Saturday, 17 March 2018

Russian Doll

The print I was proofing in 'Testing, testing' is now finished. It's a very small edition which I will be offering for the first time when Stoneflower Studio opens for York Open Studios in April 2018.
'Russian Doll'
Japanese watercolour woodblock
Image size approx 9.5 x 18 cm

I enjoyed this exercise and I'm pleased with the shading; I think it successfully gives a rounded effect to the doll. The handpainted details have also been carefully varied in strength to add to the illusion of depth. The nature of both the moku hanga printmaking technique with its shading (bokashi) and the handpainted elements mean that each print is unique, making this a 'varied edition'.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Testing, testing

I've started my first new work for a long time. If you follow me on social media you might know I had an accident at the end of last summer that wiped me out for quite a while. As well as the practical issues of being unable to walk for several months, the overwhelming tiredness of a body throwing all its resources into healing meant that I completely lost my printmaking mojo.

But now I'm back, and as I have found I am rather rusty this seems like a perfect time to talk about proofing and testing new prints and correcting mistakes. A lot of art blogs present the perfect finished article - so for a change I'm going to show you what goes wrong.

To make life hard for myself, my first new print is a Japanese watercolour woodblock (moku hanga), which demands quite a high level of technical proficiency. Maybe I should have eased myself back in with a single colour linocut.....

Anyway, I had in my mind's eye an image of a wooden Russian doll. I wanted to use the moku hanga shading to create the rounded shape and shiny varnished surface of the doll, as if I were painting it in watercolour, but also wanted to include the folk art hand painted decoration. My plan is to add the line detail to the finished and dried prints with a brush so that each print is unique, just as each hand painted doll is unique.

I have two sets of Russian dolls. I have had them so long I can't even remember where I got them, though it is likely the older and larger one was a gift from my merchant seaman brother who used to bring me back a doll from every country he visited when I was a small child. That makes it nearly 50 years old which explains why the outer doll is so faded.

My design is a sort of composite of all these dolls, and was transferred onto six different blocks for carving and printing. I printed up four test prints, each of which had different things wrong with it, which can be frustrating but is also the point of proofing.

From a distance these look like a good start, but when you get close...... oh so many mistakes....

Lets's start with the registration, which means lining up the paper on each successive block correctly so that the different elements match. These two sections are meant to lie next to each other, not have a gap between them. Oops.
The tricky bit here is working out what went wrong. Japanese woodblocks are lined up using kento slots cut in the wood. It should be foolproof, but pushing the paper half a millimetre more firmly into one slot than the other can create distortions of several millimetres at the other end of the block. Once I'd worked out what was going on with this block I wrote a note on it to remind myself to drop the paper into place a certain way in future.

There's no excuse for the registration mess here though, with two layers being printed out of alignment. It's one block being used for successive layers so this is purely user error and sloppiness on my part. Must do better.

This granulating effect is caused by insufficient nori (rice flour) paste being blended with the watercolour. It can be used deliberately to get an interesting texture but is not what I want here where I'm trying to depict smooth varnished wood. Must be more careful next time.

The mix on this print is more successful and the shading is working quite well to create a 3D effect (notice the highlight towards the left). I want this effect to be stronger though, so on the finished prints I will start with an even lighter layer and build up the shading to even darker red. This test print used about three or four bokashi (shading) layers; I probably need to do six or seven.

These marks around the image are where the watercolour has strayed onto the surrounding block and been picked up on the print. There are various ways to tackle it:
1. Carve away more wood, especially if particular spots keep causing problems.
2. Clean up more thoroughly around the inked area before printing.

A quick test run of the hand painted details went well, so now it's time  to prepare the paper and mix up a new batch of nori paste, ready for printing tomorrow. Watch this space.

UPDATE: the finished print can be seen in this blog post.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Guilt free shopping

I'm writing this post while my 2017 Red Nose Day print is still being sold, but I will not publish it until after that fundraising as I don't want to muddy the waters.

