Friday, June 27, 2014

An Explosive Read

I’ve never been a soldier, and I’ve never wanted to be a soldier. I was a staunch pacifist beginning in my teens, though I modified that later when I read more about the history of the Second World War. But WWII remains, for me, the single war of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first that I think was justifiable, worth fighting, and that I would have volunteered for. Every other war – at least, the wars initiated by European and American governments – I believe to be absolutely unjustifiable in terms of a direct threat to the security of the nation, and that they were started for mainly political and ideological reasons rather than as a response to the sort of existential threat posed by the Nazis.

I hold these beliefs despite the fact that both my parents were in the British Army in the 1960s, and that many of my memories from my first five years of life are of army bases, military housing, a father in uniform. In other words, I have contradictory impulses on the subject of warmaking and soldiering, further evidenced by the fact that I’ve always been an eager reader of written accounts of war. I read The Iliad for the first time when I was 14, for example. My interest at that age was probably to do with these ancient tales as adventure stories, plus a teenage boy’s bloodthirsty enjoyment of the staggeringly high body count and the minute detail they contained of dismemberments, disembowellings, beheadings, spear piercings, etc. Funny how political beliefs are no match for testosterone in the male teenage body.

A high school teacher introduced me to the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen. From there I went on to immerse myself in writing about WWI. I can still recall being mesmerized by Robert Graves’ “Goodbye to All That,” and the immense power of a kind of writing that was suffused with sorrow, anger, and reproach only just held in check, as if his aristocratic eloquence and British reserve were about to burst their bounds at any moment. The same with All Quiet on the Western Front, and Ernest Hemingway’s war fiction, and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. War as adventure, war as terror, war as dirt and grime and death, war as individual acts of heroism painted against a wide backdrop of futility and betrayal. All of these men (and they were all men, of course) came from a generation and a long tradition that believed it was their duty to go to war, and even though they were damaged and scarred by their experience, both physically and mentally, they knew that they had undergone the largest experience of their lives.

All of the above is a lengthy way of getting round to talking about a book I read last week, called Kaboom, by Matt Gallagher. It’s a memoir of his time serving in Iraq as an officer in the US Army Rangers and the Infantry, in 2008 and 2009. I met the author just a few days before I read the book, while we were both teaching adult classes at Interlochen. That might be the main reason I picked up the book (though I hope I would have come to it sooner or later), but I’m glad I did. I started reading it on a Thursday evening, and then read the whole thing on the following day. And when I say “read,” I mean “grabbed by the neck and pulled headlong through the narrative with barely any bathroom breaks.” It arrests you from the very first page, and doesn’t let you go until the end. The sense of scene, characterization, dialogue, are incredibly sharp, and Gallagher is so good at putting you right there in the field with him that sometimes you forget how good the writing is, and you feel that the events are just unfolding right in front of your eyes. 

Whatever your feelings about war in general, and the American invasion of Iraq in particular, Kaboom is a vivid, funny, and extremely humane account of how that period was experienced by the soldiers on the ground. As Gallagher says, only those who were there can truly know what it was like to go through it – a point that is frequently made, implicitly and explicitly, by his illustrious writer-soldier forebears. But like Robert Graves, and T.E. Lawrence, and Ernest Hemingway, and George Orwell, and Tim O’Brien, reading Gallagher is the next best thing. Kaboom absolutely belongs on the same shelf as those men’s books.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

I just finished teaching a monoprint class

Last week, I went to the Interlochen College of Creative Arts to teach a 3-day intensive course in monoprint printmaking to a group of 6 adults. A monoprint is a type of print you make by painting or rolling ink onto a surface (a metal plate or plexiglass, for instance), manipulating the ink in different ways, then pressing paper onto the plate and applying pressure, either by hand-rubbing or a printing press. You usually only get one print at a time this way, hence the name "monoprint." (Strictly speaking, there is a difference between a monotype and a monoprint, but I'm not terribly purist about that.)

It was a great class, very tiring for all concerned, but we got some great prints out of it. On the first day, we spent some time outside making contact monoprints while doing some blind contour drawing:

Here are a few prints from that session:

The next photo shows a plexiglass plate on the bed of my portable printing press, the image painted freely with Akua intaglio inks using q-tips instead of a brush:

And this is the print that came out:

To keep track of the various combinations of inks, papers, and so forth, I drew a chart on the whiteboard so that people could check off the type of print after they had completed it:

On the final day, we made larger size monoprints by taping together two sheets of acetate, and combining all the inking and wiping methods we'd been trying out for three days: rolling ink on, brushing it on, using stencils, masking out certain areas, wiping out ink here and there. Here is one participant's print above the inked up acetate it was printed from:

Some truly glorious prints came out of this:

And what was so great about the whole session was that there were a couple of people with art school experience, and several people with no experience, yet they all produced really high quality prints. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Visit to an artist's studio

Last week, I visited the studio of an artist who I became acquainted with via Facebook. It turns out his studio, which is in his home, is only five blocks from where I live in Chicago. The artist's name is Robert Porazinski, and he makes these interesting paintings that appear to be quite flat and abstract at first glance, but which on repeated viewings reveal organic shapes and a variety of painting textures.

