Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Sea Captain" Linocut Print

As long as I can remember my Dad has had the same lamp sitting on his roll-top desk.  The lamp is from the 70's and the base is a 3 ft model of a sea captain with a beguiling look on his face holding a pipe.  The photos below don't show it but the lamp has a giant manila-colored tube of a lampshade that sits atop the whole thing making it even more clear that this is from an era gone-by (apparently an era where enormous lampshades were necessary). 

When I was considering what to do for my next print I knew I wanted to do a print that had to do with whales or Inuit themes.  I have been obsessed with Inuit art lately and came across a sculpture where someone had carved a face into a whalebone.  I liked the face and it reminded me of my Dad.  At first I thought of putting my Dad's likeness on a whale vertebrae, but then a light bulb went off in my head (shielded by a giant lampshade!)... I should put my Dad's likeness on the lamp that always reminds me of him!  And so it began.

The Sketch

When I first became interested in illustration many years ago I visited a friend who was a professional children's book illustrator.  She was kind enough to let me visit her studio and I will never forget what I learned there.  She had a projector set-up over her desk that allowed her to project images that she could trace.  I never thought that was "allowed." 

Don't get me wrong...I am all for practicing drawing from life.  It is a great skill.  But I firmly believe that when one is trying to do a realistic portrait of a person it is very helpful to use all the resources available to you.  And that might mean taking a photo of your subject and tracing it.

One also learns along the way that when one does trace a photo, you don't really get a very good likeness as you can see below.  It is more to help get things in the exact right places.   

To me the fun part comes when you take the tracing away and add the shading and character.  You have to look back and forth between your reference photo and your sketch, attempting to capture the essence of the person.  It is always a dance between "reality" and what is flowing from within you onto the paper through lines.  Through this "fleshing out" process you add your own style.

It is also important to stand back, take a good look and change things according to how you want them.  For example, I thought his pants were too short so I made them a bit longer. I also wanted the collar on the jacket to be larger so I exaggerated it and made the buttons bigger.

As you can see below I also added the entire background scene.  I didn't like the way the rope wrapped around him on the lamp, but I liked the rope element.  So I changed it up.

Somehow it still felt important to work a whale into the design so I put a whale tail in the moon.  This is a whale-friendly sea captain.

Transferring the Sketch

Once the sketch is done I transfer it to the safety-kut plate by flipping the sketch over and rubbing it with a credit card. You can see the process in the above video and the final result below.


My favorite part of the whole process is carving the plate.  I like to turn my favorite music on and lose myself in the work.  Carving this plate was especially fun because my Dad was looking back at me the whole time.

"Thirst drove me down to the water where I drank the moon's reflection."

Test Print

I don't always do a test print because I am frugal and don't like to waste ink and time and paper towels cleaning up for a single print.  But I had several decisions that I needed to make and really needed to see it printed (and not backwards). 

Below is a video of me inking the plate for the first time.  If there was ever an exciting time in the process, it is at this point.  It is so fun to see the image magically appear as the roller passes by.

On the left below you can see the plate completely clean.  I used vegetable oil to clean the graphite off.  On the right is my test print.


"The wise man lets go of all results,
whether good or bad,
and is focused on the action alone.
Yoga is skill in actions."
-Bhagavad Gita

After making my final adjustments to the plate it is finally time to print.  Below you can see my setup.  Normally for a one-color print I wouldn't use my registration pins (called Ternes-Burton clips).  But this print was so long I was worried about placing my paper down perfectly.  I only gave myself one inch of paper on either side of the block.

Because this print was smaller than I normally print I decided to splurge and upgrade the paper from my usual Stonehenge to Rives BFK.  I knew it might be a hair thicker and maybe toothier, so I decided to pre-wet my paper.  This helps with ink adhesion.  But this also presented a problem using my Ternes-Burton clips.  Would they stay on if I got them wet?  I decided to tape them on using Gorilla Glue tape (serious tape!).  I knew the paper would tear when removing the clips with this tape so I planned on cutting them off when I was finished.  This would require extra paper and meant I had to put the clips at the long end.  Normally it would be better to put them on the sides on such a long print but I didn't have any extra paper on the sides that I could cut off (my print was roughly 11 inches wide and I could get 2 prints out of a 22x30 sheet). 

Long story short, the clips stayed put through wetting.  But I discovered on the first print that the clips no longer lined up because the paper had expanded.  Luckily I adjusted my metal pins and it was fine for the rest of the prints.  The good thing about using the clips was that it did indeed help me get the paper in the right spot.  The bad thing was the print was so long that when I tried to pull the print up to check to see if I had burnished enough and then lay it back down, it did not line up perfectly.  If I had put the clips on the side and used three clips like I normally do, it probably would have worked.

