Monday, December 30, 2013

Starting Over

Sometimes you just start over.
It may not be well thought out, or prudent, or financially promising, or likely to succeed, but you do it anyway.
The small farm that started this blog has been idle for years---I travel too much and and am too often away summers and winters for work in the US to have kept my word in maintaining it.

Nevertheless, when a neighbor, who had been cleaning out his artichoke patch, asked if I wanted some leftovers.....I hesitated only briefly before saying " Yes".
He asked if I had the soil prepared already and I said, "No".
He said, "you'd better's supposed to rain tomorrow...."
and I left his house with about 50 Artichoke plants.....

He saved the small ones. They're really good lightly boiled and eaten like cardoons.....but his wife can't stand he didn't need many and was happy to give away what would have ended up in his compost pile.

The soil was wet and heavy from Fall rains. Too wet for a tractor and too wet really to walk in.
I used a greenhouse tool to fork the soil over, aerating it from below, then tilled in lightly some well-aged compost.  Alex and Sami helped dig shallow holes, throw in a fistful of compost and a plant and cover them with soil. A single stamp of the foot to settle the soil around them. We cut off the tops of the plants to help them avoid withering before they put out new roots. We finished just before dark and it did indeed, rain that night.
They're Morellini, the small oval purple artichokes the Italians love (and eat raw or preserved in jars of olive oil).

If things go well they'll grow new roots and establish during the rest of the Winter and early Spring and come MAY they should be a meter high and a meter across and send up the flower buds that will become our next crop....and even if we have to be gone again this Summer; we will still have artichokes to eat before we go.

Note: Artichokes (carciofi in Italian) are a common local crop.  Each plant is a biennial, growing a big, spiny, bushy plant the first year, then flowering the next. While the flowers are enormous purple thistles, they are usually picked as unopened buds which you'd recognize as an artichoke.
Only one type is grown commercially in the US (Green Globe)-- a huge, round stuffing type of artichoke) but in Italy there are many varieties and in Florence, the favorite is a small crispy green or purple artichoke that is usually eaten raw. (You can't do this with a green globe no matter how fresh it is). Each plant dies after flowering but the plant sends up numerous small suckers/shoots before it does and these will flower or produce each year. So while technically a biennial, the plant will produce artichokes for years from the new suckers.  (We usually thin them to just one per plant so they get bigger and so did my neighbor, which is why he had them to give away....).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Oops! More Common Moku Hanga Printing Errors.

I probably should have started with this one as it is one of the more common, "Oh No!" causes of printing errors--and not just for woodblock printers. The realization that the image has to be reversed on the block can be easily overlooked..... In this case, this was an early work and only the number "2" was missed....the title and other numbers were carved correctly.
Too Wet:
 The Boar print has what is termed, "tamari"; the wet, dark halos around the numbers and many of the boar's bristles are from much too much moisture and pigment on the block and it's squeezing out onto the paper instead of being driven into the fibers during the printing.

In the lower example, the mottling of the green background is caused by too much moisture rather than pigment. It seems the wetness breaks down or washes out the size and this mottling won't go away with overprinting.

The paper won't really accept any more pigment and multiple printings don't seem to get any darker or more even.

Western Papers.
 The grainy, ethereal, "atmospheric" effect is a hard to avoid defect of attempting to print on Western Papers.
The texture left in the paper surface from western paper screens during their manufacture remains and the pressure generated with the baren often isn't enough to print color smoothly.
A stronger baren, really firm pressure and certain papers are more accepting than others.
In the lizard print below, the red dewlap (skin flap) printed evenly while the blue background did not.  It is printed on Magnani incisioni which can be printed smoothly with a lot of effort (as can Fabriano Artistico).
The easiest of Western papers to use for moku hanga printing is probably Rives lightweight and I've had decent results on that paper.

Sizing issues.
If the size is badly or unevenly applied it will show up in the finished print. This looks like the sizing brush was accidentally set down and the streak of extra size acted as a resist.

