31 March 2007

Sometimes Prints Go Wrong

Last Layer

Taking this long break in the middle of a print has been intensely unsatisfying. There's nothing I can do about it -- have to work when the work is there -- but losing the momentum is frustrating. Since I've made the commitment to doing this step-by-step I'll show you the final unsatisfactory piece. I had one more block left, the "water" block. I wanted a color that would be watery, but different than the ice. I usually do preliminary color sketches digitally, by scanning my paper sketch and trying out colors in Photoshop. In this case I had chosen a green for the water and I thought I liked it, so I printed the whole stack in green. I even added a bokashi to the bottom. (The photo above shows the block with water and paste on it ready for pigment for the bokashi.)


Then I hated it. This happens sometimes. I wanted the colors to be kind of garish, but these colors are just ugly and too happy-feeling for the occasion.

What will I do? I'll wait until I cool down a little and then I'll print the blocks over again. No point in showing you the whole process again -- it will be about the same! But I'll show you the new version.

I'll also show you how to clean the maru bake brushes:


The wooden handle should not be soaked, as it's apt to crack, so the way I clean the brush is to fill a shallow pan with water about an inch high and swish the bristles against the bottom of the pan. Keep adding new water and repeat the action until the water runs clear. Then rub the bristles on a towel and dry them hanging or with the bristles facing down. Perhaps you notice that I'm wearing pajamas in this photo. That's because I often work at night when I really should be in bed.

25 March 2007

Japanese Print Show in D.C.


For the past couple of years I've purchased the catalog from the annual College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) Print Show just to pore over the pictures of the winning prints. Now this Tokyo print show is coming to America. "On the Cutting Edge: Contemporary Japanese Prints," an exhibition featuring 212 prints from 50th CWAJ Show, will open at the Library of Congress on March 29, coinciding with the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

The exhibition marks the the donation of the 50th annual CWAJ Print Show’s prints to the collections of the Library of Congress. Thumbnails of the prints can be seen by following this link.

"On the Cutting Edge," will be on display from Thursday, March 29, through Saturday, June 30, 2007 in the Northwest Gallery on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

22 March 2007

Another Iceberg Layer

My work for pay is definitely getting in the way of my woodblock hobby! One of the most difficult things for me in my pursuit of printmaking is that my illustration work makes it so hard for me to plan my prints. Because I mostly work for magazines, when I get an illustration job I pretty much have to drop everything in order to accommodate the tight schedules involved. This week I dropped everything for a couple of clients, but today while I was waiting for some sketches to be approved I sneaked in some time to do the next impression.

I'm working on the "sky" area and I want the color to fade off into nothing at the top. In moku hanga this fade is called a bokashi and here you'll see my inelegant method of making a bokashi.


First I apply a liberal amount of water and paste to the entire printing surface of the block.


Then I apply some pigment at the bottom of the bokashi. This is a pretty wide area that I'm trying to cover and there are moku hanga artists who would advise against doing a wide fade like this in one pass (better to build it up in several passes), but I've found that I don't like to do multiple overprints unless it's absolutely necessary. The fewer opportunities I have to misregister my prints the better!


Now I begin to blend the pigment into the water/paste mix by dragging the brush horizontally. Notice that my brush has an eye hook at one end that I use to hang it. This hook becomes a marker when I'm making a bokashi. I can always remember that the pigment end of the brush is the end with the hook. Right after I took this picture I realized that I needed to use a longer brush, so I switched.


Above is how it looked printed. And below shows how I stack the prints as they come off the block. Amazingly, even though the paper is damp and the prints are fresh off the block, the ink doesn't transfer from one print to the next so you can stack them on top of one another. I alternate them to help keep the moisture content even through the stack.


Hopefully I'll get to the last block soon.

19 March 2007

More Step By Step


Today I'm printing the second block, the darker details of the iceberg. You can see my sloppy carving very well in this photo. I tend to go for speed rather than beauty, so although I'm very careful when cutting around the relief areas I'm pretty haphazard about clearing the big spaces outside the printing area. Most good moku hanga people will tell you to use square-headed chisels for clearing to avoid the ridges caused when using u-shaped chisels, but I use u-shaped chisels. I find them fast and intuitive, although I'll admit that u-shaped chisels are hard to sharpen. I just wanted to make this caveat -- I'm self-taught and I don't necessarily do things the "right" way.

