27 December 2017


Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 9 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper
Shapes derived from four video stills of a California wildfire.

2017 has been a remarkable year for the United States of America for many reasons, including the record-setting wildfires in California and other parts of the western USA. This year is the most expensive firefighting year on record for the US Forest Service with over $2 billion spent. Climate change deniers continue to argue that we've always had fires and weather is just weather and it's those people's fault for building there anyhow; the Trump administration continues to dismantle federal actions that address both the causes and the effects of climate change (can we at the very least respond to the effects, please?); but meanwhile the Thomas Fire north of Los Angeles has been burning for 23 days and still rages as I type this post. Fires have also erupted in Europe this year and, perhaps most alarmingly, wildfires have begun to occur farther north than ever before. In August of this year, "unusual and possibly unprecedented" multiple fires broke out in melted peat bogs in Greenland.

This print is dedicated to all those who have lost homes to the fires, including my friend Laury and her family, who lost their home to the Sonoma County fires in October. ♥

Here are some photos of the print in progress.

A small bright spot created by wiping away pigment on the first layer.
Shapes from first video still added.
Wiping is needed to keep the shapes from the first layers visible as the pigment builds up.
One more set of shapes in a darker shade, still wiping to keep visibility of the layers below. I like the "steamy" effect created by the wiping.
This is the fifth block. The photo was taken after printing, which is why it's stained with color. You can see that the block contains another set of fire shapes (a fourth video still) in the sky area plus trees that were in the video foreground. I worked the two areas separately for the most part and printed five or six different times before I was satisfied with the color balance.

27 November 2017


Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 16 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper
Shapes derived from four video stills of fracking flares.

Gas•light [gas-lahyt] verb
To cause (a person) to doubt his or her sanity through the use of psychological manipulation:
How do you know if your president is gaslighting you?

Gas•flare [gas-flair] noun
A gas combustion device used in industrial plants such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants, natural gas processing plants as well as at oil or gas production sites such as hydrofracking operations:
The gas flares, which are bright enough to be seen from space, turned a peaceful little life into a nightmare.

The shapes in this print are derived from a video of gas flares from a fracking well, but I couldn't resist the double-entendre with the psychological term "gaslighting," which is being used often this year as people discuss the condition called narcissistic personality disorder and whether or not the president of the United States suffers from it. Gaslighting is one of the things that narcissists do.

Here are some process photos.

16 November 2017

Dumpster Fire

Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 11 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper
Shapes derived from five video stills of a fire in a dumpster.

Dumpster fire. Because it is.

The challenge on this print was getting a dirty look. I had a few hair-raising moments getting to the end, so I don't have very many process photos, but here are three.

08 November 2017


Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 8 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 8 on Yukimi paper
Shapes derived from seven video stills of a molotov cocktail being thrown at a wall.

About a week ago, just as I was finalizing this print, I visited the Rubin Museum of Art which specializes in art from the Himalayas and I noticed this descriptive text about a class of Tantric Buddhist deities who are shown as wrathful:
One of these kinds [of deities] includes enlightened beings that assume fierce appearances to remove obstacles or perform other protective functions. Though they may look like demons, these deities are said to be wrathful manifestations of wisdom and method.
When I first proofed the shapes that resulted from superimposing seven stills from a video of a molotov cocktail exploding against a wall, I noticed that they resembled some kind of a cartoon monster. That monster likeness plus my musings on fire and anger combined in my mind with this text and so I decided to mimic the flaming hair and "aura" that I had seen on the wrathful deities at the museum for one last layer.

Detail of the Tantric Buddhist inspired flames.
Black Hayagriva from the Rubin Museum

06 November 2017


In my experience, anger is one of the best reasons to do spiritual practices. By spiritual practices, I mean meditation, contemplation, attention to the present moment, lovingkindness, mantra repetition, prayer, and other techniques and tools for focusing the mind and emotions. Last week, Uma Thurmond was asked about recent allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by Harvey Weinstein and others in Hollywood, and her answer was a brilliant display of working with active anger.

I started this series of images about fire in light of my own anger after the election of Donald Trump almost one year ago today. Anger is compared to fire in our language for good reason—although useful, both anger and fire can easily grow out of control and become overwhelmingly destructive. Anger also spreads like wildfire. I believe that anger is the most contagious of all the emotions. Observe what happens in a room when an angry person walks in, or how quickly a small incident on the road can escalate into a full-blown physical confrontation. If you want to offer something of service to the world, learning to manage your own anger is a great beginning.

I’ve spent a lot of this year learning to be responsible about my anger. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this much intense and sustained anger before. Yes, I’ve felt bursts of anger, and even simmering resentments that have lasted for long-ish periods, but never sustained white-hot undiminishing rage like I’ve felt this year. It’s nasty and I don’t like it, but it’s here so I’m trying to learn to handle it and to use the energy for something creative rather than destructive. As we’ve seen this year, watching the white house wrecking crew, it’s much easier to destroy than to create.

