visit, you'll be warmly welcomed. Details can be found on her web site.

22 November 2005

One of Two Blocks

I carved the first block today. In my quest for a more streamlined and spontaneous process, I'm planning to make this print with just two blocks. This will be the background plate and I'll be printing multiple impressions from it with some added carving between impressions (the reduction method).

18 November 2005

Plans for a New Print

It's been almost a month since I completed my last print. During this time I tried to get a new print going, but couldn't seem to find an image or concept that I liked well enough to commit to. Finally I've got something, and I think it may become a series. Here's the sketch:

This is based on an image that came to me one evening while I was contemplating the huge effort it takes to make changes in life, to move out of old habits. In actual fact I hate rope climbing. It takes a massive amount of brute strength that I don't have. But this is fitting, because I also hate leaving comfortable old habits, even when they've outlived their usefulness.

Anyway, I'm envisioning a series that shows various stages or interesting spots in the human journey and the common denominator in each print will be a rope. It'll be like 36 Views of a Rope. Except I doubt it will be 36. Probably more like seven.

Well, we'll see what happens. Tonight I ordered some nice expensive paper from McClain's. No more fooling around with cheap paper!

10 November 2005

And Commitment Issues

The biggest difference I find between making a digital illustration and making a woodblock print is in degree of commitment. On a good day I can create a finished digital illustration that I'm happy with in about a half a day, and the medium is so fluid I can try out a lot of different options fairly easily. A multicolor woodblock print, on the other hand, is at least a two week process (for me at this stage, anyway) and it's quite methodical, so I find that I want to be really committed to the image. For a couple of weeks now I've been making some sketches for the next print, but just the thought of all the work it will take to actually make the print keeps dissuading me from following through on various sketches. I keep making sketches that I don't like well enough to work with for the long haul. I guess in a way this is good. It's forcing me to wait until the image is really right and keeps me from settling for less. But what about experimenting and just "fooling around" with the medium? Woodblock doesn't seem to lend itself to easy experimentation. It's such a different process, such a different pace than what I'm used to.

I think i would really like the pace if woodblock was all the work I was doing, but the extremely fast and high-pressured pace of commercial illustration work kind of takes over my life and it's hard for me to readjust my clock even when I manage to find some time for woodblock. I'm not quitting yet, though!

Any thoughts or tips?

06 November 2005

Workspace Issues

One of the things I love about moku hanga is that because there's no press or nasty chemicals needed it can be done virtually anywhere. I work in this little corner of my home office on my old but sturdy drafting table. You can see my carving tools on the upper right corner of the desk next to the tape dispenser. Then to the left, next to the kleenex box, is a disk baren and above that, hanging from the second shelf you can see a row of 7 maru bake (brushes). I've been doing all my printing here. Carving I've done lots of different places - the front porch, the back yard, the living room. The wood chips are messy, but it's nothing an old sheet and a good vacuum cleaner can't handle.

I've recently run into some trouble with this arrangement, though. Last night I sketched out an idea for a new print and it's a design that wants to be large. Like maybe a couple of feet high. I just don't know if this space can handle a print that size. Taking over another room is a possibility, but I'm not sure how the other inhabitants of my house will like that. Looks like I might need to get a proper studio if I keep going in this direction.

17 October 2005

Under the Same Moon

"Everyone everywhere loves the same moon."

I'd be way out of my league trying to carve that sentence in wood, but I wanted it in the art, so I used an archival-quality pigment stamp pad and a cool little rubber stamp alphabet to print it.

Drying these prints flat was really tough. I got a lot of help from folks on the Baren Forum and ended up using illustration board and blotters. I came out with some wrinkles, but given how this paper was looking while it was wet, I'm pleased with the flatness I managed to get. If you click on the scan above it will take you to the Flickr! web site where you can click on a button that says "All Sizes" to see a larger version. Then you can really see the wrinkles!

I wouldn't recommend this paper for moku hanga. I may have been rubbing too hard with the baren and I may have had the paper too wet - I'm too inexperienced to evaluate these things very well. But even if both those things are true, I didn't rub any harder than I've rubbed when using Rives and the paper was definitely not "wet-wet," just damp, so it must be pretty unforgiving paper.

I'll be shipping out 31 of these prints within the next couple of days for Baren Exchange #26.

15 October 2005

Women In Burqas

"Everyone everywhere loves the same moon."

I don't know all that much about Islam, and one of the things I least understand is Islam's view and treatment of women. To my American eyes, a burqa appears to be a symbol of bondage. But the sentence I'm working with, "Everyone everywhere loves the same moon," invites me to find the similarities between myself and a woman in a burqa. So I began to look at all the ways that I also am in bondage, and to think about how all beings long for freedom from bondage, whatever bondage we're in, whatever shrouds we wear.

The print will show three women, and I'm printing each of the women as a small reduction print with 3 colors. Here's the first one. I used a light purple, then carved away some of the block for a medium purple application, then carving even more for the dark purple overprint.