Here you can also see the kento marks that guide the paper into place and keep the colors properly registered. Some type of registration system is absolutely necessary for multi-block prints (unless you're doing more experimental work that depends on serendipity) and I think the simple but elegant Japanese kento system is brilliant.


Here are the bottled pigments I use, pure pigments suspended in water from Guerra Paint and Pigment in New York City. Other people use Akua Color pigments or tube watercolors for moku hanga. Mixing these colors is just like mixing any other paints. I use any little container that can be sealed for mixing up colors. Baby food jars work really well. I suffer from overconfidence in mixing, so I rarely do test prints. I just mix a color until I like it, test it on a piece of scrap paper, and then start using it on the block.

Here's a quick test print of this next block:


I'm satisfied that I've cut deeply enough to get a clean impression. How deep to carve? My rule of thumb is just deep enough so that the cleared areas don't print -- shallower on small blocks, deeper on large blocks. After lots of practice you begin to know. Checking the color, this is close to what I'm looking for. I want it a little "grayer" so I'll add some gray, but I'm also aware that this color will get darker because it will overprint the first color.


Moku hanga blocks take time to "warm up." The first few impressions on a fresh block are quite pale, so the first few prints never make it into the final edition. I keep the sheets in order all through the print run and I consider the first 3 or 4 sheets to be my test prints. I make all my fine color adjustments on these first few prints. Here's the block being inked up. You want the relief surfaces to have a sheen like above, but no puddles.


Here's how the print looks with the second layer added. Right now I love it, which always frightens me. The fear that I'll mess it up if I do anything else makes me want to stop right now and not do the other two blocks I have planned. This happens to me on every single print.


Another thing that happens on every print is that the block swells from the moisture of the print run and the pigment begins to spread wider and wider into the cleared area. Eventually stray marks begin to appear and it's necessary to go in with a chisel and cut away a few problem areas. It's important to look carefully at each print as it comes off the block so you can analyze what's happening and catch any spots where you're pressing too hard or too lightly, places where you're not putting enough pigment, etc.


It's hard to see here, but my paper is beginning to curl at the edges and not lie flat on the block because It's gaining moisture in the center where I've been printing and losing moisture around the edges. After this block is finished I'll need to adjust the moisture by brushing some water on the edges and letting the prints sit under a weight to even out the dampness.


Here's how the blocks look after printing. The pigment can't really be removed -- it sort of stains the wood just as it "stains" the paper. Unlike oil-based inks, the water colors sink deeply into the paper and basically dye it. I love that about moku hanga.

Now I must go and ponder whether or not I have the guts to add the other two blocks. Art takes courage.

18 March 2007

First Block Step By Step


These are the four blocks for my iceberg print. Sometime I'll talk about ways to color separate an image, but since I've already designed this print and carved the blocks, let's just talk about printing for now.


This is the basic setup. The block is on a piece of non-skid shelf liner to keep it very stable, the damp paper is under plastic close to the block so it's easy to pick it up and get it right into position, and the baren, ink and paste are on a taboret to my right (I'm right-handed).

Generally, it's good to print colors in order from light to dark. From experience, I also know that the first impression tends to be the most grainy impression, so I want to choose my first block with that in mind as well. I'd like the iceberg itself to have some texture, so I'll print the pale iceberg color first.


I begin by wetting the block with a spritzer and wetting the brush by rubbing it on the block. Then I wait a couple of minutes, letting the water soak in a bit. Sometimes I do this more than once.


Next I apply a little rice paste, letting it drop onto the block from the end of a Japanese brush. Literally a drop or two is all that I need for this block.


And since I want this to be a pale tint, I use only a couple of drops of pigment as well.


The pigment and paste are blended with the maru bake (brush) right on the block and then smoothed out with a few long strokes.


Grasping the paper with the first and second fingers of each hand, like scissors, the thumbs guide the paper's edges into the carved kento marks which act as registration marks. Once the corner and edge are in position, the "scissor grip" is released so the paper can gently fall onto the inked block.


