Sidequests: one-offs and wobbles

In my entire life, I have had one manicure. It’s fine if I never have another one. On my hands, a coat of polish has a life expectancy of about six minutes; and there is no colour that would enhance my appearance as much as, say, a bucket on my head.

It’s not something I think about much, but in the last year I have watched a LOT of crafting videos, almost all top-down views of people’s hands working away at various kinds of printing. Quite a few of them (particularly the card makers) seem to go in for fancy manicures in a big way.

Most of the videos were about gel printing – a way of making monoprints by applying paint or ink to a squashy plate of plastic gel. The nature of this material means that you can transfer the medium onto paper without much pressure, so you don’t need a press. They are versatile and inexpensive, and you can, apparently, even make your own with a couple of packets of gelatin. Yeah, I’m not doing that.

So far I haven’t used the gel press to make a print from start to finish, although it has been useful for collage and Chine colle papers. It feel like I could do a lot more with it, but for now I’m not sure exactly what.

Collographs are something else I have had a go at, trying both relief printing (where the surface is printed from and cut-away parts aren’t seen, like in a linocut) and intaglio (the opposite: ink is pushed into the recesses of the print and the top surface wiped almost clean, like a lithograph or etching). Results have been pretty mixed, and intaglio printing was a total failure until I had oil-based ink – with the water-based ones, by the time I had wiped the top of the plate, the rest of the ink had dried and so no image, or just a few blotches. I like the idea of, being about to use found textures and interesting materials, and I have seen impressively sophisticated prints made with nothing but cardboard and wood glue, but I need to work on the technical approach before I think about making actual prints.

Pt3 Further complications

Or Andrews, Picasso and me

Although it’s possible to make monotone prints for years, for a whole career – and people do – if I’m anything, I’m a colourist. It wasn’t long before I was trying out ways to add colour to prints.

Most straightforward – duh – is a method known to preschoolers: colouring in. The print (or key) block makes the outlines; then, depending on the paper and ink you’ve used, you can add watercolour, pencils, pastels, markers… you get the idea.

It takes time, and you might feel like you did enough of it when you were six to last a lifetime. It won’t rescue a print that is badly cut or designed. But it is an easy way to add colour accents or highlights where carving another block or stamps would be fiddly and slow; it’s easy to make variations in the prints with different colours, and it does without the tricky business of registration.

So to some extent does reduction printing – a process where you create varied tones or colours on one block by printing, carving away and printing again, so that areas carved remain the colour of the first printing, and everything else is covered by the next layer. This method means – because you are using the same block – that it’s easier to line up one layer of printing with the next (that’s registration, in a nutshell). It does mean that any mistakes you make in the cutting can’t be overprinted to hide them; and that when all the layers are finished, so is the block. This is why it’s also known as a suicide print. It was used a lot by Picasso, although it is unlikely that he or his printer invented it (as is sometimes claimed) as examples from the 30s and 40s have been found.

I’ve done a couple of these, and while this method does make it easier to register, it’s not foolproof, particularly if you are the kind of fool who can absently shove the plate in upside down halfway through the layers.

Spot colour is the next step to full multi-block printing: using chunks of lino cut to the shape of large areas you want coloured and lining them up under or over the key block. Acetate sheets, double-sided tape and a technique called trapping – overlapping overprinted layers to clean up edges – are all useful for this, and I’ve used them for making cards and prints this year.
There are two other methods I haven’t tried yet: chine colle (where thin coloured paper is stuck to areas of the print during the printing process) and full multi-block printing. I’m working on it… in the meantime, over to the experts:

Pt 2 Rolling on

or there is no spoon…

It’s all very well to say that a poor workman blames his tools, but the biggest and easiest improvement I made in the printing process was to ditch the cutter and buy a set of gouges – fixed steel blades with wooden bulb handles, sharp enough to cut wood. A knife sharpener, an old leather belt and a blue bar of abrasive compound – apparently known in Scouting circles as smurf poo – are enough to keep them that way.
Paper was easy enough to improve on, too: a roll of Chinese mulberry paper, inexpensive but light and incredibly strong, and a couple of dozen sheets of thick off-white printmaking paper did the trick.
Ink was more difficult. I tried some water-soluble block printing inks, with a strange oozing texture that probably means they are thickened with cornflour or something like that. It did a better job than the first ink I had but not by much. Being thicker, it didn’t bleed into the carved areas as much, but it didn’t transfer well onto the paper and dried too fast on the mixing plate.
Since I already had plenty of acrylic paint, I got some block-printing medium, designed to mix with paint half and half. Again, it kind of worked, but getting the right amount onto the plate was hard to judge: too little and the image was patchy and spare, too much and the print had a strange, spackled surface and lost details. Again, it dried too fast. Eventually I gave in and got some Safewash inks (oil-based but water-cleanable), and they work beautifully, although the prints take a few days to dry.
The single most difficult thing was the press – or lack of one. Even in the days when the advent of digital printing meant that etching presses were being scrapped or given to whoever would take them away, they were a big thing to take on, both in space required and the skills needed to keep them adjusted and maintained. Now they usually cost thousands of pounds. Even small book presses – where a flat plate is lowered from above and tightened down with a screw – take up more space than I have.
Then I saw a fascinating TED talk… just kidding, it was a set of short videos by a printmaker, showing how you could use an inexpensive tabletop machine made for embossing and die-cutting as a substitute for an etching press. You can see the videos here:

He was right, it works very well, at a fraction of the cost and space requirement of a proper press. It limits the size of the prints you can make, obviously (unless you print in sections, A4 is as big as it gets). But it’s easy to use and gives good consistent results, and it’s perfect for printing cards. So the spoon can go out to pasture, or wherever spoons go when they retire…

Impressions of the year

Pt 1 Back to the middle or don’t put that spoon in the soup!

I’ve made cards at Christmas for years and years, from poster-paint handprint trees on sugar paper to elaborate paper cut-outs. It’s a good thing to do, especially if you are too broke for presents or wanting to divert children from pre-Christmas hysteria. Last year, for the first time since I was in middle school, I decided to do some lino prints.

Those cards started right where I had left off at eight or nine: thin brown lino with a hairy hessian back and toasted organic smell (printing lino is made from a mix of sawdust and linseed oil, heated under pressure). The cutter was a fat teardrop handle of red plastic with some disposable metal blades which slotted into the top. I also bought a plywood bench hook (to avoid gouging holes in fingers or furniture) and some carbon paper – something I also hadn’t seen for a while – to transfer designs onto the lino.

Over a week or two I scraped out a couple of simple designs (a pine tree in snow; a moonlit hare; some mistletoe). The kit came with a small tube of gritty black water-based ink and a roller, and with the high-tech addition of a wooden spoon to apply pressure, I printed out the designs on some card blanks. Although the process was a bit haphazard and several problems became obvious (the ink was very unpredictable, sometime patchy and sometimes leaving great gobs of black obliterating all the detail; applying even pressure was difficult and quickly made my hands ache; lining up the print on the cards was fiddly) most of the cards turned out OK. Some were better than others, for sure, but handmade cards should be a bit shonky, I think.
Having to go through making an image without being able to see it until right at the end turned out to be mildly exciting, like a very low-stakes game of blackjack. The way the whole process broke down into discrete steps that could fit into little slots of available time was useful, as was being able to work indoors without heaving the furniture about. I quite liked the way printing makes you think about design. Plus it’s daft to say you do art and then have to buy cards, surely? So when work decided to pay me a small bonus, I thought I would use it to see what else I could do with printing…