Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Sweetgum Woodcut - Carving

"I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me that you have a seed there,
and I am prepared to expect wonders."
―  Henry David Thoreau

In May I found out about an opportunity to print a giant woodcut with the BIG INK.  The BIG INK was started by Lyell Castonguay and Carand Burnet to inspire greater public appreciation of large-scale woodblock printmaking.  They travel the country with their giant press printing local artists' woodblocks.  I have always wanted to work large and was so excited I was accepted to participate in their event at the Cultural Arts Center in September 2019.

In this post I will tell you how I carved a giant sweetgum ball woodcut.

The Photo

I began the process by choosing and photographing my subject.  In this case I chose a sweetgum ball because the BIG INK only allowed printing in one color (black) and I wanted an object that had an interesting form.

It is utterly amazing what you can notice when you look closely at something.  When I began to study the sweetgum, I found pairs of spiky arms that appeared to be giving each other an affectionate head-to-head greeting.  Certain pairs appeared to be talking while others were in an intimate nuzzle.  And when I looked even closer, I noticed peculiar globular pathways that appeared like dotted starfish separating the pairs of arms.  An extraordinary scene taking place on this tiny sweetgum pod!

If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable. Rainer Maria Rilke

I usually like to print my subject to the actual size I want the final piece.  I don't have access to a large printer so I tile the image and tape the pieces together.  Below, Otus is providing a sense of scale for you.

The Sketch

Once I have my image printed large I like to do a very light tracing of the important elements.  I work light because I often end up moving things around or making elements larger.  In this case I moved arms around to make a composition I liked.  After I have the shapes outlined I then complete the shading.  Here you can see Bubo was trying to point that out with his tail.

The sketch took me about a week to complete.  Here is a short video of the sketching process (turn up your volume, there is music!).

Below are the finished sketch and a detail photo.

“Love is in the sensual details.”
― Lebo Grand

The Transfer

Usually I work with "Safety-kut" linoleum and the transfer simply involves flipping the sketch over and rubbing with a credit card (click here for video of that).  But with the wood it didn't transfer quite as well.  I ended up taping my sketch on one edge and would flip it over and use carbon paper to darken the transfer in certain spots that were light.  In hindsight it might have been easier to just use carbon paper on the whole thing.  Either way it is always a good idea to keep the sketch taped on the side until carving is complete.

Side note: I used Shina plywood from McClain's printmaking.  Lyell recommended it and it was easy to carve and light.  You might also wonder why I painted the wood red.  Red is a nice neutral color that allows one to still see the pencil lines but also provides a nice change of color so you can see where you have carved.

The Carving

Once the drawing was transferred I began carving.  I mainly used Flexcut carving tools, but my friend Tom made me a hangi-to carving knife!  The knife had a lovely soft feel to it and I used the knife quite a bit.  Thank you so much was a very thoughtful and useful gift.

Here is a video of me using the knife to make a line and then chiseling up to the line.

The photo above was taken about halfway through the process.  Below you can see the lovely texture created by carving.

In the following image you can see my setup with my sketch taped to the right of my carving so I could flip it over any time I needed.  The only problem was Otus.  Every time he would hop down from the window he would crunch up my drawing.  Eventually I ended up moving the table away and putting another smaller table so he could hop down.

George took this photo of me carving and I liked it because you get a sense of the quantity of shavings.  All my clothes had wood shavings on them that I would spread haphazardly around the house.

I loved the serene mountains that were created by clearing the large open areas.  It looks like waves or dunes in the desert.

I made the following video of the entire carving process from start to finish.  (Again, turn up your volume!)

Once the carving was finished I had a dreaded task.  I wanted to carve away the excess wood around the outside of my square.  I wanted to do this because ink will inevitably get on that extra wood and will print.  It was sooooooo nerve-wracking because I spent so much time on the carving and didn't want to ruin it by accidentally cutting the arms that extended outside the square.

As you can see below in the upper left-hand corner, my test cut using the jig saw did not go well.  Luckily my neighbor Mark loaned us his Japanese saw.  After my epic fail with the jig saw George thankfully cut the board with the Japanese saw and a coping saw.  I then used an orbital sander to clean things up.

Here you can see how the arms extended past the square.

"When you pay attention to detail, the big picture will take care of itself."

― George St-Pierre

Off to Print

I was literally carving up until we had to get into the car to head up to Columbus for the BIG INK.  Before we put it into the car George took this photo of me with the plate.  You might not be able to tell but I was standing in front of my neighbor's sweetgum tree, exhausted but happy.

