Color Woodcut Printmaking: Day 4 & 5

The last two days of the workshop were work days. After introducing the two block reduction process on Friday (day 3), we had two full days to either continue working on a single block reduction or do second project. I spent both days working to finish my second print before the workshop ended, and I’m pretty happy with the result.

Two block color woodcut reduction print
The finished print.

Unlike my first piece, this one is a little more representational, or at least not completely abstract. I went on a silent retreat earlier this year here one of the topics for contemplation was how our community (locally and more broadly) is interconnected. The meditation used trees as a metaphor, and how their root systems can intertwine and grow together. Thinking about the retreat and walking the labyrinth there led me to draw this, and the result is pretty close to what I had in mind.

I don’t have photos of every step along the way, but I did make some notes. I printed three passes on the print on Saturday, which translated to six opportunities to lay down color (one from each block on each pass). 

“Block B” inked for the first pass.
“Block A” inked for the third pass.

I didn’t get caught in the trough of despair on this piece, but I did stall out a few times trying to figure out color layering. This is probably something you get better at with practice, so in the end I just made a choice and assumed I could make it work somehow. In retrospect I probably didn’t take full advantage of the possiblities this technique allows, specifically selective inking. I went to “full washes” of color after two passes. That is, I was inking the entire block (although not all necessarily with the same color) after the second pass. I think this worked out in the end, but I did wind up loosing the beautiful smoky gray of the stones as well as some of the sky variation by the final print. 

The print at the end of Saturday with three passes applied.

I also didn’t take any advantage of the “leftover” material on the second block. For the first pass I carved a “channel” around the parts I wanted to ink or not, leaving behind lots of extra wood. An advantage of this process is that that extra wood can be used to “break” the rules. That is, you have what looks like a normal single block woodcut, but marks show up in areas that have already been reduced, etc. The people in class who used this most effectively were working on abstract pieces where the rule-breaking allowed them to respond to each layer in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be possible without the second block.

Overall I’m happy with how it turned out. I did another three passes on Sunday to wind up with the final image, meaning that each piece of paper went through the press 12 times. I learned a lot about registration, color layering, and reduction. I also feel like I learned a little about composition.

When the workshop was over I felt like I wanted to collapse. Five days of printing has been an incredible gift, but also very intense. I’m looking forward to practicing what I’ve learned about reduction, registration, and selective inking. I want to try working with wood some more. I’m also curious to see what it’s like to apply these lessons to linoleum, which I normally work in.  

Color Woodcut Printmaking: Day 3

Today I finished my first reduction woodcut. I expected to be finished quickly this morning, but getting it right took the majority of my morning. I was adding some darker lines to ground the piece, and it took some experimenting to figure out where they needed to be to make me happy.

Block with final layer of ink applied, ready to print.

The final print looks nothing like I expected when I began the process. But then, it’s been mostly about improvisation. I wouldn’t make all the same choices if I were doing it again (the raspberry color, in particular, feels like a whimsical choice gone awry). And, I’m very pleased with the result.

The final print

This morning Karen introduced the second project and did a brief demonstration. The second project is a two-block reduction print, where the blocks form “postive” and “negative” spaces. That is, what’s carved away on one is left behind on the other. The result is that you get “woodcut edges” along your color spaces, and you have more options for reduction. It also lets you break the rule of reduction printmaking that says the first cuts you make expose the color of the paper. Because you have two blocks in play, those first cuts may actually expose color from the other block. It took me some time to figure out what I wanted to do for this project, and I’m going a little more representational for this one, but not aiming for realism.

Tracing for my second project.

Before the end of the day I transferred the image onto two blocks (along with registration marks), and carved “channels” around the parts of each block that will stay to aid with inking. I also cut two masks to use tomorrow morning for laying down my first passes of color.

Blocks with inking mask.

I’m trying to keep in mind everything I learned about layering color in the last three days so I can move more decisively tomorrow and Sunday. I think finishing this is going to be a stretch, but I’m going to do my best.

Color Woodcut Printmaking: Day 2

I’m blogging about my experience taking Karen Kunc’s “Color Woodcut Printmaking” class at Constellation Studios.

Today was a work day in the workshop: the only demonstration to the entire class was this morning, when Karen demonstrated laying down the second pass of color on her sample print. Otherwise it was nine hours of carving and printing. Right now I’m feeling great about the class and about the work I’m doing. Towards the end of the day Jim asked me how I was feeling about the day’s work. “Well,” I replied, “I’ve made it through the trough of despair, so I’m feeling pretty good.”

I came into the day with a single drop of color down, ready to start the second. Karen suggested we aim for (at least) four passes for this project, and when the day started I thought, “OK, that means I have about two hours for each pass, and then I can start on the next project.” I failed to account for “at least”. Compared to some of the other workshop participants, my first pass contained relatively little color. I realized looking around that you can only see something if you print color over it. That is, I made some marks in the block that showed the paper color through, but only when I printed them. There were other marks I made before printing that didn’t have any color applied to them, so they were just hanging out with nothing to do until I got around to placing color there. And after the first pass this becomes even more important: if I wanted the yellow or green I printed yesterday to show up in the final print, I had to either carve away before I printed over it, or, well, not print over it.

And that leads to the second thing I realized today: flat color is flat. It doesn’t have any energy or movement unless it’s vibrating up against something, or has something layered over it. Working with linocut, I think of color as something that you apply after you’ve made your marks and created the image. With reduction, color is the mark that helps create the image.

Wood block with additional carving.
Carving for the second pass.

So I did some more carving and printed my second pass.

Inked wood block with mask.
Inking the block for the second pass.

This is the first point where I felt like there was something in the print to respond to: the star-like shape in the middle, revealed as negative space. So I made another mask and printed over that.

Woodblock print on kuzo paper
Print after two passes through the press.

But after my third pass I was in the trough of despair: that third pass didn’t do much for me, it was just flat color. And I felt a little stuck trying to figure out just what the fuck I was trying to carve (express).

Three passes in and the piece felt pretty flat and lifeless. I asked Karen for advice, and she pointed out there were large swaths that hadn’t been carved yet; they only had that flat color (which is flat). “Sometimes I get to the point where the only thing to do is attack the wood,” she said. So I did.

I started carving more aggressively and deviating from my original idea more. I started responding to what was already there instead of trying to hold quite so much control. By the end of the day I printed my fifth pass and am ready to print my sixth tomorrow morning. That may be the last, or maybe not. We’ll see.

Miscellaneous notes from the day:

It’s really important to work lightest to darkest; having a palette that’s “mine” would make it easier to understand what that sequence might be.

I’m batting about 0.500 for perfect registration. The system Karen uses seems pretty reliable; the prints where I haven’t had perfect registration are ones where the registration marks are either half there or obviously inaccurate.

Getting perfect registration on a reduction looks pretty amazing.

Cohesion is important in abstract pieces; at one point Karen pointed out that I hadn’t continued the “cheese grater” marks after the first pass, so they sort of stood out on their own. That’s something I was able to fix.