Artist collaboratives can be a tricky business, but try doing it with neither the internet or even a computer. Years ago I collaborated with the brilliant, contemporary composer Henry Brant on a piece called “Inside Track“, which was played at the Holland Festival. My part in it was that I made slides of dozens of paintings on paper that were displayed on four projectors, which were “played” by two percussionists. Since the piece was performed in Holland, I never got to see it.
Let’s break down that last sentence. “I made dozens of slides.” We are talking about real slides, physical slides; slides that take a week to process in a film lab; slides made out of film and cardboard, that can’t be cropped, but rather have to be taped with physical tape to block out anything you don’t want the viewer to see. “The slides were ‘played’ on four projectors”; yes, these were slide projectors, all mechanical, nothing electronic about them. They were noisy, had different lenses, could overheat and burn the slide. Or if you used the projection long enough, the slide just faded or turned brown. The button to forward the slides was not always reliable, nor was it easy to control the speed of the advancement. The percussionists must have been very talented.
The New Artist Collaboration with Composer Thomas Oboe Lee
Recently the Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee asked me to collaborate with him. He made two music videos using my paintings. In this case, I uploaded the images to dropbox, he downloaded them to his computer and edited them to his music. By that night I received the video in an email and we both posted it to “the world” on Youtube and Facebook.
Below is a continuation of my experience of working with Master Printer Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press in Otego, New York. You can read Part I by clickinghere.
Tim in his spot.
I believe that one of the reasons we were able to accomplish so much in a short period of time was due, in part, to my planning, but in a larger part due to Tim’s organization and economy of movement. His studio is set up, just as with a short order cook, with everything at hand. Tim stands in one spot in the studio with two glass slabs in front of him, his inks to his right next to an old Uline catalog that serves as paper on which to clean his palette knives, rags below him, solvent to his right, the press behind him, and printing paper to his far left. He didn’t move more than three feet all day.
Old Uline catalog used as scrap paper.
I, on the other hand, walked miles, as I found a spot across from him to watch as he mixed colors and then moved to the other side of the room to watch the print being rolled with ink.
Tim Inking Plate
Tim and I worked through all the color permutations. There were several points where we would have loved to have stopped, because the results were so beautiful. It was time to add the black that depicts the branches. This was the final step, the last layer of color. He pulled the first print and THUD! Disaster! Worst print of the day.
Tom looked worried and disappointed. I think he was afraid that I’d be devastated. Instead, I felt that the print confirmed what I had felt ever since seeing the first tentative proofs weeks earlier — the black just didn’t work. In paint and even in the computer generated image, the black acted like a gestalt – stunning and integrated into the overall image. In the print, the black sat on top of the page both dwarfing and destroying the colors beneath. It might as well have been a black and white print. Tim and I both thought that switching to a middle gray would accomplish what I was after. Even within the gray you can have a range of color, and I wanted the gray skewed toward lavender.
Pantone book, oil paint sample and computer generated image.
This is when Tim finally pulled out the Pantone book. This is the printer’s Bible. It contains every color he can mix with his inks, and gives him the formula to do so. I flipped through the color samples and pointed to the color I wanted. The improvement was immediate and dramatic. It quickly became apparent that the other color versions of the print could also use gray, but the value of the gray would have to be adjusted to work with the other color versions.
Getting exactly the right shade of gray (don’t even go there) was as much work as determining the other color combinations.
As we printed each layer we were both delighting in the detail. But here is the truly confounding result: it seemed that the print would have to be viewed from about 18 inches for them to be appreciated. That is exactly the opposite effect of my paintings, which look best when viewed from across the room. The paintings look painterly close up (down right messy, in fact), but at a certain distance they snap into focus and look almost photo realistic.
When we added the gray to the print Tim and I found ourselves backing up across the studio. The prints were still reading well from twenty five feet away. We managed to produce the same effect in the print as in my paintings.
