Wednesday, November 30, 2011

In the Studio: Day 71


I have been testing some non-toxic printmaking techniques, using a mixture of collagraph, drypoint, and other things to produce prints that look like etchings, without having to use resists that contain toxic chemicals, and without even immersing the plate in etchant. The following print was made on a thin, very cheap piece of aluminium flashing tile (cost: less than a dollar). It's sort of a random and jokey image, but it serves the purpose:



A - Dark aquatint style area created by pouring Z-acryl acrylic-based hard ground with carborundum grit in it.
B - Where the Z-Acryl is thin and without carbordundum, it creates an area of relief that can be wiped clean.
C - But you can also scratch or incise marks into the thin hard ground, and these marks will catch ink and print almost like etched lines.
D - Drypoint.
E - Chine colle.

I cleaned the plate and took a second print from it, which is also good to know: it means that although the flashing tile is thin and can't produce large editions like .018 gauge copper or steel plates, you could still print small editions of maybe five prints from this very inexpensive metal.


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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In the Studio: Day 70

Getting back into the swing of things after a long absence. So, preparing some canvases:


And making some collagraphs using Z-acryl hard ground mixed with carborundum, poured and painted onto aluminium (or a-LOO-min-um) flashing tiles:


Leaning against the wall are some thick pieces of matboard which, when primed with matte medium, can be used for collagraphs as well.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Interview with London-based artist Herve Constant



For my 800th blog post, here is an interview I did with artist Herve Constant in London in mid-November. Herve and I have known each since the mid-1990s, when we both had a studio in the same converted tanning factory in London's east end. Herve is a fascinating mixture of cultural influences - Jewish, but raised in a Christian context; born in Morocco, then moved to France, now living in London for thirty years - and his multimedia work is a similar mixture of styles and influences. This long-ish interview is actually about half of the recorded material, and in it Herve has lots of fascinating things to say about his own work and the dedication it requires to be an artist.

Philip: The first question I want to ask you, Herve, as I stand in the middle of your studio in Hackney, east London, is: where do you come from and why did you move to London?

Herve: I was born in Casablanca, Morocco. I left Morocco when I was about five years old and moved with my father and brother to the south of France. My background is in theatre, which I studied in Paris. Later on I came back to London, and I got in to a school in Hampstead, north London, but I couldn’t get a grant. Gradually I started drawing and painting and I realized that that is what I liked the most. It felt more comfortable, more with my character. I never feel bored or like I’m wasting time. It’s still my life and I still spend a tremendous amount of time in my space.

P: You also make films.

H: In the last few years I’ve included photos and films. When I do films very often they are based upon a painting, with a fairly similar type of vision or subject. It all goes in a cycle. For me it’s quite interesting. Many artists they say, Yeah, you know, you are a painter, so why do you want to do short films? They think maybe it’s trendy. Many younger artists feel it’s a way to do art quickly and all that, but for me I never saw the different kinds of art as separate. It’s always a continuation, a way to know more and include other things. I don’t think art is just separate – music, the type of music I listen to, for example – it’s everything rounded, together.


"Hand Ballet", video stills
P: I notice that sometimes your work is abstract, leaning towards the form, the shape, the division of the canvas. Other pictures are more representational. Why one and why the other?

H: Well, I've never been to art school, so basically even I've read a lot about different schools of painting, I'm not bothered about the style of a picture or the way it's made. Just behind that painting is one called "The Labyrinth", based on a story of the same name, and it's abstract, geometric. The story of "The Labyrinth" is you can't find a way out, you just search your path in life, and there <pointing to a painting of small figures on a chessboard> the children are playing, they are stuck, they are all the same, it's dark, we don't see any of the faces, just the figures. They are symbolic, they are on a chessboard, a game I like to play very much, and we go again into how far we can be free to choose our own path in life. So maybe that's the connection between the two.


"Labyrinth", oil on canvas, 72 in x 72 in
"Children's Game", acrylic on paper, 15 in x 12 in
P: You are very interested in mysticism and religious ideas surrounding the mystical experience, and you exhibited at the Jewish Museum in London a few years ago.

