Printmaking and People

Block of 'Spirit' reduction linocut - Jenn White

Block of ‘Spirit’ reduction linocut – Jenn White

With the Casterton Rotary Club taking over the annual art show held during the Kelpie Muster weekend, there were additional categories to enter – not just Kelpies, as gorgeous as they are.  I decided to try my hand at a portrait, in the theme of ‘True Blue’.  Not sure what it is about me that I continually challenge myself, but it is certainly a way to learn.

I chose to do a portrait of an Aboriginal man, for me the epitome of ‘True Blue’. Reference photo at hand, and the basics transferred from sketch to lino block, I dove in. I wanted muted colours that were also reminiscent of the Aussie landscape.  I also wanted a less ‘solid’ effect than I normally do in a reduction print.  It was the essence, the ‘Spirit’ of the man, the People, and the land I yearned to depict…somehow.

Three colours down reduction linocut 'Spirit'

Three colours down reduction linocut ‘Spirit’

Fourth colour down reduction linocut 'Spirit'

Fourth colour down reduction linocut ‘Spirit’

Pulling prints by hand (i.e. without the aid and pressure of an etching press) always entails a degree of mystery.  Questions hurtle through my mind as I work.  Will it turn out the way I want? Will it be acceptable as a print?  Will the blasted ink stick properly to the paper?  Have I used too much medium, added too much white to pale-down the colour?  How much Cobalt drier do I add to hurry the drying process, and not have the ink drying on glass or block?  It’s all part of the process and delving into the joy of creating a print purely by hand.

In Process Reduction Linocut 'Spirit'

In Process Reduction Linocut ‘Spirit’

Printing an edition of only four prints, there is not a lot of leeway for disasters.  Still, I only really needed a single print to enter into the show.  Am I happy with the final result? Yes, but, as always, there are things I would do differently next time, lessons learned, and new questions to which I will puzzle out the answers, during the next printing session. No, it was not chosen as the ‘Best Portrait’, but it was considered as a possibility.  Good enough for me.  Though, maybe I’ll enter a Kelpie next year.  I do like those dogs.

Finished print 'Spirit' - reduction linocut, Jenn White

Finished print ‘Spirit’ – reduction linocut, Jenn White

 

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Expressions in Print

Public Bath, Monotype and Collagraph print, Jenn White

Public Bath, Monotype and Collagraph print, Jenn White

Expressing expressions, on animals or people, in any form of printmaking can be challenging.  Unlike painting, you cannot keep going over it until the desired expressive features emerge.  It is exciting, when it works.  Eager to try something different to enter into the current annual Clarice Beckett Art Award, I decided on a monotype, a method of printing I have tried only a couple of times previously, with mixed results.  Monotypes most often result in a more ‘painterly’ method of print, a softer effect.

There are various techniques employed to produce monotypes.  I chose to place my black and white sketch under a sheet of perspex, as a guide, and paint the image with the printing ink, and then lift off the image by pressing damp paper over the painted ‘block’. Nerves got the better of me – being rather anal at everything I do – and the actual painting took quite some time.  Thus, it was quite dry in places by the time I pulled the print.  Much of the painstaking detail was lost.  However, I liked the effect.

I am working on an idea for an artist’s book and have been collecting pictures of magpies for reference for future, small prints.  I never seem to be quick enough with the camera when ‘the locals’ visit.  Among the collection was a close-up of a maggie, looking quite bemused.  Could I translate that expression by cutting a few marks into a matt board ‘plate’?  Considering the primitive (in my case) technique, I think I captured his expression well enough to make him interesting, and a focus for the foreground of the more indistinct magpies congregating at the Public Bath.  Others who have viewed the print have been heard chuckling.  A bit of fun, and a successful outcome!

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Art and Healing Themes

Mixed media journal page Jenn White

Mixed media journal page, Jenn White

Some years ago, while going through counselling for past traumas that affected my then-current life, I embarked on a type of soul journalling.  Each page differed, depending on what I was struggling with internally.  Mostly, it involved collage and a bit of mixed media, led by instinct rather than design, aesthetics, or correct composition.  Looking back through the journal, wings were a frequent, though subconscious motif, in entries years apart, including the two below left, which are a similar image, one winged figure a painting sketch and the other an altered clipping from a magazine.

