This past December, the finance stars aligned and I ordered a brand new Conrad monotype press. I had a beautiful Laguna etcing press that worked wonderfully, but I wanted to create larger prints than the Laguna could handle. The Laguna press bed was 18 x 30 inches so it limited me to prints around 16 x 20 inches. Along with the bigger press, suddenly my studio equipment needed to grow too. I had been doing all my carving and inking on a narrow built in desk that just wouldn't work for large blocks. So 2 new big tables had to be purchased too; one for the press to sit on, and one for carving and inking. The new press finally arrived this May and its press bed is 27 x 48 inches. I had a new piece planned and out and was ready to start printing as soon as the press was set up. I'm currently working on this first larger print and am really enjoying the experience. There were a few hiccups along the way with registration and pressure, but those issues have been worked out at this point. I love working in a larger size. There's nothing like being immersed in the piece both while carving the block and looking at the print as I print it layer by layer. Yum!
I'm still working on the monkey, parrot jungle print and am up to color number 25! I've never made a print with this many colors. At the start of the printing process, there were 16 prints in the edition. At this point, a few prints got printed poorly, so the final number will be less than 16. With reduction prints, each new color is printed over all the previous colors. The inks I use are not 100% opaque, so the previous colors influence how the newest ink layer looks. For example, I printed the green parrot and then added a layer of red for the feathers near the beak. The red turned out somewhat muted, since green and red are complementary colors and the combination of the two makes brown. The effects of ink layers are always on my mind as I carve and print each color. Thus, as I was printing, I hadn't fully decided on the background color. Ultimately, I decided to make 4 background variations: black with dark green jungle leaves, summer sky blue with green jungle leaves, lavender with violet jungle leaves, and a rainbow roll of soft blue, violet and pink with lavender leaves. The print is almost done, and because of the different background colors, I have to mix different colors for each of the color versions. On the black background version, I am going to print a light colored outline around the dark monkey hands, so that they stand out from the black more. The lighter versions probably won't need that lighter hand outline printed. So even though the prints are all part of one edition, there will be differences in color and amount of ink layers. They are siblings, not identical twins.
My day job gives me a pleasantly long holiday break and I spent most of this winter's printmaking and framing finished works. The empty wall space in our house is becoming rarer and rarer even after moving some older framed drawings to my work office. And still I create more, more, MORE artwork. What are you gonna do? It's fun. It's flow. The next step might be wallpapering the ceiling. Because I do like keeping an eye on print babies after they've been born.
Anyway, I started a new piece, another reduction print. Being able to have so many more colors per print is too thrilling. Below is my working sketch, which is 12 inches tall by 20 inches long.
Below is the sketch with some rough color choices. I did more pre-planning of colors than ever before on this print. However, I still haven't decided on the 2 background colors. I'd like to do a few different colorways, possibly black with green and azure blue with green.
Below is a slideshow of the linoleum block showing the changes as I carved and inked it for each printing session.
It's December and the days are cold and blustery, so it seems like a good time to stay inside and think over the year's accomplishments and see how much progress I've made towards my artistic goals. There are two things I look for in my artwork to judge its success or failure. Actually, there aren't any failures, because I learn something from every piece, whether it comes out "good" or not. The first and most essential objective: is the print saying something, and do I think that other people will be able to get the message? The second objective is the technique side of printing: is the composition of the piece interesting and pleasing to the eye? How good a job did I do with the carving and inking? What about the ink colors, did I mix and layer them so that they help convey the piece's mood and message accurately?
Looking back at all the prints I made this year, I definitely think I've improved and reached a higher level. I think my message has become a little more complex than it used to be. I have some older prints that are nice, but they were basically saying: "Hi, I'm a cool animal or tree. Isn't Nature rad!" and nothing more. That's all well and good, and Nature IS rad, but there are other things I want to say in addition to that. One of those messages is the duality of creation; the beauty in ugliness, the way life lives and breathes right next to death and decay. Our existence on this blue marble in the sky is surreal and absurd and therefore humorous and amazing. I guess at heart I'm a Buddhist and that view of life can't help but be part of my artwork. I can see this duality and playfulness in this year's prints, along with a sense of strength and wonder.
