Birds on the Wing – Combining Linocuts with mini books


20190316_081930No, I haven’t dropped off the planet, though with all that’s been on my to-do list, lately, there have been times when I’ve wished for wings to enable lift off.  I’ve considered investigating cloning options, but doubt the world would cope with two of me.  So, what has stretched my time to the outer limits?  Keeping the garden alive during a long, dry summer (and no decent rain, yet), community involvement, spending special time with my four-footed best mate who is in his twilight years and unwell, revamping the studio, and assisting with a friend’s writing project, the fascinating life story of a strong woman, which we hope to complete before the elderly subject herself is history.

For as long as I can remember, two creative passions have vied for attention – writing and art.  There is often a battle of the muses.  Both nags, Epistolaria sits on one shoulder, whispering hot-breathed, alliterative plot ideas (she thinks they will stick better in that form), and when ignored resorts to metaphors in rhyme, or dirty ditties.  Not to be outdone, on the other shoulder, Caprice tweaks my nape hairs, whooping and firing images into my brain at Ack-Ack speed, complete with technique diagrams.


To shut them both up, at least temporarily, and to incorporate my passion for wildlife, I’ve been working on these little books with wings.  I love the Superb Fairy Wrens that visit my patch.  They make me smile.  They flit and flirt, amidst the twigs and dirt (thank you Epistolaria!) and generally bring joy to my day.

The basis of the ‘book’ is a linocut, hand printed, cut out, re-printed on the reverse, hand coloured and folded.  The mini text block tells a little about these little blue birds of joy.  Constructed from a single, half A5 sheet, printed on my Canon, folded, cut and hand stitched into a ‘cover’ that serves as end papers, it is inserted between the body of the wren. Assembled with the inclusion of jewellery findings, as ‘eyelets’, ribbon holds the book closed and provides a hanging loop.

Many hours later, I have a small flock, and large dollop of happiness.  Yes, I know, Caprice, the display hanging system needs work, and there’s the new flock  of Red-capped Robins to finish, and then there’s…


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Birds in Print and in the Studio

Into The Blue - Lino Reduction - Jenn White

Into The Blue – Lino Reduction

I’ve always had an affinity with birds, perhaps because I’ve always wanted to fly, physically, not just metaphorically.  Some years ago, as a wildlife carer for WRES – Statewide Wildlife Rescue Emergency Service, based in Bendigo, I came to be known as the Bird Lady of Maldon.  Perhaps having wild ‘bird’s nest’ hair had as much to do with the moniker as the birds that came to me for rehab and release.  I’ve never been able to whistle, and as a kid was the joke of the family in my attempts, so I talk to them, as the friends they are.

A Grey Shrike-thrush is a regular visitor to my patch and over the past year or so has become increasingly sociable.  He started off hanging around for a morsel or two when I fed the chooks – no matter what time, he seemed to know.  Now, the minute he hears stirring within the house, he greets me with a call, wanders into the back part of the cottage, and inspires me to the clean the bath by leaving his ‘calling card’.  Finn, my Wolfie cross, old and content, gives the bird a not-you-again glance and goes back to sleep.  He knows any winged visitor is welcome at our place, and not fair game, but he will and does see off the visiting foxes.

While doing the penguin print (above), I was constantly visited by the shrike-thrush, coming into the studio, treated to his comments, and shown with pride the sticks he deposited on top of the bookshelf.  So far, he’s pooped on the mirror, but has shown great respect for my work.  Pleased about that.  And very pleased to have his company.

With a passion for wildlife, of any description, I suppose it’s natural that critters feature strongly in my printmaking.  Although penguins don’t truly fly, they certainly appear to do just that through their underwater environment. Using a combination of reference photos I’ve endeavoured to make my little penguin ‘fly’.  The print is a seven layer reduction print (cutting away areas from the block already printed and over-printing with the next colour).  I’m not into doing large editions – too many prints in my head wanting to appear on paper – and out of 8 prints I ended up with an edition of 6, not a bad result for hand-printing and a sometimes dodgy registration system.

Into the Blue is destined next week for an art show in Millicent, South Australia, along with another avian print of an unexpected visitor to my patch that brought wonder and delight. Coming up from the wood shed, just on dusk, I spotted a male Gang Gang cockatoo sitting on the railing of the deck.  It was the first time I had seen one of these amazing birds and I was awestruck.  Such amazing and vibrant head-wear, which was about all I could make out in the fading light.