“She was a seed in spring
and a wildflower in autumn.”
― Giovannie de Sadeleer

In the next post I will show the printing process both at the BIG INK and at home.  I'll be printing a few more this week!


To see my post about the BIGINK click here.
To see my post about the final prints click here.

The final prints are now available on my website

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Bringing Field Sketches Home

Last week I attended John Muir Laws' Wild Wonder Nature Journaling Conference at Asilomar, Pacific Grove, California.  Asilomar has a gorgeous campus right on the beach and the week was full of nature journaling classes both in the classroom and in the field.  I took mostly field sketching classes where we would sit in a location and sketch for about 30-60 minutes.  When I was finished sketching I was some times pleased with what I had drawn, but very often felt my drawings could have gone farther had I had more time.  And at the end of the class when everyone laid there sketches out for viewing, I could see elements of other's work I wanted to try.

The subject of "finishing" field sketches is quite controversial.  Some argue that the sketch is not meant to look "pretty" but that it simply serves as a way to note field markings and other pertinent information that cannot be gleaned without actually seeing your subject.  Others like to have the rule that a true sketch should only be done while sitting in the field and that photos flatten and distort the subject.

But I personally have found that "finishing" field sketches is an invaluable way to improve my skills.  I like to challenge myself to see if I can get any of the sketches to a place where I like them. It is my way of spending more time with my subject and allows me to explore new techniques.  To me it is fantastically fun to pull out my sketchbook and watercolors, turn on some music and color in my drawings like a child with her coloring book.  I truly find this process to be both relaxing and exhilarating at the same time.  I do see great value in sketching from life.  Nothing can replace it.  But I also think there is much to be gained in playing around.  So don't be afraid to muck around with a field sketch and try some new things.

“This is the real secret of life -- to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
― Alan Watts

After years of color correcting images in Photoshop I realized there are always a few things that I do the same when I look at any photo or artwork. Below are my top ten tips for "finishing" field sketches.  I would love to know of other's strategies for this process so please leave me comments if you have other suggestions.

Some people also argue that a sketchbook should be ugly.  There should be scribbly notes, out-of-proportion drawings, and messy attempts. And those who do not have these items are vain, afraid of criticism, or worse..."perfectionists".  The perfectionists are people who imagine their sketchbook being opened to people laughing and jeering at the childlike images while chanting "she can't draw!"  That scenario makes me laugh just typing it, but don't we all have these fears?  I will admit that there is an element of vanity in this "finishing" work, but there is also an incredible amount of juicy fun to be had.  So I encourage you to do this only if you think it is fun.


The idea for this post started because my friend Jodi teased me that I wouldn't show my "ugly" bird on the blog (my words, not hers).  It made me pause to think about why we don't like to show our field sketches and what would be helpful to me and others. The phalarope below is a perfect example of what can be learned from working on a sketch at home.  While in the field I was able to see this red-necked phalarope through the scope for 10-20 second at a time.  I thought I did an OK job at getting some field markings in before some dogs came and scared it away.

But when I got home and pulled out my field guides and images on google, I could see I had the shape of the head wrong.  This bird has a tall forehead that looks like it has been smacked with a flat board.  I was able to add some height to the head and if I ever have to draw a phalarope again I won't make the same mistake!  I was also able to refine the feathers, study the shape of the bill and how it connects to the face, and even try making a shadow in the water!  This took about 30-45 minutes and was so much fun!     


The class I took with John Muir Laws was one of my favorites.  It is rare to meet someone who is an incredible naturalist, amazing artist, AND a phenomenal teacher.  During his class we took a trip to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve where he encouraged us to try either drawing an entire landscape in a small rectangle, or to draw the outline of the landscape and then color rectangular portions of that landscape.  I attempted the latter but ran out of time to finish the color before we had to meet back to show our work.  When Jack saw mine he said he would leave it just like it was to show the process.  I could totally see what he meant, but the thought of it made me squirm inside because I was DYING to see what it would look like finished!  Wild dogs couldn't keep me from filling in that last bit of color!

As a side note, my original plan was to put the Point Lobos logo in the circle.  But after I finished coloring in the rectangles I changed my mind.  I decided I just wanted to put the color of the waves and water in the circle.  After I finished it looked kind of plain so I penciled in a little sea lion (lobo marino means sea lion in Spanish).  We had seen them off the point that morning and even though I didn't see one while sitting there I couldn't resist because I friggin LOVE sea lions!  (It just occurred to me that tip number 11 should be "Don't be afraid to add elements to your sketch that weren't there but that help you get a sense of other words...put a bird on it! or a sea lion!)