This next print is based on eight still frames from a video of someone throwing a molotov cocktail at a wall. Here are the first few color passes.

Two passes here. First a full uncarved block printed with yellow, with a patch wiped away to show the white of the paper, and then an orange on top, with a bit of blotting in the hopes that it will soften the flow of one color to another in the final result.
A third layer, a more orange red. Again you can see the blotting I'm doing before I print so that the sharp carved lines between the colors will be less distinct.
Layer four, with a wash of what is actually a red oxide tone. The blotting is doing what I wanted it to do—hooray!

27 October 2017


Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
17 x 11 inches (43 x 28 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 7 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 10 on Yukimi paper
Shapes derived from four video stills of a bonfire.

I've been working on these prints for almost a year now. After the 2016 election I was so upset and thrown off my game that I could barely tear myself away from the news cycle and drag myself into the studio. When I finally got going again, it was images of fire that matched my inner felt sense* (see below for definition).

My usual way is to just dive in and go once I choose a direction, but for reasons unknown to me I spent most of the spring and summer test printing the blocks for this series. For the past two months, and probably for another couple of months ahead, I'm editioning the prints, probably 10 or 11 different designs in total. So today, I give you "Bonfire."

Less intimate than a hearth, a bonfire conjures up a larger gathering, in a park or on a beach or in a back yard — like a campfire, but bigger. On a darker note, the image of a bonfire can also suggest a ritual burning of objects deemed immoral, a "bonfire of the vanities" such as book burning or burning of art as conducted by iconoclastic religionists or authoritarians. Bonfires can also be included as part of a protest or riot.

As with all of these prints, I'm depicting the flames, not the fuel.

Below are the blocks showing the four different shapes derived from a video that make up the print.

* Felt Sense*
This is a term from a psychotherapeutic technique called Focusing. A felt sense is a body sensation that is meaningful and that points to and somehow matches a vague, elusive and often pre-verbal inner experience. I think that locating the felt sense of any particular experience or situation is useful for artists and is in fact often used by artists intuitively — that moment of aha, when an image just feels right.

20 October 2017


Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 6 blocks, 9 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 10 on Yukimi paper
Based on five video stills of a fire burning in a fireplace.

Hearth has the word heart in it, and for many centuries (or maybe even forever) the cooking fire has been the heart of human life. It wasn't until 200 years ago that the open hearth was replaced by a fire in a "box," with a flat top and oven, and it was another 100 or so years before modern ranges, gas and then electric, became common. My own grandmother's electric range had a small attached wood stove that she used for heat and for warming food as late as the 1970s.

Lynn and I heated with wood for three years when we lived in Taos, New Mexico. It was messy and a lot of work, but I loved it. Chopping wood, hauling it into the house as needed, banking the coals overnight and then firing the stove back up in the morning — those rituals became embedded in our days and connected us to natural rhythms that you just don't experience when your "home fires" are unseen in the basement and you simply turn a dial to make heat. I recently read that watching a fire in a fireplace or fire pit lowers blood pressure, and the longer you watch the lower it goes, so who knows, maybe our love of hearth is biological.

If you've never seen Michael Pollan's series, "Cooked," it's pretty interesting. The first episode is about fire.

11 October 2017

I Love a Fireplace

I grew up with a fireplace. My dad loved making fires, and he showed me how to open the flue, how to warm the chimney and get the draw going, how to bank coals, and how to add wood so that it wouldn't smother the embers. When Lynn and I bought our first house, having a fireplace was high on our list of must-haves and we used it a lot. Now we have a gas hearth, which is nice and easy and not at all messy or smelly, but I miss the rituals involved in tending a wood fire.

So the fourth print in this "Playing With Fire" series is a hearth.

Here are some in-progress photos.

Two colors with some yellow wiped away to reveal the white of the paper.
Another block printed. This block had a fairly strong grain pattern.
Six colors shown here.

Next I'll be darkening the background and adding some bokashi (gradation).

30 September 2017

Candle In Wind

Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 6 blocks, 10 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 10 on Yukimi paper

This print was created with shapes derived from four selected video stills of a candle burning in a windy place. A steady flame is lovely, but more often than not the wind blows. I used to smoke, and I remember lighting a cigarette outdoors was like this. Or keeping a candle lit at an outdoor vigil, or trying to light a campfire on a damp windy night. Or candlelight on a porch, or near an open window.

The bokashi glow appears quite strong in this photo. It's a little less so in real life.