For this linocut I wanted the red ‘headdress’ to stand out.  This gave me a challenge, as I was concerned that if I did the whole image as a ‘reduction’ print, I would lose some if not all of the fine lines – my registration method is often imprecise!  So, I printed the image in black and then proceeded with reduction cutting and printing for the bird’s head – an overlay of white ink first and then three shades of red. This one was an edition of 24, 18 of which were for on-line print exchange, most of which are headed overseas.

The Visitor - Linocut - Jenn White

The Visitor – Linocut


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Printing for a Cause

'Endurance' linocut reduction framed - Jenn White

‘Endurance’ linocut reduction framed

There are times when inspiration strikes through unexpected means.  Via a friend on Facebook I came to learn of the plight and struggle of a teenage lad.  At seventeen, his entire life has been one continuous battle for survival.  There was to be a fundraiser event, to help the family with ongoing medical costs, and to allow their son, Josh, a chance of crossing off perhaps a few items from his bucket list, before it became impossible.  There was a call put out for auction donations.  I duly contacted Josh’s mum to discover his passions – animals being one, cats his favourite.  What about big cats?  Yes!

I duly researched, wanting to  portray a ‘kitty’ that resonated with Josh’s plight, but was also hopeful.  The Clouded Leopard was a big cat I had not previously known about.  It’s a rare breed, seldom seen in the wild and maintains a tenuous grip on survival, its beautifully marked pelt in demand on the commercial market.  Sad.

It was with the dual passions – for wanting to help Josh in some small way, and giving a visual voice to the Clouded Leopard – that I began what was to consume weeks of studio time.


It was an exercise in Alzheimer’s prevention in getting my head around the order of colours.  And, as it was done completely by hand (without a printing press) with always the chance of registration issues (lining up the inked block perfectly to retain the fine lines of the whiskers), there were quite a few fraught moments and a lot of head-scratching.  The nose and eyes were done separately and the last colours to be applied before the final layer of black.

I’m always fascinated by the way a reduction print takes on form and nuance.  There is always an element of mystery, which I enjoy.  And, always a certain stage where I think “it’s never going to work”, which I don’t enjoy.  But, I never give up.  In this case I am pleased with the finished print, even though the whiskers on a couple are fainter than I would like (those registration issues!).  There were also issues with the type of paper I chose, which has embedded ‘lines’ within its structure.  The build up of ink rectified them only to a degree.  The paper also wanted to catch and crease at times during the hand burnishing.  Always learning…

'Endurance' final layer reduction linocut - Jenn White

‘Endurance’ final layer reduction linocut

The print completed, dried and framed, I express mailed it to Melbourne in time for the auction.  Australia Post tracking informed me it arrived and was ‘left in a safe place’.  Through layers of foam, bubble wrap and cardboard, was the glass intact?  Did it sell?  How much did it bring?  Who bought it?  Did he/she keep it or gift it to someone else?  Sorry, I can’t answer those questions and will have to remain curious about where this particular Clouded Leopard called ‘Endurance’ ended up.  Perhaps I’ll know where the other two prints go.

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Celebrating the Brown Birds

Safe - Development Arrested - two-block Linocut - Jenn White

Safe – Development Arrested – two-block Linocut – Jenn White

Imagine you’re a bird, flying 8,000 kilometres, only to find when you get there, that your home no longer exists, built on by humans.  As a keen ‘greenie’, and proud of it, I am increasingly frustrated by human doings that threaten our wildlife and their habitats.  I also love birds and envy their ability to fly.  Australia shares some of its birds with other continents.  The Latham’s Snipe (the Japanese Snipe), a migratory shorebird is one of the species that travels from Japan to southern Australia along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway.  They spend their non-breeding season on our shores. Being a medium-sized predominantly brown bird, they don’t often attract a lot of attention.

In both Japan and here, they are vulnerable because of loss of habitat (particularly wetlands).  Loss of swamps and paddocks for feeding, meadowlands for breeding (in Japan), particularly on private land, and development in rural and urban areas which deplete habitat or where human encroachment makes their habitats unusable.

A call for printmakers to contribute to The Overwintering Project, to ‘map’ the migratory shorebirds that fly so far to rest, gather strength, and return to distant places piqued my interest.  Port Fairy, here in Victoria, is the part-time home of the Latham’s Snipe.  Four years ago, a legal battle ensured the birds’ habitat at the Powling Street Wetlands was maintained, with permission for new housing reduced to an ‘acceptable’ amount.  Homes for humans and home for the Snipes – a beneficial result, all round.

If not for that decision, would there have been a new interactive centre erected to honour these brown birds, their strength and endurance?  Somewhere for children to view specimens and pictures?  How much better, for all, if balance is maintained and the birds can be seen alive and free in their habitat.  This was the theme for my print.