Harder to illustrate is the effect of too-weak size.
Prints will simply be "flat" or "lifeless" or the colors will never seem to really be vivid or strong despite multiple overprintings.

If the pigment isn't brushed out evenly or there isn't enough paste in the color mix (or you're using cheap brushes), the brush strokes will show.
Again, sometimes this is a nice thing.
Sometimes it is a distraction.

In this case I liked it and as in the prints above, I kept all of them, defects included.
They serve as reminders of things to watch out for going forward.
But they also record my progress (or lack thereof) as a printmaker. As I struggle to become more professional it's helpful to look back and see where I've been.  There is a naivety to some of these works that is still very appealing and I'd hate to lose that freshness and vitality in a search for clean edges and even color application.

This discussion will probably remain active for as long as I make prints. Stay tuned for the next disaster.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Good Enough? Common moku hanga printing errors.

Double edge from printing two blocks that don't align exactly.
Now that I've started printing editions or multiple copies  with the idea of eventual shows or possible sales, the issue of print quality, consistency, and printing defects are becoming more important than they used to be when I was primarily concerned with just learning the craft.
I'll Leave aside the questions of artistic merit--as a bad idea can be executed flawlessly--since I mostly wanted to touch on the conflicts arising from trying to decide what level of imperfection I can live with (or expect others to be o.k. about buying).

My early errors were fairly easy to detect and are common among beginners.
Unwanted embossing from inadequately cleared borders or empty spaces and unwanted ink blotches or spots from where the wood wasn't cleared away sufficiently and ink was being picked up by the damp paper.
 These are still concerns and do still crop up from time to time--especially if I am tired or at the end of a long printing run.  IF they are at the borders of the paper--well outside of the print area --or if they don't really detract from the visual impact of the print I usually allow some level of spotting.  In the trash bag print the spotting was too intrusive and obviously a mistake while in the little fulcrum print,  the black streaks in the gray mass/color look like, and were, deliberate-- even if there is a lot of print-to-print variability in how visible they are (from differences in baren pressure during printing).
Other early errors have mostly vanished. I no longer find myself gluing my expensive paper  to the blocks from too much paste and not enough time for the block to charge with moisture and I very rarely print on the wrong side of the paper or inadvertently lay the paper down from the wrong corner throwing off the registration. (But at least one of these will still happen once with each new print I make, so I'm not immune. 

But as I start to number prints in an edition that took a long time I find myself thinking long and hard about the culls.  Some defects really are ok at my level of printing--they show that these are hand made; occasionally add vibrancy or energy to a print and do indeed become measures of where I am now as a printmaker.  Sometimes I find myself with NO perfect prints..then I'm more prone to look at the prints I do have to try and decide if I should start over or try to pull out the few that aren't really spoiled by their imperfections.

I'll list some of the common errors that I found in my last few prints and try to post some photos that illustrate the defects.

The double black line is from a failed attempt to overprint the keyblock.

Out of register; this comes (in my work) in two versions:
one is an attempt to overprint the keyblock but either the paper or wood size has changed throwing it off just a bit or I had issues laying the paper down exactly right on both impressions.
(thicker papers can often be printed exactly over and over again while thin papers are more subject to some kinking or shifting during the delicate stage of setting the paper into the registering notches).

The other is just a color block that doesn't quite mesh with the others or the keyblock.
Brown stripe at bottom way off; paper probably shifted before I started to print with the baren.

The double printing of the keyblock is usually the kiss of doom for me---it's just too noticeable an error for me to allow--and it's very frustrating as the second printing of the keyblock is often the LAST impression of many.

Color bleeding: usually from printing too wet/sloppily. Extra moisture and pigment will collect at the wood edges and can squish onto the surface when printing--especially on thin papers where the excess moisture has nowhere to go.
Dark Red Bokashi to tip of triangle has bled into the adjacent green.

The orange patch at the bottom of the "grassy area" is from the pigment drying on the block.