Once we saw these qualities in one print, it was a matter of bringing that effect to all the prints. Sometimes remarkably small adjustments made the difference between reading the print as color and reading it as light. This is where the skill and integrity of a Master Printer makes all the difference. The work is demanding and exhausting. At the eleventh hour, Tim was still willing to mix one more color and make one more adjustment so that I could see if we could perfect the print.
A great Master Printer hangs in there with you to the end. When your energy flags, he shores you up, so that you can produce the best work possible. Tim told me over and over that it was about my vision, and he did everything in his power to make that happen.
After spending the night at the home of artist Ashley Cooper and her family in the surprisingly beautiful Cooperstown, New York, I headed over to the rolling hills of Otego to meet with Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press.
Tim showed me samples of other artist’s work to give me some ideas of how I might use the medium in my own work. I was thinking a lot about this myself. The research I have been doing over the last weeks not only into lithography, but also other forms of print making, made me think how I might best use the medium to expand what I was doing in paint. But until I get my hands dirty, I am not really going to know what will work best for me.
I am especially interested in the ways I can use print making to explore the use of color in my work. There are two ways of going about this (I am sure there are more, but these are the ways that most interest me at the moment). One is to use what printers call “process” color. That is to break down the image into CMYK – cyan, yellow, magenta and black. This is also the way the color is broken down to make a straight forward reproduction of a piece. When an artist uses this method of separation, its a little like math for artists, as they have to think about the layering of colors to achieve a full color variation.
The other way to approach the print is to pull particular colors from the original and lay them down distinctly, one next to the other. There can be some mixing, of course. But since you may not have the elements of a color wheel — red, yellow, blue — but colors like umber, lavender and ocher, it is far more likely that you would lay them down next to each other and not over each other.
I love seeing how artists use lithographs and all the variations involved: the type of plate, the quality of ink, color of paper, and the drawing medium.
Here is a video of Tim showing me how Sondra Freckelton produced the print pictured above. I took the video without looking through the camera, so that Tim wouldn’t think about it while talking to me. Please forgive the occasional missing head. Video of Tim Sheesley.
You can check out the prints of the artists featured here at Tim’s website:Corridor Press.
In April I will be working with Tim Sheesley, the owner and master printer of Corridor Press, a collaborative professional lithography studio in Otego, New York, where I will be creating a set of color lithographs.
Richard Haas, “Flatiron Building”
I haven’t made prints since I studied with artist Richard Haas and master printer Catherine Mosley at Bennington College. Cathy made many of Robert Motherwell’s prints.
At that time I was an utter failure as a printer. Once I pulled one copy of the print, I didn’t see the point in making another. The very essence of printmaking escaped me. In those days, I took abandoned etching plates with someone else’s images on them, to the sculpture shop, where I cut them into shapes and defaced them with an oxyacetylene torch. With little regard to the damage such a plate might do to a press I made a print, and before making another I would alter the plate again. (Perhaps I shouldn’t be sharing this information before I work with Tim.)
Leslie Parke, etching made with used plate, band saw, oxyacetylene torch and grinder.
Moving to a new medium is never really about replicating what you do in another medium. While there is imagery in my painting that I’d like to explore in lithography, I am not interested in replication, but in a conversation between these two mediums.
Is there a painting of mine you would like to see re-imagined in print? I was thinking of working with the tree paintings, but I would be interested in what you think. Drop me a line, if you have a suggestion.
Once when I was working on a documentary in Holland, I was able to make a side trip to Schevenigen to the place where Old Holland made its artists’ oil paint. At that time, they were in a tiny building doing everything by hand. The paint was only available in one store in America — David Davis. They have since moved to Driebergen and are available everywhere. I had tried to make paint myself and having experienced some of the difficulties of grinding my own paint, I was excited to see how the professionals did it.
