Saturday, December 22, 2012


30 years ago, during an undergraduate Watercolor class, we had the assignment of doing 100 drawings of a common object.
I chose a pair of scissors.
The limitations were to do all the drawings in no more than 3 sittings....
So that one had to do at least 33 drawings in a session.....
I'll leave the motivations and results of this to the imagination but of the 100 drawings I produced, I saved about 4-5 that I still have tucked away in a drawing portfolio.

This was always one of my favorites.
Not because of the's crude and distorted and badly painted, and smudged.
But it epitomizes the dry, droll sense of humor I sort of prefer.

There's a narrative.
There's an art-historical reference (if you call Dogs Playing Cards part of Art History)
There's a sort of odd, nonsensical vantage point and perspective (bad drawing)

This is the preamble.
For a few reasons, I've no new work coming out any time soon despite a backlog of ideas and works that I have sort-of started but need a block of uninterupted time to bring to completion.

So I'll be posting and discussing a little bit about materials that I use for the Moku Hanga Prints i've been making for the last 7-8 years.

Papers, pigments, brushes, etc.

What I use and why and where I obtain them.

More to come.

Happy Winter Solstice.
Glad the World didn't end.
I had stocked up on Synthroid, shoe laces and tinned sardines just in case.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Crumbs, size, paper and glue

I carved and printed a circular bokashi/shading to each donut during the printing phase as one of the impressions of my donut print.

This is what lies under the marble dust"powdered sugar".
And here's the block it printed from:

Then, another block, fairly similar but with the donut shapes just slightly smaller was used to print a mixture of gum arabic and paste transferring the glue lightly with the baren to the surface of the paper.
I then sifted (I used a very fine tea seive) very finely ground marble dust (used for gesso) onto the damp glue and then tapped it off.
Despite being almost talc-like in consistency it fell in smallish granules (I think due to electrostatic charges) but gave pretty close to the effect I wanted.
(I had also tried talc and rabbit skin glue as alternatives). The talc worked great but the print smelled like a beauty parlor and while Marble dust is inert and safe to work with the talc isn't really good to breathe so I didn't want to be dusting it on 20-30 prints.).
I wasn't too sure how permanent my "sugar" printing would be so I made sure there was a good layer of color underneath in case the sugar falls off (It's pretty heavy and seems to like to shed of rub off if you touch it). But there's a donut underneath just in case.

Although it might have been more coherent to print these sketches first, I wanted to include some of the preparatory drawings that I used to create this print.
I can't remember if it was from a dream, or just something I jotted in while on the phone or doing something else but this print started off as a sketch pretty much like these later ones, done to try to fit the paper size restrictions for the exchange I was participating in.
It went through lots of iterations and originally would have been a broader/bigger format. However, the Baren Forum exchange #54 for which this was my entry had a defined size: Hosoban,
which would have traditionally come from a half sheet; torn again into vertical thirds giving a pronounced vertical/horizontal axis at 5.7" x 13".

Meanwhile, while back in the US I ordered some new papers to try out hoping to find some papers to bring back to Italy.
The paper I hoped to use, Kizuki Kozo from the Japanese Paper Place in Toronto, they recommended as one of their favorite already-sized papers for moku hanga.
It's a lovely paper but thinner than I had hoped (40g/m2) and felt pretty soft, with some fibers already visibly protruding on the surface.
And indeed, it proved to be a little too soft and lightly sized for my purposes as on the first 1-2 impressions the paper seemed to stick to the block/get surface abrasions and the finished proofs were a little too matte and soft in color (a sign of not enough size).
So just after starting my actual print run I actually abandoned the 26 sheets I had cut of this paper and had to cut down new paper made up of what I had on hand in Italy.
( I had two full sheets of Kihada--a heavy mulberry/pulp paper from Japan (Woodlike Matsumura), a few small pieces of Echizen Kozo (McClains), and some midweight kozo/pulp paper whose name had fallen off last year.).
I cut these down, dampened them and these became the final prints--
(with the addition of 4-5 of the original kizuki kozo that I kept printing on for reference).

