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.




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…..



Continuing on…

The Derrybawn project is sluggish, as you may have noticed. But not dead yet. Sketches for Arkay Sonney and Bloddeuwedd are still in progress, though not complete.

I have two small pieces ready to be made into printing plates, but haven’t done that. I haven’t gotten some of my new 2009 photos of Ireland reproduced yet either. Lots and lots of potential, but little real progress.

However, I have provided four black and white designs to a printer for professional reproduction. The images are fuzzy, as I was in a hurry and only trying to get quick images done.

Maeve’s Spear is a simplified, smaller version of an original ink and watercolor piece I created a few years ago. The original is a very large piece and the design is the one most people have asked me to create as a print.

Maeve's Spear scratchboard

Maeve's Spear scratchboard

Spiral Raven is a simple, but dramatic design, and may be destined for t-shirts or other items.

spiral raven scratchboard

spiral raven scratchboard

The Kells Bird is an older design, created for notecards. It has come out of the archives for a new breath of life.

Small scratchboard print plate

Small scratchboard print plate

The Key Panel was originally made for notecards, but never was used. Out of the archives and into the market, it seems. This design was made with a lighter, crosshatch technique to add texture to the flat design.

Key Panel Scratchboard

Key Panel Scratchboard

I have also widened my circle of possibilities through writing some articles about my travels and possibly getting them published. Working on that, anyway.

Daily sketching continues. I have some interesting pieces done as projects for a sketching class in D.C., which I will provide when I get my scanner back up and running.

In my quest for seeing new things, I went to the National Zoo on Tuesday this week. I tried sketching the animals as they went about their morning routines. I despaired of catching the sinuous slink of the clouded leopard, with his eyes as clear as rose amber glass in the early sun. I couldn’t keep up with the pair of small-clawed otters as they tried to get closer to the tourists watching them.

The red panda hid behind a branch, and the Giant Panda cared little for my efforts, as he continued to munch on his breakfast. I watched the cheetah watch me for a while. He stalked, loose-limbed around his enclosure, walking back behind bushes when he heard screaming children and coming back to pace close to the fence when they were gone. He watched me carefully, but seemed more irritated by the occasional click of the power generator in the corner of the enclosure.

I tried to catch them all. Much more difficult to catch than people drinking coffee.

Anyway, I’ve decided to continue a version of the Derrybawn project through 1-6/2010. The potential is there, and I still need to do everything I started out to do, but the early part of the year has fewer distractions than the summer and fall.

Bloddeuwedd and the Arkay Sonney will carry over to the new year, along with my small Brambleponies print and a print of a willow tree I began as a gift for a friend. I will also document the final result for the Maeve’s Spear, Spiraled Raven, Key Panel and Kells Bird pieces that I submitted for professional printing, as well as any new black and white art. Reproductions of photos will also be documented and any new plates will be shown.

My goal is to have at least 12 new designs in reproductions for the Potomac show in June 2010.
A secondary goal is still to gather up the threads of my grant proposal, which has gathered new steam as friends have mentioned they may obtain a Letterpress and have been discussing using it to lure me to Pennsylvania to make my prints.

Additionally, I will be using the new prints to revamp my Etsy website.

Hmm. Is that enough for one project? As always, biting off more than I can chew.



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