The Dating Game

Recently I stepped away from having a paper diary and into the cloud world of an electronic diary. The idea of relying on a cloud to keep me up to date with the daily dance of students, galleries, teaching venues, delivery dates (not to forget cat inoculations, the dentist and birthdays) is not terribly confidence inspiring. However, it seems to work and my also-new android phone trills and buzzes with reminders and updates, telling me that I am so terribly important now.

I know artists traditionally have the reputation of being above such mundane tasks, but the fact is that, however fabulous the work, nobody loves an artist who is late or forgets to sign contracts, delivers work on the wrong day or, my personal nightmare, doesn’t turn up to teach their class. There are precious few of us famous enough to get away with this sort of flaky behaviour. It’s my experience that an artist’s reputation is as fragile as a Hardy heroine’s: once the word gets out that you are trouble, people will move on. The plus side to this is that a reputation for being on time, on budget, well prepared and generally efficient will result in work, bookings and happy galleries.

This was brought home to me today when I finally compared my Cumulonimbus’s worth of teaching and exhibiting dates with the events and teaching pages on my web site – disaster! I’ve slipped out of sync and had to spend several hours updating. That opens up the can of worms that is web site maintenance (another time I think, I’m stressed enough as it is). I guess I will have to add yet another task to the diary to update regularly so this doesn’t happen.

I don’t suppose it matters how you keep a diary; I’ve had all sorts in my time from lockable ones (two days worth of serious teenage angst and then forgotten), an eighties filofax (too big) through Moleskines (so hip) to the cloudy one. The point is to pay attention to it. I am very late to the electronic diary, but now I have it I find it has two great advantages: it chirrups until I pay attention plus I can book courses in a year or two ahead without scrawling hopefully in the back of the current year. The only thing I miss is the annual choosing of the colour…

Touching Up

Polishing Japanese woodblock prints.

The subject of touching up is always a bit controversial even when, as here, I am referring to prints rather than people. It is something my students tend to discuss between themselves in whispers as though expecting me to descend on them with a cane if I were to catch them at it. Far from it: I do it myself.

There are plenty of purists out there who apply rules to the making of art and craft. Some of those are quite rightly maintaining guilds and official standards – botanical painting springs to mind. Others just want to keep things ‘proper’. The latter always make me want to be as improper as possible. I had a meltdown in a marquee once when some ladies told me that I ‘couldn’t’ spin wool the way I had learned in a croft on Islay (and how proper an apprenticeship is that?) because it wasn’t the way they did it. I may be doing it wrong, but my jumpers seem to work OK…

Japanese woodblock with some hand colouring
Japanese woodblock with some hand colouring

In the small world of my studio, I believe that as long as whatever you do doesn’t affect the archival integrity of the work, then it’s all fair game. To that end I blot off marks, correct coverage by painting with the pad of my fingertips, touch up with brushes (sadly this latter is almost impossible with Japanese woodblock and, interestingly, vitreous enamel. Both being too sensitive to hide that sort of correction) and generally do what I have to if I think it will improve the result. I also mend woodblocks with filler and glue when I get the chance. Lino is not so cooperative to repair, making it swings and roundabouts in terms of touching up prints.

I also hand paint certain parts of prints sometimes and this picture is an example in point. I wanted some of the leaves to have gold on them so I have dropped it in with a brush. I’m OK with that, though purists would argue that a Japanese woodblock should only be printed. Actually, I think the Japanese are great pragmatists: they printed every detail during the Edo period because they were mass printing for a client, not working on personal limited editions. I would hazard a guess they would touch in colour if it was the practical answer.

The conclusion I’m aiming at is that I never feel bad about touching up and corrections and I strongly advise students to make this a practical part of their knowledge. Maybe when I get on in years I will end up in a tent telling people that they are doing it all wrong, but I don’t think that’s likely. I’ll probably still be in my studio breaking the rules myself…

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!