Meanwhile, I still have the 26 pieces of Kizuki Kozo that I had started to print on--the first yellow background bokashi got printed before I pulled them out of the stack... so I decided I will have another go in the future but with additional size.

Just before heading back to the US this week, I mixed up a batch of winter size and once they were dry I re-sized them with a mixture of 5g alum/17g glue to 1L water. (It might be too strong as there is some size already on this paper and they ended up a little too "shiny").

These have since been dried; and put aside to settle/age. They'll be ready to print on when I head back to Florence in January.

I hope to have a go at a variant printing:
I'd like to cut another block; I still want to see what that wavy oak block from my first post/idea will print as a background and I think I'd like to play with a blue/gray background and splotches to make it a little more subtle.
So stay tuned for a second state.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Revenge of the Sugar Donuts

They came--
Not two-by-two but in sixes and dozens.

Almost all human cultures have not only a complex cosmology of the origins of Man and the World but they almost ALL have some version of a fried tasty cake or dumpling.
I decided that enough artists have fully explored the nature of Myth, Symbol and the mystical origins of Spirit and Culture but few have adequately explored the elaborate ramifications and layers that involve millennia of deep-fat frying.

Revenge of the Sugar Donuts(detail)
moku hanga, Japanese polychrome woodblock print
5.7" X 13"
printed from 5 blocks with watercolor pigment and marble dust.
E.V. 22

This print comes from one of the many funny drawings doodled into the margins of my sketchbooks. No deep meaning.
Not unless you want to dig a little bit.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Printing Spatter

Proofing my cherry wood spatter block. Changes in plans meant that I had to throw all of my blocks, tools, cut paper and barens/and brushes into a suitcase as I had to change continents all of a sudden. I'd hoped to wrap up this "simple" print before leaving but I had to leave a week early and the week I'd left for printing didn't happen. Sadly, my suitcase was way overweight (art supplies, Halloween candy and tortillas) so I had to jettison the oak block that started this whole I'll have to make due with some careful printing to get some of the depth and drama I was after. Work commitments will keep me in Santa Cruz, until December but for a few weeks, I'm back in Italy and trying to finish up an art project that is due Nov. 1. This will be a portion of one of the blocks that will make up an exchange print for Baren Forum's exchange # 54. It's a friendly exchange of works by relief printmakers that happens 4 times a year. Sometimes there's a theme/sometimes a size/sometimes a "technique challenge". No theme this time; the only restrictions are the size: (5.7" x 13") and a technique...moku hanga--all the participants this time around have to use the Japanese woodblock printing method (wood blocks, Japanese paper, brushed-on water-based inks and printing with a baren (or wooden spoon). Not sure I'll make the deadline as if I have to ship the prints from here they'll take longer but I'm back on track after the jet lag wore off and my cold is finally waning. This block printed just fine, the graininess is from the fact that it's on etching paper and not my good Japanese paper. I'm proofing the other blocks today. I'll be printing on a new paper, Kizuki Kozo from the Japanese Paper Place in Ontario, Canada. A bit risky trying a new paper on a moku-hanga print, but I like surprises; it might be too soft, too lightly-sized, too light, too anything...If I'm lucky, I should be able to adjust the final print to all of these variables.... I hope to start printing tomorrow if no new hurdles present themselves.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Carving Spatter

Well a lazy Saturday spent mostly at home. I have the day off, and a bit of a cold, so I stayed in most of the day and worked away at the splotches I wanted to try and carve for the background block. Here's a close up of the cherry block before I spent the day pecking away. I'm using the sharp pointed Toh chisel to outline the shapes. Then I use a couple of bull-nose or Aisuki chisels to clear away everything else. The toh make a kind of stop-cut that allows me to clear right to the edge. Hope to finish it tonight or tomorrow. The other 1-2 blocks are soft Shina plywood and should go fast.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Work on this little print progresses slowly. I have two blocks carved but I think I'll need a little more drama than the oak grain from my last post might provide once I get to printing so I decided to try a different approach. I mixed a little sumi with a little water and with a big, old housepainting brush I splashed and spattered the ink on several pieces of cardboard and paper. Once I was happy with the variety of splashes, drops, drips and scatter, I let it dry then traced it onto .03mm acetate using a pen with a fine nib. Then I transferred it onto the block using carbon/transfer paper using a sharpened pencil. This is going onto a cherry block as I want to retain some of the detail of the little droplets. I started carving this tonight and it is going slowly. I need to sharpen my tools since the hardness of the wood I can't really influence. But sharper gouges and aisuki chisels will make things much easier. I'll try to post a photo tomorrow of the block. I am trying however to keep the subject a mystery until I finish the print. So the photos will be cropped oddly to prevent guessing.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Oak and Drama