If there is such a thing as reincarnation, I hope to come back as a winged creature.  No, not a pesky persistent fly, and not the much-maligned (by me!) European wasp.  The feathered variety would be my wish.  How wonderful to be a Wedge-tailed Eagle, to soar, hover, plunge, and coast on air currents, high up in the blue and white. peach and lavender, gold and gunmetal.  Even so, I would be just as pleased being a diminutive Silvereye, to flit and dart on fast-stutter wings.

Each year, for the Clarice Beckett Art Award, I usually enter a linocut or woodcut print, but it’s also an opportunity to do some painting, which I also very much enjoy.  Due to a different venue, Gorman’s Art Gallery in Casterton, this year, entries per artist were reduced to two. Just as well, or I would still be out in the studio, working.  With renovations, technology hassles and one thing or another, the deadline for entries was upon me, and no new work done. Not to worry, ideas and themes were germinating.  I duly filled out the entry form with two titles, different mediums and prices – piece of cake.  Time to get to work.

A strange chain of ‘synchronistic’ events in the forms of a dream, a remembered dream from long ago, memories, and a resurgence of confused emotions, produced a yen to express the joy and pain this conglomeration of aspects brought about.  The result, two very different works.

 

Teaser alert: As both recent works are up for judging in the next few days, I don’t feel it’s right to ‘publish’ the completed works, just yet.  So, just a sampling of details.

One, featuring magpies, much-loved and frequent visitors to my patch, was a detour from my normal printmaking methods. I decided to try a monotype, a more painterly style of printmaking.  Thinning the printing inks with Linseed oil and turps, I painted the image onto a piece of perspex.  Once complete, I dampened a sheet of printing paper, laid it over the ‘painted’ surface and transferred the image by burnishing. The result was a bit paler and with less definition than I had hoped for.  More moisture needed in the paper next time, as the ink dries faster than anticipated.  Another learning curve, which is all part of the joy of printmaking.

I was pleased with the print, but felt it needed something else, more defined.  Out with the matt board, knife, and shellac, and a collagraph was born, and duly added to the foreground. Much happier. He makes me smile.

Magpie portrait and collagraph block Jenn White

Magpie portrait print and collagraph block, Jenn White

That completed and drying, it was time to embark on the painting.  The original idea involved a young woman and a dove, inspired by a dream, after which I woke to have La Paloma running on repeat through my head.  Since first hearing the tune as a girl, I loved it, though why it cropped up in the dream, I have no idea.  It was, however, apt symbolically.  (The subconscious mind is a curious thing, for which I have great respect.)

During the prep work – considering size, available frame, canvas or board – the theme of wings and flying had been stewing, mixing with memories of past joys and pains, and the recollection of another very significant dream, also bird-related.  By the time I was ready to put paint to board, the image in my head had morphed into something quite different. But, could I do it?  There was only one way to find out.

For me, painting is a more fraught process than printmaking.  Carving a block and printing the resultant image is always an adventure into the unknown.  I am braver, less worried about failure.  With painting, there always comes a point where the Internal Critic rears his shaking head.  His gelled spikes of hair gleam like new razor blades in the spotlight of my self-doubt.  “It’s never going to work,” he sneers.  He wears my father’s smirk so very well.  The Critic’s snide comments used to knock me away from my work. (And, yes, I consider my art my soul’s work.)  Not anymore.  If there’s one thing the traumas of the past have taught me it is that I can be just as bloody-minded as the Critic. I turn up the music in the studio, sing along, loud and joyfully, and carry on.

Not every painting is a ‘masterpiece’, but there is something of me in every painting.  In this most recent work, there is a whole lot of me – hopes, dreams, wishes, heart, and once-shattered soul.  The feeling during its progress was very much like when I write something, fact or fiction that rises from the depths, and in which I know so much is invested, emotionally. Whether others ‘get it’ is unimportant.  What truly matters, is that a level of healing has occurred, through the creating.

