In the lines we leave...

It feels like a long time has passed since I posted my last gallery of work online and even longer since I last blogged.  When I decided to move up in size for my next woodblock from A2 to A0 I knew it was going to be challenging.  But with all the techniques at the heart of my practice staying the same I figured I was only changing one element so I should be ok.

Boy was I wrong. Nevermind the time it takes to carve these monster blocks, the obstacles that surfaced at this size were varied and tricky.  AO is double the size of A1 or roughly the dimensions of a medium sized dining table.  I found it easiest to simply sit on the block whilst carving.

Blistered thumbs from successive repetitive days carving helped increase the likelihood of wavering attention. Wavering attention meant a higher chance of a slip of the gouge and a hole in the other hand. The gouge responds to your desires most succinctly just after sharpening. The control diminishes with a blunt edge losing accuracy in the movement, direction and depth of your cuts. 

Gloves aren’t really an option, you lose the feeling.  Not in eighties soundtrack way, just in a practical sense. 

There were challenges with every part of the process. The time it takes to roller out the ink on a block this big means lots of dust and other randoms in the air settle on the block before I get the chance to print.  Also the paper I use is very thin Japanese hand made paper, which is required for printing by hand as you can’t replicate the pressure of a press. This means the paper needs to be more absorbent to take on the ink from the block much more easily.  It can be awkward at the best of times handling such delicate paper but at this size it’s a borderline spiritual experience.

It moves like silk on the wind. You can’t force it or move quickly with it or it will crease and bend.  It’s quite meditative really and requires a significant patience that sometimes that 6th cup of coffee just can’t provide. It demands that I am totally present and precise.

The lightness of the paper allows a lighter touch and a more delicate line. Because of the translucency of the paper I can effectively ‘draw’ onto the back after placing the paper onto the block.  From here I use painterly strokes with varying pressure, giving me a denser or lighter mark based on how heavy or light my touch is.

Keep in mind that this is all in reverse as I am looking through the paper from the other side and I only really have a loose idea of what is happening as a result of my marks.  I am making these marks blind and back to front.  A lot of it is improvised and it is not until I pull back the paper off the block, do I see what it really looks like. The big reveal.  My technique means every single print is different, I couldn’t repeat anything even if I wanted to. 

The process of applying pressure on the back is quite quick because if the paper is left on the block for too long, too much ink soaks into the paper and the more subtle lines are lost. The woodcut is slow deliberate and time consuming. The printing is fast and immediate. The contrast between these provides a balance overall that really appeals to me.

So although using printmaking techniques I produce 1/1 originals. That is why you will see a lot of the same motifs and forms throughout my work. I produce a series of varying but original images from the same block rather than the usual limited editions of an identical image.

One of the things that really struck me in this round of making was the connection between 2 separate ecosystems; that of birds and their relationship with trees and how similar this is to fish and their relationships to the reef. I found when I abstracted some of the bird forms they became marine. The structure of the bird’s wings also appears as coral to me when taken out of context, or given a new one. The chance for the image to be more than one thing is becoming an increasingly important part of my work.

I want my work to be an invitation to the viewer to an extent.  I don’t want it to be completely defined.  If the ability to instantly recognise or classify is removed, that’s where the imagination is allowed to play.  And that’s where the dialogue begins.

Doubts, Mentors and Ravens

After what seemed to be time well spent during my residency in printmaking at City Lit Uni – I decided to continue. Well I had already decided to continue really. I had given myself a year, which started on April 27th when the residency did.  But I decided it was worth continuing.

So right now I have just finished my 2nd residency. A self-imposed residency sponsored by my living room, with 2 patient housemates as patrons.  I have learnt I can make an obscene amount of mess in one day and that my self-discipline is actually pretty good.

The standards I am setting for myself are going up quickly all the time, so I hope that is reflected in my work. It started with ‘hopefully this isn’t pointless and a waste of everyone’s time’ and now I am somewhere around about the ‘feeling confident as a result of seeing my practice improve’ stage.

I asked Thomas Gosebruch, my mentor from the residency to continue working with me and he accepted. I now build up a body of work over 2/3 weeks and then take it to him for swift dissection. He never bullshits me and tells me straight if something is poor, too busy or un-engaging. So I believe him when he encourages me in other areas. It is very valuable to be able to lean on that honesty.

He told me some of my choices were ‘lazy’ recently which made me laugh.  Interestingly I can leave my ego at the door with him.  I wonder if that is simply because he is so much further on than me?  I think in another scenario I wouldn’t really like the term lazy, but with him it’s an insight not an insult.

Last time I saw him he looked at an image I had done of the body of a raven.  He commented that the awareness in my hand as I made those marks was not connected to the original motivation for choosing that source material.  This blew my mind.  When I thought about it I realised he was absolutely right.  He saw that in an instant.

My reasons for choosing the raven were partly because of their darkness and liminal nature; they have one foot in either world.  In Western Europe we believed they were the incarnation of damned souls or wicked priests  - or the souls of people who didn’t have proper burials.  I find that tasty.  It’s a dark winged intelligent scavenger with a purple trick of light within its feathers.  In Greece they are messengers for the gods and in Native American culture Raven is a deity, a trickster god no less.  They are also damn smart and match chimpanzees in logic tests, which I find amazing. When you sit with them you can see why they were so feared and revered.  So with all that in mind I had been stalking them on Hampstead Heath (they will come closer for cherry toms) getting good images with which to work from.   The next time I draw Raven, I will invoke my original curiosity, so that those thoughts are present with me as my hand moves.

Before I went to see my mentor last time I had a massive internal collapse.  I was pretty convinced that most of the last 3 weeks work was shit and I was embarrassed to show him.  I completely doubted the quality of my work and the whole idea of me as an artist.  My mentor is not afraid of doubt however; in fact he positively encourages it, because then you know you are working on something you care about.   His response to my telling him I have been smothered by regular doom filled clouds of despair was simply…. ‘Good, that’s where you are supposed to be’

People have told me over the last few months ‘you’re really good’ and ‘you have found your calling’ etc.  It is of course encouraging to hear people say such things but there is a danger in believing them too.  The subtle shift to ‘its good because I did it’ might happen; possibly challenging myself less because I believe I’m good.  Right now I am trying to avoid choosing safety in a technique that I know I can do.  I guess I just gotta keep my head down and carry on making, otherwise the doubt might leave me…