This sketch is a perfect example of trying something, but liking it the way it was to begin with.  I knew I kind of liked this fleshy plant just like it was...sketchy and soft.  But I also knew it would pop more if I inked the outlines.  Once an idea springs in my head it is hard not to do it.  The solution to this dilemma is to always take a picture first.  That way you can have your cake and eat it too.


This was one of my least favorite sketches and I wasn't really interested in fussing or playing with it.  So I left it alone.


Sadly, the Giant Sea Kelp is another example of a sketch where I liked the "before" better than the "after."  But I learned so much from this process.  I have been struggling lately between leaving my sketches as just watercolor or inking them in.  I find that inking them in is an easy way to distinguish elements but that it turns out more cartoony.  It's not that cartoony is bad, but it is just a whole different look.  I find that through this process of "going too far" I am learning when to stop.  I did at least get to try splatter painting the sand in this one.

This sketch was done in a class by Catherine Hamilton on "Improving Live Drawing and Color Perception Skills."  If you ever get a chance to take a class with her DO IT!  She is incredibly knowledgeable and you must follow her on Instagram (@birdspot).


During the conference I signed up to take a class on making maps with Emily Underwood.  We were led up to a bluff overlooking the dunes with a boardwalk.  Unfortunately the fog was rolling in and we could barely see so we had to use a bit of imagination.  I wasn't that into my sketch, but while I was sitting there I had the thought it would be cool to add a compass rose.  I had so much fun drawing it but after I added it I thought it was a bit too heavy for the drawing.  I then tried to thicken the dune lines which I quickly regretted.  The only extra bit that I did afterward that I liked was to add shadows to the plants.  Again, this one might have been better left alone, but next time I do a map I will know to keep the compass rose light.


This was a fairly quick sketch of a moth I did while in the "How to Draw Insects" class by Stephanie Dole .  Sometimes when I have a photo or a drawing that is fairly unremarkable I like to add text to it to spice things up.  Adding type to images often has a magical effect.  Since this moth was very muted in its color scheme I decided to leave it un-inked and to do the text in watercolor pencils.  In my humble opinion, the text really helped to add interest to this image.

Also, just a note that you can get so many free fonts now.  I like to use  I have never liked my handwriting and it has lead to a love of fonts.  If I am being particular I will print it out, pencil the back of the paper, and then trace it to transfer the type.  If I am being ridiculously particular I will scan the image, drop the text in, and then print and transfer to my sketch.  But last year when I was in Guatemala I didn't have access to any printer so I ended up just looking fonts up on my phone and drawing them onto my sketchbook.  Going through all of these various processes has made me more confident in drawing type.


While taking a class from Obi Kaufmann I did a quick sketch of him doing a watercolor demo.  I liked the simplicity of just adding a small line of text for his name.  Also, after checking the reference photo I added a little red to his necklace which made me happy (oh, the little things!).


This last sketch is a perfect example of darkening the darks and increasing hue saturation.  After the class everyone laid their sketchbooks down on the sand and I noticed one woman's work was stunning.  I also noticed she had beautifully darkened the rocks where the water touched them and where the shadows were darkest.  In my mind I noted it and decided that if I returned to this sketch I would do the same.  I also noticed that some people had captured the waves perfectly.  I had essentially left a white space for the waves because I wasn't sure what to do.  At first I tried darkening the back of the wave.  Then I tried dry-brushing a curve but didn't like the detailed look with the rest of the sketch.  Then I realized that a wave is just a cylinder on its side and tried to smooth it all out and shade it like a tube.  I am not sure I hit the nail on the head, but wow was it good practice drawing water!

The final element I added was the second circle in the sky.  My friend Jessica always makes these incredible circles in her skies and I love them.  My first circle was a happy accident from my plastic water cup.  So this morning I tried to make a circle with a water glass.  It wasn't quite as perfect but was as fun experiment.

In some sense there were winners and losers with these "befores" and "afters."  In certain sketches I made improvements here and mistakes there.  But if you consider all of my mistakes as learning opportunities then I think I won lots of prizes.

In addition to the technicalities of improving my watercolor skills, the most important thing I have learned through this process is discovering what I like.  I consider art as a process of learning about myself.  What subject draws me in?  Do I like the color darker or lighter?  Do I want this line thinner or thicker?  Should I add highlights?  And the beauty is no one can answer those questions but me.  In other words, what makes me happy?  What makes my heart sing?  I believe art is a way of finding what brings you joy and if we could all do that what a wonderful world it would be. 

"I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night

And I think to myself what a wonderful world"

Songwriter, George Weiss, Robert Thiele