Several years ago I decided that I wanted to do a set of lithographs based on a painting I did of an almond tree. Having never made a lithograph before I thought I’d share the process with you and get your input along the way.
I made 4-plate lithograph, that I printed in different colors to represent different times of the day.
Then I took the separations and scanned them and made a digital version of the lithograph. With 4-scans, I was able to make each scan a different color. Being the art history nerd that I am I used this as an opportunity to explore the palettes used in some of my favorite paintings by some of my favorite artists — Van Gogh, Gerhard Richter and William Nicholson.
My image coming out of the printer.
The digital print being turned back into a painting.
I then used the digital rendering to inspire new paintings on canvas. In this process, it became clear that I didn’t just want to change the palette, I wanted to change everything about how I applied the paiint. I poured paint, and dripped it, I flung it and scaped it. I used brushes, and squeegees, and rags, and paint sticks, palette knives and my fingers. I used oil paint, enamel paint, metallic paint and highway glass.
What remained was as abstract image that was based in nature and had a certain quality of light.
And even then, I was not quite finished, I also went back to some of the lithographs and painted on them to further enhance the image.
This project started in 2008 and it isn’t quite finished. When people ask me how long it takes me to do a painting, I assume they are asking how long it takes to apply the paint — not how long it takes to conceive an idea, nurture it, modify it, deconstruct it and reinvent it.
This process is essential to me. It is not repeating an image, it is studying, investigating, and dissecting an image. And until I have discovered everything I can, I keep working on it.
But now something new is bubbling up. And again it is something I don’t quite know how to go about. So, I thought this would be a good time to share my journey with you. I have a vague idea where I want to go with the new work, but no idea how I am going to get there. If you have any ideas, feel free to chime in. The new project is called The Grid Project and I’ll explain it to you in my next post.
When Monet died, his step-daughter Blanche took over his home in Giverny. Once she died the place was passed to his son Michel, who had no interest in it, preferring to be on safari in Africa. Trees grew up in the large studio where some of his last paintings were still stored and Monet’s Japanese prints still hung on the walls. I knew people in Giverny who used to rummage through the house when they were kids. Much was stolen form the place, but not Monet’s paintings, nor the Japanese prints. When the house was restored, so were the prints. The influence of these prints on Monet’s work, and the work of the Impressionists cannot be overstated. At each juncture in Monet’s career, he returned to the Japanese for inspiration. (I will give some specific examples in later posts.)
I was fascinated by this connection and on my first trip to Japan I visited the southern end of Japan where the Dutch traded with the Japanese. There are several stories about how Monet first came into contact with the prints, but one is that while staying in Holland to avoid the draft during the Franco-Prussian War, these prints were used to wrap his groceries. he was so taken with them that he returned to the store and picked up a pile of them. Once you learn the process that goes into these prints, with each one taking up to a month to produce, you soon see that even when they were more common, it is unlikely that they would be used as ballast in a ship.
Here is a wonderful film about Canadian David Bull, who upon seeing his first Japanese prints decided that he had to learn how to do these. After some trial and error he packed up his family and moved to Japan, where he sought out master printers who would teach him the trade. Now, more than 20 year later, he is still in Japan. This film shows the process in some detail and helped me really appreciate what went into these amazing prints. http://woodblock.com/press/woodblock_shimbun.php?storyid=tv45
The studio is practically empty. I sent eight large paintings to my dealer in Houston. The rest of the work is out to summer shows in museums and regional galleries. The walls are very white and very empty.
The work I sent to Houston is mid-project. I know that there are more pieces in that series, but for the moment I have turned my attention to a large canvas where I am working out the latest manifestation of The Print Project. I spent over a year developing several permutations of a four color lithograph inspired by a painting called “Almond Tree – Biot”. Michael Williams helped me further deconstruct the image into a digital format. With him I was able to separate colors and change them in ways that were antithetical to the original image of a tree in bloom. As we printed out a large print, about 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet, it became obvious to both of us that the print wanted to be larger, much larger. So, that is exactly what I did, I started translating this print back into paint on a large canvas.
I want these paintings to act like Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals, but with a twist. I want the color and the scale of the painting to create an atmosphere — a sensation, something you almost feel before you see. Yet, I want to do this with colors that are not exactly taken from nature. I have sliced and diced the color until it has a certain feeling and a certain light. But the color is not true to what would be the local color in nature. In my first version there are flowers that would be white in nature, that are black in the painting. And yet, over all, you still have the sense that the image is from nature.
Working on the first of these paintings, I have run into endless problems with the alignment of the colors. I will paint a color in one day and out the next. I have kept my brush strokes bold and gestural, but at the same time I am working with very small brushes — so the strokes are as small as they might be on an Impressionist painting. At each stage, I feel as though I have ruined it. Is my brush stroke right? Is it too messy. Will I be able to convey what I hope to? One moment I am certain that it will all work out, the next minute I am wondering who I can hire who can really paint this.
I won’t know if this is any good until I am done, and perhaps not even then. My vision requires that I do several versions of this before I decide if it works or not. So, at mid-year I feel in mid-air, falling, falling, falling.