Detail of Respite, acrylic, Jenn White

Detail of Respite, acrylic, Jenn White

 

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A Passion for Printing…aka Remember Registration!

First colour of linocut blue dancer

First colour of blue dancer linocut over collagraph

There’s a price to pay for passion, always.  No matter whether it concerns the generalities of life, the love of your life, or printmaking.  Sometimes the price is small compared to the delight resulting from that fervour.  At other times, once the passion burns down from a conflagration to a campfire, it can make us wonder where our head was at, and why the match was lit in the first place.  I had already challenged myself with doing a two-block print.  Enthralled with the collagraph printing process, I’d neglected to consider placement of the linocut.  What about the all-important ‘registration’?  Not only were there, in effect, two prints to get right, but the two printing blocks were of different thickness and size.  How was I to achieve a cohesive and pleasing image?

Printing the pale blue for the dancer was frustrating.  After cutting away lino from where I wanted the light blue visible on the prints, I then had to line up (register) what would be the dark blue detail of the dancer.  Thanks to my initial passion, I had no reference mark in sight.  On the first (trial/test) print it was a disaster, as you can see below.  Just as well the first is always a test piece!

Test print dancer

Test print dancer – trying for registration!

 

Number two in the ‘series’ was better.  From the third onward, I had some reference points from when Registration Reality kicked in.  Even so, there was still the fact that the paper had been dampened to print the collagraph, and had now dried, buckled and contacted slightly.

Perfection was a fantasy.  I tweaked the block and cut away the fine lines along the dancer’s arm, face and torso. Fingers crossed, that registration would not prove quite so critical, I plunged ahead.  Success.

It was never my aim to print an ‘edition’ (see note following).  It was an adventure into making and printing a collagraph, with the hope of getting one good print for a themed art competition.  Considering I have four very different but acceptable prints out of five attempts, I am pleased with the result.  Much of the fine detail, so painstakingly cut, peeled and gouged is not evident in the background.  The crowds of men, women and children in ‘Stony Town’ are lost.  So much for an exceptional collagraph print, without a press. Still, I like the effect, and the blue dancer is the focus, as he should be.  The print I chose as my personal best was the last in the run, number five.  Framed and delivered, it awaits hanging for the opening next Thursday of the John Shaw Neilson Art Prize.  And, I forgot to photograph it before it went under glass. (Three of the finished prints are below.)

Apart from Registration Woes, there was a second price to pay for the passion to print – the books are still waiting to be shelved, and lino chips litter the lounge room carpet… There are times when passion cannot be ignored.

Three versions reduction linocut over collagraph background

Three versions reduction linocut over collagraph background

 A Note on Editions – and prints set apart from the crowd

An edition is a specified number of identical prints – anything from 2 to 500, or however many the printmaker can and wants to produce from the same process and block/s.  For folk who believe that Number One of any edition of prints is the ‘best’, and subsequently numbered prints must be less desirable… Most often, the very first print pulled from a block is not up to scratch.  It is an experiment in ink coverage and viscosity, possible design quirks, ‘wearing in’ the block, and assessment of overall behaviour when block meets inked roller and joins with paper.  These initial prints never make it into the ‘edition’.  Most times, they don’t even end up as Trial Proofs – exactly what it sounds like. Nor are they ‘good’ enough to be Artist’s Proofs (A.P. pencilled on the print instead of an edition number).  These are prints from the same print run, but have minor and noticeable differences, though still pleasing in their own right.  Artist’s Proofs are stand alone prints.  The true Number One is rarely admitted into the edition crowd.  They either remain in the drawer as ‘visual lessons’, or end up as scrap paper.   Another factor to consider is, if the prints are pulled by hand (without a press), try as we might to get each print identical, the edition can have slight variations. making each print uniquely the same.

