Outside my comfort zone: Painting

I’m learning to paint with acrylics. “Paint what you observe,” says instructor Marjorie Greene (also a printmaker, but currently teaching painting).

I am finding it very difficult. Intimidating. But I’m also finding it’s more immediate than printmaking. Although I’m more comfortable making prints, painting may come to have its place in my repertoire. 

Elaine Fried showed William De Kooning her work, and he told her to start with still life. (Later he married her.) So let’s start with still life. Marjorie taught us “unit of measure,” a technique that accurately represents proportion on the picture plane. Then she had us “sketch” with paintbrush and shades of grey rather than pencil. That loosened me up!

Even thought my first still life (at left) is a bit labored, it won honorable mention in the Carrollwood Cultural Center Student show. (I think it’s the styrofoam ball that clinched it.)

Now we’re making collages of our subjects and painting from that. See the original subject, the collage, and the painting, below.

Process talk: Textured relief

Thinking back to art classes in middle school, you may have carved a linoleum block with a little, U-shaped knife. You were creating a relief plate, but you may not have called it that. This is one of the most common forms of printmaking, and linoleum and wood are likely the most widely used materials.

I carve my relief plates in a thin PVC foamcore board used for signage, called “Sintra”. This substance is easily carved and cut with an exacto knife, and I find it very versatile.

Typically, an image is carved into the plate using sharp implements (my fingers always suffer after a carving session), and ink is then rolled over the plate, placed face down on paper and passed through an etching press. That creates a crisp, graphic image. Additional layers can be printed over this image.

I use a process I call “textured relief” to create multi-layered prints. I ink one plate, then press a different plate face-to-face onto the first plate, rub the back to create some suction, and peel the two apart. This makes mottled gaps in the inked plane, creating lighter and darker areas which translate as light through the translucent palmetto fronds when the plate is printed to paper. 

You can see the printed results on the palmetto leaves at the bottom and top of the print at right. By pressing plate against plate, the ink roll is somewhat corrupted, producing a soft, textural line. I think it creates a result that looks more organic and irregular than direct ink-to-paper printing.

Below, you can see the difference between the two methods — on the left, I’ve made a straight, ink-to-plate relief print, and on the right you can see what happens to the ink when another plate is pressed onto an inked plate before printing to paper. The effect adds a bit of value and dimension.

Process talk: Drypoint

Drypoint is an intaglio process, allowing for fine, precise lines through incised lines in a printing plate. Unlike etching, drypoint doesn’t involve any acid to produce the incisions: A drypoint involves scratching the surface of the plate with a pointed tool to create a “burr” that grabs ink. The inked line is then transferred to paper in the usual way (damp paper on plate, run the paper and plate through an etching press). 

The traditional way to ink a drypoint plate is to smear ink onto the plate with a card, then wipe off the excess ink with the same card, and wipe further with a cloth or tissue paper until the ink shows only in the lines themselves. With each wipe, the line becomes clearer. Any ink left outside the lines is called “plate tone”.

I once eschewed plate tone, seeking a clean, crisp line like a drawing. But after a class with Susan Rostow, I learned that plate tone can actually enhance the lines, and add depth to an image. She taught me how to wipe lightly, leaving ink on the plate with expressive marks left by the cloth. 

Playing with this, I tried brushing on the ink, and found I could apply and wipe at the same time. This allowed me to ink up the lines and create expressive, sweepy marks to enhance the drypoint lines, adding atmosphere to the image.

Here’s a comparison of the two processes – traditional inking vs. brushed inking.

The full image of the brush-inked print can be viewed here.

Process talk: Aluminum etching

Palmystery – Photo-litho etching and relief monoprint; variable edition, 2022; Akua intaglio on Rives BFK; 12″x12″

Many people have used the term “etching” as a joke, as in “come up to my place to see my etchings.” We all know what that means, but most people may not know what etching means to printmaking.

Etching is an intaglio process — a design inscribed into a surface, or “plate”, ink is applied to the incisions and transferred to paper. It’s a technical process involving acid that bites into the raw metal to create the incisions. Acid-activated etching is done on metal. Drypoint is another intaglio process that doesn’t require acid, and which can be done on plastic, metal or even milk cartons.

This year I’ve been learning acid-based etching. I started with a relatively safe process involving copper-sulfate acid on aluminum, and fell in love with the grungy effects I can get.