The saddest part was that my upgraded Rives BFK paper was quite toothy and even with TONS of burnishing I had a hard time getting a good print. Below you can see what it looks like if you don't have enough pressure.  You can also see my "fingerprints" where I pressed with my fingers.  NOT IDEAL.

The first night of printing was quite rough because we finally pulled a decent print after 7 prints and then I ran out of ink.  The 6th print probably would have been OK but it slipped and got ink on it.  I actually screamed out loud I was so frustrated.  George (my husband) helps me burnish and I think I scared him. 

After that night I was determined to try and make this process easier so I did TONS of research about the best papers for hand-burnishing.  Through my internet searches I found people recommended Somerset Satin, Zerkall 145, Fabriano Rosapina, and lots of different Japanese papers.  I have always avoided using Japanese papers because I am a sucker for thick, luscious paper, but this process was forcing me to consider my options.

After a trip to Suder's, I came home with my usual Stonehenge, a sheet of Magnani Pescia, and a sheet of Torinoko white.  Plus I knew I had some Mulberry paper I could add to the test.  (I would have bought the other's but no one carried them - except for the Fabriano Rosapina which was too small for this print).

The next night of printing was difficult again.  My prints were coming out too light... not enough pressure (or ink).  My hopes were high for my thin Japanese papers, but no luck.  After about 7 prints we were getting closer to pulling a decent print on the Stonehenge.  But then I tried a new paper that was clearly superior.

And the winner of the paper test was...(drum-roll please!)...Magnani Pescia!

I had been inking the plate so heavily to help with the "lightness" problem that the first print I pulled with the Pescia was a bit too heavy (but the black areas were solid!).  Finally, the second print we pulled of the Pescia was perfect!  The only problem was that I only bought one sheet.  After we printed the Pescia I returned to my Stonehenge and continued to pull some OK prints.  We even tried pulling the rest of the Rives BFK.  The final two prints I ended up peeking under the paper to see if we had achieved a good solid black.  I have ruined prints doing this, but in the end it helped a lot and the last two prints were good because of it.  You just have to be super careful when you do it.

Below is a video of me hand-burnishing and pulling a print.


From the very beginning I had the idea that I might add color to the print.  But I also wanted it to be able to stand alone as a black and white piece.  And I think it works in black and white but I do like the way the color helps to differentiate the smoke and the water shine.  In the close-up you can also see that it helps his eyes and beard stand out.

You can't see it in these photos, but the smoke is iridescent.  My friend Jodi gave me some Daniel Smith iridescent topaz and I painted it over top of the gold.  In my humble opinion, it transformed the smoke from "dirty smoke" to "magical smoke."  She told me there is another color that is just "shimmer" and I might try painting another where the moonlight is iridescent instead of the smoke.

Lessons learned

Every print I do teaches me so much.  From a printmaking standpoint I learned the best paper for hand-burnishing in Cincinnati is Magnani Pescia (although I would still like to try Somerset Satin).  The only bummer is that, as far as I can tell, the largest sheet of Pescia is 22x30.   I also learned you can use Ternes-Burton clips even with wet paper but you have to use strong tape and cut them off.  Plus you have to adjust your pins to accommodate expansion.  I also learned it is worth risking a peek under the paper to find spots that aren't burnished enough.

In addition to the technicalities, printmaking is teaching me deeper lessons. There is something about this process that seems to bring me to my knees every time.  After the first difficult night of printing and my screaming episode, I was determined to do better.  Not only did I want to physically make the process smoother, but I wanted to do better mentally.  The second night of printing I went into it with the understanding that I can only really control one response.  So when the first seven prints didn't go so great for the second night, I rolled with it.  I kept trying things with the understanding that I might not pull a good print the entire night.   And this experience was AMAZING!  I openly accepted what reality presented.  Every time I pulled a print up and it was too light, I accepted it and moved on, determined to try again.  There was no resistance to what reality presented.  I felt truly free.  I felt free of the outcome.  No matter what life gave me that night, it was going to be OK.  And it was.

"You have a right to your actions,
but never to your actions’ fruits.

Act for the action’s sake."
-Bhagavad Gita

This print is available for purchase on my website


Margaret Rhein said...

Appreciate your detailed description of your process and materials. The videos make your methods come alive and help the viewers understand the intricacies of your printmaking process.

Nessy said...

Thank you for reading and commenting Peg!