Mustering Confidence in Printmaking as an Art

Kelpies Framed Woodcut Jenn White

Look at Mum Go! - woodcut

It’s the time of year for themed artwork, at least for me, and the wood-carving tools and printmaking skills have been getting good workouts.  Next week, the Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend will see numerous festivals happening around Victoria, including the Australian Kelpie Muster in Casterton.  An Acquisitive Art Competition, in conjunction with the Casterton Rotary Club, is part of the festival – the theme, Kelpies, of course.

My entry for the competition is done on Masonite, which meant regular blade-sharpening.  I enjoy working with Masonite and MDF, but both tend to dull the cutting blades quickly.  The block of the two Kelpie pups might look fairly simple, but it took quite some time to cut, after initially drawing the design onto the Masonite.  Like any piece of artwork, there was tweaking and fiddling during the process to achieve the desired result.

Despite the increasing popularity and awareness of skills employed in printmaking, there are still those within the art community that do not seem to class a print as artwork.  This was highlighted for me just yesterday.  A well-known artist in his own right, a friend commented that printmaking is a good hobby.  Along with many other folk, he obviously considers printmaking a craft.  There’s nothing wrong with that, as there is ‘craft’ involved in every artistic endeavour.  By definition, a craft is an activity involving skill in making things by hand.  Whether it’s applying paint to a canvas, most usually ‘by hand’ or using one’s hands to carve a design into a piece of wood, inking up the finished block, and pulling the print by using pressure from a baren in one’s  hand, it’s all art to me.

Being a ‘crafts-person’, I’m in good company.  Rembrandt, my favourite artist, was not only a painter, but also a sketcher and a printmaker.  Durer’s woodcuts are amazing in their detail.  An artist of more recent times and closer to home, Margaret Preston, an Aussie printmaker, made her mark in the art world with her vibrant woodcut prints.  And, this week, I was thrilled to view an exhibition of Vida Pearson‘s work at Local Images Gallery in Penola, South Australia.  Like Margaret Preston, Vida hand colours her prints, pulled from lino cuts.  The drawing skill, fine line-work, the detail, the vibrancy of colour against a black background, all add to a joyous celebration of the art and craft of printmaking.  The time it takes to produce even a single edition, let alone numerous editions of fifty look-alike prints, as well as hand-painting the colours, must be phenomenal.

I know I have a  long way to go, in skill and experience as an artist, but with a passion for printmaking the journey is exciting, sometimes convoluted, occasionally frustrating, and never, ever dull.


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Art Inspired by Poetry

Tenderest of all - woodcut over monoprint - Jenn White

Tenderest of all - woodcut over monoprint

With both writing and artwork, there are times when I enjoy the challenge of working to inspiration provided by someone else.  This year’s Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival, specifically the John Shaw Neilson Art Prize, provided such inspiration.

The brief was for artwork to be inspired by the poetry of John Shaw Neilson.   Never having read any of this Aussie poet’s work, I duly did some research and was taken with his poem The Loving Tree.  The poem is a discussion by four women, three young and one older ‘lean and lame’ about which tree is the Loving Tree.  A tree-hugger from way-back, I’ve always been enthralled by the shapes, sometimes tortured and always fascinating, of old, gnarled trees, damaged and warped by time and weather.  It always also fascinates me that life can sprout anew from a seemingly dead tree.  The following verses, from the older woman’s point of view, inspired the woodcut.

“Some trees are slim and lovable
And some are sleek and strong,
But the tree that has the cripple’s heart
Will know the cripple’s song.

“The sweetest death is the red death
That comes up nakedly,
And the tree that has the foiled heart
It is the loving tree.

“While ever lip shall seek for lip,
While ever light shall fall,
The tree that has the ruined heart
Is tenderest of all.

The woodcut is ply, which can be tricky when the ‘cut’ wants to run with the grain, and took several days to complete.  A test print resulted in a too-dark background, and fine-tuning was necessary.  Wanting colour, because of the ‘red death’ and ‘ruined heart’ images, I tried hand colouring the print, though found it too precise for the effect I wanted.  Instead, I tried a monoprint of gouache.

After laying a sheet of glass over the block, I used gouache to paint the colours onto the glass, not worrying too much about the accuracy of colour boundaries.  When satisfied, I pulled the print by spraying the painted glass with a mist of water, and brayering the back of the dampened paper to l ift the gouache from the glass.  When the monoprint was dry, I over-printed with the woodblock.  It took several attempts to get an acceptable combination of the monoprint and the woodcut – either the monoprint was too wet, or too patchy, or the wood block wasn’t inked enough, or the paper moved during the transference.  Eventually, I achieved an effect I liked.