My 2015 fundraising print, an edition of forty at £10 each, sold out in six days raising £400 for Comic Relief. This year's print is a larger edition of fifty and the individual prints cost more at £15 so while this one has not yet sold out* it has already raised much more money in the two weeks it has been on sale than the 2015 print did. Hurrah!
*see bottom of post for a fantastic update

I am of course thrilled, but once more, as in 2015, I have been heard to mutter "Blimey, I wish all my prints sold this quickly". Why don't they? These special edition prints are priced normally - so why are people so eager to buy these but not my other work? Don't get me wrong, people do buy my other prints (thank you kindly) but hardly in the sell-out rush I've experienced with both of these charity editions.

Well yes of course, the obvious answer is that these are for charity, but my question is WHY should that make such a difference and what is actually going on here?

Let's think about this. The buyer pays the same money and receives the same quality of item. The only difference is that their money has gone to a charity instead of to the artist. The logical corollary is that if the money is going to the artist then that actively makes the purchase less attractive. EXCUSE ME?? Does this mean people feel better about buying art if the artist isn't paid? That the idea of the purchase price going to the person who actually did the work and paid for the materials is positively off-putting?

Surely that can't be it. (But if this is what is happening then please allow me to be a bit upset).

I prefer to give the lovely buying public the benefit of the doubt and I refuse to believe the issue is people begrudging artists. Perhaps then it's that these (non) buyers are begrudging themselves. Perhaps they feel they cannot normally justify spending money on something as indulgent, fun and joy-bringing as art, but if they know the money is going to charity then their consciences are salved and they can give themselves permission. If that is the case then please let me put your mind at rest....

You are doing a Very Good Thing when you buy from a small independent maker, shop or gallery.

You are keeping us afloat, allowing us to continue and keeping the world varied and interesting for everyone. You are preserving individual creativity and craftsmanship and holding back the tide of high street blandness and for that society thanks you. You are having a direct real impact on the lives of the people you buy from and they will love you for it. You have every right to feel a warm fuzzy glow about treating yourself, or a loved one, to that thing you wanted: no guilt required. In the right sidebar of this blog (you might have to scroll down a bit) you will see the logo of a great initiative called Just a Card which was set up to remind buyers that every single purchase you make from small independents, even 'just a card', helps us to survive. Click on the image to be taken to the campaign's site where the founder, Sarah Hamilton, will explain it all much better than I can.

Thank you for reading and if it puts a spring into your step and a lightness in your heart the next time you are out shopping then my job is done.

Update: the last print sold on Red Nose Day itself, 24th March, a couple of days after I wrote the above. The £750 raised is enough to pay for 300 malaria nets, or vaccinate nearly 190 children in Africa against five deadly diseases. It will save lives. It was all totally, utterly worth it.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Ready to learn

A couple of Sundays ago our minister preached his sermon on the subject of my printmaking workshops. No he did, really. Yes I know he said it was about 'discipleship' but it was really about my workshops. I could tell. He talked about the notion of apprenticeship and how we seem to have lost the idea that some things take time to perfect and learn. We expect to be able to get things right first time and get frustrated, even feel like failures, when that doesn't happen.

He mentioned the example of a specialist glass blower who is seeking an apprentice in anticipation of his own retirement in ten years time, because it will take that long to train someone to replace him, and I was reminded of the long apprenticeships served by moku hanga printmakers in Japan. His words made me think of those TV talent show contestants who, when interviewed before their chance-in-a-lifetime audition, tell us that their preparation has consisted of dreaming of this day and visualising success. Rarely do they mention practising, or tuition, or starting at the bottom of the business and putting in hours. Some even confess that their only prior audience has been their bedroom mirror. They have no comprehension that the apparent effortlessness of their favourite performers comes from hours and hours of practice, and when it turns out that 'putting their heart and soul into it' isn't enough, they are crushed.