Development of the Print

Two lino blocks to make one print

Two lino blocks to make one print

I was aiming for a juxtaposition to depict the alternate futures for the birds.  This in mind, I ended up with a two-block print.  The main block containing the birds, and representing the housing development that was arrested due to caring intervention, is a reduction print of twelve layers.  The second block, depicting the alternate future, fortunately prevented, used only one colour.  The logistics took a bit to work out for registration and colour order. It was a long process!

Safe - Development Arrested - two-block Linocut - Jenn White

Safe – Development Arrested – two-block Linocut – Jenn White

After completing the ‘birds’ block, I then inked up and printed the ‘blank’ lower section of the block with a fawn colour, and overprinted with the ‘kids’ block in black.

As always, I can now see what’s lacking.  In this case, more contrast in the grass colours.  But, hey, once the lino is cut away, there is no going back.

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Paint or Print, a Quandary

Step into my Glade - acrylic - Jenn White

Step into my Glade

There’s a freedom in painting, working with acrylics, that is not present when I embark on a new print, particularly when starting a new reduction print.  As passionate as I am about printmaking, there are times I yearn for that freedom, and faster results.

For a recent art show, I decided to paint a picture for the pleasure of the medium, the quickness (compared to printing) and the challenge of creating a portrait, albeit of a myth that has long held appeal, and the simple joy of creating something from nothing.  Pan, the mischievous forest god gets a bad rap from many, equated to the Christian ‘devil’.  He’s the untamed tempter, sometimes trickster, represents raw instinct with a penchant for seduction, but I see no ‘bad’ in him.  Elements of Pan reside in us all.

While working on Pan I received some strange looks from my canine housemate, no doubt wondering what inspired my chuckles and laughter.  There is always a degree of fascination, watching a piece of artwork come to ‘life’.  It’s as if there are two of me – one who is the creator, the pedant with O.C.D. tendencies, wanting to be the best I can, and another, the observer, delighting in the mystery of how something (or someone) comes into being with either paint or ink.

My Pan may not appeal to everyone, but he puts a smile on my dial.  Completed over two days, he emerged far quicker than did the small linocut portrait of a hawk, again done for the love of it.

Hawk in progress, linocut reduction

Hawk in progress, linocut reduction

Carried away with the bird, I neglected to plan the progressive colour sequence.  In a coloured print, the general rule is to work from light to dark.  Duh… I ended up with a solid colour of brown for the background, where I wanted a much paler blue as the sky.  With the greys of the beak still to go, I inked up for the palest grey, crossed my fingers for good coverage, and went for it.  More or less satisfied, I was still uncertain how the graduated blue would cover, wiped off ink from the bird where I judged the black would over-print, and again went for it.  With a rudimentary registration system (for lining up of subsequent printing), I was thrilled when it worked.

Hawk, linocut and registration system, Jenn White

Hawk, linocut and registration system

Hawk final print, linocut reduction, Jenn White

Hawk final print

For a small print, only 8.5 x 10 cm, the hawk portrait took a week to complete, including cutting, inking and drying time.  There is satisfaction in overcoming obstacles, and the finished print, but none of the delight inspired by a myth.  Maybe I should try a myth in linocut.


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An Illuminating Woodcut

Medieval woodcut - Jenn White

Medieval woodcut

This time of year is busy with art shows and awards, among which is the annual John Shaw Neilson Art Prize. As part of the Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival, the award celebrates the life and poetry of Neilson, born in Penola, South Australia in 1872, and visual art entries must be inspired by one of his poems.  I was tossing up between a couple of ideas, knew I should probably go with a more ‘commercial’ and overall appealing image – with little hope of winning the $10,000, my work might at least sell.  The Muse can be perverse, and determined.  She nagged in my ear while clinging like a limpet and I gave in, choosing what called to my heart and spirit.

The poem that had me in a lather…

The Stolen Lament

It has the seal of sorrow; it was born
In lamentation where sweet women died
And the red smoke came out upon the corn.

Leave it in pity—it is sealed of woe—
Lest you should hear the hisses of the Dead
Of Ireland seven hundred years ago.

Beauty of light is on it, scent of dew
That once in Heaven was, the bud that came
On trees of happiness that never grew.

Beauty it has that never came by words,
The lordly evidence of Summer-time,
And the deep adoration of the birds.

It has been lifted on rebellion’s red.
But listening in the calm we know that night
Is but a generous playtime for the Dead.

* * * * *
Its wealth of tears is not for you to know,
Lest you should hear the hisses of the Dead
Of Ireland seven hundred years ago.