H: Yes, I showed in their old venue, a very nice building in Soho.

P: Talk about that work and its relation to the Kabbalah.


"Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud", oil on canvas, 48 in x 36 in
H: I once did a series of work based on the poet Arthur Rimbaud. I like his poems very much. I started to read about other poets of the time, about symbolism, the symbolist poets, Baudelaire, Verlaine, all those people, and I discovered that they were all interested in the Kabbalah and the occult. I wanted to learn more, because even if I've got some Jewish background through my mother –

P: That's a lot of Jewish background!

H: <laughs> Yes, yes. And yet I was brought up in a Christian atmosphere, which I can talk about later. Anyway, when I grew up, I thought it would be interesting to read the Kabbalah, to know more, and that led me to other things, like numbers, numerology, which I began to include in my paintings. Quite a few of them became “symbolique.”

P: So let's have a look at more recent work.

H: These are twenty four small pieces. They are prints taken from actual shoes, printed onto the paper. Each one is 15 x 12 inches, and they will be called the Salle des Pas Perdus -- the room of, you know, when you go to the court of justice or places where people are moving a lot and walking quickly, they walk this way and that, they leave their footprints. And it's about communication again: we move, we are rushed all the time, we are busy, we don't have time. And I would like also to do a film and an installation with the same material.

Work in progress, mixed media on paper
Then I took out of storage that painting "The Labyrinth", and I'm going to film some part of it. I'll include a path that shows people walking. The paintings will be covered on the floor, there will be a projection related to the art, so hopefully it will all make an interesting concept. That's the next thought I've got in mind for that.

P: You're looking at your archive and making these connections.

H: That's how it works. I've been working on doing paintings for so long, you put them aside, and one day you go back to your storage, you look through, and you think: That will be good to develop, to go back to. It's quite exciting.

P: You said earlier that paintings need to be brought out and aired.

H: They need to breathe, like us. Paintings have a skin, it changes with time. A good painting, the transparency, the pigments, they have a richness of expression and a quality of ... <pauses> I still believe in painting. It's still mysterious to me. It's still a great way of making art. I enjoy filming, taking photos, but painting is sensuous to me. The feel, the touch, <clicks fingers together> the marks, it's still great.

P: You’ve also had a lot of success recently with your videos, showing them in festivals all over the world. How long have you been making short films?

H: Since the last seven years. For me the films are like paintings coming alive in a certain way. They are often painterly, clearly made by a painter. They start with a simple shape, an uncomplicated “mise en page,” as we say in French.

P: Moving on then, how do you decide if a piece isn’t working?

H: Here is a small piece that I’m not pleased with and I’m going to rework. I want to give it a bit more movement. I don’t like the heavy contrast between the green and the black tone. I’m going to change the background, try to give more togetherness between the figure and the space. At the moment it’s too graphic, too like a print.

P: We’re looking at this painting as it is lying on top of the ‘shoe’ pieces we discussed earlier, which are more worked on, they have more layers, more textures, colours. At what point would you decide that these pictures are finished?

H: When the balance is right. Sometimes I work on them on their own, and then I put them together to see how the work can fit together into the balance of the colour, the image. I try to find one principal colour to give the body of the work more balance. Again, I was interested in the idée of the picture, but that doesn’t make a painting. You have to do the work, to give a bit of richness to the idea.

P: I think that’s very important to remember. A lot of younger artists forget that a work of art is not just an idea – the idea has to be given form, developed in some way.

H: Tarkovsky said an artist should be really honest with what he wants to do and should go all the way with that. Because this is like a marathon: you go from the start point to the end point, which is death, but it’s important to go through the journey. Van Gogh also said that when you make art you sell your soul, and the soul is the most important thing you have as an artist. You can’t play with that. If you’re honest and do your work with integrity, people will see that. The problem is that people want success quickly. They want to show with a gallery, sell the work, and they are prepared to do anything to achieve that. It’s like we say in French: “mettre la charrue avant les boeufs” –

P: Putting the cart before the horse.

