"Smallbany" - A look into my first woodcut, Big Ink, and differences in types of printmaking
I recently completed this massive woodcut print, my first ever woodcut, over the last four months, culminating in a printing session with a mobile program called Big Ink. In this post I’ll share a look at the process behind the print, and how it differs from the work I’ve done in recent years.
Big Ink allows participants to print as “small” as 24” x 36”, and up to 40” x 96” - I knew I wanted to do a really large woodcut, but wasn’t sure exactly what place to use for the image. Due to the scale, focusing on just a single home (like in my recent work) seemed unsuitable. I considered several homes or a neighborhood. The scale of the block seemed to call for appropriately monumental buildings, so I settled on a composite of Albany’s notable downtown architecture.
I started a series of in-person sketches and photographic “visual note-taking” on several walks through downtown Albany. Compiling sketches into a composition took a few weeks of tweaking, rearranging, and adding and subtracting detail.
I took the design and mirrored, enlarged, and printed it using this site. A layer of sharpie helped me build up lines, add more detail, and think through a bit of how the carving would work. I transferred the design to the sanded, prepped cherry plywood using carbon paper. The plate looks blue because I applied a thin acrylic wash to help me better see where areas had been carved.
One major draw of Big Ink participation was that I had access to a number of clear, helpful tutorial videos, including information on carving tools and how to use them. This set of Mikisyo wood carving tools was recommended as a good starter variety, and I also ordered this small v-gouge that I found absolutely necessary in many details. A strop for honing tools is a must as they need to be cared for frequently to cut well. There are some electric and power tools used by woodcut printmakers, though I only used a router in the large negative spaces. Some people have good results with Dremel attachments, and I met one artist who used a circular saw to get some really expressive marks. I highly recommend practicing on a piece of scrap wood before beginning a real plate – and I also would recommend starting much smaller than 36”x72”…
The biggest challenge for me was adapting to the differences between the new-to-me woodcut relief techniques and the intaglio etching techniques I had been using for years. This woodcut would mean using only black ink and white paper to creates a range of lights and darks, so I needed to adopt techniques like cross-hatching. Woodcut is a type of relief printmaking, which means areas that are carved sit lower and do not receive ink – essentially meaning the anything I carved would be white and anything left would be black. Intaglio etching is additive; a line is etched, and ink is worked into it while un-etched areas remain white. Etching allows for a technique called aquatint to get washy shades of gray by etching an open area with a texture to grab ink. I found that I really missed aquatint’s grays when I started carving, but woodcut grew on me throughout the process.
One regret was that I didn’t keep track of the time I spent on the project; a low estimate is over a hundred hours from design to print. To give a sense of the time consuming carving process, this part of the New York State Museum took 4 hours. A snow day in November granted me a 14-hour carving day. Carving itself I found satisfying and meditative, but the scale of the project and looming deadline meant several weeks of teaching a full day, and coming home to carve until bed.
Printing at Big Ink’s event day was equal parts exciting and anxious. As a first at woodcut printing, I was worried about how dark some parts of my design would be. Lyell Castonguay and Carand Burnet were great to work with; they run Big Ink and help the artists ink and print using their massive, custom-built portable press, nicknamed “The Big Tuna.” I was familiar with how relief printing works, but it was a great learning process to see how professionals are able to work so efficiently at a large scale – everything from how to load paper, set plates and registration, and apply ink evenly. Because my design was split across three panels, there were a lot of places things could go wrong in printing and registration; pulling the first print and seeing it work out was a huge sense of relief (pun only sort of intended).
Printmakers have the ability to produce multiples to the extent that the plate materials allow, but many will cap the number they make to create a limited edition – there are only three prints of the full three-panel image in existence. One will always be mine, but two are for sale here. I am producing a limited edition of 25 of each individual 36" x 24" panel, and those can be found here. For those who might be wondering how to frame such a large print, I’ve found that they look great unframed, and I display them at home using small disc magnets to hang them without puncturing the paper.
When I finished the project, I said it’d be a while before I did another woodcut – it took me less than a week to start one. I’m working on a small piece from a series of sketches and photos taken on hikes in the High Peaks, just for me, without any deadlines. I still miss the grays allowed in etching, but there is something to be said for the convenience of carving by hand and not needing the acidic solutions used in etching. It’s only a matter of time before I do another etching, but for now I’m looking into combining woodblock printing with the sculptural techniques I've used in other recent pieces.
If you’d like to see any of my prints or sculptures in person, I have a show coming up at the Lake George Courthouse Gallery in March 2020, and pieces in a variety of sizes and prices are available in my Etsy shop here.
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