Historiography, the history of history. Or, more accurately, the study of how people analyze and interpret history.

We, as modern citizens of a modern society, have an ingrained perception of the gradual improvement of us. A movement forward and upward. It is more than the optimism that someday there will be a cure for cancer. We believe that our stocks will recover from a recession. It’s part of the language we use to describe a downturn in the economy, implying that it will return to normal.

We talk about the ideal of the ’Good Old Days’ but only because the progression of history has disappointed us in some way. It hasn’t moved forward as we expect. No one really wants to return to days of outdoor plumbing. We like having pineapples in the grocery store and GPS.

Ancient Greeks saw history as a gradual decline. The gods walked the earth in a Golden Age, before death and taxes. They fought and loved, creating mountain ranges and underworld kingdoms. They left to party on Olympus, but great heroes defended everyone from monsters through a glowing Silver Age. Heroes became constellations, leaving the common man to wriggle about in the dust of later ages, aspiring to the greatness of the past, and hoping to catch the ear of the gods through great deeds, sacrifice and prayer.

The Norse had a different view, a classic cyclical view, in which all of history would rise and fall, starting over again and again. Completely. All of history. It led to a bit of a fatalistic view, as everything would end. Zip.

So you have to be careful when using ancient writings as a mirror of history. The basic cultural view of history can affect the writings. Are they aspiring to greatness? Fatalistically showing you that all is dust in the wind? Writing a cautionary tale of hubris?

Ancient civilizations started writing about the history of themselves early on. Were they fact or fiction? Hard to say. Rameses II was probably exaggerating his exploits on the dramatic carvings depicting his victories over the Hittites when most historians agree that the two empires had a series of bloody squabbles that were not decisive. The earliest known peace treaty in written history was between these two rivals, and we actually have the documentation from both sides. The two written records are identical except that each side claims the other side came to them to sue for peace. Fact? Fiction? Would we have seen the conflict differently if only one side of the peace treaty had survived?

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 BC-425 BC) was the author of the “Histories” which are considered the first critical studies of historic events. He analyzed the reliability of his sources and even visited areas to research the actual possibility of huge numbers of troops physically participating in a battle. While this may seem the bare minimum of today’s standards, it was a revelation at the time. Many histories of Greek wars and events were loaded with exaggerated numbers that were supposedly supported by eyewitness accounts. The accounts were beefed up to support an ulterior motive of making one side or the other look better. Obviously. History gets used for that a lot.

Another version or method of describing history was blooming at the same time. Local histories, written using civil lists of local events and weather, were being written. They existed before this time, but were usually written on common materials that did not survive the centuries except in small fragments.

Local history writing became a long-lasting tradition, surviving the upheavals of barbaric tribes and earthquakes and continuing into Medieval times. Many timelines used by historians today are the result of study of overlapping local histories. The history from one town of shooting stars, drought and tidal waves can be compared to other small-town histories to develop a string of known events and to place more accurately the events that would otherwise not be corroborated.

If three towns mention an earthquake, and one town mentions a star conjunction that happened a month after the earthquake, historians might be able to date the earthquake and a number of other minor events in all three towns such as a visit by a traveling scholar whose works were not otherwise dateable. Then you have dates for the scholar‘s travels, leading to other dates in other towns based on his writings. And, when no one is using the same calendar, that sort of information can be very useful.

A bit of a house of cards, perhaps, when one date falls through then a lot of other assumptions collapse as well. As the study of history changes, some of these established timelines falter. New information can update long lists of events.

The term ’Primary Source’ is used to describe this sort of material. Something written on the spot. Something someone saw. The original stuff. Caesar’s own words. A Civil War letter from the Battle of Bull Run. DaVinci’s sketchbooks.

Is it always accurate? In a way. Would you have written an accurate account of the Battle of Bull Run while dodging bullets and squinting through the smoke of black powder? No. You wouldn’t have even started to create an accurate account of the opposing side. Only your own impressions. A small piece of the overall picture. Accurate only to you. And if you waited until much later to write your impressions, you’d write them differently. You’d think about it and analyze it with info you got from your buds who were half a mile away.

So knowing the timing of the creation of Primary Source material can be relevant, as is knowing the position held by the writer. Was the writer of the Battle of Bull Run letter an officer or a private? Was he writing to a superior officer to explain his failures? Was he writing to his mom? A girlfriend?

Additionally, every author of an event has a bias. No author is immune. Does this make their material useless? No. By understanding the bias of the author, you can still sift through their writings and acquire information. Caesar had a bias against the politics and decadence of Rome. He described Celts under this bias as warriors more noble than the average Roman and at the same time made sure that his readers would recognize that no matter how noble and powerful they were, they had flaws that led to their downfall at his hand. He had to make them powerful in ways that Rome would understand so that when he got back after defeating them, Rome would be impressed. It gave him a chance to dig at his contemporaries who stayed in Rome, because he, Caesar, was out here fighting the mighty Celts and honing his skills while they watched fighting in the arena. And he’d be back soon.

So the Celts were a propaganda tool of Caesar’s. Using the knowledge of his bias, valuable information can still be extracted from his writings on the Celts. But nothing should be swallowed whole.

Social position, timing, bias, and purpose. Studying history is complicated. And we’re just getting started. I’ll tell you about my own bias later. If you don’t figure it out for yourself.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, our early historiographer, was a religious man. He dedicated a substantial amount of space to discussions on the movements and motives of the gods in history. A later Greek historian, Thucydides, tried something new.

Thucydides, said by some to have been influenced by the factual nature of local histories, trimmed the speculation of the motives of the gods out of his writings on the war between Athens and Sparta. Instead of writing about the war as the result of a conflict between gods, he worked to find the causes in historic events. Remember how the Trojan war started because Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite and ended up with Helen? Thucydides preferred to get down to the real causes of war such as economic and social pressures.