H: Yes, exactly. For example, when I was at the Verona Art Fair, I could see a lot of work that was witty, clever, trendy in a certain way, to fit what a commercial gallery wants. If you’re clever and you’ve got some talent you can play that game, but I think it’s a mistake. If you do that you might have success for two years, ten years, but in the long run that’s not what the great artist does. I think an artist should develop in a personal way, where it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit. Goya, Rembrandt, quick success didn’t matter to them. Their work was serious, it had gravitas, humanity. I believe in that – the work having humanité.



P: Do you think that’s what has kept you going for so long (if you don’t mind my saying so)?

H: What’s very important for all of us is the passion, the “enthousiasme” to do it. Not many people have that. I meet some artists who talk about their mortgage, their job, and so on, and they don’t have the passion to create, to do the thing, to go to their studio, to have that “curiosité.” Or they are only interested in making one kind of art, like only paintings, or only prints. If you are open and you enlarge your curiosity, by travelling, meeting different people, I think it’s rewarding.

P: What do you think is the connection between that deep sense of curiosity and this studio that you’ve had for more than twenty years?

H: I feel that to work well you need a kind of security of the space, the studio. If you move from studio to studio, you get away from the work. It’s important to have stability. I travel quite a lot, but when I do it’s like having a second studio. It gives me another kind of breathing space. When I return here I feel more eager to work, you know?

P: You bring things from the outside back to this space. And how long have you had this studio?

H: I moved here in the late eighties, so about twenty years ago.

P: Do you ever see yourself moving to another space?

H: What’s amazing with life is you can’t really say, you never know. Things might change, for good or bad, but things change. Maybe that’s the charm of life. I should say before we finish that this country has been very helpful to me. I’m grateful to have been in London for so long. The people have been very good to me. I didn’t know I was going to be a painter when I moved here, and now I show all over the world, so for me it was a great move. The good thing too is that I felt freer here than in France. English people are not bothered about the way you dress, they keep to themselves, while in France they look at you, they judge you, they mock you. I can really only say good things about being in the UK.

P: A final question, which you can answer in any way you want: why are you an artist?

H: I think it’s because of the way I was brought up. When I came back to France from Morocco with my father and my brother, I didn’t know my mother, and my father couldn’t look after us, either, so we were left in an orphanage until we were fifteen. It was run by two American missionaries. I remember that the woman played the piano, and she would get us to sing hymns, and perform in the church on Sundays. It was the time of the first TVs, black and white TVs, and once in a while we were allowed to watch movies – Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Burt Lancaster, who was a big star at the time. So I think my interest in cinema, music, opera, it all began then.

When I left the orphanage I finally met my mother, but it didn’t go well. I felt that she had let us down, she didn’t care about us. It’s not easy for a child to be separated from his mother, particularly a boy. So maybe I’m an artist because of this family background. Maybe art is a sort of solution. Because even now I think many of my paintings come from that. The work is seeking for some solution to unhappiness.


Herve Constant's video "Hand Ballet" was part of a group exhibition "The Mystical Self" at Art Verona in October-November 2011. The exhibition will tour other venues in Europe in the coming months.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Text and Image at the Chicago Cultural Center

At the Chicago Cultural Center, the show “Write Now: Artistsand Letterforms” (through April 2012) collects together work that deals with the printed word, in prints, type, signage, photography, collage, video, altered objects.  

The curators chose work that played both with and against the narrative implications of word-based work. Michael Dinges “Captain’s Chair” is a plain white plastic chair, engraved with thin-lined black drawings so that it looks like a piece of scrimshank carved by a nineteenth century sailor. Drawings give way to obscure phrases like “Proximity is no longer destiny” and “Made in France, Found in USA”, which don’t really make it any clearer who the Captain is, or what story, if any, his chair is telling us. 


That seems to be the artistic maneuver of many of the pieces in the show: including a word that leads you to want to “read” the piece, then taking you into a path where meaning breaks down and you’re left with a series of allusive fragments embedded in a visually arresting thing or image.  “Tableaux #4” by Mike Genovese, for example, is a ragged edge sheet of milled, plated, mirror-polished aluminum, covered with minute script that suggest the Rosetta Stone. 