There's a nice pushing together of the strict manipulation of technology with observational painting. The photo above shows a table in his studio laden with flower-like sculptures he constructs out of different materials. He then photographs them, stretches and alters them on the computer, and then makes paintings based on those altered photos. Mostly the paintings begin by following the 'map' of the photo, but he always seems to throw in different colours and shapes and marks, depending on what the painting needs.

Robert is showing at the Chicago Art Source beginning June 19th 2014. If you're in the area, it'll be worth your while to take a look.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Collagraphs and drypoint, cont.

Back in the world of the non-toxic printmaking, I got some great advice from printmaker and blogger Aine Scannell a few days ago. I've been looking for ways to reproduce aquatint tones on a collagraph plate. I was experimenting with different strengths of acrylic resist mixed with carborundum, but she suggested I use pastel ground. Pastel ground already contains minute particles of grit which will hold a lot of ink when dried on a printing plate. On the following two plates, I used straight pastel ground for one of the figures, and a tiny amount added to water for the background shapes:

Result: a beautiful variation in tonality, pretty similar to an aquatint. Adding some lines scratched into the Lascaux resist in other parts of the plate leads to even more variety and lusciousness of mark making.

I am heading out of Chicago next week to go and teach a monotype class in northern Michigan, so I will mainly be brushing up that technique. But these prints represent another breakthrough for me with collagraph printmaking, one which I will pick up in earnest when I return to my studio after the workshop has ended.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.

Incised lino block, from
Etched lino block, from Steve Edwards

A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several printmakers around the world who have shared their experience with me. I've found that, despite all that information, I still had to tweak some of their advice in order to get the process to work, so here are the results of my research.

Materials you need: caustic soda crystals; wheat paste; a hard ground resist or stop out varnish; lino blocks (battleship grey or the golden lino with a wood backing are both fine); a square or rectangular glass dish that your lino block fits into; chemical resistant rubber gloves that go up to your elbows; a mask to cover your mouth and nose; plastic glasses to cover your eyes; glass jars; Starbucks stir sticks (invaluable, I always grab handfuls of them whenever I get coffee there). Plus standard printmaking supplies like inks, paper, etc.

The best resist I have found so far is Lascaux hard resist, for its versatility and its non-toxicity. It is expensive, though, so an alternative is an acrylic varnish such as GAC 200. These materials, including the caustic soda, are fairly non-toxic, too, so they can be washed away in a sink and not pollute the local water systems. In the USA, you can buy caustic soda crystals from True Value, in the form of Rooto drain unclogger.

Use the resist to draw an image directly onto the lino block. This method means that every part of the exposed lino will be attacked by the etchant. You can also draw using negative space, so that the central object in your picture is exposed lino, with the rest of the block covered in the resist:

In the photo immediately above, you can see the image in the centre consists of exposed lino, with the shiny areas all around it showing the Lascaux resist.

When the resist is dry, you can make further marks in it with an etching needle, steel wool, etc. Now you prepare the etchant.

WARNING: this stuff will burn the fuck out of everything it touches, especially when it's added to water, but you don't even want the crystals getting on your skin, either. So make sure you are wearing the protective gloves and mask when you do the following.

Mixture for two 6" x 4" lino blocks: put one eighth of a pint of cold water in a glass jar, add half a teaspoon of wheat paste, stir it with a stir stick until it dissolves. Wait five minutes for the wheat paste to gel. (The wheat paste makes the etchant adhere slightly to the block and stops it from being a pure liquid mixture that will just run off the lino block when you pour it on.) Then add four heaped teaspoons of the caustic soda crystals, stirring it into the mixture with a wooden stir stick before you added the next spoonful. Wait for three-four minutes for the soda crystals to heat up. WARNING: NEVER add water to the crystals, ALWAYS add crystals to water. Water onto crystals can cause a horrible chemical reaction involving bubbling liquids, green smoke, and a flying caustic sheet of liquid (luckily, it missed me).

Place a bed of newsprint inside the glass tray, and place your lino block on top of that. Pour the etchant onto the block and brush it out so that the whole block is covered. You want a fairly thick mixture over the entire surface. I like to press the mixture down with the brush on the exposed lino. Place the brush immediately in a glass jar filled with cold water. In a short while you will see the exposed areas of the lino start to turn a different colour as the etchant starts attacking itThe lino will also start to curl, unless it's the kind that comes glued to a wood backing. If you don't like the curling, you can flatten the lino out by placing a block of wood onto the surface.

