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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A Long Blog Drought

Aperitif Time - linocut -Proof Print - Jenn White

Aperitif Time – linocut -Proof Print

It’s a shock to realise it’s almost a year since the last posting, here.  There’s nothing quite like a troubling and failing relationship and months of feeling my age, in the form of various physical inconveniences, to put a gag on the Muse, and a halt to things I used to enjoy doing.  Add to that, the vagaries of working with ‘technology’ that doesn’t want to behave (for me, at least, a lot of the time) and you have a blog drought.  Now that the Muse has shucked her gag, and making up for lost time, I’d prefer to be in the studio, rather than waiting for the machine to overheat and shut down, mid-sentence, (which it did/has!) but I’ve done my stint in the hot tin shed, and waiting for the morning’s work to dry.

The print shown above was a quick project in response to the Muse’s nagging to a short-notice art call.  She’s good at that. When in full Nag mode, she tends to assume I’m the Masked Marvel in speed and dexterity.  Often, my response is, “Yes, great idea.  I’ll think about that one, while I finish the other six projects you’ve already got me working on.” This time, I put on hold the said six, and got stuck in.  The call was for the ‘Women (Rural), Wine and Wetlands Art Prize’, to be exhibited at the Red Tail Gallery in Edenhope, Victoria.  With all of one day to organise an entry, I’d decided on entering the White-faced Heron, in keeping with the ‘wetlands’ part of the theme.  However, The Nag, Goddess love her, decided that was just not good enough.

One of the six current projects is a barely-in-progress edition of small books, combining images and words, my two creative passions.  The books will feature Aussie magpies. At present, Maggies are very much on my mind, and are always deeply entrenched in my heart.  This, despite being stabbed in the head by a ‘local’ during nesting season a couple of years back. My fault.  Having been a wildlifer, I knew better than to try and ‘rescue’ the nestling, blown out of a nest and huddled near the car’s wheel.  I didn’t want to run over the poor baby.  Anyway, combine my preoccupation with maggies, and The Nag on my case about the wine and rural women aspects of the art call, and it was precious little sleep for me that night.

Am I happy with the print?  Largely, yes.  It depicts what I was aiming for.  Are there things I would change? Yes, definitely – the woman’s overly-chubby cheek for one, some of the line work for another.  Oh, and there’s the…  Being a perfectionist sucks.  As do times of inactivity enforced by ailments.  But, hey, I’m back!

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Words Inspiring Images ~ Part Two

The Lament unframed sml

The Lament – reduction woodcut

My father used to tell my brothers and me as children that one branch of our family tree had its origins in Ayrshire, Scotland, where the famous poet Robert Burns (The Bard) came from.  Having spent quite some time on my family history, I’m yet to prove him right.  All the same, that supposed ‘fact’ being part of our family legend for decades – and the family having a Collie named after the poet – fostered in me a curiosity that blossomed into a love of The Bard’s poetry (even when I had to continually look up the Glossary for the meanings of the Scottish words!).  So, when I spied a call for art ‘Inspired by Burns’, my interest was piqued.

The poem that grabbed and held my attention was ‘Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn’.  A chord was struck in more ways than one.  The imagery depicted by The Bard’s words immediately brought inspiration.  As did, that from a very young age my most favourite of instruments has been the harp.  Reading Burns’ poem I could literally see the old bard sitting beneath the oak tree, grieving for what was lost – a dear friend and patron.  I could almost hear the notes as he plucked the strings.  I didn’t discover until later that the bard written about in the poem was Burns himself.  I doubt my bard looks anything like the famous poet, but that’s okay.  It was the words that inspired the image.

I chose to do a woodcut, as I felt the medium lent itself to the theme and the era.  The print was created in the reduction method – sections of the block carved away as each of the thirteen colours were successively printed.  The print is hand-pulled using a wooden ladle to transfer ink from block to paper.  An edition of only two prints were produced, and two artist’s proofs.  It’s a print I enjoyed doing, immensely, while listening to my favourite harp music (though I had to down tools when the playing of Maire Ni Chathasaigh‘, an amazing Irish harpist, and her offsider Chris Newman, a virtuoso guitarist, threatened to melt the cassette player with the speed of their fingers, and I just had to jig).

This print didn’t do any good in the Inspired by Burns competition, but it did win best Works on Paper in the recent South East Art Society Open Art Awards, currently being exhibited at the Riddoch Art Gallery in Mount Gambier.  That print is also, apparently sold.

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Words Inspiring Images ~ Part One

And the fiddler played on sml

And the Fiddler Played on – reduction woodcut

I always look forward to the annual John Shaw Neilson Art Prize, as it’s an opportunity to endeavour marrying, however subjectively, an image with words, in this case a poem by the celebrated poet from Penola, South Australia.  The poem I chose for inspiration was ‘Dear Little Cottage’. Rather than the description of the cottage itself, it was the lines about what went on inside the cottage that provided vivid mind-pictures – the fiddler playing and feet dancing on the rough boards.

The lines speak of old-time entertainment, before the digital age.  Of evenings spent with friends gathering, instruments coming out of their cases, and impromptu sessions of bush and folk music, the kind that makes you want to tap your feet, sing along, or get up and dance.

I did, however, welcome the digital age and the knowledgeable Mr Google, while researching photos of fiddlers and bush-dancing couples.

While carving the block in stages, and pulling the prints, I was transported back to to the era I was depicting, when things were done the long and satisfying way, by hand.  Adding to the atmosphere, I had the tape deck (yep, still have one that works) going non-stop with home-grown music from Blackwood, The Bruce Brothers ‘Kitchen Music’, and a selection of harp music by Andy Rigby.

In times past, while living in Central Victoria, I had the privilege of being invited to some ‘house music’ sessions.  What amazing and joyful experiences.  Thanks, guys, for the memories.

The actual process turned out to be a struggle because of issues with the ink and paper being a less than perfect marriage, and lacking time to allow each colour printed hang on the rack for a week or more of drying time.  Rather than an edition of four prints I ended up with two unique state prints and two disasters!  The print entered into the competition sold during the exhibition, which was a thrill.  The other print was sold in the Clarice Beckett Art Award exhibition today.

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