I  have friends, fellow-artists, who think print-making is merely a faux form of art.  Yes, they admit there is skill in cutting a wood or lino block, but the rest of the process is too simple (with a blandly black and white result) to be called ‘art’.   I know even the most experienced and skilled printmakers struggle at times to get the ‘perfect’ print.  Discarded prints pile up under the table to be used for scrap.  It’s a process, often lengthy and sometimes bordering on tedious, to produce the desired effect from a blank block to a hang-able image.  This one took six weeks from idea to framed print.

Printmaking is not everyone’s glass of Chai, but I’ll take mine neat.  The problem-solving only adds to the sweetness of a savoured process.

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And then there was one - woodcut, hand coloured

And then there was one - woodcut, hand coloured on handmade paper

There are days when I wonder why I am so enthralled with printmaking, days when nothing seems to go right.  At least when working with acrylics on a painting, it’s possible to rework a section until I’m satisfied with the end result, or even paint over the whole thing to get it ‘right’.  Printmaking is not so forgiving.

The latest print exchange with the SSNW Solstice Mini Print Exchange proved far more of a challenge than I anticipated.  I learned a lot with this one, lessons I hope I won’t have to relearn in the future.  It was the largest exchange I’ve been involved in, so far, and there fore the largest edition (46 prints) I’ve done.

The desired result of printing an edition of prints is to produce a number of prints which are not only printed from the same block with the same process, but also to be clones of each other.  Easier said than done, even under normal circumstances.  The amount of ink rolled onto the block and the amount of pressure exerted to pull the print – lifting the inked image from block to paper – can determine whether or not the prints are consistently the same.  In this instance, there were more variables to deal with.

As part of the exchange process, participants are asked to include information for the colophon. This is a record consisting of thumbnails of the prints and accompanying details of the prints, giving participants an idea of others’ methods and the materials used.

My comments for the colophon say it all…

Title: And then there was one

Artist’s name: Jenn White

Technique: Hand coloured Woodcut

Paper: Handmade (recycled – adjusted to increase acid freeness)

Ink: Charbonnel etching ink

Discussion: As Catherine Aird once said, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” This quote kept repeating in my head as I came across one stumbling block (pun definitely intended) after another.  First there was the initial choice of a lousy piece of wood, resulting in the block having to be re-cut. Then came the issue of a combination of now living out in the sticks, too-few sheets of printing paper for a large edition, albeit small scale prints, and with not a supplier within coo-ee. Research ensued, resulting in the construction of a mould and deckle, to size, and umpteen sheets of handmade paper that varied in thickness and strength, cockled to buggery, and either took ages to dry or dried too quickly, depending on the weather of the day/s. Naturally, when it came to pull prints, Mother Nature tossed a heatwave into the mix. The water-based inks were drying on the roller and glass (no retarder and no supplier within coo-ee, again), and when I did manage to ink the block, the paper fused so well it had to be soaked rather than peeled off. With plenty of oil-based ink, there was no alternative. Prints proved unpredictable on the handmade paper. Then, of course, the weather changed to cool and damp, making drying interminable. I apologise to all for the erratic quality of my so-called edition for this exchange. A horrible warning I’ll just have to be!

Has this experience cooled my ardour for printmaking?  Not on your Nellie.  Yesterday found me once more ranting internally while trying again to produce an edition, albeit small, from a new woodblock.  Even with machine-made printmaking paper, weather stability and lessons newly learned it is still a challenge.  But one that I would rather face than miss out on.

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Donating art and the art of breathing

Fairy child - altered LP record

Fairy child - altered LP record

When life becomes busy, as it suddenly has for me, with new projects taken on, the pure magic and wonder of living is often neglected.  The ever-growing to-do list takes over, flashing in my mind’s eye like an annoying neon sign as I go to sleep and again when I wake.  Have-tos become the focus of each day.

Bombarded by both self-imposed and pre-ordained deadlines, my body and mind go into a mini-hibernation.  I find I’m holding my breath, waiting for the mental reshuffling of the to-do list.  It’s like watching the Lotto draw, only with more trepidation than hopeful anticipation.  Once the numbers are drawn, I can once more breathe my way through yet another busy day.

As a new member of the Artists of the Valley, and with usable skills, I’m keen to do my bit in helping organise the group’s newly-structured art show, scheduled to take place in conjunction with the Australian Kelpie Muster in Casterton, during the long weekend in June.  As of yesterday, my to-do list has suddenly sprouted legs and is galloping out of control toward the horizon.  Not only have I volunteered to co-ordinate the entry process for the art show, but I’ve also put up my hand to donate a piece of artwork for the raffle.