It seems obvious to us now, but back then it was a new thing. It did have an influence on later writers in the Mediterranean region, especially later Roman writers.

In China, we also have a tradition of extensive historical writing. The ’Spring and Summer Annals’ of the State of Lu describes local history from 722-481 BC. This is in an ’annalistic’ style in which items are documented as yearly events with little effort to explain or analyze the information. There is no ’cause and effect’ framework of events.

Hayden White’s rather dry but informative book, ‘The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation’ (which I have read but am using Wikipedia to help me condense for you) ascribes a social morality to other types of writing that annals lack. He says that annals do not provide a social context, a way of determining the relative importance or social morality of events. Annals do not provide the causes or the narrative of the event that gives it purpose. He also describes annals as describing events as happening to humanity rather than caused by humanity.

Annals, or ‘chronicles’ are arranged in chronological order. Obviously. Some sources define a chronicle as distinct from annals in that a chronicle has a theme, limiting the information documented to the reign of a king or the development of a religious order.

Narrative history, extensively used in China, is dated at the earliest to the 5th century. Narrative history, as its name suggests, uses a story or series of stories to describe events.

Traditional writings of narrative history are more centralized and tidy than other types. A narrative of a war would cover the beginning and the end. It would cover the stages of the war, the people involved in the war and the impact of the war. It would include biographical narratives on prominent people who were involved in the war, letters home, messages from the front. It is a descriptive method, rather than analytical.

A narrative of a dynasty would include the initial founder and the history of the people who made up the dynasty along with their contributions. It would end with the founding of the new dynasty. Traditional narrative history in China has a predominantly dynastic and cyclical nature. The dynasty is founded by a person with a good, moral basis. The dynasty rises but eventually loses the moral superiority and the Mandate of Heaven passes to another dynasty. Traditionally a new dynasty sponsored the writing of the narrative history of the old dynasty, a costly and labor intensive process.

Interestingly, this long-lasting, narrative tradition is used by modern People’s Republic of China (PRC) sponsored historians to subsume some non-Han Chinese dynasties into the majority Han Chinese fold. Because two non-Han dynasties of China elected to continue the costly narrative process, creating extensive histories and claiming legitimacy of the Mandate of Heaven through the tradition, PRC historians argue that the dynasties willingly gave up any pretense to separate ethnic recognition.

The uses of history.

Traditional narrative history, descriptive stories of events, gave way to more systematic and analytical views of history in the Renaissance and early Modern eras. Voltaire liked the narrative method, but in general, it became more fashionable to view history in terms of a social-science analysis. You look at the development of society in the movements of trade and people. Or in the politics and diplomacy of a nation.

Perhaps not as much fun to read. It depends on your experience in high school, I suppose.

So studying history is an investigation into the reliability of sources, analysis of cultural views and utilization of a historical tradition. Every historian has a historic tradition or framework on which they base their analysis. Or lack of it.

Political history covers the analysis and narrative of the development of nations. As stated by Hegel, political history implies that the nation state was the primary agent of change in history. It is a view that the creation or dissolution of states is the core catalyst for change.

Social History concentrates on the life and culture of ordinary people. People’s History is considered historical work from the point of view of the ordinary people. A subtle difference.

A Marxist analysis includes the development and distribution of economic resources.

The Annales School of historiography developed in France in the 20th Century, emphasizes social scientific methods instead of traditional political themes or narrative method. More influential in the 50’s and 60’s, it developed a strong publishing and research network, emphasizing various themes and methods over the years, but known for involved studies of ‘mentalities’ or mindsets of cultural groups. Also referred to as ‘cultural history’.

Recently there has been a return to the narrative and social methods of history. Political history, a strong force in universities through the 1960’s, has definitely lost ground. It’s easier to get a college freshman interested in the story of a common soldier in the Battle of Bull Run than the shift from linen to cotton clothing and the economic impact on farmers.

So, analyzing a historic source is complicated. And what about Archaeology? How does that fit in?

Enough of Historiography for now. I’ll go into more targeted historiographical method as related to Celtic Art and Celts next. Measuring heads, extrapolating the movement of languages and comparing Celts and Greeks. We’ll go there.

And I will get back to Wikipedia. I will not let that go.


Celtic Art Bibliography I

While I hammer out the details on my post or posts regarding Historiography, in which I try and engage your attention without missing the best parts, enjoy my first post of books I used to create this series.

In my earliest college days, I had a brief and ultimately unsuccessful brush with journalism. I believe that the only influence that remains from this dalliance is my personal library catalog. I group the majority of my books into five broad categories: who, what, when, where and how.

‘Who’ represents my collection of spiritual and religious books. It also encompasses fairie tales, mythology, poetry, plays, and books that are about specific people such as St. Patrick or Eamonn DeValera.

‘What’ is the largest section, covering books about things. Artifacts. Manuscripts. Stuff. These are my picture books and photo references. Many are obtained from museums and the gift shops next to the old forts and tombs. It includes books about Celtic art ITEMS as seen in museums and my tidy collection of facsimile manuscripts as well as photo books on Northern Ireland‘s sectarian murals.

‘When’ is the section of history and context. It isn’t as large as the rest of the sections as many of my books of history are divvied up into other specific sections of ‘Where’ and ‘What’. Here you will find general books on the world of the Celts and the history of the early Christian church. Books on Christian religion are under ‘Who.’

‘Where’ includes my travel stuff, geography, atlases and hardcore archaeology books. Anything that places art into a physical context. Where is it? I have books on regional archaeology, traveling through the Burren and illustrated maps of the Irish west coast. Historic travelogues are in the ‘When’ collection, current travel books are here.

‘How’ is, of course, my collection of actual construction books. It is more than just George Bain’s book on the construction of Celtic Art. Here I have books on geometry, perspective, and the concept of Notan, the balance of light and dark compositional elements. I have books on proportion and the design underlying the manuscript pages of the Book of Kells. J. Romilly Allen is here, as are Aidan Meehan, DaVinci and Pythagoras.