When did we start losing the concept of learning? Why do people expect to be able to do things immediately? Such unrealistic expectations can bring only disappointment and they are also insulting to those who have developed their skills through application and hard work. TV 'reality' shows (which are anything but reality) must of course must take some responsibility. Within the leisure publishing market, the art books, DVDs and magazines which promise you can 'Learn Portrait Painting in a Day' or 'Master Watercolour in Five Easy Lessons' don't half make it hard for art tutors to manage their students' expectations!

I completely understand the wish to have an exquisite masterpiece to take home at the end of a workshop, but too often it seems that people see a day class as a one off event, during which they will tick another skill off their list, rather than the start of a learning process. A few years ago two women booked onto one of my intermediate watercolour still life workshops having never previously picked up a paintbrush. On arrival they breezily announced they hadn't bothered with the introduction classes because 'it can't be that hard'. Perhaps you can imagine how my heart sank at that point. We soldiered on, and they got lots of careful attention (what a good thing I keep my class sizes so small). Finally as the day wore on, one of the two pointed at one of my own paintings and demanded "I've done everything you told me, so why doesn't mine look like THAT?". Thinking she was joking, I laughed. Then the look of thunder on her face told me she meant it. I stopped laughing and replied "Because I've been doing it for thirty years". She was not happy. Clearly my tuition was at fault and I had withheld vital information. She had been tricked. There could be no other explanation for her failure to replicate the work of an experienced professional artist within five hours of her first encounter with watercolour.

Now that of course was an extreme example and mercifully most students arrive with more realistic ideas. At printmaking workshops it is perfectly normal for people to overestimate what can be achieved in a day or weekend simply because they don't know how long it takes to carve a plate, but some tactful counselling at the beginning of the day usually results in an achievable project being chosen and all ends well. There is no shame in that; there is no harm having ambition and how could you be expected to  know how long it will take if you've never tried? The important thing is getting your head round the idea that a class is the starting block, not the finish line. It doesn't matter if you don't produce an exhibition standard piece on your first day; that is not the goal. What does matter is that by the end of the day you are nearer to being a printmaker than you were when you started.

I hope that the majority of people who come to my classes see them as the start of a long term discovery of a skill which will grow with practice. There will be mistakes and duds because that is how we learn. The torn up print is not a failure; it is a necessary stage in the process. In the words of our minister's sermon, being ready for this journey means being in a place where the question is not 'will I get it right?' but 'am I willing to learn?'.

If you think you are in that place you can find out about my workshops by clicking the tab above or on the link in the sidebar.

You can read some feedback from my students by clicking here

Monday, 13 March 2017

Red Nose Day 2017

or: how to save lives without even leaving home.

Comic Relief is a stonkingly wonderful charity which helps people overcome problems most of us will never have to face because of our sheer good luck in being born in an affluent, temperate country which has plenty of food,water and health care and is not being torn apart by war. Meanwhile, some folk here in the UK, having won that bit of life's lottery, still have to cope with poverty and other horribly unfair social disadvantages; Comic Relief helps with those too.

Once every two years Comic Relief stages Red Nose Day which is a time for people to raise money by doing anything which raises a smile. This is why I love and support Comic Relief; it doesn't nag or browbeat or send you on a guilt trip. It just makes people feel good and happy and join together, and once you've sown that seed of love and community, then generosity, empathy and compassion are not far behind.

In 2015 I produced a special limited edition print of a hare wearing a red nose which raised £400 for Red Nose Day. (I've written about how this came about in my blog before). It had been such a success I wanted to do another one but by November 2016 I still hadn't had a good idea for a subject. I wanted it to be another animal wearing a red nose and I wanted it to work as a single plate print in dark grey so it would match the original hare print.