 Uneven color-blank spots:
Sometimes, instead of too much pigment or moisture, there's too little. If the damp pigment dries on the block before you can lay your paper down it won't print. This will result in bald or uneven color patches.
This can usually be remedied (partially) by reprinting the same color again but while the pale area will now be ok, the rest of that color area will be much darker from the printing of another layer of pigment.

In this case, there's also a bit of unwanted embossing at the bottom of the paper....but I guess I decided this was ok as, unlike the others pictured here, this copy ended up in the signed and numbered pile of finished prints...

Good Enough?

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Fulcrum, 6"x8" moku hanga, woodblock print

I moved into my new studio and finally had a chance to start in on the long backlog of prints I've been meaning to tackle in the last 2-3 Years.
But instead, a bit taken aback by the sudden freedom, I had trouble forging ahead and seemed a bit stuck.
Wood tends to be the muse that gets me thinking and in this case it was a box of 24 4"x6" Shina blocks I got on sale during the McClain's Summer Sale that got me working again. But, there are lots of ways to move. You can go forward, or backwards, or sometimes just pivot a bit while you wait for the momentum to build enough to get you actually moving.

This print is based on very simple drawing/a doodle really from my sketchbook done a few weeks ago--just a few lines making shapes that suggest other things.

The fulcrum is the subject and focal point but it's the large heavy mass above that interested me the most.

The color blocks were all carved in Okoume marine plywood--it has a pronounced wood grain that I tried to emphasize during the printing.

I printed this in two color variations--with either a blue or teal "sky".
One in blue and on thicker handmade paper and
Another in both color variations but on a variety of thinner papers.
All are printed on paper I sized during my last set of sizing experiments.

The only other significant variation is the addition of a subtle bokashi to the tip of the orange triangle to suggest a shadow from the mass above.
Fulcrum, 6"x8" moku hanga, color woodblock print

Printed from 6 blocks and about 12 color impressions.
EV of 50 on hand-sized, thinner weight, varied, Japanese papers and another smaller edition of 12 on heavy Misumi Japanese washi.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Brushes on a budget

While I was looking for some small, inexpensive stencil brushes for a moku hanga class I taught a few months ago, I found some cheap, Chinese, bristle brushes for about $3.50 each. These were disappointing. They were too stiff and shed hairs like crazy. The students had a really hard time getting any decent coverage and they left lots of very streaky marks on their prints. So I had almost abandoned them as a waste of money. (Worse since I had twelve students and so was left with 12 brushes...).
But a few weeks ago while I was prepping some new brushes I had gotten from Japan I decided to try singeing and shaping a few of these to see how they would perform if I modified them the way I do my good brushes. Surprise, surprise they worked pretty well; on small blocks, they covered well and now that they were singed and the hairs split/tapered they spread out the color evenly enough to use them for my last print--and well enough that my "Pinwheel" print was printed using just these brushes for the color blocks.
before and after
Pretty good color coverage using these cheap brushes AFTER prepping them.
While almost worthless as purchased--after a trim with some scissors and a brief stint singed on a hot plate and then worked on a sandpaper "sharkskin" it's a whole new brush.

Nowhere near as soft or well-made as my professional brushes and much harder to clean but at $4.00.....I can afford to spend more time washing them...and for beginners they're more than adequate.

So after this small success I looked around the house for bigger, better quality Italian brushes:
Italian, "pura setola" brushes
I found these two brushes that were designed for painting wooden trim--the one on the left has been trimmed, singed and then worked on a piece of sandpaper to soften the tips. They too worked pretty well for moku hanga. They were a bit too soft...but color blends were decent and they're pretty serviceable if you don't need perfectly smooth coverage.

So, emboldened, I headed out to the craft store nearby that caters to the faux finishes and interior house turns out that Italy is also a pretty significant brush making country and the OMEGA line of brushes included lots of different sizes and types of bristles.