Here are a couple of shots of the print in progress.
After four impressions of color
Five color impressions

23 September 2017

Steady Flame

Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
17 x 11 inches (43 x 28 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 11 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 15 on Yukimi paper

This image is again based on shapes derived from video stills, this time a video of a candle burning. Even a very steady flame has some movement. Fire always moves.

In the tradition that my meditation practice comes from, the image of a steady flame is used to signify the light of consciousness, the self or center of one's being, which is constant and cannot be perturbed. Making contact with that part of oneself is one of the goals of meditation. A candle flame is evocative of other things, too — religious ceremonies, holidays, winter, romantic dinners, a small beacon of hope or home. There's something comforting in it, I think.

For you print nerds, let me talk about that little smudge at the base of the flame. It's another kind of bokashi, called atenashi-bokashi (gradation without definition), which is used to make rosy cheeks or other circular shapes. An uncarved area of a block is dampened with a wet cloth or brush to define the border where the fade is to occur and then pigment is applied with a small brush. It's difficult to get a consistent effect.

A circle of water has been applied first and then brown pigment added to the center and allowed to spread on its own.
A light rub with the baren transfers the circular smudge to the print.

21 September 2017

Pulling Some Grain

I've added a few more color layers to this flame image, bringing the total number of color passes to eight. You can see that I've just begun to build a circular bokashi (color blend) to make the flame glow. More layers to come. You can also see some wood grain in the print. Wood grain is another of the Mysteries of Mokuhanga.

I'm using shina plywood, which I almost always use, and shina doesn't have much in the way of wood grain, but every so often there's a piece that prints a pretty strong grain and I saved this block for the last impression because its grain looked promising. Sure enough the grain is printing. I may not be able to keep it as I add bokashi, though. Printing shina grain requires a somewhat dry block and a great deal of baren pressure. You can use a wire brush on the surface to try to enhance the grain, and I've even heard of folks using a blowtorch before the wire brush. The idea is that the torch and/or brush takes away the softer parts of the grain and leaves the harder parts. I'm not planning to go to those extents for grain, though. Just trying to see if I can do it with pressure and careful registration. It very well might not work!

A closeup of the block itself. The grain mirrors the flame shapes.
A closeup of the printed grain pattern.

15 September 2017

Hand Made Washi

Here's the print in process with two more colors (two more blocks) added. This makes a total of five impressions so far, and the paper is holding up much better than it did for the previous print, when I noticed some paper fibers lifting during the printing.

Paper is another Mystery of Mokuhanga, another of the variables that can make or break your print. I mostly use Japanese hand made washi, a strong type of paper made from long fibers of kozo or gampi. The fibers are hand pounded, mixed with some stuff, and then hand molded using screens. (See this blog post about a paper-making family I visited in Japan in 2004.) The paper I'm using for this series of prints came from Woodlike Matsumura in Japan and is called Yukimi. To be honest, the main reason I chose this paper is because of its name — yukimi means "snow viewing" and I liked the idea of making fire prints on paper named for snow. I was able to take a chance on an untried paper because I almost always like whatever paper I buy from Matsumura-san.

Anyway, just as my bokashi vary from print to print because I'm not a machine, had made washi varies from batch to batch and sheet to sheet because it's made by human hands. So it's quite possible that the paper I'm using for this print is literally different than the paper I used for the Strike a Match print, even though it's the "same" paper.

For the record, I like Yukimi — it's strong and fairly thick, bright white, and colors don't dull on it.

14 September 2017

More Than One Way to Make a Bokashi

In a quest to keep my printing momentum going in spite of the fact that I have other work plus an "active" puppy, I'm moving right along to the next print. For this one I'm basically scaling up the candle flame print that I made in December for a small print exchange with some of my mokuhanga tribe members. That little print turns out to have been the test run for this whole series.

Fire glows, so for this series of fire images I'll be using a lot of "bokashi" — graduated color blends. There are a number of ways to create bokashi, and I began this print using a wiping method to create a gradation. First I covered an uncarved block with a yellow pigment, then I used a rag to wipe away a small circle of the pigment where I want to keep the white of the paper. Here's the printed result:

I then overprinted the yellow with a pale orange using a second block with a flame shape carved away:

13 September 2017

Strike A Match

Watercolor woodblock (moku hanga)
11 x 17 inches (28 x 43 cm)
Made from 5 blocks, 14 hand-rubbed applications of color
Edition of 12 on Yukimi paper

Fourteen applications of color is as far as the paper would let me go, so this print is finished. I have some more circular bokashi ahead of me, so I'll be a pro by the time I've got this series (Playing with Fire) completed, but my technique still needs work.