My Print Project has taken a new turn. I have started working with artist Michael Williams making digital prints based again on the almond tree image. He is helping me alter the image in Photoshop. It has taken the print in a new direction, which I would call a Monet/Wharhol remix.
Michael has been working almost exclusively in digital prints for years. He creates his work directly on the computer and alters it in Photoshop. I like this use of digital technology, more than using it for reproductive purposes. The issues are quite different. Instead of trying to reproduce a fact-simile of something else, the computer itself becomes the medium in which the artist works.
On my journey through the print process, I have been looking for a way to express in print what I am able to do in paint, but different. With Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press, I learned many of the attributes of lithography and I pushed hard to see how I could use that medium to get the effects that I wanted. The process was labor intensive, taking me months to produce the plates and days to print out the various color combinations. With each effort I found what the medium could and could not do for me.
With that knowledge in the back of my head, I went to Michael to see what we might do in digital medium. Well, as the old ad used to say: “This is your brain on drugs.”. In this case, this was my print on drugs. With a click of a button we could move the print through many color permutations. But again, I wanted a print where it felt as though the light was popping out of it. We would land on a set of colors print it out, adjust and repeat.
My image coming out of the printer.
In this process I made the most important discovery of all, some thing that took me right back to my original concept. When I first started out I wanted to put 9 prints together to make something the equivalent in size of the original painting. After spending three months of drawing the plates and seeing what a complex process it was to print all the colors, I abandoned that idea. But as Michael and I printed out the digital prints it was obvious to both of us that the print was screaming to be BIG!
Michael comes from a background of making large abstract paintings. And he spent quite a bit of time working with Ken Noland. If anyone was sensitive to the importance of scale, it would be Michael.
We have found that a print about 30 by 40 inches is doing the trick for us.
But guess what happened then.
I took one of our images and starting painting it on a canvas larger than the original painting, which was 60 by 70 inches. I think I needed this long apprenticeship to discover something about my paintings. I love each permutation of the print, but now I am excited to get the image back into paint.
Tim testing the tack of the ink drying on the paper.
Tim takes out the large roller . It is about 8 inches in diameter. He brings a piece of paper that has already been solidly printed in one color over to the table next to the press. Usually he leaves it to dry over night, but we don’t have time. It has been drying about three hours. He touches the paper with his forearm and the heel of his hand. Then he leans over and touches it with his cheek.
Tim testing the paper with his cheek.
“I think its OK,” he says. The dampness registers on his cheek, not too wet, just dry enough. A myriad of calculations run through his mind. The plate we will be printing on top of this will be double inked to bring out the darkness in one area. Too much ink and the paper may reject the ink. But if the paper is too dry, it won’t hold the ink either. Its all a matter of tack. And that is what Tim is feeling for with his cheek.
Tim uses the large roller to fill in the spidery lines of my drawing. In areas where I thought I had covered the plate in rich black, the ink fooled me and the area appears too mottled. Tim is trying to fill in the areas that I object to. But then he points out that modulation of the line and color is a desirable thing in printmaking. It is evidence of the artist’s hand and prevents the process from appearing mechanical.
He runs a burnisher around the deckle edge of the paper, pressing it into the ink.
Tim squeezes his sponge onto the plate. It deposits just enough water for him to wipe the whole surface — up and down, back and forth. He runs his fingers around the perimeter of the printed area and picks up any errant ink. He inks the plate one more time and wipes it down again. Then he picks up a sheet of paper with another sheet of newsprint on the back and he snaps the holes he has punched at one end of the paper into the grommets that are imbedded in the plate, and lets the newsprint drop over the join.
A plastic sheet with slight slicks of grease on it, is laid over the paper. Tim pushes a button and the plexiglass, newsprint, inked paper, metal plate and supporting litho-stone, slide through the press; the small amount of grease easing the way. He presses the button again and the pressure on the scrapper bar releases; the print and supporting surfaces slide out from under its pressure. Tim lifts the plexi-glass and pulls the print off of the registration pins and peals it back from the plate. He flips the print over so that the newsprint is on the bottom and walks it to the wire drying rack, where it will remain until another plate in another color is printed over it.
I had drawn four different plates, each was intended to be printed in a different color. But today, I selected two that we will print in black. Each has areas of half-tone, some of these overlap with the other plate. This creates a sense of depth. The solid background color now appears to have many different values. The areas with no black are popping forward.
Tomorrow we will print another plate, this time in white, to further bring out the highlights in the print. While I don’t want or expect the prints to be just like the original painting, I do want it to have the same feel. In an effort to get that quality, I have already redrawn the plates once. I ran through two completely different approaches to the prints and the way the colors were used. Once I saw all of them hanging together, I felt that I hadn’t quite achieved the quality I was after. Each print was interesting in its own right, but there was a quality in the original painting that I felt could still be teased out of the prints. What I want, as with the painting, is for the image, which came originally from an almond tree, to appear both realistic and completely abstract. I don’t want them to look like the painting, but I do want them to have a similar feel.
In my effort to make the image look realistic, the most important thing was to bring light into the print. Prints, like watercolors, achieve light through completely different means than painting. Today was my chance to learn that.
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.