Unfortunately, they're all marked "Pura Setola" which I can only loosely translate as animal hair.....some were clearly pig bristles, some made from horse tail and some are probably ear and back hairs....some are beige and soft, some are white and stiff and some are black and coarse.

I decided to shell out some real cash and I bought two fairly big brushes and one small detail brush. They set me back $5.00, $12.00 and $17.00for the larger brushes that if they were good Japanese brushes would have each cost over $75.00.....
The above photos show the brushes as purchased (with long, flexible black hairs), then after singeing the brush to a soft curve, and lastly with the brushes finished after trimming them with scissors, singeing them on a hot pie tin over a gas flame and then worked across a strip of sandpaper for 20 minutes.
These look and feel like horse tail...they're fairly coarse....definitely a little coarser than my professional Japanese brushes.
They look pretty good.
They feel pretty good.
Definitely a little coarser and stiffer than my other brushes and the handles will be harder to use than the "shoe brush" maru bake I like to use.

I'll let you know how they work out: I'm still working on 4"x6" prints and will have to break out a big block of wood to test these brushes to see how they do.

I will say that while in the brush shop I also picked this up:

 I used it during my last paper sizing trials....and I'll post about it soon.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Girandola ("pinwheel" in Italian)--finished print.

Pinwheel, 5"x7" moku hanga woodblock print

Well, this was conceived as a little study or exercise and I was hoping it would get me moving again and it worked well for that purpose.
It got me carving and printing again.
I was able to try using a little jig (floating Kento) to allow me to use the entire block for printing which was something I had wanted to try again for some time.

It allowed me also to use a new paper--Mura Udabon (from the Japanese Paper Place) a 100% Kozo washi that is internally sized and has a pronounced wood grain (the paper is dried on wooden boards and retains the texture of the boards they were dried upon.

There is a lot of overprinting despite the apparent simplicity of the print.
Each trapezoid is printed at least 2-3 times and there are subtle bokashi printings to the vanes/colored wings of the "pinwheel" shape.
I only printed 5 copies (I was proofing really) so I have to decide if it's worth going back to print any more, much less a real edition.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pinwheels No. 3

Working proof, Mura Udabon washi

Working proof, Fabriano Artistico 90lb

Had a good day today and with the rain coming down I was able to get in a solid block of work in the studio today.
 I'm test printing the blocks for the little pinwheel abstraction print.
They are printing pretty well but I'm especially pleased as I'm printing with my two handmade barens and they've been working pretty well.
The 14cm baren I made that was a bit too big and "weak" is proving to work very well for keyblock printing, it's wide surface and softer twists seem to work well on the linework.
My "harder" 11 cm baren with the mat medium painted over the braided cord is working pretty well too. It's not as stiff as my Murasaki medium baren and being smaller is more apt to pick up stray ink but on this scale and with these fairly soft, thin papers it's been working great for a $10.00 baren.
The lower of the two is on Fabriano Artistico and the yellows were just printed  (two layers) and I'm pretty happy with the coverage..there is a little mottling but that's due to the watercolor paper more than the baren.  The upper copy is on Mura udabon; a nice beige handmade Washi of medium weight and if you look at the yellow and greens the coverage is again pretty smooth (the purple was deliberately printed lightly to get a little "texture"...).
I'll work on getting a lively orange in one of the trapezoids and deeping the textures/complexity of the other surface colors tomorrow.  Hope to wrap this up in the next day or two.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pinwheel #2

5"x7" mixed-media: woodblock, watercolor and pen-and-ink

I printed and pasted down four of the little grid prints that are the basis of this small painting/drawing and while I was waiting for them to dry,  I hand-colored this copy that was printed on etching paper.

This is getting closer to what I have in mind.
A little too "Mondrian-esque" but I'll be printing with dirtier colors and the printed inks always look different  (besides he NEVER used diagonals or was a kind of dogma which I am not constrained.).