I have a lot of books to share, and I will occasionally comment on specific books and their usefulness or lack of usefulness. To start, I will include the titles and authors. Hopefully, as I go along, I can flesh out the details of publishers and costs. If you want that sort of info up front for any given book, drop me a line and I’ll go into more detail.


Barry Cunliffe
1) The Extraordinary Voyage of Pythias the Greek; the man who discovered Britain
2) The Celtic World

Vincent Byrne
A Thousand Years of the Hidden Annals of the Kingdom of Connacht: 366-1385AD

David Willis McCullough
The Wars of the Irish Kings: from the age of myth through the reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Peter Berresford Ellis
The Ancient World of the Celts

Simon James
The Celts

J.G. Davies
The Early Christian Church

William Hellier Baily
Rambles on the Irish Coast

Editors Bill Rolston and David Miller
War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader

I think there are a few more in a stack in the studio. A lot of these books are large, and I don’t have a lot of space, thus they will tend to float about. I’ll gather them up and add to the Bibliography page as I go.



Defining Celtic Art

A definition:
Shall we start with Wikipedia?

“Celtic art is the art associated with the peoples known as Celts; those who spoke the Celtic languages in Europe from pre-history through to the modern period, as well as the art of ancient peoples whose language is uncertain, but have cultural and stylistic similarities with speakers of Celtic languages.”

Actually, I kinda like this one. It has a lot going for it. I’m not completely sold, but we can start here. It does have a few flaws. First, you need the definition of ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celts.’ Then, perhaps, you have to be in tune with the science of historic linguistics and the ability of specialists to tell you when and where certain languages were spoken. And what does ‘cultural and stylistic similarities’ mean?

For some, Celtic art is only the works of pre-Roman Celts. Some feel that subsequent degradation of the clear Celtic style through influence of Roman and later Christian cultures creates something decidedly non-Celtic. Some are only acquainted with the traditions of the Christian times: the Book of Kells, the crosses of Clonmacnois, the Ardagh Chalice. And some are only familiar with the green trappings of St. Patrick’s day, the kilts and bagpipes of Scotland or the spoons of Wales. It’s ok. We welcome the uninitiated. Just don’t bring green beer.

The fact is, that much of the common and popular knowledge of Celtic art and even the definition of ‘Celt’ is based on works that came out in the 40’s. We’ve come a long way, baby, and new information is not getting out there. Stay with me.

Saying that there is any single, representational Celtic style is incorrect. So I will just refuse to address that particular ‘Pre-Roman is more Celtic’ reasoning. Celtic art was influenced in many ways by many other cultures at many different times and developed in different ways throughout the areas recognized as Celtic. It’s my blog. I mentioned your reasoning. I find it woefully inadequate so I will not bother my readers with it.

Why bother with it all? Isn’t Celtic art just art made by Celts? Well, sure. But during the rise of nationalism throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, artists of Celtic ethnicity identified themselves by their national identity, as ‘Irish’ or ‘Welsh’ rather than Celtic. Irish art has come to encompass the range of styles and techniques one would expect of a modern country, yet the term Celtic art still hovers around the idea of historic and predominantly linear, non-representational design.

Celtic art is art done by Celtic speakers from ancient to modern times. Seems way too narrow. There are artists utilizing the methods and symbolism of Celtic art today. And they aren’t always Celtic speakers. It is a growing thing. The history of Celtic art provides roots, a sense of depth. For many of us, the designs evoke a sense of rhythm, a resonance like music. Modern artists use individual elements of Celtic design like musicians use notes. It is in the skill of the individual artist to create a composition that sings to an audience.


We can start with some of the Wikipedia stuff. But we’ll make some changes. Celtic art is art created by ancient cultures recognized as Celtic through archeological and/or linguist evidence. It is also art based on the designs, motifs and visual impressions which are recognized thusly as historically Celtic.

Did you see what I did there? I used the word ‘thusly’ but I also added ‘archeological’ evidence. Did Wikipedia do that? No. Does that seem odd, now that you think about it? It should. It explains why Wikipedia had to add the part about cultures “whose language is uncertain.” I didn’t have to do that.

Ah. Outdated views of Celts. I have my evidence. The next post will cover the fads of the historian and how Wikipedia is perpetuating a stereotype.


Celtic Art

An overview:

I get excited about Celtic Art. Most of you cannot sit with me over coffee or over a pint, and watch me wave my hands about and draw examples as I tell you about Celtic Art. Maybe it is best, as I might spill your pint.

So here is the start of something amazing and glorious. A blog series on Celtic Art.

A lot of people have a lot of opinions on what constitutes Celtic Art. I want to address ALL of them, which may be a bit excessive, but there it is. So let me know what you think and ask me those questions about Celtic Art that you wanted to know.

I’ll start with a definition of Celtic Art. It might get complicated, but we’ll work out the basis of an understanding so at least we’ll all have an idea regarding what I am gassing on about. The historiography, or the history of how history is analyzed, is also relevant to the discussion, so I’ll throw a bit of that in too. Did you know that scholars of history are prone to fads as much as any Hollywood Diva?

I’ll do book reviews from the specific viewpoint of how the book contributes to the understanding of Celtic Art itself and to the construction and creation of more Celtic Art. Do you have a specific book you’d like me to talk about? I might. I’ll introduce you or reintroduce you to Francoise Henry, D. W. Harding, George Bain and other authors of books on Celtic Art.

Did you ever see a design or piece of artwork on your travels and wonder about it? I have done extensive research on symbols and artifacts, and if you find one I’ve never seen before, we’ll both learn more. Are you planning a trip and hoping to see specific artifacts or museums? Stone Crosses? The Book of Kells? I’ve done a bit of traveling in Ireland and Britain, so let me know what you want to see and maybe I can help.

