Des Res

In a week or so I will be setting off to Japan for an artist’s residency of several weeks to further my Japanese woodblock printing skills. At present details remain sketchy: I know I am the British artist, but don’t know who my four other companions are or which countries they will represent. Interestingly this worries me far less than the thought of crossing Tokyo. Printmakers always have plenty in common; I and the noodle sprawl of the Tokyo subway less so…

On the face of it, an artist’s residency seems like a bit of a jolly. Five weeks to indulge. Indeed, ‘aren’t you lucky’ is something I have been hearing on a very regular basis. I wouldn’t argue with the fact that I am lucky, but what I see as luck may not be the same as the luck implied in the comment. Artists like me have the luck of possessing the drive to stick with a technique and work through the catastrophes, goofs and setbacks to get to a point where we can be good enough to be considered for residencies. After that, luck is out of the equation: selection committees select, they don’t tend to pull names at random from a hat (at least I’ve never been on one that’s done that, however dull the evening and close the pub).

The residency also brings responsibility. I am giving up earnings, cancelling a workshop or two and putting family on hold to go out there. I’d better have something to show for it when I get back. I’m gambling that five weeks far from my comfort zone will result in a move forward in my work. I don’t doubt it will be a marvelous trip and I am certainly not asking for sympathy. I’m more explaining that a residency has to mark a point of change for my work or I will have failed and not be lucky at all: I’ll just have been self indulgent.

Behind the scenes

Registration problems, sometimes it all goes wrong…

Like most people, I do try to present a fairly polished front to the world when it comes to my work. Certainly I do my best to be organised and efficient at the admin end of the business (investing in a desk and a filing cabinet has been a revelation and I am pathetically thrilled by having a basket on my desk with stapler and sellotape to hand. Scissors still elude me despite bulk buying, but we can’t ask for everything…)

The upshot of all this is that I tend to only show the good bits of my work: the neat little sketches with potential, the studio shots where I look in control and am not squinting at the camera in a confused leer and, most of all, finished prints. For a change I thought I would show you some heart ache. Things don’t always go well and this print has been a really good example of what can go wrong. Inevitably this was the last print in the series of fourteen due for my client with a deadline looming and almost as inevitably I developed a head cold featuring a dangerously drippy nose at the same time.

working proof showing how things shouldn't look
working proof showing how things shouldn’t look

Japanese woodblock relies on a series of registration slots called Kento. These slots are cut by chisel onto the wood along with the block for printing and are crucial to lining up all the layers of the print into a full coloured picture. They act as a guide and the printing paper fits into them and is held in place to take the impression. Get any of the Kento slots a couple of mm out and the picture will be wonky. The print here has 18 different Kento slots (some of the blocks share a Kento, there are roughly 45 to 50 different woodblocks for this picture) and somewhere along the line I was out of sync.

Trouble is that it isn’t until I start printing that the problem becomes clear and even then it is seldom obvious just which kento is the problem and with several blocks sharing a kento, it could be just one of them that is out of line. The paper doesn’t make things easy either: it must stay damp, consistently the same damp, or it changes dimension. The bigger the print, the bigger the distortion. This print is 120cm wide and the paper can change by as much as 4mm as it dries. It’s easy to control if all goes to plan, but have a head scratching crisis of alignment and the paper is against me, drying out as I try to see the break in the chain of Kentos and adding to the confusion.

In the end I did manage to get a finished print without the benefit any drips from my leaking nose, but it was a nightmare.

DSC_0234I would love you all to think that I have everything under control and things always go to plan, but it’s not the case. I do get caught out, as I have here, and I am far from perfect. It’s just that I tend not to talk about it much!

Anti-Wrinkle Treatment

Getting your Japanese woodblock prints to dry flat.

Paper has a hard time in my hands as a printmaker. I put it through all sorts of stresses and strains on the way to making a print and still expect it to finish up as a pristine, flat sheet of loveliness at the end, though hopefully with a layer or two of colour on top.

Oil based lino prints aren’t a problem. I’ve been doing them a long time: I use Zerkal paper (like most of the printers I know) and it works a treat, staying nicely flat under the pressure of my Albion press. The clever bit for me here is keeping my filthy hands off the edges of the print.

The Japanese printing I do is a whole different story: this is a watercolour process, the paper is damp and I am constantly stretching the paper with hand rubbing in different places. The Fabriano I use, while very good tempered about taking the paint, can be very hard to dry flat, especially if the print is large.

I have very recently, after lots of stacking and balancing acts with everything from those big cookery books, the sort with just the one great recipe, to old bricks, discovered a way to resolve the problem. I now use two large sheets of birch carpenter’s ply held absolutely tight together with butterfly clamps. Butterfly clamps are a builder’s equivalent of a peg, but massively stronger and much larger. I bought mine off a puzzled man in my local market at £1.50 each. They have rubber over the gripping mechanism which protects the ply should you later want to turn it into a woodcut. Buy plenty: the more you clamp, the better.

I put my damp prints straight onto the clean ply and put another sheet over the top (this is 5mm thick ply, it’s probably best to have it fairly sturdy) and simply clamp all the way around with my butterfly clamps. It takes about two days or so to work and the prints are beautifully flat at the end. The ply absorbs the moisture, then dries out and off you go again, though you must keep it clean. Keeping anything clean for me is a major challenge which is why I go on about it so much.

