Always a Story to a Print

Dual Purpose - linocut - Jenn White

Dual Purpose – linocut, 10 X 10 cm

In answer to a recent call for printmakers to submit small black and white works on the theme of ‘Gender Equality’, and what it meant for each of us, I stewed about a subject. Despite feminism and changing attitudes, inequality still exists in so many areas of life and society.  Yes, I could do something on domestic violence, something with which I’ve had familial dealings.  Or perhaps any number of other serious and disturbing issues.  I chose instead a bit of light ‘relief’ (pun intended).  As a sole parent for many years, I strove not only to be a good mother and earner, but also a stand-in father between access weekends when my two kids visited their other home.

Thinking back, I’ve rarely been afraid to tackle what is generally considered ‘man’s’ work.  In the late sixties, in my fourth year of secondary school, I rebelled against the ‘girlie’ subjects of typing and General Business Education.  Then, they bored me senseless and no way did I want to work in an office at a desk.  Now, after the directions my working life has taken, including sitting at numerous desks in various offices, perhaps those subjects could have been beneficial.  But, I’ve always gotten by.  Besides, how much more interesting, and fun it was to do sheet metal with the boys.

To give him his due, my father took my side when I was keen to do something more creative than use all my fingers to type – which I still can’t do.  He was also a bit of a rebel in his own right.  Having worked for years as a sewing machine mechanic in the rag trade during the fifties, he and not my mother was the sewer in the family, apart from me. It was Dad who sewed the uniforms for the marching girls team of which I was a member.

Thanks to my father’s backing, and my persistence, I was the first girl in a Victorian school permitted to do a traditionally boy’s subject.  After that year, I transferred to a different school with a more dedicated art stream, but I set a precedent.  Subsequent years saw girls doing wood- and metal-work, and boys cooking and sewing at Glenroy Tech.  The trend flowed onto other schools.  And, why not.

I’ve not done any welding since that year at school, but I’ve turned my hand to a lot of other ‘male’ tasks, mostly through necessity.  I’ve done my share in fitting out a log cabin, walls, tiling, and floor sanding included.  For years, I tented-it with two young kids and a large dog at various camping spots around the countryside, dug and unblocked drains, mended pipes, laid bricks, cut glass (sometimes successfully!) and puttied windows.  I’ve serviced my own cars (pre-computers), can wield a hammer (without choking it), can saw a straight line without the benefit of electricity, hefted wood splitters, pulled down and put up walls, laid floors from the stumps up, converted two garages into studios, put up shelves that are fairly level (!) and am now onto more renovations.  Things may not always be perfect, and might take longer than if a ‘man’ did them (though, not always!) but they do eventually get done.

Jenn, The Brickie (ravishing as usual)

Jenn, The Brickie (ravishing as usual)

Some first-time tasks would not have been possible without the willing and patient instruction from experienced ‘male’ friends and family.  To them, I say a heartfelt thank you!  Rarely have I been told, “You’re a girl, you can’t do that.”  To those who have dared utter those words, I’ve shown them that I can at least have a go.  I’m not great on ladders and I do draw the line at circular saws and chainsaws – I know myself well enough – but give me a jigsaw and electric drill and I’m off and doing.

There are certainly times when it is nice to receive a compliment as a ‘girl in a frock’, hair in some sort of  order, and a touch of make up.  But, it is just as rewarding to look at the laminated shelves in the pantry, cut by hand and put up with a struggle, by me, a ‘girl’.  And, it is equally wonderful to have a gentleman open a door for me, or enjoy a delicious meal, cooked for my benefit by a fella.

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All in Hand – Reduction Linocut

Possum linocut block - Jenn White

Possum block, two cuts, and new ‘Baren’

As a sole parent for so many years, when the kids were growing up and money was scarce, necessity often inspired lateral thinking.  It has stuck with me.  Walking through Mitre10 last week, I paused at the ‘chuck out’ table and spotted a door handle.  I don’t need it for it’s original purpose, but hefting it in my hand I realised how weighty it was, and perhaps could be put to a different use.  For a single dollar, it was worth the gamble.

I don’t mind getting old and ‘crinkly’ (as my then-young granddaughter once put it), but the side-effects drive me nuts.  Yes, I am grateful for my hands, scars, lumps and bumps included, but the aches, pains and increasing lack of flexibility from arthritis, some days, make me want to scream.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve fished my morning tablet out of the bog’s water bowl.  Anyway, as a printmaker doing everything by hand, without a press, the constant and repetitive gripping and burnishing to transfer ink to paper is becoming difficult.  Having not long ago discovered my passion for printmaking, there’s an urgency to produce prints, while I’m able.  There’s a lot I want to ‘say’.

With the ho-hum result of the collagraph prints drying on the table, I set to on a new lino block.  Same subject, different reference photo, to fool myself I was doing something ‘new’ (life is short…) and embarked on cutting, inking and burnishing with the newly purchased baren – the doorknob.

