Technology and the Handmade Print: Developing my Folio for the Baldessin Press Printmaking Forum

BaldessinForumThis fascinating forum is happening soon, and I’m so disappointed that I can’t be there in person!  I’ve been working on my portfolio for months, and I also bought my ticket to Australia months in advance (what a swot! 🙂 ) but I’ve just had a baby, and we found out that because there’s a bit of an epidemic of whooping cough in NZ and Australia at the moment, its advised not to take babies overseas until they’ve had all their whooping cough vaccinations at age 5 months.  Oh well, at least I can be there digitally and on paper!

I sent off my portfolio a few days ago:

So proud of myself for actually getting this packed up and sent with a two week old baby in the house!

So proud of myself for actually getting this packed up and sent with a two week old baby in the house!

Because I can’t be there in person, I thought I’d write this blog post to explain a bit about my folio and how it was developed, including info and working processes so I can give people an inside look at my art practice.

I enjoy working at the border between handmade traditional craft and digital media, so I wanted to use this opportunity to explore different types of technology and how I could get them interacting with the handmade printing process.

Here’s an overview of my folio, the first three pieces :

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The second three pieces:

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Now here’s a record of my research into how to make printmaking plates using a laser cutter.

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Me having fun with the laser cutting machine

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Making notes on how to get a plate that works!

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Setting up the software for laser cutting and importing my file from Adobe Illustrator

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The laser cutting machine in progress

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An early attempt at laser cutting – this etch was too deep, and it burnt the wood

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Taking the scientific approach – I made a laser etching test plate

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3D Printing

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The White Kangaroo

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The White Kangaroo

My two week artist residency at Baldessin Studios, St Andrews, Melbourne

The first thing Tess does is to give me a jar of homemade mandarin marmalade and invite me for dinner .

We find out that we have both lived in France. We both speak French. We both love printmaking. We are both second hand shop addicts. As we drive back to Baldessin Studios through the tiny village of St Andrews, Tess invites me for dinner.

I feel dazed – I’m not sure what I’m in more love with; Tess’s warmth and personality, her gray socks decorated with small yellow oblongs, her cool asymmetrical hairstyle or her artistic lifestyle.  I feel young and admiring. I too want to build an artist retreat in the forest and have an organic farm.  I want to have a collection of strange and beautiful china plates, to live in a romantic open-plan space and dry my clothes at the woodstove.

I imagine myself welcoming in WOOFers, printmakers, writers, artists, a young mother taking a weekend out that her husband has bought for her as a gift.  I too will whip up sesame, lime and spinach casserole with ricotta cheese tortellini and chilli hummus.

The centre of the house is a high-ceilinged, open plan room with a large central fireplace on one wall, and a wood burner near the kitchen space. Soft blue and red light from the stained glass windows plays on the walls.  Washing is drying over the wood burner.

A glass of wine, talking about printmaking, France, bromeliads, air gardens, organic farming, politics, surfing, asylum seekers, Taiwan.

Delicious evenings, the air smells of jasmine and Australian mint.

I enjoy navigating the dark back to my little garret space.  The sound of the wind in the gum trees is like being out at sea.

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I’m living for two weeks in the garret space above the print studio.  It’s like living up in a treehouse. The ground level of the studio holds the big presses, huge worktables and the printmaking studio itself.  The second storey, the much smaller attic space, contains a little studio apartment where artists can stay.

The space is one large A-frame. The front ‘A’ is a wall of windows. You can see over the gum tree forest from the kitchen table.   The garret is made up of three rooms; a shower/toilet, a tiny bedroom and the kitchen/lounge which is cozy at night, when the wind blows the leaves like waves breaking over the roof.

I wake up early. From my little kitchen I can see one of George Baldessin’s sculptures on the forest floor; the earthy red-brown of the corroded metal among the gum leaves makes it seem like it’s grown there.  Inside my compact little house it is cosy, but it’s cold outside here in the early morning light.  My inky fingers are curled tight around the coffee cup. I can’t believe I’m actually here, in the morning stillness, watching the grey-brown pelt of a Kangaroo melding in and out of the gum tree forest.  She’s so close – only a few metres from me. She hops forward a few paces, using her tail like a third leg. Then suddenly another little head pops out from her pouch.  Mother and baby chew on the mint bush together, ignoring me.  Their eyes freeze on me at the soft buzz as my camera opens.  The grey morning light is too soft for a good picture, and they’re gone before I can try again.