Here’s how it works:

  • I start with a photo or scanned drawing and create a high-contrast image in photo-editing software. That image is converted to negative and printed to a polyester lithography plate (aka “Pronto plate”) via my laser printer.
  • Next, I transfer the image to an aluminum plate to create a resist for the acid bath. This resist is called a “ground”, which protects the areas that will not be etched in the acid bath. Here’s how:
    1. I transfer the laser-printed image using a lithography process in which Baldwin Intaglio Ground (or “BIG”, a non-toxic substance) is used instead of oil ink.
    2. I then place the inked pronto plate on a clean, degreased aluminum plate and run it through my etching press, Patsy.
    3. The ink is hardened in my homemade “oven” consisting of a cardboard box and a blow-dryer for about 25 minutes.
  • Once the ink — or ground — is thus transferred to the aluminum, the aluminum plate is placed in a relatively low-toxicity copper-sulfate bath for about 16 minutes. I love to watch the bits burble up from that lovely flat, shiny piece of metal:
click to view video

Treading the shallows

“Treading the shallows” won Third Place in Dunedin Fine Arts Center member show, April 1 – May 16, 2022. Judge Caroline Mathers commented that “The subtlety of this piece invites calm and encourages reflection. Its gentle palette and soft lines create a mesmerizing scene that one could never tire of looking at.”

My proceeds from the prize and sale were donated to World Central Kitchen as part of Dunedin Fine Arts Center aid to Ukrainian refugees.

This piece employs a new process for me, learned from Liz Chalfin at Zea Mays Printmaking. I scanned the image and laser-printed it to special paper that can be inked and printed like a lithograph stone. Then, the image is transferred to an aluminum plate through my etching press, and the plate is immersed in a copper sulfate bath. The inked image on the aluminum resists the copper sulfate and will not hold any ink, but the blank areas of the plate will be etched.

This piece took three plates — two aluminum etchings and a carved relief plate. My post called “Process talk: Aluminum Etching” describes how the plates were made (with a video).

Save the mangroves, save our coastlines

“Coastal Living” was inspired by Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss (@extraction_art), a global art intervention which seeks to provoke societal change by addressing hazards, both global and local, that are the result of our misuse of the planet. It will be exhibited as part of “KARST Grounds: Quatro Sunistra” at Tempus Projects in Tampa when their new space opens.

Living in Florida, I’m surrounded by mangrove forests, and am drawn to their tangled web. They are shadowy yet uplifting, stolid yet floating, tree-dancers that build shorelines. They nurse marine life, protect our shore against major storms, and defend against climate change. But these defenders are under siege.

Coastal Living – drypoint, monoprint, 2021; Akua intaglio ink on recycled food containers and yard signs; 26.5” x 21.5”

“Coastal Living” is my visual prayer for mangrove preservation, realized as an altar with three predellas (narrative scenes at the base of an altar). Tranquil scenes of mangrove forest life are torn apart by urbanization. But the pictures of coastal development surfacing from these ruptures appear degraded, suggesting that the future of our own communities is in jeopardy. We sow seeds of our own destruction as we abuse the very defenses that protect our coastal communities. 

Global awareness, conservation and restoration are needed to preserve these venerated trees. My hope for these is shown in the center predella with a mangrove propagule, the birth of a new tree. 

To create this drypoint monoprint, I re-purposed printing plates and printed them onto used fast food containers. The frame is contrived from polypropylene signboards recycled from a golf fundraiser. There were definite challenges involved with repurposing these materials, providing me an object lesson in the difficulties of recycling.

Vital to the planet

At .01% of global landmass, mangrove forests are one of the most resilient, productive, and biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. Bridging ocean and land, these salt-tolerant trees support a diverse food web for marine- and wildlife. Their dense root systems form a natural infrastructure more efficient than man-made breakwaters at mitigating tropical storm surge damage to our coastal communities. And they are planet protectors: The mucky soil that accretes among their roots serves as a highly efficient carbon sink, sequestering 3 – 5 times more climate-warming carbon dioxide gas than tropical rainforests.

But mangrove forests are severely threatened by urbanization, conversion to agriculture and aquaculture, and accelerating sea level rise. From 1996 to 2016, the Global Mangrove Watch calculates global mangrove loss at nearly 11%, approximately 367 km a year.

Since 2016, deforestation has slowed to 4.3%, thanks to increased regulatory protection, environmental replanting and restoration programs as well as natural expansion in some areas, including the US (ironically due to climate change). But, these changes aren’t enough on their own to prevent further destruction: Widespread recognition of the value of mangroves to our coastal communities is needed to curb further development and industrialization.

See “The State of the World’s Mangroves 2021,” published by the Global Mangrove Alliance, for more information.

Learning by engagement

There’s a whole discussion in the art world about artists who are “self-taught” vs. “art school”.  I’ve been spending a lot of time learning from professional artists and printmakers this year, but I’m not enrolled in any fine arts degree, nor am I taking my own instruction. A better term may be “Learning by engagement.

I’ve taken a number of virtual classes with various amazing artists, and was accepted to a mentorship program with Lynn Peterfreund through Zea Mays Printmaking Center. Along with technical skills development, I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement wrapped around tough love, driving me to reflect on composition, craft, and why I decided to add that red stripe, or outlined that flower.