There is another very occasional problem and it’s pretty much out of my control: pictures getting damp in frames and then coming back from wherever they have been shown cockled. These wrinkly prints can be both linocuts and woodblocks. With these, after stomping about a bit in temper, I remove from their frames and make up a sandwich of slightly damp blotting paper. I put the prints, oil based lino included, into the blotting paper parcel and allow the prints to get damp for about 4 hours or so. At this stage they become alarmingly wrinkly and look terrible. They then go into the ply and I dry them as before. The result is again a lovely flat print.

I can’t promise that this will work well for every sort of print, you’ll have to try it for yourself, but it certainly works for me…

Colour coded

How to handle your pallet on many layered prints

This weekend I spent printing one of my fourteen giant watercolour woodblocks for the Health Centre on the Isle of Wight. It was never going to be easy: Japanese watercolour woodblock is really designed for perhaps A3 or less, not for over a metre wide. However, the medium does, provided your nerves are steady and your arms long, allow for printing on any scale as there is no press to limit size.

West Cowes, Isle of Wight
West Cowes, Isle of Wight

The main thing, in my opinion, is to get the colours right. No good having a foreground dislocated from the background or lose the sense of distance in a squash of mismatched pigment. I’m stuck with doing this in my head as I go along because I find that the more I plan, the more the life of the print seeps away. To this end I have many, many little glass tea light holders (thank you IKEA. And while I mention the Norse god of home solutions, you can buy sheets of heavy glass with ground edges, perfect for mixing inks, for a song at IKEA just now. Just look for ‘Malm glass top’). The holders are filled with what my lovely Irish father-in-law describes as ‘Laura’s designer sh*t colours’. They get gradually more and more mixed up as I go and result in what I hope is a subtle print of correctly balanced colours. Not so easy this time with dozens of separate little abstract shapes – is it a bird, is it a plane? No it’s the back of a warehouse… You get my drift.

I do test colour and the way to do this with a Japanese print is to take a test sheet of paper (you will of course keep all the trimmings from cutting down your papers to size. Also good for posh shopping lists and guaranteed to impress when you go to pick up your sushi ingredients. Believe me, the Japanese will notice). Put a blob of mixed watercolour on one side of the paper. Take your finger and smear the blob across the paper. It is the smear, not the blob which gives the true result. You also end up with a neat reference sheet which, if you are a better person than me, you could make colour mix notes on as well.

There is a partner to the print here of West Cowes. No prizes for guessing that’ll be East Cowes and for that I have to echo the colours, though not in the matching handbag to shoes way. That would be too obvious. The trick will be to get the pictures to relate, not match. The good news is that there are fewer warehouses on the East Cowes side…

Triumph and Disaster

Observations on bamboo paper.

At Art in Action I met a chap called Chris from Hahnemuhle paper and was able to pester him about the bamboo paper his company makes.

I’ve gone on about paper before: in an ideal world I would be using traditional Washi paper for my watercolour Japanese woodblock printing. Unfortunately this mulberry bark paper is affordable in Japan, but quickly becomes unaffordable here. At the thickness and quality that I want, it would really be more economical to employ a Saville Row tailor to hand stitch fifty pound notes into printing paper.

So I thought that perhaps Hahnemuhle’s bamboo paper* was worth a go. Normally I use Fabriano, either Academia or Artistico (both 200g) depending on the size of my work. It works fine, but bamboo sounded so much more fun. Besides which, Chris was really kind and gave me a large pad for experimenting. Art in Action was in July and I have finally got around to giving it a go. I’m gutted: it doesn’t work. It really, really should work, but it doesn’t take the colour smoothly. This is akin to my disappointment over eating dhal: I love lentils, I love Indian food, but I somehow hate dhal. There’s something wrong with the world order somewhere…

However, there is a silver lining to the story. The bamboo paper, almost a thick card, takes the Intaglio oil based relief inks I use for linocut printing superbly well. For those who like the ease of oil based inks, but admire the matt quality of water based inks, this paper takes away the shine of the dry ink giving it a subtle sheen at most. The other really great plus is the reduced drying time. I do use a cobalt dryer to speed up ink drying, but the inks on this paper were dry within a couple of hours, allowing me to get two layers of oil based printing done within a working day. Coverage is good too, no extra inking, though as always I sanded the lino lightly before printing. It’s a great paper for a lush heavy matt print, though it will need a press.

I have also had a go with Fabriano rosaspina**, another heavy paper for printing with a slight feel of blotting paper. Not good for water based woodblock either: the same uneven inking as the bamboo. I ordered it because my mate Ian Phillips uses it for his marvellous hand burnished reduction lino prints (and because it so felt like the Washi I now realise was a rare and precious treasure that I walloped my clumsy way through in Japan). This also works really well for me with oil based inks using my Albion press with a matt finish similar to the bamboo. There is a note of caution though as the paper embosses with the normal pressure of the press. This will either work really well for your image or not, so factor that in. I couldn’t get a clean print without the slight emboss, but I have a dramatic winter scene in mind among other ideas where this characteristic will, I hope, be the making of the print.

*
Hahnemuhle bamboo paper 290g (90% bamboo 10%rag)

**
Fabriano rosaspina 285g (60% rag)