Printmaking – Disappearing Block

Having tested the water with a reduction lino cut with the Jester (see previous post) I decided to challenge myself with a larger, more detailed work, using the reduction method of cutting a block.  The John Shaw Neilson Acquisitive Art Prize was coming up.  Entry into the prize stipulates the work must be inspired by the poetry of  John Shaw Neilson, a poet born in Penola, South Australia.  After reading many of his poems, I was inspired by Green Singer, in which he describes Spring, the season, as the singer.  On researching photos of singers, I found a photograph of a young woman who seemed to fit the mental image of who I was looking for.  A woman singing-up Spring.

Spring's Invocation Initial drawing Jenn White

Spring's Invocation Initial drawing

Rather than flowers and foliage decorating her hair, I wanted her hair to appear made of the plants of Spring.  I then photocopied the pencil sketch and set about colouring it in as a guide for the finished print.

Having Spring’s face off-white, the colour of the paper, was not appealing, and nor did I want to have detailed shading.  I wondered how to incorporate some texture into what would be her skin.  Some time ago, I was fortunate to come across a large old book of wallpaper samples at a garage sale.  Several of the papers were quite heavily embossed in an abstract foliage-type design.  I wasn’t sure it would work, but it was certainly worth experimenting.  So, the next step was to glue the wallpaper sheet to a piece of matt board to use as a printing block, to give the singer’s face a pale green random texture.

Before printing the wallpaper block, I wiped the ink from the two top corners, which would be sky and also the singer’s teeth. I didn’t want her looking neglectful in her personal hygiene – no green teeth.  The print turned out to be wiggly lines rather than splotches, but I was pleased with the effect.

Next was cutting away the teeth on the lino block, to make sure they would remain white throughout the rest of the process.  I was in a bit of quandary about her face, as I wanted highlights and shading produced by the inking and printing process.  Instead of cutting away the block to leave the features (at this point) I decided I would clean the ink from her face before printing each successive colour.

Third stage single Spring's Invocation Jenn White

Third stage of the printing process

Not a lot of definition yet.  The above image shows the result of two inkings of the lino block, after cutting away sections I wanted to remain the cream colour of the paper and the lemon.  The first lighter colour was printed after wiping clean sections of her face for highlights.  More sections of the block were cut away to keep that colour before inking the block and printing with the deeper gold, again wiping ink from the block for facial highlights.

Third stage Spring's Invocation Jenn White

Ready for stage four

Above, you can see three of the prints at the third stage, as well as the coloured-in photocopy of the drawing (a reverse of the print, of course) and tools of trade.  A baren, the circular doover, is used for rubbing the back of the paper to transfer the ink from the block.  I also use the back of a wooden spoon and a large wooden rolling pin.  So each print gets three goes with three different tools.  You’ll also perhaps notice to the left a glimpse of the registration jig.

In the printing of any multi-colour or multi-block prints, registration – the lining up of the block in the same position for subsequent pulls – is imperative to get the desired effect.  If the registration is out of whack, it can make the viewer think she’s seeing double, with the colours or elements skewed out of alignment.  This I know!  The jig forms one border against which the block sits, and another to butt the paper against.

For this project I wanted to use oil-based inks, which meant waiting between each pull (transfer of ink to paper) to at least partially dry before proceeding to the next colour.  I did add a drier solution to the ink, but a drop too much and the ink dried on the roller.  It was a bit hit and miss.  I wanted only one finished print for entry into the prize and one for me.  To allow for the inevitable mistakes, I did a very small edition of four prints, one being the test piece – always necessary in a process I had little experience of.

And so the process proceeded.

Fifth stage Spring's Invocation Jenn White

Fifth stage

Working (mostly) with colours lightest to darkest, the procedure repeated.  After printing each colour, sections of the lino block were cut away to ensure that specific colour remained in the finished print.

Ninth stage Spring's Invocation Jenn White

Ninth stage

Printmakers don’t call this the suicide method for nothing.  Once sections of the block are removed, there’s no going back.  And, after several inkings and cleanings of the block, the permanent marker used to draw the design proved not quite so permanent, the lines fading.

Eleventh Stage Spring's Invocation Jenn White

Eleventh Stage

Up until printing the lighter green, I was cleaning the ink from the face area.  It was then time to do the deed and cut away that area, all bar the features of the face.  Scary stuff.

Final Print Spring's Invocation Jenn White

Final Print Spring's Invocation

And there you have it.  Simple.  Well, not quite, but very rewarding as well as fraught with doubts while watching her take shape.  Of the four prints I did, two are good.  The other two are passable, though they have green ‘sky’ – when enthusiasm to see what would  happen next meant me forgetting to wipe clean the top corners  of the block.  These sections remained until the very last cut.  There were thirteen stages in all to the completed print.

A recent conversation with Aussie printmaker Clayton Tremlett made me appreciate how far I  have yet to go with the reduction method.  Would I ever dare, as Clayton has, undertake a reduction method print using 30-plus colours?  And would I be sane at the conclusion?

Did she win?  No.  But Spring’s Invocation did achieve a Highly Commended in two exhibitions.  More than that, though, the print has generated many conversations during which folk unfamiliar with printmaking, and especially the reduction method were intrigued to learn about the process.  All good!

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