Hope to carve and print in the next 1-2 days as this is meant to be a stimulus and not a diversion.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Pinwheel, 5"x7" mixed media (woodblock, pen and ink, watercolor)

I've had a backlog of print ideas for some time but I am still not yet at the "ready to carve" or print stage with any of them. But I've been itching to get back into the studio and just make some marks.
I came back from the US with a box of 4" x 6" shina blocks and I've decided to try and use them to make some quick and simple prints based on simple geometric shapes and objects.
The goal is to try to approach the rapidly drawn pen line of my sketches and later fill them in with some broad color blocks.
Here is the proof of my hastily drawn and quickly carved trial block.
I printed the uncarved back of the block in pale yellow, then the front in dilute sumi ink on Japanese paper.

Then just to get the colors flowing, I took one of the proofs on Magnani incisioni etching paper and added some pen and ink, and some watercolors.........
Not really where I wanted this to go but I'm moving forward again and that was the point.
I will carve some color sections and reprint a few of these on good paper....just to see how loose and
"sketchy" I can keep this. Meanwhile, I'm fleshing out what will be my next "real" print and hope to have a finished drawing ready for wood soon.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Day Job

When I'm asked what I do, I'm always hesitent as to how to reply.
Do you mean what do I get paid to do? Or what do I spend most of my time doing? or what would I be doing if I didn't have any family responsibilities?
What do I do well? Or Just for fun. Just for me?
What do I do that's important, or frivolous. Selfish. Selfless. 

What did I do yesterday, or today, or last month...or tomorrow?
No answers here.
I joke that I've aleady had three or four careers...

I worked in the clinic all day yesterday and will be working almost every other day through the Summer before we head back again to Italy.  And since my free time now is spent keeping up with the medical world--reviewing charts and current practice there's no time now for painting or printing. We still commute between two worlds. Italy where I get to be a dad/farmer/printmaker/artist and the US where I jump back completely into the medical world of patients, long shifts and the desire to make people well and the everpresent fear of making a mistake or missing something serious.

But we will head back to Italy in September:
The boys will be back in school and Fall chores in the fields will beckon--maybe there will still be time to put in strawberries or seed a cover crop in the bottom fields or squeak in some spinach and lettuce to overwinter.
Then maybe I'll have a moment to pull out my sketchbooks again.
I have some wood planks waiting and a few ideas I've been kicking around for years that I've been hoping to get onto paper eventually.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Three Graces: Glad, Hefty and Kirkland

The Three Graces, moku-hanga woodcut; 8.5"x11.25" on Echizen Kozo washi; edition 12

I don't think it was irony or wry cynicism that led me to call my last print the Three Graces;
I think instead it really was just the way the three sets of hands and tilted heads rose to the surface from the memories of art classes of long ago and art visits of more recent times and reminded me as I sketched the three bags that would become the subject of this print.  It was only later that I realized how apt a title it was. 


Agliaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia; they represent the three Greek Charities or Graces;
They were the goddesses of joy, pleasure, grace, beauty, festivity, adornment, dance, and song. The daughters of Zeus and sea-nymph Eurynome-- they were also the handmaidens of Hera and Aphrodite, and hence, among other things the protectors of vegetation.
Here's the entire painting, from the Botticelli room of the Uffizi gallery in Florence:

It's big, beautiful painting and enigmatic in the way that lost symbols often are.
It's a complex work, and it's symbolism and thematic origins  are still debated but it is reproduced everywhere and these three young women adorn posters, calenders, postcards, plates, trays, etc. and have become part of every Florentine's collective memory.
(Once, after a kindergarten class field trip; Sami stood in front of it and spent 15 minutes explaining to his grandmother (and a gathering of open-mouthed, American tourists) the complex symbolism and identity of the various figures: Zephry, Chloris, Venus, Eros, Mercury, the Three Graces, Flora.....))

