The Print Project: Research – Looking at the prints of Joseph Raffael and Bonnard

Joseph Raffael

Joseph Raffael

Last week I went to France. I was hoping, among other things,  to meet the artist Joseph Raffael and ask him about his print making efforts. Years ago, Tim Sheesley, the master printer at Corridor Press with whom I will be working, assisted with the production at Tamarind Institute of one of Raffael’s lily prints.


Joseph Raffael

Raffael’s extensive use of color and his ability to achieve complex color combinations in print is what most interested me. In printmaking you have to think reductively, achieving many colors through the use of a few. Each plate that you make is a different color. So, when you make the yellow plate, you have to put yellow not only where there is yellow, but also where there is orange (red and yellow) and green (blue and yellow) and brown (degrees of all three colors). Sadly, but perhaps wisely, Raffael, who is in his eighties,  was unable to see me, as he prefers to use all his time for his painting.

Surrounding Antibes, where Raffael lives, is a region rich in print history. How could it not be, when Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Leger and Bonnard all lived and worked there. As did Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Yves Klein and Ben.

While there, I visited the Bonnard Museum in Le Cannet, which opened in 2011. The museum occupies a restored 895 square-foot Belle Epoque villa that organizers saved from demolition. Currently, it has a permanent collection of approximately 150 works, including posters, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and 15 oil paintings, the vast majority of which were completed at Le Bosquet, according to the Financial Times. The museum is run by the municipality, and the majority of its funds came from a €2m fund, long-term loans and donations from the Meyer Foundation and Bonnard’s great-grandniece Isabelle Terrasse. [Julia Halperin]

Bonnard Nu

Pierre Bonnard, “Nu”, lithograph

There I found a very successful lithograph. Like the prints of Raffael, it had both the light and intense color of a Bonnard painting. I noticed that he had enhanced the print with gouache.  This didn’t surprise me as Bonnard was famous for retouching his work. In fact, Picasso once remarked:

“Another thing I hold against Bonnard, is the way he fills up the whole picture surface, to form a continuous field, with a kind of imperceptible quivering, touch by touch, centimeter by centimeter, but with a total absence of contrast. There’s never a juxtaposition of black and white, of square and circle, sharp point and curve. It’s an extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole, but you never once get the big clash of the cymbals which that kind of strong contrast provides.”

What Picasso hated about Bonnard, is, I believe, what the rest of us love about him. There was much here for me to carry away, as I think about how I will approach my own prints.

I am looking at lots of prints now, especially prints by painters, as I research ways that others have used the medium. Is there anyone you would recommend that I look at?

Joseph Raffael is represented by
The Nancy Hoffman Gallery,
520 West 27th Street, New York City, NY 10001 USA

Books of Interest:

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Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at




It’s a gift to be Semple!

This weekend four of my high school classmates, Jeff Greene, Joe Danciger, John Williams, Stuart Cudlitz and I made a pilgrimage to our art teacher, the Vermont artist, John Semple, now 80 years old. He and his wife, Mallory, still live in the house they graciously invited us to when we were students at a tiny progressive school in South Woodstock, Vermont. All five of us, in one way or another, became professional artists. All of us credited Semple with launching us on our trajectory.

The house stood starkly on the side of the hill surrounded by stone walls that John built with his sons. Sons for whom I once babysat. The light poured into the house, where we found John busily framing paintings for an upcoming retrospective exhibition.

John greeted us at the door wearing a frayed madras shirt that Stuart swore he remembered from 1970, and some old khakis with suspenders.

John Semple in etching studio

John was happy to have stepped away from painting his crowd pleasing Vermont landscapes to dedicate himself to  painting subjects he thought only mattered to him. To use a British phrase, I was “gob smacked” by his self-portraits. They were as intense as the late portraits of Bonnard — an unflinching look at the aging artist. One painting, where almost everything is cropped but his eyes, is direct and intense. In another, he bares his upper torso ravaged by two heart attacks.

John Semple, "Self-Portrait", etching.

John remembered all of us. He told Joe Danciger that he  learned something from him. Joe was an intense painting student. John observed him reworking a painting over and over again. He thought to himself, enough all ready, this kid needs to move on. But Joe persisted. In the end he created a very successful painting. John said that he learned from that, and frequently thought of Joe when he reworked a painting that he would have abandoned otherwise.

Semple told Jeff Greene, “You had such facility. You were so talented. You painted with such ease, I didn’t think you would become an artist. I thought you lacked the drive.”  The rest of us looked at each other with wide eyes. Jeff has created Evergreene Architectural Arts probably the most successful architectural arts painting and restoration company in the world, employing over two hundred artists! But Jeff replied, “In a way, John, you are right.”

John Semple and Jeff Greene

Stuart Cudlitz brought drawings with him that he had done while at school. He wanted to show John the ones where he got what John was trying to teach him. Most memorable of all was one he did on the back of one of John’s drawings. Stuart didn’t have money for materials, so John cut up some of his own drawings and gave them to Stuart, so that he could draw on the back of them and have the experience of working on good paper.

John Semple and Stuart Cuditz

John, who taught us all how to make etchings, continues to grow and experiment in print media. His studio was filled with colorful wood block prints.

One chilling print he showed us was of himself standing bumping up against the grim reaper. He sent a copy of it to his cardiologist with a note saying, “Because of you I am the guy on the right and not the guy on the left.”

John Semple, etching