For my own work I use a variety of manufactures of paint, as each brand has different qualities. Mostly for reasons of availability I have stuck with Winsor and Newton. Recently they have been bought out by ColArt and the quality of their paint has changed. A painter relies on the feel, color and quality of the paint used. Certain colors will have no consistency from one manufacture to another. So, you not only have to know the name of the color you want, but also the manufacture. For my taste, Sennelier is too oily and Williamsburg is too dry. I am always searching for the paint that is just right. Sometimes “just right” is just not affordable. Finally I have found both.
During a studio conversation with artist Evan Wilson debating the quality of different whites, he suggested that I visit RGH Artists’ Oil Paint in Albany, New York, about an hour from my studio. He was very pleased with their quality and thought I would be also. After a few detours through neighborhoods with row on row of beautiful Arts and Crafts cottages compliments of my GPS (make note, there are two Railroad Avenues in Albany, but in different zip codes), I finally found my way to a small, industrial neighborhood where in an unassuming brick building with the storage area of a semi-truck parked in the yard Rolf Haerem leaned out his unmarked door and invited me in.
The unmarked shop where the magic happens.
Rolf Haerem and his assistant Chris
His modest shop was almost exactly like the Old Holland one I visited years before. Clearly the methods for making paint haven’t changed in centuries. There were barrels and bags of pigment, a barrel of oil, a mixer and the mill — a grinder of several metal rolls.
RGH Artists Oil Paints Inc. started in 1989. When Rolf lived in New York, he had some friends who made paints for Milton Resnick. They taught him how to make paint and eventually he bought a mill and started to make paint first for himself and then for other artists. For his own work, Rolf needed professional quality paint in large quantities that were also affordable. Who among us doesn’t need that. Artists flocked to him and his business grew.
Hand painted paint chart
Rolf now makes and sells over 120 different colored paints. He will make customized paints for individual artists requiring specific colors for themselves and their students. He also sells the pigments. While having professional grade paint in large quantities at affordable prices is an irresistible combination, what knocks my socks off is the consistency of the paint. For me it is ideal — not too wet, not too dry, just right. As Rolf explained it to me, when he makes the paint he first combines it with the oil in a mixer. One would be tempted to leave the paint like that. It looks great, feels great, but over time the pigment separates from the oil, which is called flocculation. Flocculation is also what will make paint gritty over time. Each molecule of pigment needs to be surrounded by the oil and to achieve that it has to be ground. Rolf doesn’t put any extenders in his paint, as extenders reduce the paints tinting strength.
Barrel of Pigment
The bane of his existence is his pigment suppliers. Pigments are used is all sorts of manufacture; its use in artists’ oil paints is only a tiny part of the market. Therefore, it is sometimes impossible to get the relatively small amount of pigment he needs at a good price. I asked him how he could be sure of the quality of the pigment. Rolf said that all the pigments come with a MSDS certificate — material safety data sheet — which gives you the exact chemical composition and light fastness of the pigment. There was a time when searching for affordable pigments he ordered some from China, but he found them to be inferior, so he doesn’t use them.
I asked him if he did his mixing by feel. Rolf said that when he was learning how to make paint, he was told to make a formula and stick to it. And that is what he does. The paint is made in batches of a gallon and a half. Of course, standing over each batch, as he does, if adjustments need to be made, he can make them. What really needs his attention, however, are the transparent colors. Their pigments are so light, they are a bit tricky to deal with and have to be nursed through the grinding process.
I didn’t want to post anything about these paints until I tried them myself. I can only share with you the benefit of one day of working with them, but I am thrilled. The paints I used have a nice buttery consistency. They are not as stiff as paints with extenders in them.
You can currently buy RGH paints in jars of 1/8 of a pint to 1/4, 1/2 and full pints to a quart, 1/2 gallon and gallon. Eventually Rolf will be selling his paint in tubes, but as his first priority was to supply large quantity of affordable paint jars and cans won out as a means of delivery.