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Once I’m outside, the dirt road is empty, but not lonely.  The gentle rustle of the gum leaves me with the persistent feeling that it is raining softly, somewhere not too far away. The occasional letterbox and driveway keeps the feeling of isolation away.

It is a 20 minute walk down the dirt road to get to the four shops in St Andrews; the general store, the café, the pub and the best pizza in the world “A Boy Named Sue”.

Tess takes us there on Wednesday night. It’s so hard to choose between It ain’t easy bein’ Zuchinni  and Dark side of the Shroom. The roasted zuchinni go perfectly with goat’s cheese and olives, and the thyme and hazelnut pesto on top gives the whole thing a golden brown finish and a delicate crunch. The other one is different from any pizza I’ve had before. It’s got Mushroom puree base composed of several sorts of mushrooms.  Taleggio cheese and caramelised onion and truffle oil finish it off.  Tess knows almost everyone here – Sylvie’s daughter works here as a waitress; the restaurant is tiny, but the fresh pizzas are coming out of the oven as fast as she can bring them, looking cool and professional in tight black jeans.  Tess tells Ahchen and I the history of the buildings and the gossip of the district.

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Baldessin Studios was built by Tess Edwards and George Baldessin in the 1970s.  The 13 acre block encompasses the big print studio, the house where Tess and Lloyd live, and the organic farm all around it.  After George’s death in a car accident, Tess lived in France for many years.  She returned in the late 90s to revitalise the land and raise awareness of George’s tactile, sensuous sculptures and printmaking work.

The Print Studio is a large and rustic Bluestone building.  The heavy wooden door with its stained glass panels lets you into the larger of the two big rooms that make up the Print Studio.

The larger room holds the etching presses and work tables, the smaller one holds the sink, the coffee making materials and the pot-bellied stove that warms up quickly and throws out heat.  The stove is like a small rotund belly, with a little heavy round lid on the top that you lever up with a special iron tool to poke in bits of gum tree wood, leaves and inky paper.

At lunchtime we all congregate around the stove; early spring in St Andrews still has a chill in the air, and the thick stone building is slow to warm.

The studio, with its thick, pale stone walls, red brick floor and wide overhanging eaves would be perfect in the hot Australian summers though.

The huge motorised etching press dominates one side of the main room, the bed more than 1 x 2 metres.  The studio also has a medium sized, manual geared etching press, an Albion press and an 1860’s letter press.

There’s also a darkroom and a huge light exposure units for photogravure, as well as space for dampening and drying paper.

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The darkened studio is like a stage I’ll dance on.  Anticipation, nerves, excitement at the stillness that will be broken by movement.

I can stay working there all night, if I want to. Every day I spend hours counting the seconds on the exposure unit and noting the timing down.  I dampen countless pieces of paper, patting it dry, holding it right on the very edge so my inky fingers don’t mark its creamy surface.  I choose the right shade of coloured ink, working the ink slowly to warm it up, working out exactly the right level of transparency I want.  I love spreading the buttery ink with a spatula then wiping it back with cardboard, then scrim, then my palm, using paper from the yellow pages.

The paper comes out of the tray soaking wet. Laying it on blotting paper and pressing it takes the excess moisture out gently.  I hold the paper up to the light to check for the shiny spots that mean it’s too wet, then carefully lay the damp paper on top of the plate, putting on fresh blotting paper, then lovingly tucking the blankets over the paper and turning the wheel.  It has to be a smooth, even, regular turn. Breathe in, turn. Breathe out, turn.  The slow steady revolutions of the wheel make me feel like I’m the captain of a ship.

Then lifting each layer one by one and finally carefully lifting up the paper – all that effort and preparation coming down to the last second of anticipation.  A good print.  It goes into the drying rack, then I go back to print the same plate again; this time the image is fainter – this the ghost of the first image.

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I’ve been interested in photopolymer etching/photogravure since first encountering the process in a workshop at Solander Gallery with Jacqueline Aust several years ago.  I’ve since explored many methods of using photopolymer plates, wasting many plates, a lot of money and many frustrating hours in experiments.

