Monday, August 18, 2014

Stumps and flowers

Cardinal Creeper, wood engraving and watercolor; 8"x8".
About a year ago, I was walking home from the clinic on one of my last shifts of the Summer. I noted a neighbor had almost finished taking out a boxwood hedge. The tops had been sawn off and they were trying to dig and pry out the stumps and roots. My first thought was whether any could be salvaged for Bonsai....Boxwood takes forever to grow and an abandoned plant would be perfect....but these had been too badly damaged. But I asked the owner if I could grab a few pieces.....I heard boxwood was ideally suited for wood engraving....and I'd never tried it as it's become too hard to find endgrain blocks and too expensive to have them made....but I could saw off the end of a stump and these would cost only my labor.

I came back with a box, threw in the fattest trunks and took them home. I didn't have time to properly treat them; but I put half in my mildly damp studio and the others I put under the Pizza oven/which was covered with a tarp. I hoped in my year away that they would dry....and not crack too badly.

This Summer, I've been too busy with house works and other health issues to really do any artwork. But I did have time to pull out the stumps and survey the wood.  Most of the big pieces had checked (cracked) rather badly.....but I sawed off a few rounds........I sanded a couple smooth; and took the ugliest, most suited to a test carving, and continued sanding until it was glass smooth.

I drew a sketch of a plant I've been meaning to do a print of for a couple of years....
Cardinal climber or creeper (the name changes and they're not exactly the same....but it's a cross of a wild and domestic climbing morning glory). It's a great humming bird attractor and I've planted it a couple of times with little success, but last Summer my housemate Sandy got some to grow; and I took a few sketches/photos.

So armed with a subject; a sketch; a wood round; and a few engraving tools I decided to give it a go.
Since this will be only one block and the registration will not be an issue. I just redrew my sketch onto the smooth end. I tinted the block with a little greenish wash to help show the future cuts.
It was a bit of a mess; I didn't really know how to hold or use the tint--the sharp pointed tool used to outline my shapes. Nor did the scorpers---clearing tools seem to want to obey my clumsy hands.  But by the second day, I resharpened the tools,  tried holding them at a shallower angle and things started to go better. And by the time I decided I was done (parts were shaggy and ragged, others clean and well-defined). This was meant to be a test and I didn't want to expend too much time and energy on an experiment.

After one day of hacking and stuttering....

A few days later; the tools are sharper, and I'm going about it from a shallower angle.

Cardinal Climber, 8"x8" on Echizen Kozo; Akua Carbon Black Intaglio ink.
And here is the result.

These were printed by hand using a baren. I printed a few onto a Japanese paper (echizen kozo--here) and two papers better suited for engravings and etchings.

The back of the block was still uneven stump so printing was a bit of a disaster...I ended up making a clay base to hold the block, I'd lay the damp paper in place, set it with a light pressure of the baren, then pick the whole thing up and supported with one hand from behind, rub the surface with the baren hard....I got the hang of it after about 4-5.......

The few good, even impressions I'll leave alone.
The few weak impressions I'll go over as above with some watercolor.......
It was fun to try and the results, although crude, are appealing--I like the crisp effects the crosshatching yields, and I'm not really used to working in black and white--but I'll try to pick out a few ideas that will work well in this format and technique.  I like close hand work and detail, so it's a technique I might be able to use to my advantage, once I get better at it.

I'll let the stumps dry for another year (they'll carve better). But I'll take a few rounds with me when I head back to Italy this September.  It's a totally different technique than moku hanga, and I'll have to work really small......but I want to try another one......

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thai Kozo

Front side above/back below.

