Wednesday, November 13, 2013

DIY Hardwood Blocks- Part 2

Happy fall! I've taken a little time here and there in between taking care of kids to work on a small engraving of a kitty cat. Today I finally got it proofed for the third time and was happy enough with it to be ready to print.

Below are some photos of work in progress. First off on the left the original image and drawing on the block.

The DIY woodblock I'm using is willow (raita in finnish). I was on pins and needles before digging in, hoping that all my work would not have been in vain. It was not disappointing. The wood was fairly soft to carve, but strong enough to hold pretty small details. The only bad thing about the block, that I found out, was that the very heart of it was soft. Thank goodness it was in a spot where it could be carved out and you can't notice. I need to make sure successive prints are designed around it.

Below are two states of the block being carved out. I mostly use a medium sized spitsticker engraving tool for carving the hairs and a wide blade to carve out the areas around the animal. This wood was soft enough for me to come in with a Flexcut u-shaped carver and clear out the large areas.

Below is a picture of two proofs side by side. The changes from 1-2-3 proofs were pretty minimal, but those changes are what makes or breaks the print for me. 

Here's the final print. They will be printed on Rives lightweight paper by means of hand burnishing. Well- at least that's the plan. The wood is too thick to run through the proofing press, and instead of running it through the etching press, its so small that I think it'll just be easier to hand burnish it. 

I'm thinking about adding some color to the eyes after printing. Opinions? I'm hoping to finish this edition before we head out for a month at the end of November. This little piece was so fun to work on, and I hope to make some more soon. I have horses on my mind... and birds. You'll just have to wait and see. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

DIY Hardwood Blocks

Last summer I interviewed several people in Finland for the wallhanging project. One of the old ladies lived on an old farm built by her grandfather. The house and barn were very much in their natural state surrounded by dense woods and plots of fields. Over the course of the afternoon we chatted about a multitude of things, including what I do as a printmaker. As our discussion turned to using wood to carve on and how expensive it is and hard to find, she offered some fallen down trees for me to use from her property. There was an old apple tree that had fallen down, a large branch from a Rowan and some willow that she hoped some one could use for some artistic projects. She felt it was a shame that the good wood was just rotting away on her property, so I agreed to take some of it off her hands.

The prospect of getting some wood to carve on was exciting, but I felt pretty lost on how it would get from a wet branch in a field to a sanded block ready to carve in the studio. But since I'm never one to shun a challenge and learn something new, I convinced my dad to bring his chainsaw over the following weekend and help cut off some chunks I could refine. Ah- the retired look on my dads face: another one of her great ideas that will never get past the beginning. He was nice enough to humor me. It would have been great to take a whole bunch of wood to last for years, but since my parents weren't so keen on storing it for me and I can only fit so much in a suitcase I figured not to push my luck. And on the other hand I didn't even know if the woods would work for engraving and if I could get them to a state where they could be engraved. So at the end of a wet afternoon we ended up tossing a couple of small pieces of each type of tree in the trunk of the SUV...

Raita / Goat Willow 

The trees I got in finnish were Raita, Pihlaja and Omena. Raita is a type of a willow, Salix Caprea. I found three names for it in english: Goat Willow, Pussy Willow and Great Sallow. I am not an expert, so maybe one or all of them are correct.

Pihlaja / Rowan. Chopped with a chainsaw, you can see how irregular thickness the pieces are. 

The second tree, Pihlaja is in latin: Sorbus Aucuparia, and in english I found two names: Rowan and Mountain Ash.

Omena / Apple. Don't think these will be worth much carving into.

The third tree was an old apple tree. This one had already fallen last year, and it had already begun to rot. I took a piece anyways to see if there was anything good with it, but at then end of sanding the wood, I don't think these pieces are worth carving. You can see the pits in it, since the wood was very crumbly. They do look beautiful in their colors if nothing else. Maybe I can paint on the surface on them or something.