Entry forms, databases,and spreadsheets are almost second nature after years of office work.  The donation of artwork is another pot of peas entirely.  Acrylics, mixed media or printmaking? Theme? Subject? Style?  Organic? Animal? Human? What will someone appreciate winning in a raffle?  I know I’m not alone in having bought tickets in a raffle, and hoping like crazy that if my ticket is drawn, it will be for second prize, not First Prize, which I wouldn’t know what to do with.   What if, after all the angst prior to and during the creation of this mystery work, neither the punters nor my fellow artists like it?  What if my style of work is way out of step with what a ‘good’ donated piece of art is percieved as?  What if…

Oh yes, time to remember to breathe!

There is definitely magic in taking a breath, and a breather.  Sometimes I actually see and appreciate the magic. The puppet-on-a-string type flight of a beautifully marked butterfly as it flutters through the garden. The changing hues of reds and golds as the sun tumbles below the hills at the end of another scorcher of a day.  The marvel of a newborn babe, held tenderly by a super-proud grandfather. The soul shining from my four-legged friend’s eyes, head resting on paws, as he watches me run around like a cut cat, crossing off items on the to-do list.  Other times, I’m too busy to notice the magic in a single moment.

This week promises yet more cut-cat antics, but I’ve promised myself to breathe in the magic moments, to clutch at the wonder they inspire and hold it close, if just for the space of a single breath.  Hoarding them like Scrooge with his precious coins, I aim to amass a wealth of wonder and awe.  After all, without a good stash of these, what’s the point of all the busy-ness?

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Unearthing the Path to a Finished First Draft

Bird by Bird, Word by Word - Art Journal page

Bird by Bird, Word by Word - Art Journal page

For too long I’ve been stymied by where my novel is going.  Rather than a work-in-progress it has become a labyrinthine obstacle course designed by a paranoid mouse.  There is no sign of logical design. Path-markers, once clear and distinct, are buried beneath dense tangles of indecision, prickles of fear ready to draw blood on unwary fingers.

This is what happens when doubt takes over, during times when ‘the novel’ has been put aside.  There were good reasons, for the putting aside – editing work, family and artwork commitments, life getting in the way.  At least, at the time, they seemed valid reasons.  Now, perhaps they appear more like excuses.

Recent reevaluations of priorities had me debating whether, or not, to shred almost 300 hundred pages of manuscript, along with a gazillion pages of handwritten notes.  What was the point, after all?  I’d lost the thread somewhere along the way.  Probably munched to lint by the washing machine, along with the umpteen one-of-a-pair socks, lost to oblivion.  I looked at the pile of paper, all those words, thoughts, feelings, and imaginings, representing so many hours of work. There sits a huge chunk of my life.  It’s my creation.  Perhaps more a foetus rather than as yet a fully-formed baby, but hadn’t I started out nurturing it, cajoling it into existence from a single half-defined idea?  Hadn’t I had grand hopes for the toddler that would some day take its first step out the door?

Before I’d turned on the shredder the grief of loss set in.  I couldn’t do it. So, what was to become of this child?  Surely, after so much neglect and lack of nourishment it was now deformed, even perhaps a mutant version of its once envisioned self.

In need of encouragement, and with not a writers’ group within coo-ee, I surfed the Net for words of wisdom – a book, no less, another writer’s full-term child –  that I hoped would inspire me to again nourish this stunted babe of mine.

What I found was Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.  It arrived in the mail on Tuesday and I finished reading it on Wednesday.  Now, I’m reading it again, to savour and digest, rather than gorge on the encouragement, humour and wisdom offered by this woman writer.  I love a book that makes me feel and this book does exactly that.  I barely gave a thought to the neighbours, should they spy me while I sat reading on the verandah, laughing out loud and wiping my eyes.  So much of what she wrote I could relate to – the pitfalls of perfectionism, the self-doubts that can incapacitate (resulting in allowing my novel-in-progress come to within a heartbeat of being shredded) and the absolute rightness of needing to write.

I’m taking Anne Lamott’s advice, “Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.” I’m still not sure where my novel is going, but I am nourishing it daily and giving it all the attention it once enjoyed.  Later, after I’ve finished the first draft, will be time enough to check whether my wordy child has all its bits in the right places.  For now, it’s joy enough that my fingers are dancing on the keyboard, even sometimes tripping over each other in uncoordinated steps, eager to get the words down.

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