A friend on Facebook noted the other day that limitations are an excellent fuel for creativity, which made me aware of how I often establish rules for myself prior to making a series of prints in order to keep things manageable. The limits/rules I set up for this series are:
- all images come from video stills of fire

- same color palette for all
- I will show only the flames, not the fuel being burned

First I selected some shapes from a slow-motion video of a match being struck:

I transferred individual shapes from this sketch onto five different blocks and then carved them. Then I tested how the shapes looked when printed and played around with different ways of doing the printing. I often regret showing this kind of background work because invariably someone says that they like the proofs better than the final, but I feel strong enough to take it, so here are some of the proofs I made:

The shapes are really interesting and look like a kind of flower, but I wasn't happy with how "solid" they looked. Not at all like fire. I wanted it to look more ethereal and very bright at the center, so that's how I ended up printing 14 layers of bokashi instead of these more solid shapes.

One of my bokashi in the final was more like a rainbow roll (below). Except with water and a brush instead of ink and a roller. And round instead of straight across. And yes, that's a shoe brush. Not the highest quality brush I own, but just the right size.

Above is a shot of the full edition all laid out on my kitchen floor so you can see how consistent (inconsistent) my bokashi is from print to print. Not bad, but they're definitely not all exactly the same. That's OK with me.

12 September 2017

Circular Bokashi

As I mentioned in my last post, making a circular bokashi (color blend) is tough. I don't feel accomplished at it yet, so I don't really have any tips. I can tell you what to watch out for, but not how to do it correctly. Too much water will give you speckles (you can see speckles in the top photo), which isn't necessarily wrong but it's wrong if you're trying to make a bokashi without speckles. On the other hand, not enough water and/or too much rice paste will give you distinct lines between your color shifts (see bottom photo). What's exactly the right amount of water? You've got me.

Here's the printing I did over the weekend.

This photo was taken after two applications of color on Block #4. Hard pressure and not too much paste gave me some nice grain. Too bad it will be covered up with subsequent layers.
And two more applications of color from the 5th block. I still want to heavy up the background to make the glow stronger.
This is a somewhat strange way to build a print, because the pigment is being added to the background rather than to the central image. The central image is formed by shapes carved away from the background, so those shapes are never relief; only the background areas are relief. It's difficult to anticipate how the pigments will build up, and it's also hard on the paper to build the layers up on top of each other like this. I've now put 10 layers of pigment on this paper, and some of the paper fibers are beginning to lift. (The paper is Yukimi from Woodlike Matsumura in Japan.) We'll see if it can take more layers or if I've reached a limit here.

07 September 2017

Make It Work

Even if you do a lot of proofing beforehand, printing mokuhanga style is full of adventure because there are so many variables. The final result depends on the composition of the wood, how much water you use, how much pigment, how much rice paste, how you swirl the brush around on the block, how hard or softly you push with the baren, the type of paper, how damp or dry the paper is… you get the idea.

Today I printed a couple more blocks, two passes on each block. I'm slowly building a circular bokashi (fade or blend) so that in the final print the flame will seem to glow. Any bokashi is difficult to do consistently and a circular one is wicked. Nevertheless I persisted.

Two passes of a pale orange using Block #2

Block #2 was pretty straightforward to print, but block #3 got interesting. About three pieces of paper into the edition I noticed that I was consistently getting "baren suji" — marks in the print made by the baren. I got panicky, which is usually my first reaction to making what I perceive to be a mistake, but then I took a breath and walked away. When I returned I knew just what to do. USE the baren suji! So I intentionally made baren marks moving around the bokashi like rays of light.

Baren suji around the glow.

This may not even show up in the final print after more layers are added, but I needed to treat it as if it would be visible, just in case.

These prints are taking on a lot of moisture with all the water for the bokashi glow, so I'm letting the paper dry out now. I'll re-wet it tonight for tomorrow's printing session.

You can see that the bokashi glow is a little bit different on each print. That's because I'm not a machine. The more layers I print the more varied the prints will become. That's just the way it is.

06 September 2017

A Small Explosion

Because of its characteristic layering of transparent colors, I've often thought that mokuhanga (watercolor woodblock printing) could lend itself to representing movement over time. Movement being an essential quality of fire, this series seemed like a good opportunity to test that idea. I decided to use video stills of fire to derive the shapes for each of these designs, and I hope to see some movement in the resulting images.

Archaeologists estimate that human beings started using fire, which they probably harvested from spontaneous grass fires or lightning strikes, a million years ago or so. Fire usually starts with some kind of explosion, as the heat that's applied reaches a high enough temperature for the fuel to ignite, so I begin the series with the lighting of a match — a small controlled explosion. I was surprised to learn that the first friction match was invented quite recently in the long history of humans using fire:  1826.

Here is block #1 and the print that resulted after two pale applications of color from this block.

All of these images will be 11 x 17 inches

A circular bokashi (fade) is really difficult to do consistently.