Have you ever wanted to know how to create some basic designs? I’ll show you a few. More complex designs? Sure, why not? I have studied the geometric underpinnings of some of the most amazing ancient and Medieval artifacts and manuscripts. I have my own collection of sketches used to create my art, I have hundreds of reference books in my library and there are places on the web for information too.

We’ll ramble through history and we’ll ramble through the hills of Donegal. We’ll talk about the Urnfield Culture of the Bronze Age, the Celtic Revival of the late 1800’s and the Arts and Crafts Movement. We’ll put art into historic context. You will see what sorts of influences there have been on Celtic Art from non-Celtic sources, such as Scythians, Greeks and Vikings. I’ll blatantly advertise the works of some modern artists, and hopefully by the time I’ve finished up the outline I’ve put together, I’ll have more ideas and subjects from you and we’ll keep right on going.

I get excited about Celtic Art.

I hope I can inspire someone out there as well.



Printmaking: Harvest Cross phases

From start to finish. The changing but constant image of the Harvest Cross pattern.

This design started out on a piece of 8×10 gessoed Masonite board. I like to do the more complex Celtic designs on Masonite for a number of reasons. It is easier to deal with the compass and with the erasing of geometric guidelines on the board, rather than tearing up a piece of paper. I also like to throw a few of the works-in-progress into my sketch pad bag, and having them on Masonite makes it easy to just pull one out and work on it anywhere.

First sketch layout of Harvest Cross design

First sketch layout of Harvest Cross design

It sat for a while. I liked it, but was not painting complex Celtic designs at the time. The lower panel is from a Medieval manuscript. My notes say 12th-13th century, but I neglected to list which manuscript, and I haven’t re-found it. The cross itself is a very traditional Irish Celtic Cross shape, with circular cut-outs at the junctions of the arms and a wheel with the arms extending out of the circle edge. I added the free-form, winding grape vines and more regular patterns of mistletoe using numerous sources from early and late Medieval examples and my own imagination.

When I was asked to provide art for some possible digital reproductions, it seemed like a good time to dust off the design. I produced it in black and white. I liked it. but the digital project did not materialize. I really do like the look of it this way. The angles of the mistletoe leaves in the arms create a lovely, layered, diamond effect.

Harvest Cross

So when I was working on printing plates and I wanted a complex design, roughly 8×10, with some Celtic flair, I sorted through my Masonite board layouts and picked this one. I plunked down an acrylic plate and traced the design with a stylus to make a printing plate. I wasn’t going for subtle shading or chiaroscuro. No drama. Just lines. Lots of complex lines.

I was also going for a comfortable speed. So the width of the twining vines and spiraling mistletoe is not as consistent as I would like. That being said, the print looks really awesome. I am still working on the process, but I have been very pleased with the results. There is a lot of satisfaction in making it all come together from drawing, to plate, to print. The zinc plates require deliberate and focused lines. The diamond tipped scriber is a bit stiff, requiring careful use. The steel scriber is lighter and more like drawing with a pencil when you put it to an acrylic plate. Just remember it doesn’t make as many prints.

Acrylic plate

Acrylic plate

This is the fourth impression of the plate. It has a bit of uneven toning, and a few streaks, but I like the look of it over all.

Intaglio print of Harvest Cross

Intaglio print of Harvest Cross

So I have a small stash of prints. Pulled with my own smudged hands. All of them of the Harvest Cross, and each one just a bit different. Do I stop there? Would added color take away from the awesomeness of the print? Perhaps. Perhaps not. No knowing unless you try, I suppose.

And I did.

This, then, is Harvest Cross II. Number five in the run of eight intaglio prints, carefully crafted then covered in blankets and coaxed through a series of print rollers, then dried and lightly tinted with high quality, liquid watercolors. Is it a masterpiece? Well, maybe not. But it was certainly fun.

Harvest Cross II

Harvest Cross II


Adventures in Printmaking: Day Two

Adventures in Printmaking: Day two, 16 March 2012

And so the day arrives. Negative voice notwithstanding, I stood poised at the brink of possibilities five years in the making. I started my significant day with a bagel and coffee at Panera. Rituals can involve something as prosaic as a bagel and coffee. The scent and taste of a breakfast associated with working, or with a weekend can color the whole day. For me, it used to be Starbuck’s mocha and a breakfast sandwich before getting into work in Washington DC. These days, a toasted Panera Everything bagel and bottomless cup of Hazelnut coffee is the feel of a day of art.

One of my forgotten bits of minor drama; tarlatan fabric. Every time I read an article or book on making intaglio prints, they mention it. As if you would know what it is already. Poof-use the tarlatan fabric to wipe the ink from the printing plate. When searched on the internet- use your own favorite search engine- I find that it is a fabric once used for many purposes, but nowadays only seems to be useful to those who hand-pull prints.

It is 100% cotton, making it absorbent. It is loosely woven, making it light and somewhat see-through. And it is heavily starched, making it stiff and less likely to pull ink from fine lines on the printing plate. And it is bloody hard to find. It used to be used in women’s undergarments, ballerina tutus, and widely used as stage curtain fabric and translucent scrim panels in theater. Now, those uses are primarily taken over with other materials.

And no art store in my vicinity carries it. Luckily I have Manly Banister and his book of many printing tips. Sure enough, you can starch cheesecloth to get the same effect. Though Manly is not telling me how starchy it needs to be. So we start with the middle of the road: one cup liquid starch to two cups of water. I don’t know how much I’ll need, but I cut up a packet of cheesecloth into pieces and soak each piece, then hang it over a hanger to dry.  We’ll see how that works.

And I realized that I had never opened my package of paper. I couldn’t remember what I had purchased. I thought I remembered white and grey paper. I dug out the large flat package. And, to my surprise, I found a second, smaller, flat box. I had ordered papers from two stores.

