27 January 2016

Halftone Buddha

Watercolor woodblock print
13 x 13 inch image (33 x 33 cm) on  17 x 19 inch (43 x 48 cm) Shioji washi
edition: 8

I finished carving the halftone Buddha block a couple of days ago and today I finished printing a small two-color edition. I'm trying a new paper that I got from Woodlike Matsumura, an inexpensive handmade 100% kozo called Shioji.

I expected the printing to be fairly easy, since I'm just using two colors, but when it comes to moku hanga, "easy" isn't really a word that fits. Of course there were issues.

The first issue came up while I was putting down a base layer of pink with an uncarved block. To get full coverage i found that I had to print the pink four times, which was hard on the paper and caused it to wrinkle. Next time I'll try wetting the paper a little more from the beginning to see if I can get the color I want in fewer passes. You can also see in the photo above that there's a darker line on each of the prints. That's a spot where two sections of veneer (I'm using a plywood) are joined on the surface of the wood. They use some kind of thin white tape under the veneer where the joins are and in a wide expanse like this the tape changes the profile of the wood just enough that it prints. (Hat tip to Andrew Stone and Andrea Starkey for a long troubleshooting conversation on Facebook a few months ago that helped ferret out what causes this to happen with shina plywood.)

After the four layers of pink, I let the paper dry and then re-wet it for the purple halftone layer. It was tricky to find just the right amount of pigment, paste and moisture to print the halftone so there was enough ink for the impression to be dark and strong but not so much that any of the smaller holes would fill in. I'll admit that I lost a couple of sheets of paper in the process.

More to come in this series.

21 January 2016

A Sample Print for Students

I've been invited to be a visiting artist at Maine College of Art's printmaking department in February, and since our time is limited (basically 12 hours) I'm going to try bringing some sample blocks for students to print with before carving their own. I've never done it in that order before — print and then carve — but it makes sense for a short class. Trying out printing first could help them in working out the color separations on their own blocks, they can carve their blocks while I'm still there, and then they can do most of their printing on their own after I'm gone. We'll see how that works out. If it's successful, I may start doing it in my longer workshops too.

[A note to mokuhanga aficionados:  I tried a whole bunch of different papers from Awagami plus Rives Heavyweight (cotton) plus my beloved Echizen Kozo and I was stunned at the results. My #1 preference for each of the three versions you'll see below was Rives Heavyweight! Weird, as I assumed washi would be way better to print with. You never know until you experiment…]

Here are the blocks I carved for the class and a few test prints for demonstration.

The four blocks, carved and ready to start printing.

A quick test of the blocks using plain copy paper, checking registration and print behavior of each block, plus trying out a few colors.

Another batch of prints using similar colors but adding some bokashi (blends). I'm also testing different kinds of papers.

Another color palette and intentional use of goma-zuri (speckle) printing to show how texture can be used to add interest to very simple blocks.

One more variation showing more uses of bokashi, gomazuri, and white overprinting.

30 December 2015

Halftones and the Poignancy of Being Human

Carving underway on halftone Buddha image.

Sometime this fall I got captured by the idea of creating a semi-photographic woodblock image as a halftone (continuous tone image made of dots), and since I've been wanting to work with religious images lately I decided to try making halftones of photographs of icons and statues from various religious traditions. In October I started carving circles for the first of these images, a Buddha.

The photo above shows a 13 x 13 inch block of wood with a computer-generated image of a Buddha statue transferred onto it and carving underway. I wanted to work with the optical illusion that a dot pattern invites, where you only see the dots when you're up close, but the image reveals itself at a certain distance, so I chose the coarsest dot pattern I could use and still make out the image. This required the image transfer onto the block to be very precise, so rather than pasting down a laser printout as I often do I wanted to do a true toner transfer. I tried oil of wintergreen and also citrisolve, but I wasn't happy with either so I ended up using Chartpak blender markers which contain a toxic chemical called xylene. I did it outdoors so I wouldn't keel over from the fumes, but I wouldn't recommend xylene as a go-to transfer agent because of the toxicity.

Nevertheless, I got a great transfer and have been plodding along with the carving for about two months.

A close view of some circles of varying sizes.

I thought a drill would be ideal for this. I have a sweet little hand drill with 8 different bit sizes that my dad passed down to me, but after a few tests I realized that there were infinite small variations in the sizes of these dots, from less than 1/32 inch to around 3/8. I could never get exactly the right size bit for each hole. So I've been carving with knives: my two hangi-to and a #2 X-Axto blade.

Two different sized hangi-to and an X-Acto knife, with tiny circular wood chips.