And you can see how my paper continues to buckle and misbehave! Maybe too much baren pressure, maybe too much water, maybe bad paper. But I'm committed now, so I will keep on!

14 October 2005

Same Moon - Block 2

With the second block added you can see that this is a mosque. I printed the yellow and then cut away some more of the block to define the area I wanted to print in orange.

13 October 2005

Exchange Print: First Block

Here's the lauan plywood block printed on the Masa Dosa paper. I love the grain from the wood, and I love this paper as far as it being bright white and soft to the touch. However, you can see here already on the very first print that the paper is so soft it's stretching. It looked fine until I put it on the scanner bed and it refused to lie flat under the scanner cover. (Yes, indeed, I'm scanning this wet! One of the wonders of moku hanga is that the paper soaks up the pigments immediately and they don't rub off.) This stretching will definitely be a problem as I add more ink and paste and moisture...

11 October 2005

Trying Masa Dosa

To date I've printed all my woodcuts on western paper, mostly Rives. For my Baren exchange print I'm using an inexpensive but handmade Japanese paper called Masa Dosa that I bought at McClain's. The description in the McClain's catalog states that this paper is a "crisp, bright white paper that accepts ink very well... sized for use with water-based inks, it is thick and tough enough to take multiple block printing well."

So far I've found that this paper behaves quite differently than the Rives. It's softer, almost fluffy. It has a more fabric-like quality and is very thirsty. It soaks up lots of pigment. It also feels less "wet" when it's dampened. I like it.

Speaking of trying out different papers, printmaker Maria Arango has a page on her web site that reports on the behavior of dozens of papers she's tried.

09 October 2005

Trying Out Some Lauan Plywood

I'm using 12" x 16" blocks this time for my Baren exchange print. This is the largest size I've used so far, and I'm really enjoying it. I feel like I can really move my hand around and be a bit more expressive. I bought some really cheap craft-grade lauan plywood (they call it Philippine mahogany) at Dick Blick to carve this first block because I've heard that lauan will make a nice woodgrain texture in the print. It was difficult to carve because it's splintery. It's also only 3/8" thick, even though Blick's says 1/4", so it's pretty bendable, but I'm just using it for one large shape, so I think I'll get by with it.

I test-printed the block after I carved it and sure enough, it makes a nice grain print. The remaining blocks will be shina plywood.

05 October 2005

An Andy English Print

© Andy English

This beautiful little 4" x 6" print just arrived in the mail from my new friend Andy English, a British wood engraver I met through the Baren Forum. It's called "Walking Towards Ely." I love the magical storybook quality of the illustration and the backlighting.

Although both woodcuts and wood engravings are forms of relief printing using wood, wood engraving is quite different from the type of woodcut prints I'm learning to make. For one thing, woodcuts are made using the plank side of the wood, while wood engraving is done on the end grain. Engravers use a press to print rather than hand printing and generally use oil-based inks rather than water-based. Even the cutting tools used are different. Engravers use tools with really cool names like "scorper" and "spitsticker."

Endgrain wood holds much finer detail than plankside wood, as you can see here in this enlargement of a 1 1/2" x 2" section of Andy's print. Compare it with the full print above to get a sense of the scale of these amazing marks that Andy makes with his engraving tools.

For those of you who love bookplates (and I know you're out there!) Andy has a whole section on his web site devoted to bookplates. Thanks for the print, Andy!

28 September 2005

Heaven On Earth Final

 The final version. I'm not sure how many of the 50 I printed are really going to be part of the edition. Right now they're drying under a big pile of books. After that, I'll go through them and weed out the ones that have blemishes I can't live with. All sorts of things can go wrong when printing, and the more impressions you do the more opportunity you have to ruin a print! For example, twice when I was printing the black plate, a hair (dog?) was accidentally inked and it ruined the face. And a couple of knees got blue marks on them. I've learned that these colors will be lighter when they dry.

27 September 2005

Do More Prep?

I printed the sky a third time, this time not so much to make the ink denser, but to adjust the color to be more violet. With all that purple down on the wall, the sky looked too blue. Now I just have the black plate to do...

My friend Tom has suggested that I might do what I know many moku hanga artists do, which is to make very careful test prints to work out all the problems beforehand. While I see the value of this, especially now that I've printed the sky 3 times, I feel some resistance to the idea. In terms of process, I find that I enjoy doing my troubleshooting on the fly. The thrill-seeker part of me likes not knowing exactly how things will turn out.

Heaven knows woodblock printing isn't exactly a sponteaneous process. A lot of planning is necessary, and there are so many stages and steps, so many different factors to consider. What I've been doing is making the first 5 or so pieces of paper in my edition my test pages. For each new block I refine the colors, experiment, and doing any touch-up carving as I work with those first five prints. Then when I'm satisfied, I do the rest of the run while that block is all set up and printing well. I acknowledge that it's a risky way to do it, though, because I don't see the final result until I've printed everything. It could end up being a disaster.