Is the problem the image? The half tone screen? The exposure time, the washing-out time, the paintbrush used? The force applied, the drying method?  I learned a lot of what I know from the website: http://www.nontoxicprint.com/solarplate.htm

I’ve used the relief method, exposing black and white images or objects straight onto the light sensitive surface.  I’ve used the two-stage intaglio process where you expose a half-tone screen first, then the image.  This generates a photographic-type effect. The half tone screen exposure time controls the dark tones by creating a ‘tooth’ for the ink to adhere into.  If you don’t do this step, the plate will open bite.  The exposure time of the image transparency controls the light and the mid-tones. The dark areas of your image will protect the photosensitive film from the light, keeping it softer. This means that when you wash the plate, the soft area washes away more, meaning the dark areas of the image will etch more deeply.

My problem is that I’m deeply committed, but impatient. I’m no natural scientist either.  I’m always sure I will remember which plate I exposed for 2 minutes, and which for 3 minutes.  I always think I’ll know what I mean when I scrawl a note to myself on the back of a print.

Silvi is patient with me as I struggle to understand how the dot matrix screen works. She brings a disciplined, scientific approach to photogravure, challenging me on why my images aren’t turning out as well as I want them to. If I don’t know the variables or what happens when I change any of them, how can I have control over what I produce?  Good question. I force myself make a test sheet.

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Christine teaches us etching on cardboard. I love how easy it is to use my whole arm and make long, sweeping marks in the light cardboard.  Using a material that isn’t as expensive as the photopolymer sheets I’ve been working with all week makes my hand feel free to scratch and inscribe, to pierce and doodle, make all sorts of different flowing or juddering marks, dragging the etching tool back and forth over a rough area, peeling it back.

After a week in the studio working independently, I am in a wonderful state of alert relaxation; Mihael Czentimihaly calls it ‘flow’.

It’s not a sound, but the easiest way to describe it as a hum that’s in the background of my mind – a chorus of hums that are generally just neutral, or discordant, but a condensed period of creativity draws them into harmony, like a magnet drawing metal filings together into a mysterious pattern.

I feel that hum singing in my mind as my body moves smoothly through the rhythms of printmaking.

The print studio smells of ink, disintegrating cotton rags, gum trees, cool air, water, and of the wood stove.

Tess is working in the other room, Sylvie is at a bench opposite me. It feels good working away quietly together.

The long, glass covered benches are perfect for wiping or rolling ink, laying out large size paper, or just for large scale drawing.  On the sunny spring afternoons, the Baldessin script painted on the window travels around the wall silhouetted in the afternoon sunlight.

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Tess takes me to the best second-hand shops; she finds a prize red handbag for me; we get excited about old Victoria State Railway crockery and buy it for the garret.  I find a heavy cast glass dessert bowl and six serving dishes in a diamond pattern, with gold and red rims for six dollars at the tip shop.  I’ve already got several kilos of large size artwork to take back to NZ with me, but right now I don’t care about blowing my luggage weight allowance.

Tess takes me further into the national park than I would have gone on my own. We discuss history, women, independence, sickness, death and patterns in life. We talk about the reasons for making artwork, about George Baldessin’s history, about Tess’s own story and about stories in general.  We pass Kathy’s corner and each place a stone. Tess tells Kathy her children are doing well.

That evening we make a second attempt to see the white Kangaroo.  Tess and Christine had seen it the day before in a walk at dawn, fighting with another male.  This time, he’s there.  Its golden dusk, and he’s across the valley, grazing with the herd. He looks almost like a white boulder against the slope until he moves, loping off towards the gum tree forest.

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Ahchen, the Taiwanese WOOFer, is failing miserably to disguise the fact that he’s really come here because he loves art, and that he wishes he were in the printmaking studio, not digging ditches for irrigation piping and learning about organic gardening.  He comes in at every opportunity to see what we’re doing and take photos. He takes so many that Sylvie teases him – he’s a Taiwanese spy, come to take her printmaking secrets. Ahchen explains painstakingly that he just wants to record the technique to use later.  If he documents the process photographically, he’ll be able to reproduce the results.  He is sure. Sylvie tells him to go ahead.

Eye to the camera, he misses her gentle wry look. He will figure it out.

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