Wheat paste/caustic soda solution coating the block. Exposed area turning orange...
Some people say that the etchant loses its strength after an hour, but I've found that this is not true. If you want a shallow etch, I recommend taking a piece of card and scraping the gel off the surface after an hour, applying some fresh gel, then waiting another hour. If you want a really deep and varied etch, you can leave the second layer of gel on the block overnight. It will continue to work, slowly, and produce interesting textures and effects on the block, as it continues to burn at different rates on different parts of the lino.

To clean the lino block: wear your protective gear, go to the sink, and pour a mixture of lemon juice and distilled vinegar over the block to neutralise the remaining etchant. Run the block under the tap, and use a scrubbing brush to gently brush away the dried gel and the powdery, scummy looking residue of etched lino. Do this for the front and the back of the block (lemon juice/vinegar then running water). Dab it dry with paper towels. I then wrap the block in more paper towels and place a weight on top to flatten it out and/or speed up the drying time.

Inking the block: you can ink the block either relief (rolling ink over the surface with a brayer), or intaglio style (scraping ink across the block, then wiping the excess off with tarlatan). If you use the intaglio method, you may need to employ an old toothbrush to press the ink into all the holes, pits, and crannies of the block. Dampened paper also works best, printed via a press, so that the paper gets pressed down into all the levels of the surface.

Embiggen this image to see all the textures on this print I made recently
Sounds complicated? It is, but as long as you take precautions to protect your skin and your lungs, it's a fascinating way to make a print. Here is a quick recap:

  1. Brush resist onto the lino block, drawing 'positive' or via negative space.
  2. Add half teaspoon of wheat paste to one eighth pint of water in glass jar, stir, leave for five minutes.
  3. Add three heaped teaspoons of caustic soda crystals to the mixture, stir, leave for three minutes.
  4. Brush gel mixture onto entire surface of lino block. Leave for an hour or overnight.
  5. Clean off the block using lemon juice/vinegar, and running water.

The best online information I found about this method is by an English printmaker called Steve Edwards. He makes prints that combine up to three or four etched lino blocks. Here is a link to the first in a series of posts he wrote about his method:

Steve Edwards' blog.

I also found a blog by a recent graduate in London, Ruth Selig, who took Steve Edwards' method and really did some great things with it, producing a series of large-scale abstract etched lino prints. She wrote a set of 20+ blog posts documenting her progress, and the link below takes you in at the point where she's trying out different strengths of etchant and a different resist:

Ruth Selig's blog.

Happy printmaking! And do please use the comments section of this blog to let me know if you try this out yourself or if you have any questions I might be able to answer.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I am not a lateral thinker. If I am stuck when working in my studio, and something just doesn't seem to be working, it takes me ages to work out the answer. Sometimes it doesn't even happen. Either way, I usually spend a long time hammering away at slightly different changes to a technique -- say, the right mixture of materials to etch a lino block -- experiencing long bouts of frustration as I wonder why the thing just won't bloody well work. Some people, when faced with a problem that seems intractable, can get around the block by turning the terms of the problem upside down, or inside out, turning a positive image into a negative image and, by confronting the problem from a completely different angle, suddenly see the solution.

I am not that person.

But a few days ago, I actually had a lateral thinking moment, and it seems to have worked.

I have been experimenting with caustic soda etch on linoleum, with what I consider so far to be unsatisfactory results. Here is an example of what I've been doing:

I drew the object using Lascaux acrylic resist, then coated the block in the caustic soda mixture, following the exact instructions that I have found on lots of blogs and websites. It produced an image that it was possible to roll up and print, but the etch is always much shallower than I have seen in other artists' work, and there is a lot of interference in the background. I've been trying this out for nearly two months now, and always with similar results. Then, a few days ago, I finally thought: what if I draw the shape using negative space, so that, for example, the resist would cover all the white areas in the above image, and the wheel shape would just be bare lino?

I did this with a 'boxer' figure, and a factory shape. When the resist was dry, I used an etching needle to draw some lines into the resist around the main shape. Here is the result:

Success! The caustic soda etched the large area of exposed lino in the figure well enough to hold a lot of ink, plus it etched the lines well. The depth of the etch is still not much, but reversing the way the resist is used means that problem disappears. The variation of mark across the block is much greater: it even looks a bit like an etching plate:

I spent a while inking it in different ways -- intaglio style, by using a piece of card to drag ink over the whole block, then wiping it with tarlatan, and finally using a small brayer to roll some grey-pink ink onto the raised areas:

The other block, which I etched overnight, came out like this:

The white area at the top is a piece I had to cut away because so much of the block had been eaten away. I could have pressed more ink into the lines on this block, but anyway, the experiment succeeded: lots of nice textures and marks, lots of possibilities to produce interesting prints.

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