Dog Day Afternoon

I’m usually good at deadlines. I went to the sort of school where handing in essays before their due date wasn’t seen as a revolting bit of crawling by the class swot, it was considered the least you could do. In fact I expect some of my classmates probably had essays written just in case, like newspapers awaiting a royal death. Good training, but it didn’t leave me much time for smoking behind the bike sheds.

That said I very nearly missed the deadline for writing the paper I am shortly due to deliver at the International Mokuhanga Conference in Tokyo. I suspect my subconscious to be at fault here, throwing up an endless list of important alternative occupations. The mere title ‘Educational Practice Report’ is a tough one to see sitting at the top of a blank page and sit it did, right up until a day or so ago.

Backed into a corner I started to write about my teaching. Given that I teach short courses to people who learn for pleasure and my approach is always to be friendly and informal, my ‘educational practice report’ swiftly started to turn into a long blog. This is easy, I thought as I began to expand on why teaching is such a benefit to the working artist. Then I noticed the dog in the garden. We don’t own a dog.

He was big and white and of the sort that Channel Five might excitably describe as ‘killer pit bull’. The only threat he actually posed, when I went out to catch him, was killing me through sheer relief at seeing a human face. We lurched around as he tried to climb into my arms and I tried to read his collar. Finally I shut him into our enclosed passage at the side of the house while I called his owner. The owner couldn’t have cared less. He was on holiday and Ozzie had already escaped once since they left he said, cheerfully promising to send his mum round to collect. Ozzie was by now living up to his rock star namesake; dancing up and down the passageway, making a great deal of noise and peeing lavishly and indiscriminately.

I went back to the writing, waiting for Mum to arrive, only to be called away for a delivery of picture frame moulding in three metre lengths. The delivery man sank into deep gloom when I explained it had to come off the lorry and into the passageway where there was now a large mad dog. The atmosphere became increasingly charged as I caught the baying Ozzie, held the door and asked him to lift the moulding onto a shelf above the piddle. Apparently lifting, along with speaking, was not in the delivery man’s repertoire and I can’t say I blamed him. However, slowly, and in a pregnant silence worthy of Pinter, he obliged and I re-shut the door on Ozzie who wept and howled. The delivery man departed without comment after a long stare, mulling over both my cruelty to animals and to him.

I went back to writing, now feeling raw and distracted. Eventually Mum arrived. Boy, was she cross. Cross at how hard our house was to find, cross that she had to park in the road, cross she’d been called away from her decorating and, above all, cross with Ozzie. I led her to the passageway where Ozzie burst out, a missile of love and delight, to have his bottom well smacked by Mum (by this time I was half expecting her to smack mine). He was ecstatic with the smacking and shouting game so we obligingly chased him around the garden for a while and then she was gone, still grouching.

You’ll be surprised to hear, after all this, that I did complete the paper that day. You can read it here. It celebrates the benefit of teaching for pleasure and, I hope, shows how important my teaching and my students are to me. It’s not much of a serious paper, but then what can you expect from a dog trapper and exploiter of innocent delivery men?

If you go down to the woods today…

Reduction Japanese woodblock printing experiment.

Bluebells, Wet Spring, now available in my gallery
Bluebells, Wet Spring, now available in my gallery

I often get asked about the difference between a reduction linocut and a Japanese woodblock. Reduction prints (apologies to those who know) are created from a single piece of material, the block being cut each time a colour is printed. As the picture develops so the block is destroyed. The process depends on a build up of ink, one layer on top of another and the entire edition must be printed at the same time. Japanese woodblock depends on the transparency of watercolour and so the print relies on a jigsaw of individually cut blocks which fit together, rarely overlapping. This preserves the brilliancy of the delicate colour and the editioning can be done in stages.

Of course things don’t have to be that simple and this summer I decided to mix up my approach: pushing Japanese woodblock to perform well using the reduction techniques I normally reserve for lino. I wanted to layer watercolour to see if I could exploit its transparency without losing its brilliance. I also wanted, and here’s the honest part, to complete a very complicated picture without cutting a huge number of blocks (huge is a relative number, I did still need to cut an awful lot). Besides I’d spent the whole of my open studios bigging up the print with all the enthusiasm of Kim Kardashian’s publicity team. Whole families signed up to my mailing list on the strength of seeing the finished print alone, thrilled by the prospect of all that ugly splintered builder’s ply morphing into the quiet beauty of a Buckinghamshire bluebell wood. (To watch a short film about this print click here)

So here it is, my ‘Bluebells, Wet Spring’. A print with multiple overlapping wood blocks, some printed as reduction. It is printed on heavy, blanket soft Fabriano Rosaspina paper which I have sized with a mix of fish glue and alum. The size hinders the paint so I had to use more strength than usual to print, forcing the watercolours into the paper. The trade off is the grainy effect of old fashioned fast analogue film which I think perfect for this particular image. By layering four different background blocks, each one reaching up to the top of the image, I’ve arrived at an increasingly ambiguous background. Normally a recipe for muddy disaster, it is this layering of green watercolour on watercolour that allowed me to play with building up the particular sappy, lush feel of a wet spring wood, misty and undefined.

I’ve also varied the tree trunks by cutting some out in some background layers and not in others while yet more are overprinted onto the background individually. Hence the mix of densely printed trunks with those that only have one or two layers of colour. I kept the silver birch trees entirely free of background paint, printing the grey bark in layers as a reduction onto the white paper, chopping into the woodblock for each layer. The same goes for the bluebells. Cutting bluebell shaped holes in exactly the right place across three of the four background layers is every bit as engaging as it sounds, but worth it in the final print; allowing the pure lavender blue of the bells to hum against the green background.

Did I plan all this? Only in so far as cutting the blocks and having a mind’s eye view of the finished image. Colour I always take as it comes, preferring to make my choices as I go. You can see that by the lack of it in my drawings and the difference between the proof and the print. Luck also comes into it: I’d run some tests on the rosaspina paper and had been annoyed by the result at the time, but remembered it and realised it was the very effect I wanted here. Did I appreciate how much my feet would ache by the end of printing the whole edition in one shot over three very long days? Not at all…