Monday, March 30, 2009


My last self-portrait was done in college 25 years ago. It was a large format watercolor in a crouching position boxed in by the borders of the paper--a full sheet but still cramped at 22X30 inches. My skill at portraiture is sketchy at best so when people asked "is that supposed to be you" I wasn't totally unhappy. As it was also a nude portrait, if it seemed more comfortable for all involved I didn't always reply truthfully.

When the printmakers' exchange I am participating in chose a "self portrait as/with/ or including a tree" as a theme I was initially enthused but as I began to think of how I view myself--almost 30 years later, I didn't see myself particularly treelike. I'm short, I have bony knees; I know I don't suck up ozone-depleting CO2 or generate oxygen and I doubt if even on a good day that I'm good for the environment (that will have to wait until I enter the decay cycle).

I started drawing pictures of a generic male figure holding a topiary or a standard ( a standard is a horticultural term for a bushy plant or flowering shrub artificially pruned to a tree form). But I didn't like the idea of "American Standard" as a print with me in it. But moving along I remembered the bonsai...the Japanese form of miniature tree pruning and as I print using a Japanese technique I thought that it might make a decent metaphor for my other Japanese hobby. I'm still a dilettante and the idea of the Westerner who adopts a foreign/Eastern art form as a means of expression and practices it badly has some resonance. The drawings started out fully clothed, then partially clothed, then just underwear but I wanted the print to convey the sense of exposure and vulnerability that I feel when I display any of my works.

So my latest print is a nude self-portrait holding a Bonsai.

I tried to juxtapose the art of Bonsai--the attempt to create the illusion of a centuries-old tree and a model of Nature perfected (but achieved through the patient and deliberate stunting of its growth through root and branch pruning and nutrient starvation) with the image of this middle-aged, somewhat grotesque and inappropriately naked figure. Surrounded by tools woefully inadequate for the task he proudly offers up an example of his modest, Japanese hobby. As Sami, aged 8, the true artist of the family asked, "Dad, if he's naked does that make it Art?" or more pointedly my wife, "God, how long are we going to have to look at this!?). It sounds better (or worse) than it came out. The tree didn't come out pretty enough and there are some problems with the figure (the palsied and too-short left arm isn't a metaphor, just bad drawing) that somehow didn't just go away by carving it in wood and printing it 40 times in color.

It was a great exercise for me technically: 13 colors, a Maple keyblock, a big edition (35) and an attempt at an image requiring careful registration and printing.

The image above is a detail of the finished print. You can see the entire print if you are not offended by adult themes, frontal nudity or badly drawn or printed images. Go here:

Bonsai, 2009 Japanese Woodblock print; edition size 35 for the Baren Exchange #39 and another 5 on different paper/background colors or APs.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pizza Oven next day

Well we got the outer perimeter of insulating mud in today and then mixed up some dense mud and river sand to serve as the dense layer below the firebrick hearth. This will increase the mass below the oven floor to help hold the heat and make the oven stay hot longer. Today I had helpers.

Here's the layer of insulating mud inside the brick outer border. The "citadel" of center bricks are just to give a form with which to fill/pack the sticky, clay-like mud.

The last photo shows the finished base, now filled with the dense mud and sand mix. This all needs to dry a bit so it will hold the weight of the firebrick and oven layers without squishing out or deforming.

Once again. No Pizza Tonight.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pizza Oven

We've been gone from Italy now for 8 months and I miss the farm, the food and our house.
But I've been filling my time with some little projects and started to build an outdoor woodfired pizza and bread oven so I'll be able to make those thin crust pizzas and Tuscan bread.

It started when I dug a hole in the backyard to root out some invasive bamboo and found in one corner of the yard some pure white clay. That started me thinking about clay tiles....then adobe bricks....then I remembered seeing a book about earth ovens.

So work has begun. Since I couldn't decide on a permanent site and I wanted to build a smaller test oven to see if I really use it, I built a semi portable base using leftover 4X4's, 4X6's and 2X4's. I put it on casters (each rated to 350 lbs.) and built a top of leftover planks and plywood. On top of that went one layer of 12" X 12" Cement pavers. Next a ring of firebrick to enclose a layer of insulation. To keep the hot oven from eventually burning out the base I insulated the top with a mixture of subsoil and clay (the dirt that came out of my yard) that I mixed with water until I had a thick, clay-slip consistency.
I folded in half a bag of perlite (volcanic puffed rock from the building supply store ($14.00) to end up with a 4" thick layer of light insulation. It looks like and behaves like a mineral version of the RIce Krispy treat!

It's still wet but the next step will be to add a layer of dense clay/dirt over the insulation to act as a heat sink over which will go the hearth bricks and the real oven per se. I'll post more photographs as they happen.
No pizza tonight.

NOTE: Much of my information come from the book "Building your own Earth Oven" by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field. I highly recommend it as it includes a wealth of information on ovens, building (on the cheap) with scavenged or recycled materials, has bread recipes and photos of lots of different ovens big and small for ideas.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Adding Color

In woodblock prints, the prints can either be hand-colored with watercolor one by one or a separate block needs to be carved for each color printed (although overlapping colors will creat secondary hues).

Some of my prints begin as black and white images. Some stay that way as they are graphically more interesting.
Sometimes, however, I pull some proofs and start to think....It'd be nice to add some blue to the background...and so on.
That happened with my earthworm print, which began as a little carving on a piece of maple and later became a color print once I had carved new blocks to add color.
The little scooter/chocolate kiss print was one of those doodles that started out sketched in felt tip pen. I recopied it out directly on a small piece of 4"X6" Shina plywood (a japanese linden that doesn't splinter too badly when carved) and carved it out. I was happy with the result and printed a small run using Sumi ink on white paper.

I hand-colored several of them and chose the best ones to give as wedding presents for some special cousins. I had painted in a multicolored background that I have never tried to do in woodcut.

So with that little challenge I decided to go ahead and carve the color blocks to try and reproduce the watercolor version.
I carved 5 color blocks to go with the black and white key block.
Two for the metal coloring of the scooter (one lighter and one for the shadows) and two for the orange handles(again one lighter and one darker for shading). On the latter block I included a little spot of red that I could print at the same time. The last block was the background. To get the rainbow effect it was printed three times. Once, with a yellow bokashi or graded wash to the middle bottom of the background. Water was placed at the top and bottom of the board and the yellow color brushed in the middle-- smoothing out with a clean brush the areas to either side to get the fading. After this was printed, I brushed blue to the top of the plate and water to the bottom 2/3s of it and printed that. Where the blue overlapped the yellow I got a nice green and green-blue. Lastly I printed the bottom by brushing water over all but the bottom strip and brushing in a little red color. The black and white key block or line drawing was printed last, to tie it all together.

It came out with a decidedly different "look" with the color printed compared to those that had been hand-colored. The watercolor stays on the surface and more color variation is possible--each one is more "unique". But with the Japanese-style printing the pigment gets pushed into the paper fibers and becomes deeper and in the hands of a better printer, more uniform if one is printing multiple copies. I think I'll keep to this overall strategy however, using watercolor to test color ideas and combinations but carving separate blocks once I'm ready to start printing.