Printmaking on the Cheap

Print - Woodcut - Gorilla


Last year, while participating in an Arts Pathways course in Castlemaine, I fell head-over-heels, totally in love.  I became completely enamoured.  No, not with either tutor or fellow student, but with a process.  The process of printmaking.  I’d done lino cuts at secondary school, many, many moons ago (I still have the prints, would you believe?) but this was a whole new experience.

I learned direct printing, made collagraphs, discovered the techniques to produce intaglio and relief printing, tried my hand at a jig-saw block, and chine-colle, which is a printmaking/collage combination.  I loved it all – the designing, making the printing blocks , getting messy with and learning to use the ink, and discovering, by trial and error, how to work the contraption of steel platens and pulleys driven by a huge wheel, called a press.  But, what inspired  the most passion was wood blocks, the making of and printing from a piece of carved wood.

Perhaps  my affinity for nature influenced my love at first sight, of whirls and waves of  grain and the life-marks of once living trees.  Whatever it was, it had me hooked.  And, to indulge my passion at home, I didn’t need a press, just good old elbow grease.

I admit it.  I’m an odd bird.  A few years ago, I did some time travelling back to the past.  I bought and installed (with the help of a friend) a wood stove in the kitchen.  To feed the stove during winter, I bought a load of red gum mill ends.  Red gum is hard and burns hot, and, the mill ends delivered an extra bonus – a selection of mostly-flat shingles of varying size and thickness.  So sexy!  Perfect for making wood blocks.

Yes, I’d love some ‘real’ printmaking paper.  Yes, I’ll treat myself to some ‘real’ inks in the near future.  In the meantime, I’m making art with any paper I can find, oil paints, and firewood.  I’m loving it!

My printmaking kit:

  • An inexpensive  Speedball carving set – with five interchangeable tools
  • A 4 inch Speedball (soft) roller – the only size I could get locally at the time, and I wanted to play now!
  • A sheet of glass from a bung photocopier, to roll out the ink
  • A couple of woven coasters, leftovers from the eighties, I think, which are now my Barens
  • A set of discount oil paints – my old shool paints finally ran out…
  • A bottle of Homebrand baby oil, for clean-up
  • Last year’s phone book, also for clean-up and drying sheets
  • A pile of newsprint, brown, and drawing paper, as well as ‘found’ paper, and
  • A ready supply, at least until next winter, of flat-ish, if odd-shaped, red gum off-cuts.

It’s not a big list.  It’s certainly not an expensive list of items.  The most expensive item was the roller.  Well worth the seductive pleasure of printmaking.

My Process:

  • Be inspired by an idea – choosing which one is the killer!
  • Draw the design
  • Run to the wood shed and chuck shingles around until I find one of suitable shape and size
  • Sand the smoothest, flattest surface of the shingle with the electric sander.  Don’t take too long.  Perfection is over-rated and besides, the odd saw mark adds character
  • Blow off sawdust
  • Paint wood face with white acrylic (to ensure design stands out)
  • Blow dry – electric or mouth, with added semaphore in breeze for good measure
  • Ransack the office for the vintage carbon paper
  • Transfer design onto wood face, using said carbon paper
  • Get head around reverse effect of printing, as well as what goes and what stays on the wood face (still struggle with that one, at times)
  • Adjust design where necessary and shade in what will be carved away
  • On my mark, get set… carve!
  • When finished, shellac wood block to protect against soaking up ink, and coffee spills during passionate haste to get printing
  • Print.

Red gum is a tough wood and doesn’t lend itself to superfine detail.  The wood block for ‘Contemplation’ (above) is no bigger than a standard business-size envelope, and was carved mostly with the second finest v-tool.  Even so, it fascinates me that a couple of cuts can put expression into eyes.

After the carving comes the test – making the print.  When learning about ‘editions’ in printmaking, in my naivety, I figured Number 1 would be the most perfect print of the set.  Wrong.  Rarely have I been happy with the first strike from a block or plate.  Also, particularly when working with wood blocks, I need to make adjustments, a nick here and scrape there, until I get the desired effect.

At the moment, you’d be hard put to find the work table in the studio beneath all the drying prints for a new project.  No two are exactly alike – for me, one of the fascinations of printmaking.  Today, the hours have disappeared in a euphoric haze.  Now that’s living my bliss.

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