After bringing the wood home, I had to figure out how to process it. The advice I got from woodengravers and found online was that drying the wood without a kiln would take months, if not years. As mentioned before, I have no place to put these damp pieces of wood, so they needed to be processes now. In the back of my mind the whole time, I had thought about a family friend we had 20 years ago, who made brooches and knife handles out of hardwood. He told us his little tip for drying wood was to microwave it. So online searching I went for microwave wood recipes.

I found several tidbits here and there mostly from woodturners, but I figured wood is wood and all I can lose is some time. In the end I think I ended up with a nice stack of discs ready to engrave for a couple days of work. Not a bad way to spend my summer "vacation".

First I used a chop saw and cut the woods up into discs about 1 inch or 2-3 cm thick. I did not measure too rigidly, since my proofing press has an adjustable height roller, and as a backup I have an etching press. The thing I was trying to be the most careful about was to cut each piece parallel, so one side is not thinner that the other. Easier said than done on a plain chop/chain saw, a lumpy piece of wood and the will to keep all my 10 fingers.

Detail of the apple tree. Notice the pits. The only really good part is on the right edge.

After all the wood was cut, I sealed them in 1gal ziplock bags, to make sure they wouldn't dry out on me too quickly, since I was able to only process a small amount of wood once. One of the tips I found was that you could keep it in the freezer and open it once a week or every couple of days to dry the condensation out and return to the freezer. This allows for the wood to dry out slowly and without cracking, and prevents mold. But again, no time for this, I was returning back home in a week. I did try it with a couple of bags and condensation did appear in a matter of days, so I assume this technique would work.

So what followed for the next week was a microwave hogging operation/experiment that left the house smelling like an old woodshed (good or bad- I dont know?). All that was needed was:
Wood for drying (mine were cut to about 1" thickness)
Plastic bags

The willow and apple were smaller cuts, about 3in across, and the ash was bigger, around 5-8in across. For the smaller pieces I would microwave 40 seconds on high and the bigger pieces 1 min on high. You want to heat the wood up, so that I will lose moisture, but not too hot, where it will lose the moisture too fast and crack. The reason wood cracks when it dries is that the inside of the wood dries slower than the outside, and when the outside dries, it contracts around the middle and then cracks. The reason the microwaving works is that it dries the wood from the inside out. I also learned that the heart of the wood, when dry, contracts less than the more porous outside of the wood. But when dried right, it should all stay together without cracking.

After heating in the microwave, I would place the wood in between news papers. It keeps it warm longer and helps ease the moisture out. The directions said to keep out about 30 seconds and then reheat in the microwave. Never let the wood completely cool off in between and keep it at an even heat. I think also the size of the piece matters, smaller pieces cool off faster than bigger ones.

At the end of the day in all reality, with a toddler, horses, dogs, other adults and visitors and using the kitchen microwave, it was not plausible to keep up a 30 second interval schedule. In the beginning I tried, but got pretty much the same result if I forgot the wood in between microwaving and let it sit for over an hour in between heating times. I think its just important to keep it up in the beginning when you are losing more moisture, and when the wood is close to drying out, it does not matter as much anymore. When the newspaper got soaked, I would turn it over or use a new one.

In the beginning I was heating up pieces individually, but then started to do batches of 2-5 to speed up the process. I would microwave on top of each other and lay out in between the papers to dry, and then make sure to stack in a different order next time when microwaving.

How do you know when you are done microwaving the wood? One good telltale sign is to weigh in between microwaving to see if you are still losing weight, and when the weight loss becomes less, you are done. I used a digital kitchen scale. Here are some examples of weights and how many rounds of microwaving I did. (if there is a big jump, I probably forgot the wood for a while.)

5 small (3in) pieces of wood, all weight in grams: 614, 606, 560, 526, 500, 458, 440, 422,408, 400

1 small piece: 122, 116, 112, 108, 102, 96, 92, 88, 84, 82, 80, 78

2 big ones: 884, 866, 850, 840, 834, 828, 822, 794, 782, 766, 754, 740, 730, 722

I would also hold the wood to see how dry and light it felt. Each piece would lose about 1/3 of its weight. I did not want them to be parch dry, because I figured they would crack easier. The little moisture that was left was ok and what more needed to go would naturally evaporate over time without cracking the wood. (I've had the wood sitting in my studio for about 4 months now, and it's still not cracked. So I think it was a good decision.)