You can order RGH Paints on line at RGH Artists’ Oil Paints Mention that you heard about him from me and he will sweeten your order — no, not with candy, with paint.
Per Contra is an international journal of arts, literature, and ideas. I was recently interviewed for the on-line journal by Miriam Kotzin. Here are the opening questions with a link to the entire interview. She really covered everything, going back to my earliest work. I have found in all of her interviews with artists, she is interested in their process. I much prefer this to an academic, theoretical approach.
Leslie Parke, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
MK: When you were a child did you go to museums? Pay attention to the art in your home?
LP: When I was very young I used to pour over my parents’ two art books. One was Fifty Centuries of Art from the Metropolitan Museum, and the other was a survey of American art. What I felt when looking through those books was that I wanted to live inside a painting.
We lived just outside of New York City, and my mother took me to my first museum exhibition when I was nine or so. It was a retrospective of Turner at the Modern. I remember feeling when I walked through the rooms that I wanted to know everything about what I was seeing, but I wanted to get that information directly from the paintings. I was not one to read labels.
We did not have anything in our house that one would call art. Occasionally there was an exceptional object, but that came later when my Grandfather died. A Lalique vase that I paint frequently came from him.
We did have a neighbor, however, whose house was full of art and extraordinary objects. We lived next door to the Zerns. Ed Zern wrote a column for the magazine Field and Stream, called “Exit Laughing.” In his house was very good African sculpture; furniture by Eames and other famous architect/designers; and paintings by Jimmy Ernst, Calder and Ben Shahn, all of whom were counted among his friends. I frequently hung out at their house. Allegedly I went there to water their plants, but I was there mostly to look at the art. From the beginning, they treated me very seriously and would frequently question me about what I saw in the art. It was a blessing to be welcomed into this tribe so early in life.
MK: When did you begin to make art?
LP: I feel as though I first started making art when I made a hand print in clay in nursery school. It is my earliest memory. The next time I did something that was meaningful to me was when I drew copies of Renaissance paintings when I was home sick from school for several days. Even in the beginning, making art for me was a comment about other art.
I did not have a facility for making art. Execution was always a struggle. And I was not really interested in the world around me. I was only interested in other art.
Every choice I made from a very early age was to put me in connection with that art. By the time I was ten I took lessons at the Museum of Modern Art, and a little later I studied with graduate students at the Metropolitan. Every free moment I had I wandered through the museums of New York.
MK: How did you decide to become an artist? What influences shaped that decision?
LP: The decision to become an artist came so early, there was never a time that I didn’t think that I would be one.
Although my parents were not particularly artistic, they were handy. When I was a toddler, my father decided that he wanted to build two wooden sailboats. My mother told him that if he built them in the basement she would never see him, so she told him to build them in the living room. And this was in the suburbs of New York. These boats ended up being my play-pens. I would sit in the hull and “help” my father build the boat. If you ask me – that’s making art. My love of paint came from my father and his working on these boats. There was two-part epoxy, copper paint, and paint with sand in it. My father painted the stripes on the waterline using masking tape a la Ken Noland. He never took care of his brushes and left them in a coffee can with turpentine. I was always fooling with these brushes to see if the bristles were still any good, or if they had dried out or become too bent. So, all that materiality was present. As well as, constructing things using weird materials – like fiberglass fabric, to fiberglass a dingy.
Miriam N. Kotzin writes both poetry and fiction that has appeared in more than 100 print and online publications; her poetry received five nominations for a Pushcart Prize. She writes both formal poetry and free verse; her fiction ranges from flash fiction to a blognovel. She has been a contributing editor of Boulevard since its inception. A teacher of creative writing and literature, she directs Drexel University’s Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and is a former director of the Literature Program. She is the author of A History of Drexel University, two collections of poetry Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press 2008) and Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press 2009), and a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press 2010). She writes a bi-weekly column “Second Acts” in The Smart Set. Don Gastwirth represents her literary novel, Cutter’s Vision.