When you peer up close, you see that the ‘writing’ is in fact tiny, meaningless marks (or a language that I don’t recognize). You come up close, but you end up seeing only your only reflection mirrored back at you. Elsewhere, there are Twombly-esque scribbles on canvas, gnomic Jenny Holzer-like neon messages, collage galore. 

The piece that worked best, to my mind, was Aron Gent’s “Interstate”, which consisted of a wall covered from floor to ceiling by hundreds of receipts from the Illinois tollway. 


With its witty combination of the classic Modernist grid and Warhol’s deadpan reinvestment of meaning in the banal through total repetition, Gent makes the dead language of the toll receipts speak in a mordant way about how words surround us to the point where we can become suffocated by them.


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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Older Prints, Future Paintings?

I found these older prints in my studio recently. They're from maybe 2005-2006, and they play around with much enlarged doodles from my sketchbook, and other kinds of marks. Looking at them, they seem interestingly similar to other prints I've made this year. I  wonder if they might even make good paintings.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Diego Rivera at MOMA

Manual Labor: Diego Rivera Paints New York City: Teri Tynes has a great piece on her NY based blog, Walking the Big Apple, about the big new Diego Rivera show at MOMA. The picture is courtesy of Teri's blog. Follow the link to read what she has to say about Diego and his relation to New York.

Diego Rivera. 
Frozen Assets. 1931-32. 
Fresco on reinforced cement in a galvanized-steel framework, 94 1/8 x 74 3/16 in (239 x 188.5 cm).
Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico 
© 2011 Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, México, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


She writes:
In a gallery on its second floor, the Museum of Modern Art has brought together five of Rivera's eight "portable murals" from its 1931-32 show, supplementing them with drawings, watercolors, prints, and ephemera for a well-rounded fascinating new exhibition. Rivera is a potent figure to reintroduce to a politicized New York art public, especially in light of his own preoccupations with Wall Street capital, a stressed labor force, an economic system in crisis, and a city literally socially stratified above and below ground. An international artist, Rivera sought to ennoble Mexican peasants, the new Soviet proletariat, and workers of more advanced industrial countries across their respective and irregular boundaries of economic development. His visit to New York City afforded him the chance to witness and to portray the industrial workers of the world's most advanced economy.
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News about artist-writer-artist Dianne Bowen

"egg detail study #2", copyright Dianne Bowen, 2011


they never become larger works, I use them to explore how I would like the lines to set up in the compositions of the larger pieces. they're thoughts of gesture and weight of line, thinking visually. the larger works usually don't look like these at all you'll only see inclinations lets say or suggestions of flow from one to another...

In addition to posting new work in the public realm (above), recent Praeterita interviewee Dianne Bowen is also featured in the latest issue of Whitehot Magazine with her collaborator, Kofi Fosu Forson:

http://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/dismember-night-gathering-the-tribes/2411


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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: Gerard Woodward


Gerard Woodward. Photo: Courtesy of
Picador Books.
I am extremely pleased that poet and author Gerard Woodward agreed to be interviewed for this series. Gerard and my wife, Patty, were colleagues for a short while at the end of 2008, when Patty taught for one semester at Bath Spa University, where Gerard is a faculty member in the Creative Writing program. Gerard spent the spring semester of 2011 in Chicago on a reciprocal visit. Gerard has published poetry, short-stories, and novels. "Householder", his 1991 collection of poetry, won the Somerset Maugham Award in the UK, and his novel "I'll Go to bed at Noon" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Of his most recent novel, "Nourishment", The Daily Telegraph reviewer wrote: "It is a novel to be savoured, and Woodward is a novelist to be treasured." It turns out that in addition to his success as a writer, Gerard started his adult life in art college, and still draws and paints when he can. So here, from a writer's point of view, is a discussion about how a writer sees, how a writer draws, and what parallels he observes between the sister arts.

PH: Your first stint in higher education was at an art college (and I believe you are married to a visual artist). What do you remember about yourself and your relation to visual art at that time in your life?