Now it so happens that my amazing friend Emma Mitchell (aka silverpebble) is one of the co-editors of Mollie Make's special Red Nose Day Crafternoon edition which is in itself an utterly brilliant collaboration of talented craft folk and just keeps on giving; the sale of the magazine raises money initially and then the fantastic ideas and projects contained within help people raise even more (and HAVE FUN). It also happens that in November I was at Emma's house being taught silverclay modelling as part of her inaugural Making Winter retreat. (These amazing weekends involve spending two whole days learning new skills, creating lovely things, making friends, eating delicious food and finding the good stuff in our cold dark winter. Emma has even written an accompanying book which will be out this autumn). But I digress and this rambling story is going somewhere I promise. That morning at Emma's house the post arrived with a padded bag which got Emma very excited. She opened it and revealed the top secret prototype for Peggy the Felt Dachshund.

Peggy as she appeared in the Crafternoon magazine three months later.

Instantly the decision was made.
  • A dachshund would look lovely in a red nose.
  • He would tie in with other Comic Relief projects.
  • There is a lot of dachshund love in my Twitter feed. 
  • He would look good in grey.
  • He could be made the same height as my hare print so people can hang them next to each other.
It was so obvious I really didn't know why I hadn't thought of it before.

So here he* is, proudly 'Cutting a Dash' in his smart red rose.

'Cutting a Dash' findraising linoprint
 image size 18 x 10 cm

A limited edition of just 50 handpulled linoprints costing £15 each including free UK delivery, every penny of which will go to Comic Relief. He is available until 31 March 2017 or until he sells out, whichever comes first. For £15 you can (for example) pay for six anti-malaria nets and save the lives of six children AND you get a limited edition print delivered free to your door. I can't see any downsides. Can you?


*it has been tactfully pointed out to me by a reader of this blog that my dachshund looks suspiciously like a girl. This is a good point. I am going to have to come to terms with this and get used to her new gender identity....

Comic Relief, registered charity 326568 (England/Wales)
SC039730 (Scotland)

Monday, 24 October 2016

Life Drawing (titter ye not)

Life drawing, you know ....where a model sits in front of everyone in the nude... the premise of so many hi-lar-ious sitcom scenes, sketches and tv adverts. A proper giggle, isn't it? Well, no actually, which is why an email I got several years ago shocked me so much.

To begin at the beginning, drawing from life, that is, drawing or painting anything that is actually there in front of you, is undoubtedly harder than drawing from a photo; your brain has to convert a 3D experience into two flat dimensions, the slightest change in viewpoint will drastically alter perspective, and sometimes your subject will wilt, wither or move in the wind.

Within this, drawing a portrait of a person is even harder. An obvious issue is that your subject probably won't stay still. A definite wriggle is not such a problem; the danger is the slow and subtle slump. I once attended a class where we were instructed to paint a portrait one feature at a time, with no drawing and, importantly, no initial mapping out of the body and face. Unfortunately we realised after two hours that our (expensive and supposedly professional) model had been slowly turning in her seat throughout the session, and as a result the entire class' output was an exercise in Cubism with every portrait depicting features and limbs painted from different angles.

On top of these practical problems are the additional psychological hurdles; we all know it is Rude to Stare. New students of portrait painting find it surprisingly hard to examine another person's face in calculating and objective detail. And if it is hard to study someone's face, consider then what taboos we come up against when dealing with Life Drawing: that all encompassing euphemism which means, essentially, drawing or painting a fellow human being with no clothes on. (NB for it to be Life Drawing it has to be the model who has no clothes on. If the artist is the one with no clothes on then that is just weird and doesn't, as far as I'm aware, have a specific name.)  We are all carrying around several thousand years of conditioning that, unless you work in a very limited and specific set of professions, you Do Not Look at Someone's Bits.