The print is then burnished with a baren. Here I'm using a ball-bearing baren, my favorite kind. I like to use a protective paper, called an ategawa, to protect the paper and also to protect the baren from stray paper fibers. I use baking parchment paper as an ategawa.


After the burnishing is finished, there is a little bleed through on the back of the print. This is normal in moku hanga.


Lift the paper carefully, and there it is, the first impression. I then do the same steps over again. And over again. And over again, until I've done all 18 sheets of paper.

I'll make the other impressions in the next couple of days.

17 March 2007

Prep for Printing


No printing today. We had a little blizzard and after 3 hours of shoveling I didn't have enough energy left to start anything new. Janey, a friend who is just learning about woodblock printing, commented in the last post that she'd like to see this process broken down step-by-step. I haven't done that in a while so I thought I'd do it for this print, which is a fairly simple four-block print. 

What happens first in the moku hanga method is that the paper must be dampened to receive the pigment. I use the Chinese brush shown above and I spread water on the back of every other sheet of paper, stacking them on top of each other and finally placing the damp stack in a plastic bag overnight. Putting a little weight on top, like a book or two, can help the water spread evenly through the stack. The paper should be just damp, not wet. New hanga printers (I did it too) almost always print too wet at first. I'm using 18 sheets for this print - the last of my paper. 

The day of printing, I make up a batch of rice paste. There are commercial pre-mixed brands you can buy, but I like to mix my own from dry rice starch powder, available at McClain's. There's a recipe on the package - you cook the flour with water, like making wheat paste or a white sauce. I personally like my paste a little less thick than the McClain's recipe makes, so I use more water. Rice paste is mixed with the pigment on the block itself and makes the application of the ink smoother. Hopefully tomorrow I'll print the first block.

15 March 2007

Back On the Ground


I feel like taking a break from the view-from-above vantage point that I've used in the past few prints I've made, so I'm working on a small (8" x 10") companion piece to my global warming print. It will be an iceberg viewed from the side. I did some carving tonight and hope to start printing it over the weekend.

10 March 2007

Faux Woodblock (Digital)


This is a small section of a digital illustration I'm working on for a nursing magazine. The article is about Complementary care and since most of the modalities mentioned (meditation, Reiki, acupuncture) are eastern techniques I wanted to give it a handpulled woodblock look. I'm working with textures in Photoshop to give it that appearance, including creating and scanning a bokashi gradient that I printed just for this purpose. I'll show you the whole piece once my client has published it. 

I'm enjoying seeing influences between my woodblock work and my commercial illustration these days, not so much in the content of the work but in the process. The initial frustration I felt with the slow pace of printmaking has evolved into an appreciation of the value of taking time, taking care, allowing an image to really "marinate" in the process. I'm finding that the surprises and accidental discoveries I experience in woodblock printing are also beginning to happen in my commercial work, which had become stale for me over the years. I'm feeling the commercial work becoming more fun and alive again. So I'm celebrating by working on a Saturday!

05 March 2007

Intaglio Test


This past weekend I tried the method I discovered on Nana Shiomi's web site (see previous post) of printing intaglio with a woodblock. She uses a squeegee and acrylic paint, but I thought first I'd try intaglio ink since I had some around. Here's what I got: 

NOT intaglio. This ink printed relief and very thick even though I used the squeegee pretty hard. I actually like this effect and will probably use it sometime, but not on this print. So I tried acrylic paint and lo and behold: intaglio lines, just as Nana Shiomi promised! I still need to make adjustments to the consistency of the paint, but this definitely works. I don't think it adds anything to this print, though, so I'm going to leave it alone for now. 


01 March 2007

Nana Shiomi

 © Nana Shiomi

I discovered Britain-based woodcut artist Nana Shiomi through an article in Printmaking Today magazine. She uses a combination of traditional moku hanga and more modern methods. Her web site is full of interesting information about techniques, the Japanese tradition of woodblock printing, and her own work, which is beautiful and evocative. 

I was especially interested to read on her website that she does intaglio with her woodblocks, something I've been trying to figure out how to do. I'm planning to try adding some intaglio lines to the "Melting" print and I'll be trying the method Shiomi briefly describes on her web site -- using a squeegee! Here are the intaglio lines I carved with a v-gouge. I'll let you know how it turns out.