In the most pleasing news of the day, I found a large package of black and grey Stonehenge intaglio printing paper and a slightly smaller box of lighter weight printing paper in a sampler of pale colors. Pale green, rust orange, yellow, etc. So, frankly, anything but white. The lighter paper is more useful for block prints. And block printing plates I gots, so here we go.

There is a short article on printmaking terms in my Derrybawn Project posts, but in short, dry point techniques create a line with a slight burr of plate material as you work. The burr holds ink alongside the line itself. This creates a specific type of line, slightly soft in appearance, that is unique to dry point. The burr is not permanent and as the plate passes through the pressure of an etching press, the burr will break down and change the look of the print. Thus the earliest prints pulled, with the lowest numbers, are more sought after. This creates a limited edition, as the plate will wear out. The plates can be retooled with the stylus, but the character of the print will change as the new lines and new burr cannot be well developed after the original burr is damaged. Copper is harder than zinc, and zinc is harder than acrylic. I am told that acrylic dry point plates will last for a few prints at best. A fair tradeoff for the ease of making the plates in the first place, I feel.

Sooooo…. I started the printing process with the two linoleum plates I had created. That way I could set the pressure on the press evenly without wearing out my metal and acrylic plates.

I put a stack of papers into the soaking bin, one at a time, ensuring each was wet. It sounds a bit silly, after all, put paper in water and it gets wet. But place a piece of paper in water and it floats, dry on one side. Put a stack in all at once and a number of faces won’t get wet. Be sure the paper is wet. Soaking the paper takes out the sizing and lets the fibers form to your plate, whether you are using block plates or intaglio. It enables a mild form of embossing which gives a hand-pulled print its character.

I used an old, glass shelf as an inking plate. Use something smooth and big enough to move the ink around. You only need a thin film of ink to make a print. Too much and there is a sticky texture to the print as you pull it off the plate, and some lines can be blurred. I use Speedball printing ink for block prints, as it is easy for me to get and inexpensive. I rolled the brayer about to get the ink on it evenly.

My problem at this point was getting the plate inked in a uniform fashion. I was using a larger plate with an image of a bird. It was one of my older plates, and I was worried that it had gotten wet and spotty along with the stack of linoleum that I had already thrown away. It had. The ink would not go on smoothly. It continued to look patchy no matter what I did. I ran it through a few times, but never did get a good image.

I moved on to the other linoleum plate. An image of a raven. I finally got the clue that the brayer was damaged somehow, not rolling well over the inking plate. I fiddled with it a bit more, then moved to my smaller brayer. The things you find out. The smaller brayer worked well, though I had to watch carefully that the narrow pathway of ink was smoothed out by subsequent rolling passes of the brayer.

While running the raven plate, I noticed it was not pressing evenly. One of the pressure gauges was considerably off of the other, making one wing different. So I tweaked and tweaked with an uninked plate until the embossing on the edges was consistent and marked the gauges with a sharpie. While doing this I discovered the bad news of the day: one of the pressure gauges was not right. It was supposed to be smoothly working with the bar of the press, but it was not attached well, whether through shipping damage or through some sort of assembly malfunction. Tweaking the pressure was tedious, but the linoleum was tougher than an intaglio plate and came out unscathed.

At that point I rechecked my technique with Manly, and reset my print blankets. I had them in the wrong order. I have three blankets. A thin, white wool blanket, or “catcher” lays over the art. It catches the sizing that is pressed out of the damp printing paper. It needs to be washed occasionally.  I have a thicker, white wool blanket, or “pusher” that helps to press down the damp paper into the plate when it runs through the press, creating the embossing. Over that is a thick, dark, stiff wool blanket that maintains pressure throughout the process and comes into contact with the rollers.

When reviewing my equipment needs at the end of February, I realized that my wool blankets had been nibbled on one end by bugs. Ordinarily that would be the end of that. And they are expensive. But I was not running large prints, so for now, I am using the good end of the blankets until I can afford new ones. Even small holes in a blanket can affect the pressure that is put on a print. A large dark area can show pinholes where the blanket had small gouges from bug infestations. Fine lines can be broken by the rice grain sized discrepancies in pressure.

When I bought my small press, I invested in a more expensive bed plate with extra length. It is a lighter weight plate rather than the usual steel, making it easier for me to manipulate on a long day in the studio. While my plates are limited by about 12-13 inches in width, giving me a paper size of about 14 inches, I can extend the length of one or more prints to 48 inches. So, in standard sizes I can work up to 12×16, or 12×48 in custom sizes. For now, that is plenty of space.

Just for the heck of it, I had cut up a sheet of the heavy, black printing paper. I rolled up a charcoal grey color with my block inks, and ran the raven through. Very subtle, but beautiful. The lines were a bit soft, so I eased up the pressure and added a bit more white to the ink. And a smidgen of blue. I ended up with about six or seven ‘ghost raven’ prints. Each one better than the last. I made a few rookie mistakes, not blotting my paper well, and moving the paper after I laid it on the plate.

First a piece of newsprint put down on the bed. Then the printing plate, laid as even to the sides as possible to make it easy to lay the paper down evenly. Usually, the longest edge is put up against the roller, so the pressure is placed on the plate as little as possible. Some plates can curl under the pressure of the rollers. I pulled paper from the soaking bin and blotted it carefully with newsprint until there were no shiny, wet spots visible. The shiny, wet areas can cause the inks to run, blurring the printing lines. I laid printing paper smoothly over the plate and added a sheet of newsprint to absorb some of the dampness and sizing. If the paper is crooked to the plate at this time, oh well. Picking it up to shift it around can cause ink to move about, especially in water-based block printing inks. Then the three blankets are laid over the whole stack.

I rotated the wheel arms smoothly. Stopping or changing speed can change the print, usually for the worse. Then I pulled back the blankets and tossed out the damp newsprint on top. I lifted the paper smoothly away from the plate.