After all the wood was dried and piled up nicely on the dining room table, it was time to sand the discs. All we had was a belt sander and a pad sander. The belt sander had a 80 grit paper on it, and the pad sander a 180. Remember the pieces had been cut with a coarse blade with the chop saw, and the big pieces with a chainsaw, so there was a decent amount to sand down. I used a work bench where the wood pieces could be attached down and I would use the sander as evenly as possible to smooth the surface. For the smaller pieces, I would attach the beltsander belly up on the vice and then hold the pieces on it to sand them. The only thing I tried to do was to sand from all directions and make sure not to push down on the edges, so that the discs wouldn't end up dome shaped. After I got the surfaces smooth with the belt sander, I used the pad sander to refine them. If I would have found a belt that was a finer grit for the belt sander I would have only used that, but since we live in the country, I had to take what was available at the local store.

Hairline cracks in the rowan after too much sanding. 
The big tip is take your time sanding. The first couple of pieces I was working on ended getting a whole bunch of hairline cracks radiating from the middle because the wood heated up too much during sanding. So again to save on time, I would work on a couple of pieces at a time. Sand one, then put it down and grab another one while the first one cools off.

The other tip is, if you don't have the best equipment, sand outside. There was so much wood dust that it caked the vice and stand I was using even with a little wind in the air. Being outside helped with not inhaling so much dust and having to clean up the whole shop after I was done.  That was the process that worked for me. If you have any questions please ask.

Now there is a beautiful stack of wood waiting to be carved in my studio. I have a small piece of willow sitting next to my computer waiting for a sketch. I'll try to carve something to test and proof before we head out for Christmas and post the results. In the meantime: Happy Printing!

Oh the things that are waiting to be carved!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Curtis Bartone - Interview

Photo Red Davis
I hope you are having a great summer so far. Its time to talk to a friend of mine from Savannah, GA- Curtis Bartone. We met about 7 years ago when I stationed down there with my husband. We were both working on intricate animal etchings, so of course we hit it off from day one. I admire Curtis a lot, and wish I could be as fruitful in the studio as he is (and have access to great etching and litho facilities).

I wanted to interview him after the Abecedaria portfolio that we were in together, and ask some questions that I didn't know the answers to. Here is what he had to share:

Curtis, can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in printmaking and why you chose printmaking?

My MFA is actually in Painting. I took lithography in undergraduate school--but that didn't get me "hooked" on printmaking (even though I learned A LOT from my Tamarind-trained teacher, James Weigle). Lithography at that time was just an inferior way to make a drawing. Then, in graduate school, at Northwestern University, I discovered the sexy medium of intaglio. After graduating and losing my access to a printshop, I started printing at the Evanston Art Center with Audrey Niffenegger (better known these days as a bestselling author). Her quirky group of "outsider" printmakers formed my art kin. None of us considered ourselves  "printmakers" because we all worked in other media and none of us were too keen on editioning our work. For me, printmaking was another way to make images--an extension of drawing.

I've been printing off and on for 25 years. Printmaking started as a "side" fascination and has now evolved into most of my artistic output. The last solo show I had was my first all-print exhibition. The next one probably will be comprised entirely of prints as well. I now "think" in terms of etching and lithography--those distinct qualities stain every concept, every idea that enters my brain.

Three pieces that Curtis printed for the portfolio
Gabon Viper/Gas Explosion, aluminum plate, 3 color lithograph, embossing
Hornet/Housing, aluminum plate, 3 color lithograph, embossing
Iktomi/Incinerator, aluminum plate lithography, chine colle, embossing

What are your inspirations (people, things, places...)?