It's been a long time since I've gotten any work done. But sometimes, the best way to begin is just to start working. Here I am; sanding block and wood board on my lap. I do this by hand; it's slow and meditative and gets me to think about the wood and begin to feel about where I want to go. I've got a preliminary sketch worked out but this time, instead of a detailed finished drawing to paste down; I'm going to be using a tracing on acetate and carbon paper to transfer the shapes to the blocks. While most of the blocks will be Shina--a Japanese linden plywood, I wanted one block that would add some drama. This is a white oak board; purchased today at the lumberyard and will be used to print the background. I've begun sanding it to bring out the wavy grain that should show prominently in the finished print....(or that's the idea....). More to come.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Leaves and Beetle at Orangelands

Cherry Root Borer Beetle, moku hanga color woodblock, 2.5x3.5", E.V. 200.

Two of my most recent prints will be on view next week in San Francisco in the juried Botanical Art exhibit at Orangelands gallery in the Nob Hill district of San Francisco.
Here is the link to the show.

Orangelands Gallery
1250 Mason Street, San Francisco

The opening is next week; Thursday Sept 13th 5-7pm.

Included in the show are the Maple branch print that so vexed me much of this Spring and the Beetle version of the parasitic, cherry, root-boring, longhorn beetle, Prionus Californicus. (He eats cherry so I guess that makes him "botanical").
I've decided to frame "Beetle" in a small shadow box and it looks great. He's been mounted onto a small piece of acid-free foam core so he sits up off the back mat and casts a bit of a shadow.

I hope any Bay Area friends, printmakers or family can stop by during the opening to say hi or make it to the show later in the month.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

moku hanga woodblock prints

Scooter Kiss, colorWithering MapleFlorida Green Anole woodblock printPrionus Californicus--Beetle ACEO woodblock printPrionus Californicus--Larva ACEO woodblock printStain
Toggle BoltDominoTiger Carpetblu vase studyJajim Sienna VariantYellowPi
Year of the BoarchameleonEarthworm (nightcrawler)Lacrime di Rospo labelLydiaVino Rosso 2005 label
Shapes and Postures B&WYear of the RatBalloonPi (black variant)BonsaiFirstDayHome

moku hanga woodblock prints, a set on Flickr.

This is a mixed collection of all my moku hanga polychrome woodblock prints.
Oddly, my earliest prints, Lydia and Vino Rosso/Bianco while naiive are kind of my favorites. Before I had an idea of what was possible or limited by what I thought I couldn't do.
Still haven't made a dent in my "to do" list for 2012. But I'm happy to see these all together.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


"Thou shalt not covet Thy Neighbors' boxwood"

While I was working on my Maple print I noticed (but had noticed long before) that there was another tree of interest in the neighborhood.

But this time my interest lay not in its artistic potential as model, but in its potential as a lumber source. I have a print I'd like to do that is fairly detailed and will have very fine lines. As solid Cherry gets more and more expensive and as even cherry-faced plywood becomes more and more costly, even expensive alternatives become options--at least for smaller prints.
While in the US, I began to think about trying to find a source of boxwood for at least the key block. Most lumberyards don't carry it and specialty stores for luthiers and furniture makers are frightfully expensive and have usually very small pieces if they have any at all. Big trees are scarce, cut long ago, and what's left are small trunks and branches and these often have to be glued together to make pieces big enough to use for carving. It is very slow growing and the wood is very hard and was used for centuries to make woodblocks for printing text and engravings. Boxwood species are a favorite of Bonsai enthusiasts but they too usually look for an old specimen to dig up and shape as starting from a cutting would take a very long time.