When I posted about this on Facebook I got some great tips. Turns out there's a Japanese tool called a tama-to, available at McClain's, that's designed for cutting circles. One of these is on the way to me now, so I'll report back after I've tried it. Another printmaker friend told me about a drill bit that's cone-shaped so you can vary the width of the circles by how deeply you drive the bit. I'll probably give that a try at some point too, but as I was carving today with my knife I began to think about this whole imperfect process of re-creating a computer generated image by hand. The image is perfect when printed out on a digital printer. Why not just do a high-end inkjet print? Or why not use a photographic process like silkscreen or photo etching? What is this drive to do it by hand with a knife on a piece of wood?

As I pondered this, I realized that this arduous process — this attempt to make 6,000 perfect circles with my imperfect tools and my shaky hand and my farsighted middle-aged eyes —is precisely what religion at its best calls forth in a human being. It's this human striving for something perfect, beautiful and pure in the midst of the imperfection and hardship of life that I could feel being recapitulated in a small way for me in this process.

So maybe I'll stick with the knife.

Happy 2016, dear blog readers.

I use a portable easel with a couple of different bench hooks to keep the block upright and close to my eyes.

07 December 2015

Field Report from a Brief Social Media Fast

Image source unknown
This past weekend, after spending a tumultuous week following Facebook and Twitter posts about the San Bernardino shooting and feeling that I needed to settle my nerves, I decided to take a break from social media. For two days, whenever I felt the urge to log on to Facebook or Twitter, I wrote about it in a little notebook I carried around. I’m not sure yet how long my break will be but here are some of the notes I made on Saturday and Sunday.

Dog Whistles
For a long time I’ve been aware of the political "dog whistles" (coded words that appear to mean one thing but have an additional meaning for a targeted subgroup) that are used by conservatives. For example, I was horrified during the first GW Bush campaign when I noticed that the candidate often used language from Christian hymns and prayers and that the media completely missed it. But I’ve never fully examined the dog whistles that are aimed at me and my kind. Facebook and Twitter memes and links are full of dog whistles, and I jump when I hear them, just as most of us do. It's hard on the nerves.

Unusable Diary
I use both Facebook and Twitter as a kind of diary, noting my thoughts and feelings about the events in my world. Facebook knows this, as demonstrated by their rollout of a “Memories” feed to help us re-read our diaries. But that’s one of the problems: you can’t easily go back and read your own diary entries; they get buried under the ever-scrolling Now. Writing down my thoughts and feelings in diary form would be better done in… well, in a diary. Or even a blog!

Missing My People
There are some people who are very special to me who I only know because of social media. Actually, a lot of people fall into that category, particularly other artists. I’ve met quite a few of my online-only friends in person as years have gone by, and I’m always delighted to discover that they’re to a person even better in real life than online. My life would be poorer without those connections (as well as connections with friends I knew before social media). But logging on in search of connection also means scrolling through posts about violence, politics and outrage with no control over what I view. (I just read an article that talked about “visual terrorism” – an overstatement with a grain of truth.) How to have the connection without the emotional manipulation and disturbance of all that stuff?

All the Feelings
Mine is not a total media fast, just Facebook and Twitter. I’m still reading the news, and what I notice is that I can’t quickly scroll past things that upset me and scan for some new distraction. I’m feeling sadness more acutely. I’m also thinking about the role of outrage in our society and on social media. It’s so much easier, when confronted with the brutality of this world, to respond with outrage and anger than to experience the deeper sensations of fear, sadness, disappointment and helplessness. Outrage feels strong and energetic. It makes you feel like you’re doing something, even though you aren’t.

Extra Time
If you don’t check your Facebook while waiting in the checkout line, you have time to look at the people around you. New possibilities open up. I experimented this weekend with smiling, with saying hello, and with offering silent blessings to people who looked like they could use a silent blessing.

Oh Twitter
Even though I spend much more time on FB than Twitter, I really miss Twitter. Twitter is my secret escape. It’s kind of like going to a bar (which I gave up many years ago) because you never know who will be there at the same time you are, it’s fast (only 140 characters at a time), it’s punchy and a little raucous, it’s intense, and when something is happening, whether a planned event or a tragedy, Twitter is right there in real time. I love Twitter, and it’s terribly addictive.