Pile all these issues together and a Life Drawing session can be as exhausting as a gym workout. The levels of concentration are tremendous and are multiplied by the brain trying to do mental back flips and normalise the idea of a complete stranger lying naked in a contorted pose in a brightly lit room full of clothed people who are (hopefully) not there for sexual titillation and without anyone admitting it's weird. I find it interesting to observe the behaviour of artists in a life class; people often become either exaggeratedly studious (I am a serious artist), excessively casual and jokey (I'm not uncomfortable AT ALL) or affect an other-worldly lack of awareness (model, what model?). On one occasion I saw an artist cross the room by stepping over the prone model as if she were an inanimate object. I can understand how his coping mechanisms led him to do it but it was still bloody rude. Yes you get better at coping and less unsettled the more sessions you attend, but the dichotomy is that you really cannot assume a level of clinical detachment without losing the emotional involvement that is necessary to produce art. In order to produce a portrait you can't stop responding to the model as a living, breathing.....naked... human being.

This is why I sigh heavily when I see yet another tv sketch set in a life class, but that irritation is tame compared to the email I mentioned. In it I was asked to act as the tutor for a new venture offering 'Leisure' life classes. On further enquiry these turned out to be hen parties where tipsy women would 'draw' a nude male model. Hysterical, no? When I expressed concerns that this cheapened art and was disrespectful of the models I was told that they were fully aware of what was involved, that no-one was making them do it and that they would be paid the going rate. Now where have I heard those arguments before? Needless to say I didn't accept the booking.

(Oh and by the way... if you have read this far and think I was overreacting and being prudish, please substitute 'stag parties', 'tipsy men' and 'nude female model' in the previous paragraph. Maybe then it doesn't sound such a jolly jape.)

To end then, if you are an artist, or indeed a model, who takes part in life sessions, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. (Would you have taken that booking?). If you are an artist who has never tried life drawing then DO IT - it's a fantastic challenge and will shake up your work. If you are an art lover, then I hope that having read this you will see nude studies in a different light and perhaps have a refreshed appreciation of what goes into them.

All illustrations are my own pencil and watercolour sketches made in short pose life sessions.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Offset printing - transferring a design to multiple blocks

When creating a relief print with two or more blocks, one of the first challenges is successfully transferring the design onto each block so that together they will create a image. Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this is to take a tracing of your design and then use carbon paper to copy it onto each block. There can be drawbacks with this method though. For one thing you need to be very precise; if you draw 1 mm outside the line on one block and 1 mm inside it on another, you end up with a difference of 2 mm which can be enough to make a real mess of your print.

But sometimes you just won't have a  master drawing which is definite enough for you to use it to make each block. Perhaps you have drawn your original design straight onto your block, or perhaps you started with a traced design but have adapted and changed it as you carved that first block. This is where the offset printing technique of transferring a design comes into its own. Here's a quick guide to how it works with a woodcut print.

After carving the first block, it is inked up quite thickly (probably more than you would do for an actual print). You don't need to worry too much about stray bits of ink on the cleared away parts.

This is then printed onto thin paper (eg newsprint). This can be done quickly and easily by hand with a baren when using such thin paper.

Immediately, while the ink is still wet, this thick gungy print is laid face down on your second block. (Make sure it is lined up exactly the same way as your first one). The back is rubbed hard with the baren to transfer the ink onto the second block.

And now you have an exact replica of your first block reproduced on the second one.

From here you can start marking where you want to cut the second block.

In this example, which will be a two block print, I have carved the lighter coloured block first. This provides the structure of the image and the second darker block will be the added details. Sometimes it will be more appropriate to carve the dark second block first, when this is the one with the main features of the image while the lighter colour is looser background stuff like water or foliage. In 'Black Swan and Cygnets' (below) I carved the black block first and then used that to tell me where the lighter parts should be on the second block. When making the actual print, the second lighter block becomes the first block, and the dark block carved first becomes the second block. (Confused? Welcome to the world of printmaking!)

Now that you've got all your blocks carved - there might be more than two - you can tweak and refine them as you make proof prints. As with all carving of printmaking blocks, it's good to start off with simplified shapes and then develop the details; you can always carve away more but you can't put bits back.