Tuesday, September 7, 2010

And the Text Became Image, and Dwelt Among Us

A few years ago I began to think about changes I might make to the designs of my woodcuts that would better weave them into the other text-based work I had been producing.  Recent intaglio and lithographic works were utilizing text, but the woodcuts remained the same. Of course, there was a good reason for the lack of change in the woodcuts. I am still finishing off a series of related prints and the designs needed to be consistent within the series.

About a year ago I was invited to participate in a print portfolio focusing on woodcut as the process. I always use such opportunities to experiment with something I don’t feel I can readily use when in the middle of a defined series. The print, Blessed, shown here, is my experiment.

The majority of my woodcuts are designed to be printed with two blocks: one in a color and the other in black. I stuck with that concept as I began to design this image. You will notice that this first version is only printed in black and white. I’ll explain that later. The designs for the blocks were developed in Adobe InDesign and Photoshop. I copied a predetermined text into InDesign. There, I was able to remove the paragraph breaks and manipulate the spacing between the letters and lines.

I then exported the text into Photoshop where I could manipulate it more as an image, like a drawing. Using an earlier photo reference as a source, I began to layer the text multiple times to darken areas that needed to be a deeper value. I also erased words, letters, and parts of both until the image of the figure could be discerned.

The image for the second block was developed in the same way. I kept the overall value of the letters at a lighter gray so that I could differentiate between the images for the separate blocks. Yet in the designs of both blocks, the printed area is composed completely of text.

To get the designs from Photoshop onto the blocks of wood I printed them on a laser printer (actually a photocopier) and placed them face down on the wood. I lightly applied wintergreen oil to the back of the sheets of paper and rubbed the paper with a wooden spoon. This essentially melted the toner and transferred it to the surface of the wood. The image is transferred in reverse, so the text is backwards. That is perfect since it will print back the correct way in the final print.

The next part is where things began to get difficult. I think I worked on carving the “black” block over about five months. Of course, I was doing other things as well, but in the last couple months I worked on the blocks for 2 – 4 hours almost every day. My estimation is that the carving took well over 150 hours. It would not have been nearly as tedious in linoleum. With wood you have to work with the wood grain or small pieces chip or tear away. Alternately, in linoleum, you can cut multi-directionally with the carving tools.

Since so much of the wood surface had to be cut away it took a very long time. The work was also extremely delicate and my hand could only take about three hours of work each day. I think I will use this kind of design again, but I will probably produce the “black” block in linoleum. I like the wood grain texture that comes through when there are broader passages of color.

The video below shows some of the carving and also shows a glimpse of the second block. Once I finish off a couple other outstanding projects I will return to this other block and then print an edition with both, as originally intended.

I suppose another thing that caused me some delay was working on the block in public. This practice is debatable. I have carved wood blocks and worked on the sketches and drawings for various projects in public places for about a decade now. I don’t do it because I’m starved for attention. In fact, I still can get annoyed when people stare at me while I’m working. I work in public because 1) I don’t currently have a table at a proper working height at home, and 2) sometimes I just need to get out of the house. I also use this as a way to bring art to people. So few people actually live with art in their homes. The processes of how it is created are fascinating to them. I am happy to explain what I’m doing to people who ask. I do get a little annoyed when people try to slyly catch a glimpse or stare at what I’m doing, but can’t muster the nerve to ask about it. If you can stare you can interrupt and ask a question.

I am not yet ready to definitively state that this will be the new direction for my relief prints. I have been pleased with the response so far. I do still have a half dozen or so earlier woodcut designs from the ongoing series to complete. Keep checking back here to see what happens next.

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