Musings On my Social Media Future
Not sure yet how I’ll proceed, but I know I won’t swear off Facebook and Twitter. They’re too important for me as an artist, for one thing, not just in “getting my work out there,” but in forging relationships with artists and art lovers. I’m thinking about ways to limit the amount of time I spend on social media, but I don't want to stop reading other people's posts and that's what takes so much time. I don't like when people do hit-and-run posting, where they throw up posts without ever looking at or commenting on anyone else’s posts, and I don't want to do that. Reading every single thing in my timeline has always been impossible, but how to keep myself out of the time-suck? Use a timer? Create a small group of people whose posts I don’t want to miss? Not sure. But I’ll keep you posted.

Your thoughts are welcome.

29 November 2015

My First Print Redux

One of the original 2005 prints

In July 2005 I wrote the first post on this blog, which was about my first woodblock print, Year of the Dog (above), done at a workshop with Matt Brown. In spring 2016 I'm going to be part of a show at McGowan Fine Art (Concord NH) that will feature Matt and a few of his students, and Matt asked me to re-print my first print, since it sold out long ago. Fortunately I still have the blocks. I've never re-printed any of my prints before – it's an interesting thing to do, especially reprinting the first one I ever made.

I decided that I wouldn't do anything to the blocks other than smooth down some of the cleared areas that hadn't been done very well at the workshop. I did, however, need to re-carve the yellow block because I had used it to demonstrate something or other (probably when I was teaching a workshop).

Four of the five blocks (there's a block for green on the back side of one), including a messed up yellow one.

Once I had the new yellow block ready, it was simply a matter of printing them all. I thought about doing the new edition in different colors, but I like the original colors so much that I decided to just keep them.

The old and new yellow blocks.

Here's the print progression:

First I printed yellow.

Next came a blueish green that gets greener on top of the yellow. I don't know how I conceived of this overprinting technique for my first print, and I'm not sure I would do it this way now, but this is how I did it back in 2005. As you can see, the carving is rough, but I didn't "fix" it.
Next a brown block. Here the registration issues become clear. I decided not to try to fix it.
Then some red. Again, I'm interested in how I decided to use the red on top of the brown for the trees. Not sure I'd think of that now, which makes me a little sad. Beginner's mind is kind of awesome.
The final blue layer is totally magic. There's no dog until the blue gets printed. Unfortunately, the same thing happened with this printing as happened the first time: the green "cloud" shapes got lost under the blue, although they're visible in some lighting situations.

A side by side comparison shows all of the typical first-time mistakes that printers make: incomplete coverage, speckling (goma zuri), some ink bleeding (printing too wet), buildup of ink along the edges (too much rice paste), and filling in of small carved spaces (too much water and/or paste). And yet, there's something charming about that 2005 print. I'm glad I didn't correct the registration and carving issues. I'm also glad that I don't generally do reprints!

So now there's a second edition of thirty Year of the Dog prints. They'll be available at McGowan Fine Art, April 26 – May 27, 2016.

15 November 2015

November 2015 Mokuhanga Workshop

Here are a few photos from a mokuhanga workshop I just taught this weekend at Zea Mays Printmaking. Thanks to all nine students for coming and for the great energy and enthusiasm you brought!

Shavings from one student's blocks.
Baren (on a beautiful baren pad), pigments, and a small stencil brush for printing.

We always learn from each other at Show And Tell at the end of the class.
First prints (underneath) were done with 5 plates, but the student decided to simplify and go with just three to make these appealing pink versions.

A nice use of "goma zuri" (speckling) in this background. Another plate with green pine needles was added later.

This complex design took a long time to carve, which unfortunately left little time for printing. This quick proof was all that the student was able to do. We all loved the soft edges of the clouds.

Broad areas of color characterize this abstract design. Even for an experienced moku hanga printer, it's difficult to get coverage this good.

Just a few of many variations that this student made with her four blocks.

A student who is very fluent in linocut did this nice loose carving in wood.
Nice subtle shading on the body of the bird and some loose carving, too.
This monoprint-style work was done by a student who was feeling frustrated with the finicky registration issues that her planned design required. Sometimes deviating from the plan is exactly what's needed.

Another nice use of goma zuri texture.

Zea Mays intern Kristina had some time to print a block she had been working on mokuhanga style.

As we left the studio, the skies showered us with pink and blue applause.

18 October 2015

Editions /Artists' Books Fair, 2015

I love Print Week in NY, and this year I'm excited to be one of eleven artists showing work with Zea Mays Printmaking at the Editions/Artists’ Books (E/AB) Fair, November 5-8. The E/AB Fair is New York’s annual showcase for contemporary art publishers and dealers, presenting prints, multiples and artists’ books. It coincides with its sister fair, the IFPDA’s Print Fair.

I'll be showing my Mixed Feelings prints and Secret Codewords of the NSA. If you're in NY for print week, come see Zea Mays at Booth #B54!