I picked up two sheets of this paper, "Thai Garden Smooth"-- at New York Central Art Supply the last time I was in NYC.   I have a print idea I have been kicking around for a few years that will be a little bigger than I usually work and that would tolerate a surface that isn't perfectly smooth and where a little surface irregularity might be made part of the print.  This paper seemed to be what I was looking for: just off-white, fairly heavy, and had a nice feel in the hand. It's made of 100% Thai kozo and is unsized.
Amazingly, it was also only $4.00 a sheet instead of $30-40 for Japanese Kozo papers of a similar weight.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that besides being unsized and called Thai Garden SMOOTH (emphasis mine), the back of the paper is quite textured from what looks like was a pebbly cloth or screen used to form or dry the paper and it is unsized so would need to be sized for my purposes (moku hanga).

Well, I'm ok with sizing, but I'm not sure how the back of the paper will react to size--if each of those little bumps holds or allows size to pool I'll get a pronounced pebbly look to the front too and there's a chance that that surface texture will print no matter what.....(I probably should have just sized the front and not both sides, but I didn't think of that until AFTER I had sized both sides.).

I think it's funny that I'm working on a print now that was prompted by two sheets of paper that have a good chance at being totally ill-suited to the purpose.  I'm not sure if this is experimentation or just plain auto-sabotage. But as the paper was just $4/sheet I thought that it was worth a try.
But I have blocks to carve before I can even think about printing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

May Etagami

While I may not have made the cover,  my first etagami for the Italian/Japanese Etagami exchange made it into the May 2014 edition of Etagami monthly.

That's my red radicchio on the left. Pg. 4.

This is the cover of the May Etagami news magazine.

I don't think it's due to the incredible beauty or calligraphy of my work, but instead due to the fact as this is the first Etagami exchange organized by that association outside of Japan, and this is Florence, it made interesting news for their readers. There was a multi-page article about Florence, and the exchange. I think there are about 30 Italians participating.

The etagami that I sent to Japan this month was taken from a recent photograph of a grape vine budding out. In the wine-making world, this represents the beginning of the growing cycle and the bud will soon be a long vine studded with grapes.  The accompanying text reads, "Some calendars have different beginnings...".

Some Calendars have different beginnings. 3"x5" sumi and watercolor on Japanese kozo paper.

I also did another, this time in English; and sent it off as a postcard to a gardener and friend in Santa Cruz.

And today I stopped by the LAILAC Japanese cultural center to pick up my just-arrived card from from my etagami/penpal in Japan; It portrays what I think must be a blue clematis--called Tessen in Japanese.
I think I can now add to my Curriculum vitae that my work has been published in
"International Art Journals".......

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Topworking Grapevines

Cleft-grafted Grapevine April 1.

The right graft is taking and is budding out (May14th)

About 15 years ago, when we had a new water line brought to the farmhouse. The backhoe operators, either out of carelessness or just unawares, managed to take out an entire row of old grape vines. After getting pretty mad, and trying to yell in Italian and waving my arms a bit; they did agree at least to partially pay for replacing the vines. So that Spring I brought home 40 grafted table-grape plants and planted them in the soft earth where the new lines had been sunk underground.
 Unfortunately, 15 ended up being mislabeled and, instead of a the Italian variety, Maraviglia--a very large, pink, seedless grape---when they started producing grapes 2 years later produced dark, black wine grapes that never seem to really ripen and that even the birds ignore. But they're vigorous, grow well and make grapes every year.
So this year. I decided to try my hand at grafting them over to a new variety.  In big vineyards this wouldn't be economically feasible but as my labor comes cheap and if it works we'll get a crop as early as next year.
Top-working is a euphemism for the rather drastic decapitation of the top part of the vine to be replaced with new graft wood. It is cut off with a saw about 15" off the ground and an axe is forced vertically into the top of the stump creating a split. I then take shoots from the previous year's growth from a different kind of grape and using the grafting knife cut it into a triangular, wedge shape. This then gets gently tapped it into the cleft I've made with the axe. Each stump gets two scions of graft wood. The tricky part is that the living part of the wood; the cambium layer--is under the bark and is a thin, green layer of living cells. The cambium layer of the graft has to be in contact with the cambium layer of the trunk--but they're different diameters and colors and if they aren't placed just right and in contact they won't fuse. The whole graft is then wrapped tightly with tape and then covered with a grafting/sealing compound to seal them and keep them from drying out.