The instruction and critiques have been every bit as serious as formal art school: Kind and gentle, yet constructive and a bit soul-baring. I love the “likes”, but grow from the “have you considered“ insights that lead to tweaks that make all the difference.

My teachers and mentors have helped me improve my observation skills, and guided me in creating a series about mangroves. I also completed #the100dayproject on Instagram which forced me to make at least one work a day. The discipline of this daily regimen served as an “idea factory” that feeds my on-going work

Persistence – Monotype, 2021; Akua intaglio on Fabriano Unica; 9″x12″

Sketching a new direction

Kangaroo Paw sketch

The time has come to retire from my operations management career, and that means I can focus quality time on learning and making art. To that goal, I’ve been working with a wonderful mentor through Zea Mays Printmaking Center and taken a number of classes to expand my skills.

As awful as this virus has been, it’s actually opened up access to a treasure trove of learning opportunities. Although the arts community is hard-hit by the economic impact of coronavirus, a few artists and arts centers have taken advantage of video technologies to offer virtual classes. For someone with the supplies and equipment needed (like me), these classes have been an unexpected boon. Where I live is no longer a factor in working with world-class artists like Lynn Peterfreund, Meredith Broberg or Ron Pokrasso. We meet for a couple hours, then I can take what I learned — techniques, insights, critique — apply them to a few pieces, and then share the results the following session.

One lesson I’ve been learning is the importance of drawing. Up until now, I always hated to do it, and only kept a sketchbook to ideate compositions. But my mentors have been encouraging me to draw daily, to do a sketch from real-life, a photograph, then memory. To play with blind contour drawings, and different tools and media as a way of honing my observational skills. And as a result, I find myself “drawn to drawing”. Hey Mikey, I like it!

Selected drawings are shared here and on my Instagram feed.

And still the flowers bloom

And still the flowers bloom – 3D monoprint & collagraph, 2020; Akua intaglio on Arches 88; 20″x20″x20″

2020 has been the most difficult year most of us have lived. In just six months, we’ve relived experiences that had played out before, but never all at once: A rocket launch, protests over police brutality and racism, a presidential impeachment, a deep recession. These resulted from the corona virus pandemic, bringing out the worst and best of us, challenging us to discover how to “virtualize” friendship and family connections. 

Amidst all this, birds nest, insects pollinate, tides ebb and flow, and our Princess of the Night cactus bloomed. Nature carries on vigorously, gloriously, proving the world still has gifts of wonder for us if humanity will just pay attention. 

This year’s Morean Arts Center member show theme is 20×20, and it presented an opportunity for me to ponder the earth, our place in it, and the condition of hope. The 20×20 theme gave me the idea of building an icosahedron, a 20-face polyhedron. On the outside, a monoprint showcasing the earth that made us. On the inside, a collagraph depicting major events of the year (so far), humanity reckoning with itself. We are caught inside, looking out windows at all we can no longer engage with. (The windows also allow a view to the interior images.)

The piece is printed flat and double-sided on Arches 88 paper. I created two plates cut from a template consisting of 20 triangles: 10 side-by-side through the center, with 5 triangles along the top and 5 along the bottom. Once printed they were joined along the ends and top and bottom triangles.

Design and production involved two prototypes and tests of five different adhesives to find the one that would seam all those triangles (Loctite Stik ‘n Seal won the trial). My etching press is 30″x60″, and I had to split the image into two panels per side to fit the bed which created another seam in addition to the side, so I built each hemisphere separately and then joined them, using a lot of makeshift armatures to prop up each side.

Duplex printing proved challenging to register, too. The plates are a bit floppy, and were quite obstinate when flipping them on top of the paper to register on the second side. I can see why master printers have assistants!

Some of the steps are shown in the following photos.

Preparing matte board to inscribe
Printing two interior panels of “And still the flowers bloom”
View from the outside through the “windows” to the collagraph images on the inside
Interior collagraph print – pre-construction
Exterior print — pre-construction

Print Day in May 2020

I participated in Print Day in May, a global internet event for the first time this year. The pressure was on! Printmakers from around the world made prints. I spent most of the day working on my evolving pelican project.

First, I ran a few tests to make sure of the color combination and the effects. Once I was satisfied that it wouldn’t look like a dog’s breakfast, I pulled out the large plates and inked up my carborundum collagraph plate depicting mangrove islands. I also used inks of different viscosities to get the surface texture and ran them through the press. I embellished the final result with a couple hand carved stamps and a sigh of relief.

Pelicans in flight – relief monoprint, 2020; Akua intaglio on Rives BFK; 14″x20″

Here’s a second version of the print, called “Fuga pelecanes”. This is the one I’ll enter into Morean Art Center’s Pelican Pride show.

Fuga Pelicanes – Relief monoprint, 2020; Akua intaglio on Arnhem 1618; 14″x20″