Linoleum Block print

Linoleum Block print

Ta Da!! A print. It’s a bit of a rush.

Fuss, fuss, fuss…..more fuss….and a print!!


As I said, I ran a series of prints of the Shield Raven plate with blue/white ink and heavy, black paper. Then I ran some colored prints using black ink on my sampler of papers. Very nice.

I stopped for lunch. Each block print took about 10-15 minutes from fuss to finish. I got better as I went along, but still made a few errors. Blotting the paper is essential. Those un-blotted spots sneak in and suddenly a lovely line is blurred.

A big bowl of salad and some seafood dip with crackers. Is it enough to tide me over? At least I remembered to eat. I occasionally forget when I’m on a roll.

Now on to intaglio plates. I figured this would be tough. I was right. Starting out, the process took about 45 minutes. I think I have trimmed that, but it is still a fussy and detail oriented process.

First, with dry point, the etching ink comes out of the tube too thick. Didn’t know that. Seriously, I had gently padded the ink onto the zinc plate with unstarched cheesecloth, then carefully picked up a starched cheesecloth pad….and couldn’t get the excess ink to wipe off the plate.  Stop laughing, I was dead in my tracks.

So, I pulled out a small jar of linseed oil and mixed it into some of the ink still on the plate. Then dabbed the thinner ink on my inking pad and I tried moving the ink around on the plate. Sure enough, it started wiping off. Whew. Major hurdle jumped.

I started with red ochre so I could see what I was up to. I wiped first one direction, then another. The first wiping is done without pressure and is more to get the ink into the lines that off of the plate. Always be aware as you wipe that if you wipe along a line it tends to remove ink from the line. If you wipe across a line, it tends to put ink into the line.

I couldn’t seem to get the ink off the plate completely. And the ink showed streaks no matter how I wiped it. I worked with my hand, chalking as I went, but still, not quite right. Ah well, I said to my negative voice, print it and see how we go. We can always look at it again later and say, “good heavens, what was I thinking when I did that?”  So I printed it.

Two things seemed to be happening. One, the lines seemed uneven. Two, the ink did not seem evenly wiped. Neither was enough to keep me from being quite pleased that I had actually printed one. Woohoo!

The fourth printing of Border I

The fourth printing of Border I

I did a few more. Still not quite happy with the wiping process. But still, I was learning as I went. I moved to black ink, and left some purposefully on the plate, creating a darker tone across the whole plate. Then I tried wiping more vigorously and was left with a fainter line.

I looked at my acrylic plates, with their complex lines, and found myself very intimidated. First because I had not yet done a plate so complicated, and second because I was sure the acrylic would be a different feel. I needed some more practice wiping the plates.

So, letting the prints for Shield Raven and Border I dry on my clothesline, I went to my collection of sketches and selected a small Celtic beastie. Using a smaller acrylic sheet, I made a quick printing plate with less investment of time.

I also went back to Manly to see if he had any tips. Turns out, he didn’t get all the ink completely off the plate either. After an initial wiping with the fabric, in two directions, a gentle wiping is done in small circles to smooth out the toning on the plate. Cool. I can do that.

It also seemed that my starched cheesecloth was too soft. It was pulling too much ink back out of the lines. So I dipped another batch of cheesecloth into straight liquid starch. It would dry by the time I was off work the next day and I’d have a few hours in the studio.

So, the next day, I worked with the zinc plate again, creating some better versions of Border I using the tips from Manly and my new cheesecloth. Ah, much nicer. Still not great, but definitely better. I did some gentle work with the small acrylic plate as well, and even summoned up the courage to print up one or two prints of the large Harvest Cross II plate.

Leviathan II; 5x7

Leviathan II; 5x7

Nothing can stop me now.




Adventures in Printmaking: Day One in the Studio

Adventures in Printmaking: 15 March, 2012, Day One, making the printing plates

At the end of February, I started a zinc plate, using the diamond scriber. It was a simple knotwork border, 6×8. It gives me approximately a 4×6 space to work up an original drawing inside the border.

Zinc plate with Knotwork border: 6x8

Zinc plate with Knotwork border: 6x8

The steel scriber from the engraving kit was easier to use, but the diamond scriber cut deeper, so I stuck with it. It occasionally stuttered and I had to carefully control curving lines. I fussed and puttered with it.

On the 12th of March, more from curiosity than focus, I picked up one of the clear acrylic plates, laid it over one of my more intricate Celtic cross patterns that I had designed for digital reproduction and I traced it onto the transparent acrylic plate with the steel scriber. I moved the acrylic plate to a sheet of black paper and went back over it more carefully with the scriber, pleased with how easy it was to make.

acrylic plate, 8x10

acrylic plate, 8x10

It should be noted at this point that if you use an acrylic sheet to make a plate, they are cheap and easy to use, but the design traced onto the plate will be reversed when you print it. I didn’t care on this one, because the Celtic cross had a fourfold symmetry. Nothing would look odd reversed. Letters are, of course, the most obvious reversal errors to make, but reversing a landscape can look odd too. Trace a design on tracing paper and flip it over to make it easy. Or reverse it in the computer and print it off reversed before putting it under the acrylic plate.

acrylic plate

acrylic plate, 8x10

On the 15th and 16th of March, I had two days off in a row from my part time job. It was halfway through the month, and I needed to get to work. I gritted my teeth and got past the voice. On day one, I finished the zinc border and started on another border with an acrylic plate. I had been planning to get another zinc plate done, but found myself tied up with a bit more work than I expected on the 8×10 acrylic piece. I had picked a very involved spiral pattern, and had blocked out a space the size of an ATC, 3 ½ by 2 ½ inches, on the plate so I could draw an original piece inside the printed border later. The complex spirals included some areas I wanted black, so I went back over them with closely spaced diagonal lines.