The poet had me at the first verse, and again in the last – to be honest, Neilson had me at the title, lament bringing the image of a fingers on harp strings, as well as plucking at heart strings.  My maternal great-grandmother was Irish.  What had happened in her birth country 700 years ago?  Had a bard played the lament on a harp while telling of those sorrowful events?  All that time ago, had the story been shared, scripted and illustrated on the pages of an illuminated manuscript?  Or was the shame of war and slaughter swept under the rush matting, as the poet intimated?

Medieval woodcut block, roughed out with coloured pencils - Jenn White

Medieval woodcut block, roughed out with coloured pencils

Fully aware I was being ambitious and throwing down the gauntlet to my creative self, I quickly realised I would never get the print done in time.  It was for me a large block (51 h x 40 w), would be produced without a press, detailed, a reduction print, and drying time between layers of colour was an issue.  But, once started and a good section of the work table taken up by my makeshift registration system (to ensure lining up of repeating layers) I entered another print, dry and framed, to go with another poem, and kept on going.

Registration system for medieval wood block - Jenn White

Registration system for medieval wood block


Once the Muse starts tugging on my sleeve, it’s rarely a simple process to get from go to whoa.  I spent hours researching what happened in Ireland seven centuries ago to inspire the poem.  Because it was ‘sweet women’ who died, I wanted a female harper, telling the story.  What did burning corn look like?  I scanned numerous resources of illuminated manuscript pages (hard-copy and digital) for small vignettes depicting those times, decorative and days-in-the-life-of.  I also scanned life-drawing resource sites for women ‘playing dead’.  I’ve always loved being immersed in research, but I can also get carried away!  Of all the references gathered, only a handful were actually used.

The end result is not what I envisioned, not completely.  I’m yet to discover why some blocks are a pain in the bum to print from, the ink coverage on the paper patchy and generally scant.  Some sections of the block refused to print clearly, no matter how hard I tried.  Is it the build-up of Shellac, applied after each new layer is cut?  Is it the choice of paper, lack of viscosity in the ink, the non-consistent texture of the builders’ plywood?  Or merely the result of not enough pressure using only arthritic hands and a metal spoon?  Or, perhaps a combination of several or all components?

Whatever… Despite the finished print losing quite a bit between my mind and the paper, I’m pleased I did it, and pleased with the result.  In a moment of whimsy, I thought the ‘patchiness’ could represent the story fading into oblivion…or, emerging.  From five prints only two are usable, and they are different – unique states, as yet untitled.  That’s the way it goes, some days (weeks) in the studio.

Medieval woodcut two versions - Jenn White

Untitled medieval woodcut two versions

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Changing Times in Print

The Goblin and the Woman Puppet Show - linocut, Jenn White

The Goblin and the Woman Puppet Show – linocut

Signing up for a Monthly Linocut Challenge seemed like a good idea, though when I saw the ‘brief’ for March I wasn’t so sure.  The basic theme was Fairy Tale characters, which was fine as far as it went.  It was the ‘on Popsicle (icy pole) sticks’ specification that put me off.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy cut-and-paste, but I have to be in the mood.  I spent most of the month thinking I would wait for April’s challenge, but the puppet aspect niggled.  The Muse was jigging up and down. She’s always loved puppets, but icy poles she can take or leave, now the weather is cooler.

The only puppet show I remember taking part in was at Primary school.  We were tasked with making a hand puppet.  The head was to be Papiermâché mounted on a piece of dowel, with a sewn body like a hand puppet.  I remember Miss Fothergill very well – the puppet’s name, not the teacher’s.  She was rather school marm-ish, with woollen hair coifed in a bun arrangement, red lips and stern face.  She was named for an unfortunate young girl (nothing alike in appearance), a classmate of my younger brother’s.  I wonder what sort of personality complications the poor child ended up with, being constantly avoided as a desk-mate, because she ‘smelled bad’.  She also seemed to often be in trouble, the teacher admonishing ‘Miss Fothergill’ on an almost daily basis, according to dinnertime conversation.  I don’t know that I ever actually knew the poor kid’s given name, but her family name stuck in my mind.  Repetition will do that.  Miss Fothergill – the puppet, not the girl – ended up falling apart, no doubt due to moisture absorption.

As a result of the Muse’s relentless nagging I decided to tackle the challenge, just to shut her up, but with my own take on the puppets.  I had as much fun doing the linocut as I remember having when making Miss Fothergill.  The print seems be part of a developing personal theme – kids in times gone by.  Most of my grandchildren, especially the older ones, probably wouldn’t be inspired to either make puppets or put on their own puppet show.  A pity, as I’d be vying for the best seat in the house, front row on the floor.


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