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Compulsive Collagraph

Collagraph block,prints and sketch

Collagraph block,prints and sketch for linocut

Compulsive, the dictionary tells me, equals irresistible, compelling, enthralling, mesmeric. It describes my current studio time perfectly.  For me, curiosity plays a large part in the compulsion to pull prints.  Although each print evolves from the same plate or block there are always variables, for me, at least – the amount of ink used, the current weather system hovering over my patch, the amount of pressure used to transfer ink to paper (i.e. how tired my arm is from rubbing and burnishing).  It’s all part of the wonder, and wondering how the next print will turn out, if at all.

In the midst of renovating, hundreds of books to re-shelve, benches to build, etc, etc, time has evaporated.  Art deadlines approach, all too rapidly.  I could give the art competitions a miss, but Penola’s annual John Shaw Neilson Art Prize always inspires.  As a lover of poetry since primary school, my poetry books were alreay back on the shelves. John Shaw Neilson’s poems tend to be dark.  There is often death, grief, loss and sadness. But, there is also, usually, a line or two in each of his poems that shine a light into the darkness.  I’ve always enjoyed research (insatiable curiosity, again) and reading JSN’s poetry is no different.  Which poem holds a spark that beckons the Muse and fires my imagination?  Which line or two translates in my mind into an image I can work with?

Having chosen my poem, the next dilemma was how to convert the imagined image into something I could put on paper – in a hurry!  It’s all well and good having a deadline, and putting myself under pressure to ‘produce’, but there is also the issue of personal integrity, and the need to do a good job, in my eyes, if not the judge’s or viewing public. If there is no satisfaction in either the process or end result, why bother?  I might as well build shelves that I can benefit from.

Never one to make it easy on myself, although that may initially be the aim, I decided on a collagraph.  What’s a collagraph?  It’s a printing plate/block formed with collaged elements and/or scratching, peeling and cutting marks into a substrate.  I’d done a couple of small ones, years ago, and the process intrigued me.  One hitch – no etching press. Working small I could print with the book press, but this print needed to be larger, as it was in my head.

Mat board, knives, Dremel, sawdust, glue and Shellac assembled, I set to work.  The next dilemma: the main feature of the image was to be a spunky male ballet dancer, against a ‘busy’ background.  Did I cut him from heavy paper and glue him onto the mat board? Work him as a separate collagraph?  What?  How?  Nope…for him, a reduction linocut, making the project a two-block print.  Right.  Laughing out loud. So much for making it easy on myself, but the Muse would not be denied.

I had read about Viscosity Printing, another method that intrigued.  It was a way of combining two methods of printing – Intaglio (printing the drawn ink from within grooves and cuts) with Relief (printing the flat surfaces).  More research. What a boon is YouTube, and the brave souls that put themselves in front of the masses.  However, not a lot on printing without an etching press.  It was time to experiment.

Laughing again, thinking I should have filmed myself beating the dampened receiving paper between block and blankets with a rubber mallet.  Success marginal, but interesting.

I entered the Zone.  The moonlight through the studio window, saying it was past my bedtime, and me yet to eat – me compulsive? – I had a ‘series’ of the background prints, pulled from the collagraph, each very different.  Time now to start on the reduction linocut of the ballet spunk, puzzle out how to get the damn thing registered (lined up correctly), and see which finished print appeals the most.

Linocut begun

Linocut begun

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Promises Unkept

Nature's Promise - linocut reduction

Nature’s Promise – linocut reduction

How many of us have made promises that, no matter how hard we tried, and often through no fault of our own, could not keep?  Twice married and divorced, I know the feelings of guilt, remorse and failure all too well.  Many promises to myself, for one reason or another, remain dishonoured.  Circumstances change.  Other events step in, side-tracking or blocking.  It’s part of life.

When I moved here, more than five years ago, I promised myself I would have a bountiful and thriving vegetable garden, and increase the fruit trees in the ‘orchard’ from three apricots, one nectarine and one almond.  The lemon tree, always a battler in its previous home, was carefully dug up, and came with me.  Its battle continues and I am yet to harvest a single lemon, in what is nearing a decade.  For one who believes in the health benefits of lemon juice, hot water and honey, first thing in the morning to get my system up and running, the lack of my own produce rankles.  Still, all I can do is persist, and wait and see if the current meagre batch of small, green lemons hang in there.  Or, as previously, fall as babies from the cradle of leaves to the ground.