However, one of the advantages of being in an old country (Italy) is that there are lots of old things about.

Boxwood, Buxus sempervirens, is a common landscaping shrub used for centuries in Italy and Europe and as synonymous with the formal landscapes as the cypress tree is to rural. It is commonly used to make boxed gardens, pruned into hedges and topiaries and there is a thriving landscape/nursery industry in producing small boxwood shrubs. In formal renaissance gardens small areas were divided by boxwood hedges to create elaborate formal symmetric gardens. They have to be pruned/shaped several times a year. When fertilized the leaves and branches grow more quickly but the trunks take a very long time to thicken. But in addition to European Boxwood or American boxwood, there exist over a hundred of other cultivars from Asia and South America and they differ in growth habit, leaf-size, and color. Some grow a bit faster or are more yellow or darker green. In the 1800's and early part of the 1900's a resurgence in garden revival led to restoration of antique gardens or planting of new ones.

If work need to be done (wells, roads, laying pipe, etc.) and part of a hedge removed or damaged, or if landscaping desires suggest putting in a new hedge--There are "quick" ways to get a new hedge fast; buy bigger plants and plant them closely together (costs a lot more), or look for smaller plants that grow faster. And indeed there are Asian and South American cultivars that grow faster. On this property sometime in the last Century (?), someone planted a faster-growing South American boxwood to make a "new" hedge on the corner of the lawn, next to a large Cedar of Lebanon. It may be older however; older gardens have mixed hedges usually comprised of boxwood and myrtle and bay laurel while new hedges (last century) are more commonly planted to only one species. This is a mixed hedge of European and South American Boxwoods and Laurel and at one time it WAS neat and tidy, curving around a bright green lawn in the center of which is a towering Cedar of Lebanon.

But hedges need trimming.
Trimming hedges requires labor.
Good gardeners grow old and retire or die.
Fortunes change; houses are sold or abandoned.
Wars intervene and gardening and hedges become superfluous.
Sometimes yard work just gets put on hold when landscaping costs get too expensive and trimming the hedges happens less often.

So at some point in history, someone stopped trimming this hedge and when they came back and started to fix up the place they trimmed around the slightly taller South American boxwood; pruning the bay laurel and European Boxwood lower and more neatly. And once our specimen got a bit taller it seems they stopped trimming it altogether and it took advantage of the neglect and took off. And grew. And grew.

So here we are now. some centuries later and there is a magnificent Boxwood tree, inclined to the Left in search of light (that Cedar of Lebanon they planted around was much taller). This one is a good 12"-13" in diameter at the base and at least 40' tall?

That's a lot of Boxwood.
There's more to this story: but I'll give a clue and forewarning.

Our hero was briefly tempted by Lust and Greed to commit an act of great depravity too terrible to even mention here but was spared by the gentle hands of Providence and Chance and a swift kick in the behind from their sister, Conscience, causing him to stumble into a dusty, dark and almost invisible workshop on this side of the river Arno.

And there, downstairs, in the back was a small stack of boards pretty much just like this:

Sunday, June 10, 2012


Well, it wasn't hard work and perseverance that got me to finish this thing. It was mold.
Mold can be seen as small black-gray spots on the yellow background.

After a spate of very cool, damp weather, it turned hot and my long days of printing and frequent interruptions led a few days ago to me pulling out the prints from the freezer and finding MOLD spots--just starting--on three of the ones I had left yellow (all on Italian paper). I think it was from my paste as I didn't make new paste every day and the mold was just in the background color on the prints and not on the unprinted paper. After a brief temper tantrum and hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth and general unpleasantness I decided to go through the whole pack.
My Japanese paper was still ok and the newsprint didn't have the smell of mold/mildew so I thought there was hope.

I posted the finished version in my last post but while I didn't have time to take process photos at least I can give an impression of how the last day of printing went.