I'd love to hear from any of you woodblock artists who are reading this; would love to know how much pre-printing you do and how you prepare for editioning.

26 September 2005

Goma Zuri

Here I've printed the red sandals and the darker layer of the wall. I've been using a traditional bamboo-covered baren since I started doing woodblock prints, but I've been wanting to try some of the other types that are available, so I bought a disk baren from McClain's and I've been testing it out on this print. I haven't been able to get a good smooth area of wide color with this baren, but it makes a really nice goma zuri, that speckled pattern at the top of the wall. For this second pass on the wall I used the disk baren to get some goma zuri texture and then I picked up my bamboo baren and rubbed just the bottom portion of the wall to make that part smoother.

Now I want to print the sky yet again to make it deeper and more purple.

25 September 2005


Here's a second pass with the skin color, after carving away the tops of the legs. Right now the overlap of skin color and purple on the wall looks like bad registration, but in fact I'm happy with the registration. That overlap will become the shadowed part of the legs after I overprint a darker color on the wall.

An edition of 50 is really taxing for my body. My right tricep is sore and my maybe-sort-of carpal tunnel problem from 20 years of drawing on a computer isn't doing too well either. I posted a question about barens (the device used for hand printing) and pain on the Baren Forum the other day and got some excellent advice, so today I've been working with my posture, chair height, how I hold the baren, etc. and it seems to help. I so appreciate the Baren Forum, a wonderful group of printmakers who are so generous with their knowledge and time.

23 September 2005

My Own Worst Enemy

My inclination toward laziness is my worst enemy in this endeavor. Last night after I printed those two blocks I just knew that I was going to need to print that blue sky again because it wasn't strong enough to make the stars really pop. But I so didn't want to print it twice. I'm really quite impatient with the printing process. Thankfully, Tom's comments yesterday gave me that extra nudge, and tonight I hit the sky again with a deeper blue. It looks way better, I think. And I got the first layer done on the skin tones, too.

One thing I'm really pleased with is that, unlike my previous prints, I haven't had to do any touch-up carving on these blocks so far. Something I'm not so pleased with is the bit of blue ink that bled into the skin color on the hands. I probably should have printed light colors first, then dark.

22 September 2005

Finally Printing!

How could I have forgotten that every September is like a runaway freight train? Between the rigors of domestic life, a new Japanese language class I've started, and a sudden influx of illustration projects I'm afraid that woodblock printing has fallen to the bottom of my to-do list. Today I decided to just do it, so I took the day off and managed to print the first two blocks for the "Heaven On Earth" print. I had tried to start last night, but the paper was too dry, so I had to wait another overnight until the paper was the proper dampness.

Since so many of my friends have told me that this design is their favorite, I decided to do a large edition of 50 prints. I'm using Rives heavyweight again.

10 September 2005

Finest Lines Yet

Here are the remaining two blocks for the "Heaven On Earth" print.

Block 4 will be the flesh tones. I'll print a fairly light color, then cut away the tops of the woman's legs and print a slightly darker color just on the legs to add some depth. Additional shadows on the legs will be created by overprinting the flesh color onto some of the light purple from Block 2.

I saved the carving of this block for a time when I was feeling especially rested and relaxed, because the lines in the woman's face are very fine lines for plywood. These are the finest lines I've attempted so far, and I'm delighted with how they turned out. (Of course, I haven't test printed them yet...) This block will print in black. On the left side of this block, around the kento marks, you can see that I added some mineral oil to make the paper more transparent.

The next step is to remove all the hanshita paper from all the blocks. I do this with water and an old toothbrush. I used to use water and my fingernail, but a fingernail can mar the printing surface of the wood.

08 September 2005

Three Blocks Carved

The design I'm working on now has been titled "Magic" because that was the prompt word from Illustration Friday that it was based on. In its incarnation as a woodblock print, though, I think I'll be renaming it and calling it "Heaven On Earth."

Today I carved three of the five 9" x 12" blocks I'll be using. I decided to show them to you with the hanshita (sketch) still pasted on so you can see a bit more about how the carving happens.

Here on Block 1 you can see that the hanshita, which in this case is a black and white laser printout of the original digital illustration, got a little beat up in the process of carving. There are several tears in the paper, but it's OK because I got everything carved before it ripped! Also note that I've carved the dark blue sky and the red sandals on the same block. Multiple colors can be put on the same block as long as the two elements are far enough apart that they can be inked separately. The two colors are not printed at the same time, but in separate passes.

In this second block you can see that the entire block doesn't have to be carved. lt's only necessary to carve a large enough area around the printing part of the block that it can be easily inked. This block will be printed in a purple-pink color.

Block 3 will be a medium dark blue, overprinting most of the area that will be the wall. Again, the paper ripped when I was clearing some large portions of wood. Carving my "chop" (my signature) was difficult. I had to use some Super Glue to repair it. Two more blocks to go.