Weighing in at 400 grams (almost 1 lb) it’s a dream for gagging Arthur Itis (such a whinger!).  Being so heavy for a small object, it does most of the work, instead of me having to continually exert pressure in burnishing the back of the paper.  For larger projects, I’m now on the lookout for an iron doorknob from a chateau door – I’m happy to remove the rust.

I’ve also taken on-board advice, tips and suggestions, on achieving more consistency in ink coverage and editions, from the Linocut Friends Facebook group.  Thank the Goddess for artists whose egos don’t get in the way of helping others.

After the frustration of the collagraph possum (previous post), I’m feeling much enthused on familiar ground with a reduction linocut.  Yes, it’s early days, yet, and only two colours printed, but it’s going  okay.

Reduction linocut in progress - Jenn White

In progress – reduction linocut, first two colours on Zerkall paper, oil-based inks.

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The Collagraph Puzzle

A welter of possums from a jigsaw collagraph block

A welter of possums from a jigsaw collagraph block

I’m often told persistence pays off, and I can be extremely persistent, but in this case, I give up.  The aim was to print an edition of ten little collagraph prints, but after two printing sessions, I’ve ended up with not even a ‘variable’ edition but rather a variegated edition.  Some days are like that, especially in the studio, though never have I before reached this level of frustration.

I started with the bright idea of a jigsaw collagraph.  Nothing wrong with that, except…

The cardboard I chose to use worked only to a degree.  It was too flimsy to be continually fiddled with while placing the ‘jigsaw’ pieces together.  Next time, I will choose something sturdier than a teabag box!  I chose the jigsaw block to enable easier printing of different colours.  Yeah, right.  The itty bits (the whole block just over 4 inches square) were a pain in the bum to roll ink onto – kept sticking to the ink and rolling with the brayer.  Then there was the challenge of fitting them together, now more curved than flat, and inserting them into the surrounding ‘keeper’ frame while wet with ink.

Possum jigsaw collagraph block - Jenn White

The small (12 x 12 cm, so larger than life) jigsaw collagraph block

I decided to use Somerset Velvet paper, of which I had plenty of off-cuts to utilise from an edition of larger prints.  It’s a nice thick, soft paper and I figured it would work well for a collagraph print, especially dampened, when using the book press.  The first batch of paper I soaked in a dish, sheet by sheet while I inked the fiddly block, section by section. Some pieces of paper were not damp enough – depending on how long it took to ink the itty bits and peel them off the brayer, and often having to re-ink.  Other sheets of paper were, to say the least, odd, in the way they absorbed the water.  Several ended up half the sheet saturated to almost transparency. There was a definite demarcation line, as if the paper had been half in and half out of the water for days, instead of fully submerged for a matter of minutes.  Yep, odd.

The result was some possums having very dark heads, and others with very dark bottoms, as you can see in the photo, depending on which way I laid the wettest section of paper.  So much for that printing session.

After trawling through both the collagraph and Linocut Friends Facebook pages, and consulting the oracle, Mr Google, I decided to have a second attempt with a different paper-dampening method.  I dipped every second sheet of paper, layered wet and dry sheets in a stack, sealed them into a zip-lock bag, and left them overnight, to allow the moisture to wick evenly – I hoped – through the stack.

Back to the studio bright, early, and hopeful, the next day, I began again with rolling and inking the itty bits.  The result?  Major frustration at the inconsistency of the so-called edition.  Naturally, the print is for an exchange, with a speeding-towards-me deadline. So, what to do?  A reduction linocut, of course – now in progress!

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Playtime with Collagraph

There are times, despite the length of the never-ending to-do list and whatever level of chaos in cottage or studio, art calls, persistent and loud.  Some time ago I had drawn up this little guy on a lino block, but that was as far as I got.  The idea was for a bookmark that might appeal to kids.  Yes, I know reading books is largely out of fashion (not trending!) in the younger generations, but it does still hold appeal for some.

With the weather decidedly nippy, and wanting to be in by the fire doing something creative, with the tellie in the background, I assembled some bits and pieces – an off-cut of matt board, thick-ish paper, knife, scissors, embossing tool, seamstress’s pattern cutting wheel, glue and shellac.

The next day, when the block was dry, and the studio above freezing, it was time to try it out.  With no rolling press, but a solid cast iron book press and blanket remnants, the results of printing anything intaglio (drawing ink from inside the cut marks onto dampened paper) are always hit-and-miss.  But, that’s part of the mystery and adventure!  The different effects and various versions fascinated.  Some I was pleased with, others not.  The main thing was that I had a bit of fun and fed my creative need.

So often, the ‘shoulds’ take precedence over the wants (and needs), the soul-food that aids balance and health in mind and spirit, and therefore body.  There is nothing like a bit of arty playtime to give me a renewed enthusiasm for the mundane things.  Even if I’m actually bribing myself with more studio time.  If there is one thing I’ve learned, especially over the past year, it is that our time is finite.  Allowing time for joyful experiences, in whatever form they take for each individual, is more important than wearing ourselves ragged in crossing off ‘shoulds’.

Playtime with seal collagraph - Jenn White

Playtime with seal collagraph


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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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