My technical skills have gotten better this year as well. After years of using disposable blades, I finally bought some better carving tools and taught myself how to sharpen them. That alone has made a noticeable difference in my carving, since I can now cut much finer lines with the new tools. I am kicking myself for being so resistant to learning tool-sharpening! Another area of resistance I crushed in 2016 is reduction printing. I'd done reduction printing in the past but was always put off of it by the small number of prints in the final edition. With multi-block printing, I can decide to have 50 or even 100 prints in the edition. I can make 10 or so prints and then if those sell out, go and make another 10, and on and on, until I've reached the final edition number. (Ethical printmakers don't want to make more prints than they've decided on ahead of time, that would be scumbaggery, since the edition size tells buyers there will only ever be 100 prints, for example). With reduction printing, the block is completely destroyed during the printing process, so I have to decide in advance how many prints there will be in the edition and print them all at once. So, it becomes much more a question of time and studio space: how many days do you want to spend printing each color in the reduction print? How many wet prints do I have room to hang or shelve in my studio? For me the optimal number of reduction prints is 16, with 20 being an absolute maximum. However, thanks to seeing other artists' reduction prints on social media, my interest in reduction printing was again piqued. The magic of reduction printing is the option to have many different colors of ink, all on one block. WIth multi-block printing, I have to carve separate blocks for each color in the print, and that gets expensive and time-consuming. Again, there's pros and cons to each type of printing. I dove in and tried some ambitious reduction prints in 2016, namely "Mixed Nuts" and "Fighting Cats." I'm happy with the final results. For images that call for more color complexity, reduction printing is the way to go, and I'm adding it to my printmaking repertoire. The moral of the story of 2016 is don't stop learning!
Here's a new print I'm working on called "Fighting Cats." One night I dreamed about 2 cats wearing high heels and sparring. When I started sketching, it became obvious that there was no way to have anatomically correct cats shod in heels. Cat feet and legs are so different from humans', it would've looked stupid. And I didn't want to draw human shaped bodies with cat heads. So I decided to tweak my original vision a bit and put some women's fashion in the background. I ripped pages out of style magazines and pasted them in diagonal strips. All the original colors will be changed too, so that the background is cooler than the cats and the Pow! pink star.
This is a suicide aka reduction print. Most of my other prints are multi-block color prints. There are pros and cons to each type. With multi-block prints, I carve a separate block for each color in the print. Because the blocks are not destroyed in the process, I can print larger editions, and make color changes at will. The negatives are that it is more difficult to have many colors per print, since carving separate blocks for each becomes more and more work. Also, linoleum blocks aren't cheap, so each block is an expense. A suicide print is carved from one block. Think of that, just one block for many colors! "Fighting Cats" is already up to 4 colors and will probably end up having around 14 colors. How is this possible? Magic, people, MAGIC! Trying to explain the process of reduction printing is daunting, but I will try. The reason it is called suicide printing is that the block is destroyed, step by step, through the printing process. At the very beginning, I have to decide how many finished prints I want, and that is all there will ever be of that image. With multi-block prints, I can decide to make an edition of 50 or 100, because I can print 10 now and as they sell off, go back and print another 10, etc. until the edition is complete. Suicide prints are printed all at once, so my editions are a lot smaller. There are 16 "Fighting Cats" prints in the edition, that's about the maximum number I can handle inking and printing per printing session. After deciding how many prints to make, I sketch the image onto one linoleum block. If there are any white spots in the sketch, I carve all the white areas out of my block. Then I will print the lightest color in the image. In "Fighting Cats," I mixed a pale yellow ink and rolled it onto the entire block, then printed it on all 16 sheets of paper. I let the prints dry overnight. Next, I carve from the block all the parts of the image that I want to remain pale yellow. Since they are carved out, the next layers of ink won't overlay and hide those areas. Then I roll the block with bright yellow and print all 16 prints again. Allow the prints to dry overnight. Meanwhile, I carve away the sections of the block that I want to keep yellow. The third color I printed was orange. Follow the same procedure: print orange, then carve away the areas that will remain orange, ad infinitum. As things progress, more and more of the block has been carved away until ultimately it is destroyed. The prints will take longer to dry as the layers of ink build up. I tend to print from lightest color ink to darkest, but not always. I take into consideration what happens when certain colors overlay each other, for example overlaying green with red will dull the red because they are complementary colors. There are lots of things to think about, and I can't go back and change what's already been printed. That makes it an exciting challenge, and I love how the image reveals itself gradually through each color layer.
With 2 shows and a studio tour going on in September and early October (please forgive my humble brag), I haven't had much time to work on the stag print. Here's the first proof I ran, showing the gray and black blocks printed together. I have another block to print, for the yellow UFO light beams, stag eyes, and the lower portion will be rolled up in light gray ink and carved into tendrils of mist pooling at the stag's hooves. I forced myself to take a week off after the Tour, but I can't wait to finish this guy up and frame him.