Since my overall way of working is to compress anything that interests me into the illusion of a single moment, it's hard to pinpoint where my inspiration comes from or where it may come from in the future. Artmaking for me is about paying attention and being open to everything around me. While I'm always looking at other artwork, illustrations and photographs (both hard copy and digital), I find more and more that  I am inspired by non-visual, non-art sources--ideas that I come across in literature, science, travel writing, even cookbooks. I am inspired by my surroundings: industry, manicured lawns, golf courses, gardens, the  displays and dioramas found in Natural History Museums. Lately, I have been drawn to images from the news of explosions, pollution, waste, and destruction. They seem to exemplify, in an accidentally beautiful way, the hopeless times we live in.

Stylistically, my work owes a great debt to the past: artists of the Renaissance, especially Albrecht Durer; Chicago painter Ivan Albright with his overly-active surfaces; Mexican artist Remedios Varo, who creates finely-crafted, ethereal worlds; and early 18th- and 19th-century renderings of flora and fauna, especially the work of John James Audubon and Thomas Bewick. The Netherlandish still life and hunt scene painters--Frans Snyders, Rachel Ruysch, and Willem Kalf--have probably had, and continue to have, the strongest influence on my work. I have always been drawn to the technical/formal aspects and seductive beauty of these paintings.  But more than that, I find many societal parallels between the 21st-century United States and 17th-century Holland--both societies being comprised of numerous wealthy consumers able to import food, objects, flora and fauna from all over the world.

Iktomi/Incinerator, aluminum plate lithography, chine colle, embossing (not seen in picture)
What is your favorite medium?

My favorite medium changes frequently to fit the way I am thinking at the time. Recently, this works the other way as well. I am attracted to some visceral quality inherent in a particular medium and that drives my ideas. That being said--as the years pile up, I find that etching feels like home. I always come back to it. Like visiting home after being away for a long time, etching makes me feel a mix of familiarity and unsettledness. When I return, etching is the same, but I have changed. However, I am being lured away more and more by the magical properties of lithography--especially traditional stone lithography. What could be better than drawing and scratching on a very old rock?

Your comments on the prints that were in the Abecedaria portfolio?

The work in the alphabet portfolio was exceptional. The prints were humbling, to say the least. What an exciting portfolio to be a part of! I made it a goal to use litho techniques and color palettes that I almost never use and, like any uncomfortable undertaking, I made mistakes and fought most of the way. In fact, I spent more time and swore more making these tiny prints than I did making huge etchings a couple months back. Oddly, the pieces I end up liking the most are the ones that I struggled (sometimes even hated) to make. Maybe I feel like the prints and I went through something together.

Any bits of wisdom that you have learned over the years?

--Make the work you want to make and then worry about the "career" stuff. There are better ways to get rich. There is a word for someone who goes into artmaking as a way to get rich, and that work is "moron." Piles of money will make you happier if it comes on your own terms, without compromise.

--Have career goals, but don't take them too seriously. This is a sure recipe for depression. We all  spend more time in our studios than we do schmoozing or accepting awards. Fame and fortune are fleeting, nebulous and ultimately disappointing, but our studio/laboratory experience can be as fulfilling as we let it be. It's the wisest cliché of them all: live in the moment!

--Don't censor your work until you put it down on paper. Some ideas sound stupid or overdone, but become original or ironic when realized visually and vice versa--a brilliant idea may become dull and boring when put to paper.

--Learn everything. If you get a chance to learn anything, take it--even if it doesn't fit your "style."

--Never lower your prices to fit a certain demographic. People who bought your work in the past don't like to think that someone else is getting the same work for cheap.

--If you have to make a complicated contract with the gallery who handles your work, get another gallery.

--Never pay to show your work. Think very hard about entry fees and high commissions. How badly do you need that line on your resume? Never seem desperate--even if you are.

--Don't donate your work to museums for free. It ruins it for everyone. Again: how badly do you need that line on your resume?

--Use even the smallest group show or trade portfolio as motivation to make new work.

Well, that's surely something to think about. Thanks Curtis! I only posted pictures of the pieces that were included in the portfolio in this post. If you want to see more, you can find more information and images on Curtis' website of course. 

Thanks for reading, and thank you Curtis for sharing. In the next post, I'll share what all has been going in at my studio in the last months.