But we've come a long way from Classical Greece or Renaissance Florence.....
I'm an American and can't claim to come from a culture that is synonymous with Art, or Creation, or any kind of Charity.
As one of the largest consumer societies in the world, we are responsible for the bulk of the consumption of needless crap, and the resulting mountain of packaging, paper, plastic wrap, cardboard, starch peanuts, styrofoam, injection-molded plastic all designed to safely envelope, package, transport  stuff we never really needed into our homes and lives.
So instead of Grace, Joy, Mirth and Song we have Glad, Hefty and Kirkland. And we'll be remembered, perhaps in 2000 year's time by the accumulations of refuse we've left behind rather than some painted panel or chiseled relic.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mid Trash

I think I'm about half way.
I'm printing off the 3rd block and have taken 5 impressions so far.
The print is in that "oh my god, what was I thinking" stage where my hi key color came out too flat and my low key color is way too yellow.....oh well, that's what haste and bad lighting will do......

I've printed three times off the Okoume block and while it is a bit delicate--occasionally it has a fiber that sticks up and wants to print-- but it's printing well. The vertical wood grain is visible as a texture on the paper but not pronounced in the print the way pine would print as a strong wood grain.
Detail: all but the keyblock are printing off Okoume marine plywood.So far Yellow, then red and then brown off the same block.

I'll definitely use it in the future and will explore it's limits/possibilities some more.
As All-shina isn't available in Italy, it's a decent (but not inexpensive alternative).

Tucked prints in the freezer for a few days....too much going on to safely print.
Hope to finish it though by next week.

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Graces Block #3 Proof--cerulean blue on proof paper

 I carved one side of my Cherry/Okoume plywood blocks on the Okoume side.
This is a quick proof to check the block.

It carves very easily--like shina--although it is much softer. But I was able to carve and clear the open areas, as well as the small voids of the closure tapes and so far, so good. Easy to cut, not too splintery or shreddy, a little fibrous and with a very visible grain pattern.
This was printed hastily and a little wet.....neither the block or brush are really charged so it is not yet a good example but it prints with a pretty pronounced goma-zuri effect but it looks pretty good.
I doubt I could get a perfectly smooth impression but that's ok.

I'll get a better idea when I'm printing for real........and will show better photos then.
But this is pretty serviceable.......

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Graces Hanshita

Printed keyblock; the area colored in will be the next block.

Slow progress but I've finished the keyblock.
Now I'm printing a few hanshitas before I clean out the area of inside the bags.

As I suspected the lines are a bit chunky; but for this image, which I'm hoping to print a bit sloppily it should be ok.

Registration will be an issue for the little ribbon ties.

I'm still working out color and printing sequences.
Hope to carve another block today/tomorrow.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Cherry Ply

About 4-5 years ago I found a pretty nice slab of local Italian Cherry and had the local lumberyard cut it into thinner planks.
I didn't take into consideration the width of the blade; and I was trying to economize by getting as many planks as possible from the thick board....I ended up with planks that were only about 1 cm thick. I've used them as is-- even carved on both sides--but they're prone to warping and I was hesitant to try anything larger than my yearly zodiac cards.

I found a local carpenter however who has been intrigued by my woodblocks and as he has an enormous hydraulic, hot-water press---used to laminate doors, tables, etc.-- he offered to laminate these onto some plywood. He insisted however I use marine plywood ( I told him I wanted a water-resistant glue...).

So I found a piece of local marine plywood (Okoume)--not cheap either --and he took my cherry planks and had me come by and pick them up a week later.
He trimmed them to be flat sided and I had him cut the smaller ones to 30cm length....These are the remnants--the ends that were left-- they're about 22 by 27cm by 2.4 cm thick.

Cherry/Okoume: About 2.5cm thick, the cherry alone is 1cm.                          

I don't think warping will be an issue
Cherry side

The Okoume side

Not sure if the Okoume will be useable but I'll try; it's soft, has a very pronounced grain and looks like it will want to flake off.

These will be part of the Trash bag print I'm working on.
I think I'll need a total of 6 plates....I think 3 cherry and the 3 backs will make up the others.