There is a small tool called a ‘roulette’ which operates much like a tiny pizza cutter. The wheel has sharp points on it which leave lines of closely spaced dots. Other versions may create repetitive lines, or blocks of dots. The point is, that closely spaced dots or lines create areas that hold a lot of ink, and when printed they create solid spaces of black or whatever color ink you are using. I did not have the money to invest, so I went with a more time consuming option of layering fine lines with the scriber. I knew it was unlikely to be as even as the space created by a roulette, but I was willing to go with it. Telling the negative voice to shut up so I could get some work done.

Note that in the photos of the acrylic intaglio plates, the worked areas appear white. These are the areas that will hold ink, and become the color of the ink.

By the end of day one, I had my two older linoleum block print designs, a new zinc dry point border, and two larger and more complex, acrylic drypoint designs. I also had stiff hands.

Take THAT, negative Voice.



Making Prints: Prep and the Voice of Doubt

Adventures in Printmaking: Prep

First of all, let me make it clear, that I have not had any formal training in printmaking other than a session during art class in high school where I learned to make linoleum block prints. I made Christmas cards as a fundraiser for high school band. So, there is no one to blame for my lack of experience or skill, or for the mistakes I make, except me. Feel free to comment if you feel I’ve made a specific mistake that your teacher warned you about…

Second, I have a number of books, all of which are well thumbed. And stained with a bit of ink at this stage. I will provide a list. What you should know, however, is that the most detailed book I’ve obtained so far is “Practical Guide to Etching and Other Intaglio Printmaking Techniques” by Manly Banister. I will refer to Manly many times. I’m sure he would be irritated with me, considering my screw ups, but he’s my mentor for this run through. I have already been pointed towards “The Complete Printmaker” book, and I will pick it up soon.

I had a very difficult time getting over the internal voice that said I couldn’t do this. I bought a lot of the equipment five years ago, and poked at it again during the Derrybawn Project. And still I didn’t do much with it. I may be a little less than fussy right now, when it comes to the results, but I needed to jump in before the voice talked me out of it again.

In 2007, I purchased a small 906 etching press, an extended phenolic bed plate and high quality wool press blankets giving me 12×36 space to print. I ordered Stonehenge printing papers and a large package of golden, artist linoleum sheets. I also purchased a small hand press, capable of making 8×10 prints, linoleum cutting tools and a selection of ‘easy cut‘ rubber plates of different brands. Somewhere in there, while reveling in a sale, I also mistakenly picked up a very nice selection of engraving burins instead of the wood carving tools I thought I bought. Instead of returning them, I bought a book on wood engraving and I bought a few small wood engraving blocks. Since I was quitting my day job that year, I stocked up while I still had the paychecks.

What I did manage to do that year was to create four block plates. Three were smaller: a Scythian stag, an abstracted bird, and a Celtic cross. The larger was a very nice piece called ’Raven Sun and Serpent Moon’ usually shorted to ’Raven sun and moon’. I ran a number of prints from each block on my hand press, as the rubber plates were too soft to handle the pressure of the bigger press without distorting.

Raven Sun and Serpent Moon

But then I stopped. The prints did not sell well, and I ended up without the room to make prints as our house was renovated after the kitchen flooded. My studio became a catchall for kitchen stuff, and it was hard to work. I had room to make drawings on a board in my lap on the couch.

During the Derrybawn Project in 2010, I promised myself I would start in on printmaking again. I purchased a diamond tip scriber and two zinc plates. Money was tighter, so I didn’t go crazy. I also bought two acrylic plates. The Project took a different turn when I was asked to create plates for digital reproductions. Other than two linoleum plates of birds and two more small easy-cut plates, I didn’t produce anything for hand-pulling prints. The digital printing fell through and I was left with a large selection of black and white art, no money and a deep funk.

Shield Raven

I took up a part-time job in 2011, and I pulled myself out of the funk with some experimentation in gelatin printmaking. Less intense and more free-flowing, I splashed a lot of color around and got some really good results. I also started plotting out some large landscape pieces, though I did not have the money for the supplies I wanted. By the end of 2011, I was promising myself to use only supplies on hand to do artwork, so the landscapes were put on hold, and I began experimenting with collage using only materials in my studio. It came around to the printmaking again, as I realized that I needed to use the equipment or sell it.

Finding that three of my original four plates were cracked, including my favorite Raven, I gave up on the easy-carve plates. I was having some health problems that affected my joints, so making linoleum blocks was a bit problematic with only old, dull linoleum cutting tools. I had to throw out the remaining golden linoleum sheets as they were water damaged and hard as a rock. I still had two linoleum plates that I had never printed, a small selection of zinc, wood and acrylic plates, the engraving tools, and the diamond scriber.

I had all the makings for dry point plates and engravings. I even had paper. But the negative voice kept at me, and it wasn’t until March of 2012 that I managed to get past it. It kept telling me how difficult it was to get good results, how I had never taken classes, how much more money I would have to invest, etc. etc.

All I needed was the fiddly, little bits. Manly listed everything I needed. Chalk, blotting paper, a bin to soak the printing paper, rags, a drying rack and … oh yes, etching ink. I had block printing ink, but dry point is an intaglio process, requiring a different ink.

A storage bin became a soaking bin. I put screws into the walls in the corner of my studio and strung up some clothesline. I bought clothespins. I found carpenter’s chalk and a box of rags at the Home Depot. Newsprint pads were on clearance at the local craft store. Etching ink was the most expensive thing I had to get. There were six pricing levels at the store, so I dug through the colors until I found two of the cheapest; a soft black and red ochre. Budget would drive my choices, but it was a guideline, not a hammer. Staying with the inexpensive series allowed me to pick two.

No voice of doubt could stop me now…..



A walk on Bray Head; Some Photos

A short article about my walk up Bray Head appeared on Irish Fireside recently. I have received some lovely comments on this article and some requests for more pictures. These are pictures taken on that walk. Some were processed by an employee wearing linty gloves and I have not finished removing all the white threads yet. I hope you enjoy them.