I was encouraged by last year's grafting attempts. My pear and apple grafts all took and are growing well and the one failure--a plum tree I grafted from a variety I found growing in an abandoned village in Liguria (don't know what the plums will look like....) didn't grow last year but this year sent out two healthy sprouts from the graft and I took that as a sign to forge ahead.

So, 6 weeks ago, armed with a saw, a sharp grafting knife, a bag full of grape scion wood I had cut in late winter and stored in the refrigerator, a paintbrush and some grafting tape and glue I set out to try changing these vines to a grape we would eat.
I chose 8 vines and grafted 3 Muscat di Hamburg; 2 Sultanina Bianca (white seedless/sultana), 2 Uva Regina and 1 Pizzutello nero.

While the cleft graft is supposed to be the easiest and have the highest success rate. Those qualities must be true for more competent farmers than I am.   I can't say I'm overwhelmed by how successful I've been.
I grafted four scions but only the Left bud seems viable.

Here we are 6 weeks after grafting:
Well, this one seems happy.

I have 3 definite takes; They're budding out and are clearly going to be ok.
I have another 2-3 that seem to have, maybe, some swelling and filling of one of the buds....but aren't actually growing. And I have 2-3 that don't really show signs of anything and are probably dead.
I'm still optimistic though. It's still early Spring and In the best scenario, a few more will bud out and survive to make fruit next year.
This looks like we have nothing.

But MAYBE this bud is trying hard to sprout?

Worst case scenario is that they won't take. But since we weren't eating those grapes anyway, that's not much of a loss. And I can always just dig those out and plant new vines next Fall.
Here's a comparison of a grafted vine on the left (I used dormant buds so the plants are behind in their growth) and one that wasn't grafted and is growing normally on the right. I need only one shoot from each plant to be able to develop them into productive vines.
I think I can, I think I can.........

I'll post more photos as time goes on and try to chronicle my success/or failure with this grafting attempt.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Enamel metaphor

I finished, and mailed off, the small 5" x 7" print to the 2014 sketchbook project's "Print Exchange 2014". This year's theme was "waiting for a sign" and I took it fairly literally.

"enamel metaphor", 5" x 7" moku hanga print;
This was printed from 5 blocks and has 8 separate color impressions.
Edition of 12 in this color scheme with 3 artist proofs.

I tend to "collect" road signs. I often stop and photograph old ones as well as ones that just strike me as odd or amusing. I also find them full of metaphoric content. "STOP" and "YIELD" are particularly strong--I guess I'm not used to the Imperative tense........Others are mere suggestions; recommendations on actions to follow....
I appreciated the friendly hint here to avoid this marble monument by going Right......

So my little print is both quite concrete: "Keep Left, Avoid Wall" but I also intended a more subtle, deeper meaning but it's one that you'll have to ponder on your own as I think it will mean different things to different viewers.
I've a few more road-sign/driving-themed prints in the "still-in-the-sketchbook phase" but there are a couple that I hope to do soon.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Paper Storage

I'm finally the proud owner of a new (but used) flat file. All it took was patience, an internet connection, and a car big enough to haul the thing home.....

This has been typical of my paper storage system up to now. I've kept my rolls of good paper in Large diameter PVC pipes up in the rafters of my small Santa Cruz art shed but when I came to Italy the paper I brought with me ended up in Cardboard tubes or boxes. I've gotten the really good paper out of the cardboard--it's too acidic and will damage the paper if it lives there too long so most of the rolls have been placed in an outer sheet of cotton rag/artist paper.

The obvious problem is it's hard to keep track of what I have and where it is and as I need to cut sheets down to size for printing--the heavier papers don't like being unrolled and have to be weighted down.