I quickly printed a thin glaze of Naples yellow (with a few drops of chlorine bleach added) to those three that showed signs of mold (a desperate, unorthodox and probably useless gesture), isolated them from the rest (I hung them up outside hoping the UV rays would kill the mold), threw out all the old newsprint and dampened new ones and pulled out my Japanese paper (still no mold visible) and went into College All-nighter mode and spent the next 15 hours finishing up or getting them as close to finished as I risked. I'd have probably done another 2-3 impressions if I wasn't backed between fatigue and the risk of ruining too many prints and the deadline of mold erupting on all of the paper.

Over the yellow background I printed a big bokashi mauve from the top down--this looked as terrible as one can imagine (mauve over yellow made a dirty purplish brown). And things at this point looked pretty bad; I had visions that between the mold and my bad color sense I'd ruined everything. But the next color was a rich blue-green glaze/Bokashi that went over the mauve it started to get interesting. (I'd left the yellow ground intact at the bottom and a last bokashi in a burnt-umber to the bottom finished off the background. All that was left was to reprint the keyblock (it had started off carmine but with the dark background it didn't have enough contrast.) As I expected this was the hardest block and I lost 3-4 copies due to mis-registration of the two superimposed keyblock impressions. But the ones that worked were much, much better. I stayed up a few hours more shuffling them in the dry kitchen to get as much moisture out as possible (I didn't risk drying them stacked under weights) and the thin paper was pretty much dry when I finally tossed in the towel and went to bed.

The final tally:
Seven Shina plywood blocks; about 15-17 impressions.
Today I signed and numbered what ended up being a very small edition.
I ended up with an E.V. of 10 decent copies. In addition, there are about 5 Artist proofs/working proofs in the intermediate stages (yellow/green/blue-green backgrounds) or on different papers. (and I counted about 20-25 proofs/rejects/trial copies/test prints) that represent a good 10 sheets of etching paper; a few sheets of Shin Torinoko; and 8 full sheets of Hosokawa Japanese paper and 4 of Hosho.

In the process I've learned a lot:
How to handle and print on thin Japanese papers using a carry sheet to aide registration--it can be done.
How to size my own paper if I have to.
My home-sized paper had a little too much size--some of the speckling is from that,but I needed the extra size on this print. This thin, 39g/m2 weight paper took a beating: the background alone ended up with 5 impressions printed on almost the whole sheet with both a normal and ball-bearing barens and I could have kept going--the paper was still fine. No pilling, no tearing, no delamination of fibers, no bleeding.
(Hosokowa Elfenbein (imported in Europe by JAPICO) listed variably as 80-90%Kozo, 10-20% pulp.)
How to NOT leave DAMP paper in a plastic bag for days on end without taking care to put in freezer/fridge while not working (I knew this already but wasn't paying attention).

The three yellow moldy ones are probably a lost cause but I'm not ready to throw them out.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Maple, withering

Maple Branch, (withering).
16"x 15" moku hanga polychrome woodblock print
Hosokawa Japanese Washi
E.V. 10; 3 AP; a still-uncounted number of variants and rejects/misprints.

It was November when I cut off a small branch of the Japanese Maple growing in my mother-in-law's garden. I brought it inside and hung it up and in the span of a few hours the beautiful, Fall, red-carmine-vermillion leaves had twisted and curled as the water fled from their cells and the dry air hastened what Fall would have inevitably wrought later.
The back-lit seeds glowed with the late afternoon sun and the the two leaf surfaces were different colors; the back of the leaves twisted forward to show me their bellies carmine-red, puckered and veined. The front sides glowed from the sun behind,more orange, with only the veins showing dark. The chlorophyll, the green life-blood of all growing plants was too precious to let fall to the ground and had been drawn back into the stems and branches to await the lengthening days of Spring and provide the engine and fuel for next year's growth.

I had been drawing from life only earlier that day and this was another model, only older and more fragile. The dangling seeds were now earrings and jewels and the five limbs of each leaf wrapped around a body that was no longer alive. I sketched this hanging branch with its Baroque leaves with a rapid hand, in pencil, before the light faded and before the mood changed. As it dried I knew that even a careless breath would shake loose the leaves or separate the seeds from whatever invisible connection still held them to stem.

It took a long time to make this print.
Thanks to all who have looked, commented and offered advice and encouragement.
I'm glad Spring is here already and Summer just ahead.