This is the view of the headlands facing south from Bray Head towards Greystones.

View facing south from Bray Head

View facing south from Bray Head

This is the view of the City of Bray from Bray Head. Facing back to the north.

View of Bray, facing back to the north.

View of Bray, facing back to the north.


The Cross at the top of Bray Head

Cross at the very top of Bray Head

Cross at the very top of Bray Head

A view of the Wicklow Mountains; facing to the south and west. This is a wider landscape view of the vertical picture posted on Irish Fireside with my article.

a wide angle of the picture posted on Irish Fireside

a wide angle of the picture posted on Irish Fireside

More travels and photos to come.



Gelatin Prints

It has been a while, but as I work on the larger pieces of the Horizon Project, I took some time to add some colors to my portfolio.

Gelatin Monoprinting is a way I use to get a break from the intense detail and technical challenge in the drawings and Celtic Design I love. The printing process is loose, and the results are easy to manipulate, but impossible to control. And the colors are beautiful.

Monoprinting means just one version of a print. Why do it for just one print? Try it and see. Each one is amazingly unique. Monoprinting can be done on many surfaces, with glass plates a popular choice. Gelatin Monoprinting uses a soft, gelatin plate which eventually deteriorates. I haven’t tried glass yet, but I’ll note the differences when I try it.

To start with the Gelatin process, pick up the unflavored gelatin at a store. Knox brand is the most prevalent in US stores, with packets in the box measured to 1/4 ounce each. If you are using another brand or buying in bulk, it takes an ounce of gelatin in 4 US cups of water to make a decent small plate. I use a 9×9 Pyrex baking pan for small prints, and it produces a nice, thick chunk of gel which is easily removed from the smooth surface.

I have also used 4 cups of gelatin mix poured in a large cookie sheet, leaving the gel in the pan and using it right off the surface for medium sized prints. My plates are limited by the size I can fit in my refrigerator.

To start:
STEP ONE: Place four packets or 1 ounce of gelatin powder into one cup of cold water to set for a minute.
TWO: Add 3 cups of boiling water and stir gently until the gelatin melts to a liquid state.
THREE: Pour into the mold you have chosen and let set in the refrigerator for 5-6 hours.

Yes, this is the exact instruction on the Knox brand box for making gel blocks with fruit juice. Except without the juice. It produces a large, rubbery block of gelatin. Pouring gelatin quickly results in bubbles. If you end up with unwanted amounts of bubbles on the surface of the gel, take the straight edge of a paper towel and draw it over the surface from one side to the other. It should draw up most of the bubbles and leave a smooth surface.

FOUR: As suggested by Betty Crocker, set the bottom of the mold in a bath of hot water for a few seconds, then unmold your gelatin creation onto a flat surface. I cover a drawing board with freezer paper or waxed paper and anticipate getting a bit messy. When I’m done, I pull up the paper, roll up the gel and paper, and ditch the whole mess in the garbage.

Onto the messy part….

When I first read about the process, from three or four other sources, I found the suggestion of using water-based printing ink. Good enough. Give it a try. Printing inks are mostly opaque, and produce a specific result. Transparent drawing inks create another. I have found that watercolor paper works very well. I have also used Bristol and some printing papers, though thinner papers don’t work as well for me. I also have had some very nice results from using textured Aquabord panels from Ampersand. I also use acrylic gessoed canvas, though the gesso can resist some of the thinner inks. My favorite surface to date is the absorbent panel gesso created by Art Boards over a wooden panel. That gets expensive, so start out with a selection of papers. Oil from your fingers can also cause some thinner inks to be resisted, so if you are going to work on a paper or canvas surface before printing, be sure to stay aware of how you touch the surface.

You can use cut out paper or stencils to create designs, blocking the ink from the surface of the plate, or blocking the ink from reaching the paper. Leaves, string and sponges can create textures. Roll the ink with a brayer, or just smear the ink around with your fingers. Cut the plate with a knife for lines which gather up more ink. Use a dull tool to make ragged lines. Wipe off ink. Use layers of opaque and transparent. The gelatin can be marked with something as simple as a stiff bristled paintbrush, though I’ve used forks and quilting templates as well.

Cut the plate into pieces and try using them to print. Then, after all that, throw away the mess and make another plate. I like to make two to begin the day. Draw something on the finished print, using the color as a background. Use acrylic gels, crayons and drawing inks to prepare a paper or canvas before printing.

To move from one color to another, especially when moving between contrasting colors, blot the first colors with absorbent paper or paper towels. Color blends add depth, but too much orange and green can get muddy. It is hard to actually wipe the gel surface, so blot instead. Lay a piece of paper on the plate and peel it off.

As the gelatin plate is used, it will add a bit of gelatin to the ink or paint you use, creating some different looks as you go. The plate will begin to fall apart, depending on how much damage you do to it in creating texture, and bits of gel can end up on your print. My suggestion is to wait until the paint is dry to remove bits of gel. A deteriorating plate can produce great effects with lines and gouges picking up colors differently.

Scrapbooking stores sell allllll sorts of inks, powders and papers to play with. They also sell stencils and adhesives. You can create papers to cut and past with this technique, and I first learned how to do it from some scrapbooking sources. Quilters will use this technique for coloring fabrics as well, utilizing fabric paints.

This isn’t a very technical explanation, so for those of you who want more info, I’ve included some links to some great sites. I prefer a loose and haphazard approach to this technique in order to indulge in pushing the color around.



Gelatin Monoprint with Acrylic Gel

Gelatin Monoprint with Acrylic Gel

Gelatin Monoprint with grey crayon

Gelatin Monoprint with grey crayon

Gelatin monoprint on Bristol

Gelatin monoprint on Bristol

Gelatin Monoprint with India Ink

Gelatin Monoprint with India Ink


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