GW: I chose to go to art school as a way of escaping the humdrum working life I was living at that time. I left school at 16, convinced there would be a nuclear war by 1985, and didn’t want to waste my life in sixth form. So instead, I wasted it working in a Tescos supermarket (and many other places - I had six jobs in two years). So going to art school was a way of escape – but I didn’t choose it out of any life-long ambition to be an artist. In fact I didn’t want to be an artist at all, and had originally applied to do graphics, with an eye to being something like a designer of some sort eventually. But then, when I got there, I met lots of people who wanted to be artists, and we hung around in little groups sneering at graphics students with their scalpels and their letraset sets. So I switched, during my foundation year, to fine art, in the full knowledge that I’d just signed away any chance I’d had of getting the good job I’d come to art school to get, and would be likely to end up back in the factories I’d tried to escape.

"Survivors", oil on canvas. GW: "This is an older painting."

My time at art school was a very happy one for me, socially, although as a student I was very confused and angst-filled. For my studio show at the end of my first year I tipped all the rubbish bins in the entire department into one big heap, and painted the names of tutors onto bits of festering rubbish, with the principal and board of governors at the top, forming a sort of plinth for a sausage roll, the inarticulate message of which was that I thought the art school was a pile of shit and the only good thing about it was the canteen (it was a very good canteen). I remember watching the examination panel discussing this piece, and exclaiming fondly when they each found their name. Then one of them turned to me and said: “Are you unhappy here?” I dropped out early in my second year.

 PH: Why do you think you eventually turned to writing rather than becoming an artist?

GW: Well, part of the reason things didn’t work out for me at art school was that art was never my main interest. It was just something I was good at at school. I had no serious ambitions as an artist, even after I applied to go to art school. But the art school training was a complete revelation to me, the proverbial eye-opener. The emphasis on looking and close observation made me see the world in a completely different way. I was almost drunk on the amazingness of the visual world and felt as though I’d lived my life up until then with my eyes closed. So I’m very grateful for that experience. 

But I had wanted to be a writer rather than an artist for as long as I knew there were such things. Then, in my early twenties, after finishing my third or fourth unpublishable novel, I had second thoughts. Perhaps I should give up writing and try being an artist. So I did, and painted constantly for a few years, and wrote very little, or nothing. I rented a studio. I began approaching galleries. I failed to get into open exhibitions. Then, rather unexpectedly, I found myself writing some poems. I showed them to people and they liked them far more than anyone liked my paintings. So I wrote a lot more, and for a while I was trying to manage painting and poetry at the same time. But then I started getting poems published and pretty quickly it took over my life and my time for painting was squeezed until I had to give up the studio and work in a study instead. 

"Shed", oil on board. GW: "That's my mother-in-law's underwear hanging up in the shed."

"Racecourse", mixed media on board

PH: Yet you still paint and draw. What creative possibilities are you exploring when you do that, do you think?

GW: Yes, I still paint and draw, though rarely as part of any sustained project or anything more ambitious than a response to a visual experience. At art school I was becoming more and more conceptualist (if you can call a rubbish heap a concept) and if I had stayed there I would have probably left the painting department and played in the boundary between photography and sculpture. The paintings I have done since that time have played with storytelling and narrative in certain ways, but my main interest now is in rather straightforward drawing and painting as a way of recording and responding to visual experience. While I was in Chicago I spent some time drawing the panoramic view we had from our penthouse, in small sections that fitted together like a jig saw. In four months I didn’t quite finish it, but had a good sweep from the Sears Tower out to the lake, the resulting drawing must have been about eight feet long and five feet high (I still haven’t put it together since I got back), but the experience of being completely absorbed in the act of looking at a single thing for a long period was incredibly rich and rewarding, and is for me what it’s all about. Although I remain interested in the way imagination can impinge on experience to produce something that is not simply a record of seeing (whatever ‘seeing’ is), but something more, in the same way that fiction is something more than a record of lived experience.

PH: In several of your novels and stories (for example, “A Curious Earth”), you write about artists and their world in the context of the larger pattern of the story. What is it that attracted you about artists as characters for fiction?