With fond memories of sitting beside my grandmother in her suburban backyard, while we shared slices of fresh-picked Jonathans – sans sections containing codling moth – I really wanted an apple tree, or two.  The first winter I was here, I planted a Jonathan and a Granny Smith.  The Jonathan seemed doomed from the start.  It never really established and after the first summer looked woeful.  The pear and peach trees planted at the same time were faring marginally better.  The only tree with a good tolerance for the whims of nature, and different-from-the-pot soil was the Granny Smith.

That first year came the cricket plague.  I can chuckle, now.  At the time, watching the black tide sweep across my precious, so-longed-for two acres, I was beside myself. Overnight they ring-barked the peach, almond and nectarine (well-established) and made inroads on the pear and Jonathan apple trees.  None survived.  Too late, that year, I discovered the joys of molasses solution, left in receptacles around the yard – fatal lures for black crickets.

In subsequent years, when the crickets arrived (marked on the calendar!) I was prepared.  Visiting ibis also had me cheering as they ate their share.  I planted a mandarin and cherry tree, and had replaced Jonathan, in a different location.  Three years on, I look at Jonnie and figure maybe my great-grandchildren could sit under him, long after I’m gone.

Meanwhile, Granny Smith survived.  In her third season, a small cluster of heavy and healthy green apples boomeranged the slim trunk to the ground.  I relished two of the apples.  Marauding parrots enjoyed the other three.

There is something about well-meaning friends who do not listen to a plea from the heart.  “I’ll whipper-snip for you,” he offered.  “Wonderful,” I replied.  “But please leave the areas around the young trees, especially in the orchard.  I’ll weed those by hand.”

I’m really not sure what urged me to check on Granny Smith, but I’m certain my outrage was heard all over the district.  Not only completely ring-barked in a three-finger width, she also bore nicks and scrapes the entire length of her svelte trunk.  A dash into town to the local nursery elicited the assurance that Granny Smith was beyond saving. Home again, I fired up Mr Google.  There had to be something I could do, and quickly, before the sun finished what my ‘friend’ had initiated – the death of Granny.

I was always under the impression that the roots fed the tree.  But, without natural sugars returning down the trunk from the leaves, there is no health or growth.  It’s all about balance, Mother Nature’s aim.  A sharp knife to tidy the wound, honey, damp sphagnum moss and plastic wrap on hand, I set to, tending and bandaging the critical injury.

Over the ensuing days and weeks, I checked (obsessively), watered, and pleaded with Granny to fight for her life.  The delight and satisfaction of seeing new leaves budding was fantastic.  She was not only surviving, but actually growing!

The cockatoos arrived with the summer.  I do love those raucous birds.  Though my ardour cooled a tad when one of them snipped off Granny’s crown and discarded the leafy stalk to wither and die.  Ever tenacious, she put out a new branch, no more than a twig.  I rejoiced to see buds and leaves appear, followed by a single bunch of blossom.

Then came the deluge, and river frontage for a day.  Granny’s blossom endured torrential rain and gale-force winds.  Oblivious to a fence broken by a fallen tree, snapped like a matchstick, I sat in a Ballarat waiting room.  A text message asked if the cows were supposed to be in my property.  No.

In my absence, friends and the owner of the small herd remedied the situation.  Home after dark, I was out at first light the following morning, assessing the damage.  Walking the boggy ground, I took care not to twist an ankle.  The entire block was polka-dotted with deep hoof holes.  The bovines had sampled, munched, pruned and bulldozed.  They had walked up and down the steps, dislodging pavers with their weight, and checked out the bungalow (door closed, thank goodness).  I checked on Granny.  The promise of apples was forfeit.  No petal remained.  In my mind, I saw the cow’s massive tongue, licking off the delicate blossom.

This year, struggling with my own health, I was unprepared for the crickets, molasses buckets empty.  Granny Smith has finally succumbed, her bandage tattered, trunk flayed. I will leave the stick, all she is, in place during the coming winter, but hold no real hope for her resurrection.  Cherry, another stick, stands nearby.