So, I've been looking for a used flat file for ages.  In Italy, new, they're frightfully expensive but I couldn't rationalize or justify spending that much for my little "hobby" I've been regularly trawling and Kijiji ( a kind of Italian craigslist) hoping to find a used one.

And this week not one but TWO showed up on Ebay; One was in nearby Lucca (1 hr away). I put in a low bid but I had no competition and finally and for a little more than $150 I now have a big, steel, flat file. I did have to take the back seats out of my car; drive there and back, load the thing into the car and then haul it back and put it together again....but it took just a few hours...

I didn't think to ask the dimensions so I was a bit chagrined to learn it is one of the big ones....
140cm long, 95 cm deep and 55 cm tall.....that's 55"x 37".....more than big enough!

I still have to go through my tubes and label the drawers, and get the paper stored away.

I feel more organized already.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Wrinkles and Paste

Mitsumata Washi; wrinkled with drying.
I printed up another smaller batch of my Chess/Horse prints but I ended up with some badly wrinkled prints so I got to finally try my hand at wet-mounting thin Japanese paper onto backing sheets.
The ones that wrinkled were all printed on a beautiful new paper that I was trying out--a 100% mitsumata paper that I got from New York Central Art Supply in NYC.
Not only do they have a great selection of European and Japanese papers but they are also arranged so that you can see and touch the various papers and compare the weights/surfaces/opacity/etc of papers that I've read about but never seen/touched.  They have a great selection of Japanese washi but also Thai and Korean papers in addition to Western printmaking papers. Many of their papers come from the Japanese Paper Place and there were a bunch of papers that I had never heard of.
I bought a bunch of stuff--Kozo, gampi, mitsumata and pulp papers--mostly artist grade but a few student papers to try out and test for future classes.
I also bought 15 small sheets of this shimmery, 100% Mitsumata paper ("Mitsumata letter-size") that was about 30g/m2. It has a lovely feel/hand and since I've had some luck with sizing and printing on thinner papers I thought it would probably work well.  I sized it during one of my sizing sessions with the same recipe I use for heavier papers (14g animal skin glue and 5g alum).

It printed beautifully. It really gave crisp, lively, sharp colors and the added body from the glue made handling and printing on it fairly straightforward. (It actually printed nicely unsized too) The only problem I've noted (on three separate printing sessions) is that when it dries it puckers very badly. I think it may be from uneven stress during printing but it's happened when the papers have dried pressed between books or under weights.

So I wasn't happy with the idea of pitching the 5-6 excellent copies of my little Horse print just because of wrinkling.  (And I still have 13 sheets left).
So after about 30" cruising the web and youtube for tutorials on wet-mounting prints I was ready to give it a try.
(Henry Li's Blue Heron Arts site has excellent tutorials/youtube videos of how to wet mount washi onto other papers. (

Using a blend of 1/4 cup flour, a pinch of alum, and about 3-4 cups of hot water I made a glue-soup about the thickness of whole milk. This was brushed onto the back of the prints (face down on a waterproof surface across the entire print and off the edges...the moisture in the glue helps "float" the paper on the surface. A sheet of thinner-grade Japanese paper was then laid across the back and burnished in place with a stiff brush and then my softer baren.  The edges of this sheet were then brushed with the same paste and the sheet was lifted and pressed onto a drying board to dry/shrink tight. The print is now face up, glued to the backing sheet; and the backing sheet is pasted along the perimeter only onto the drying board.

Once dry I cut them off and now they just await trimming.

They're flat, thicker and heavier now that they've been backed with good paper and they dried without the puckering or wrinkling.  In my haste I used organic flour that wasn't perfectly white and I had to fish out some bran flakes while I was gluing....and I used my regular printing brushes so got a tad of toning to the paper that makes them look vintage.  But it worked pretty well and even the copy I glued to heavier etching paper came out totally flat and looking good.
Finished print now mounted on a base sheet of Japanese paper.
Wrinkles are gone.