GW: I some ways it acts as a compensation for not being one myself, in any more than the amateurish way I’ve described above. If I can’t spend my life painting, then the next best thing must be to spend it writing about the act of painting. This applies particularly to the novel I’m currently working on, which is about the life of a fictional artist and contains just about every thought about art and artists I’ve ever had. In many ways the life of the artist seems much more enjoyable than that of a writer and more fun to write about. A writer’s study is a bit dull compared to an artist’s studio. Splashing about with paint is more fun than tapping at a laptop. An artist’s life is less confined and solitary than a writer’s. So I’ve chosen the wrong job, obviously. And writing is harder than painting. Sorry, but it is. 

I’m not sure that the artist has been very well represented in fiction before. I’m just reading Patrick White’s “The Vivisector,” which portrays the artist as a cold, calculating monster. The other extreme is something like Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson (in “The Horse’s Mouth”)- a naïve neo-Blakean visionary. They are both great fictional characters but seem very much a product of a viewpoint which sees the artist as someone almost supernatural in their unworldliness. Artists might be like this but it is their underlying ordinariness that makes them interesting.



Nourishment from matthew scholes on Vimeo. A great promo piece 
of an actor reading from Gerard Woodward's novel "Nourishment"

PH: You write novels and short stories. Your first collection of poetry won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1991. You paint. What (if any) do you see as the common thread between these varied forms of expression?

GW: I increasingly feel there is little common ground between them, other than they are all means of expressing human experience. Poems are very different things from novels, novels very different things from short stories, and painting different from all three. It must be the case, or else we wouldn’t have need of the different forms. Another test is trying to translate one into another – a Rothko could be a good starting point for a poem or short story, but it couldn’t actually tell one. “War and Peace” couldn’t be condensed down to a single image. Neither would it make a very good centerpiece for a city square. What they can learn from each other is a different matter. A novel or a painting that is attuned to the rhythms and weird logic of poetry, a poem that has the visual richness of a painting, and so on. Another way of putting it is that the different forms are all suited towards certain aspects of imaginative expression – the novel and short story to narrative expression, painting to visual, the poem to non-linear narrative expression. They aren’t confined by these specializations, so poems and paintings can tell stories, and there are many possibilities for combining the forms, into illustrated text for instance, or into film or opera or installations.

"Nourishment" was released in the USA in October 2011 under the title "Letters from an Unknown Woman." Buy it here.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Lure of Empty Spaces

"Island", Helen Ferguson Crawford
Artist-writer-artist Helen Ferguson Crawford, whom I interviewed a little while ago, has posted what I think is a further revision of an ongoing series of connected writing and images. They are as lovely as ever. Link here:

http://helenfergusoncrawford.blogspot.com/2011/11/lure-of-empty-places-story.html

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Interview with artist Marlene Dumas

Via Kat Ostrow and Kurt Ankeney on Google Plus, here is a good short talk with Marlene Dumas, from MOMA:



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The Lucerne Project Ends

I took down the Lucerne Project show on Thursday and Friday. I took one last shot before I started dismantling the shelves:


Did I ever show the front of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, where the gallery was housed? Here it is:


One positive thing about the ending was that, for the first time, I was able to fold up the 100 page accordion book and put it into the clamshell box that I created for it:



It fits very well. I also brought home the mailbox from the Special Event, and found that nearly all the cards had been used.

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Narrative Contact Monoprints: Day 10

In the Studio: Day 69

After teaching on Wednesday morning, and still feeling the effects of some jet lag from the London trip, I went to my studio for a short while. I took a proof print from that collagraph plate I made a few weeks ago, using carborundum mixed with Z-Acryl non-toxic hard ground. It was great to set things up to do some real printmaking again:


After inking the plate and wiping it with tarlatan/scrim, it was time to use Q-tips, the printmaker's friend:


The proof print as a little spotty, where I had slightly over-wiped the plate. But the actual collagraph surface was really strong, held a lot of ink (inked a la poupee), and could easily be cleaned and inked many times before it starts to break down. It could also probably be diluted even further with water, in order to create lighter marks:


Pictures taken with my rubbish cell-phone camera.

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