The image accompanying this post is a memorial to a tough lady who bore too many hard knocks.

Notes on the Print and Process

Like Granny’s fight for survival, the printmaking process was fraught with hitches, and glitches.  It mystifies me why the Caligo Safe Wash ink takes far longer to dry than the Graphic oil-based variety.  Changes in the weather and humidity no doubt did not help. Even when we cannot see it, paper absorbs moisture.  I think those same conditions, while the prints were drying between colours, contributed to the registration being out a smidgen (lining up of one colour over another, critical with reduction printing).  It is noticeable more on two out of the four prints.

Dissatisfied with the background, after the stem and blossom were complete, I decided I needed ‘texture’ and shadow.  I used a piece of hand-cut foam ‘lattice’, glued to a rolling pin, in one pass, and sponged on some darkness in a final pass.

Due to the last two techniques of applying ink, the print is part of a variable edition (V E) – all from the same block and run, but all varying slightly, making each one an ‘original’ original hand-pulled print.

The photo is a bit ‘iffy’ as the ink was still drying.

 

 

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A Bit of Light Relief – Printing, that is

Star of the Show - Reduction Lino print - Jenn White

Star of the Show – Reduction Lino print – Jenn White

For the past seven years, I’ve participated in international print exchanges.  Exchanging work with other printmakers has many benefits – it’s a way to feel connected to like-minded folk, an opportunity to appreciate, up close and in my hand, the work of others, their styles and techniques, and an interesting history lesson, looking back at my own growth and progress as a printmaker.  It’s also a lot of fun, being challenged when there’s a theme involved.   The current exchange, with members of the ssnw/swns print exchange (a group that conducts two exchanges per year, at the time of the solstices – Northern and Southern Hemisphere) has the theme of ‘circus’.

After an intense two years, it was a bit of light relief (pun intended) to do a lighthearted print.  There were challenges, of course, but that’s part of the appeal for me.  Combine working in a relatively small size (14 x 19 cm paper), wanting colour but not hand-colouring, getting carried away with detail in the initial sketch (and modifying where necessary), and the application of 11 colours for an edition of 18 prints minimum, and there was more than a bit of head-scratching during the process.

Reduction printing is not called the suicide method for nothing.  At one point I ‘lost’ the smidgen of lino that formed one of Star’s eyes. Too heavy-handed with cleaning the block. Oh, panic!  I could not have a half-blind acrobat.  Ever tried looking for a single chip of lino in a sea of lino chips, on work table and floor?  Fudge.  Thank the Goddess for Mister Google.  Some kind printmaker called ‘Rich’ at Boarding All Rows had posted tips on How to Deal with Linocut Mistakes.  Thank you, thank you.  Okay… Superglue and a modified chip of lino. Needless to say the cap was securely glued to the tube, but a pinhole sufficed, and needle-nose pliers aided in the positioning of the new lost-found, lost-found chip. Once more my acrobat had 20-20 vision…woohoo…and the Superglue on my arm would eventually wear off.

Normally, I use a fairly heavy weight paper for reduction printing, mostly but not always for easier registration (lining up paper with block).  This time, I wanted to try out a thinner Japanese rice paper Gyokuryu.  Possibly not a good move, as the more I cut away the block the less it adhered to the ink, and once pulled, the prints wanted to roll themselves into cylinders.  Yeah, right.  Another lesson.

Having done what I thought was the last colour, the dark blue, I pondered.  I wanted the Star in the spotlight.  Going against the ‘rule’ of working from light colours to dark, which I’d already broken previously during the process, I opted for adding a white (with a hint of blue, not that you’d notice) outline and suggestion of spotlight. Another challenge.

Star of the Show - Reduction Lino print and block - Jenn White

Star of the Show – Reduction Lino print and reduced block – Jenn White

The print is not exactly as I envisioned, but it puts a smile on my dial, always a bonus, and I ended up with 22 usable prints out of 26.  Not a bad result. Can’t wait to receive the exchange prints to see what others have done.

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