Reduction printing and swimming rapids
May 01, 2023
Seems like it would be auspicious, or momentous, or maybe just pretentious, to say something grand on the occasion of writing my first blog post. However, nothing particularly appropriate is coming to mind, so I'll just jump in. I notice among us artists writing blogs seems less popular than it once was, and I 'm sure I too won't have as much time to write as I imagine. These posts will no doubt be somewhat infrequent and irregular, but finishing a new print makes for a good moment to take a breath and share a few thoughts.
I've been working lately with reduction prints, where I create the image by printing successive layers using the same block, carving more away after each color (or layer; they could be shades of gray or black) is printed. Keep reading to see how it worked for my latest print.
This business of reduction prints is still fairly new for me, and was a definitely daunting challenge at first. I'd read about it, talked with other printmakers about it, thought and thought about it, and finally got started. I made sketches with watercolor, I carefully tried to plan the sequence of colors I'd use, rigorously painting one layer and then the next with watercolor (not a particularly good strategy because they blend quite differently to printing inks)... I spent two or three weeks in agonizing planning, then finally started carving and printing. And then it was all done in a week! It didn't work out exactly how I'd imagined; quite a few impressions didn't come out well enough to make the edition; I wondered for a while if I'd just throw them all away and start over again... but now they're almost sold out (that was Island Winter, which you can still see in the Color Prints section).
I've kept at it and at least I'm getting a little more confident. It's occurred to me in some of the hours I've spent printing all the layers of my reduction prints, that the whole process reminds me of whitewater boating, which I used to do a lot when I lived in New Mexico (and still miss!).
At first I always stopped to get out of the boat to scout every rapid, spending ages planning every detail about how to get through it. Even then, often things didn't go as planned!
Gradually I learned how to read a river better from a boat in the water, and most importantly, my balance got better so waves didn't knock me over much any more. I found myself often just picking a route right from the boat and heading on into the waves, trusting my ability to stay upright and find a way through the rocks. Usually it worked, sometimes it didn't, but when it didn't I just swam the rest of the way to calm water and climbed back in.
Printing my way through 30 or 40 pieces of paper in an edition of reduction prints, each one printed with 6 or 8 or more colors, gives me plenty of time to recall those river trips, and how reduction printing has some surprising similarities for me: I still do sketches and spend time planning the color and carving sequence, but - while I figuratively still fall out of my boat sometimes! - I'm not nearly as terrified of the process as I used to be. I'm more willing to trust my instincts, my printmaking balance, and start the process without knowing in advance exactly which color the 5th layer is going to be.
The latest example of all that is “Saltmarsh Moonrise”, that I just finished. It was inspired by a nearby walk I've done several times, up Morse Mountain in Phippsburg and on to Seawall Beach, one springtime just as the full moon was rising. I'll show the steps in creating the print below.
This print started out not exactly hitting a rock, but maybe more like getting stuck on a sandbar: I couldn't get the “rainbow roll” blending the violet of late sunset into the blue of the evening sky to work properly, and had to create the blend each time individually by rolling the ink with smaller brayers, one for each color, and blending them on the block. So right from the start, each print is a bit unique – a little element of monoprint.
First layer of color:
Above you can see the moon (which stays white) carved out on the block, and the rest of the design drawn in, but nothing else has been carved. The violet band in the sky doesn't show up much in the photo, which is unfortunate – it's stronger on the actual prints.
I've carved the outline of what will become trees and land, leaving the sky and water blue/violet. The next layer of color is a rusty red – partly as an experiment similar to underpainting on a canvas, partly because I want some little sparks of that color showing through in the vegetation of the marsh. That color only gets rolled onto the area to be printed, not on what's left of the sky. I didn't carve away all of that part of the block to leave some support for the paper when it's printed.
The shape of the trees and land remains the same, but I've carved some vegetation here and there where the red layer will show through (nothing else will ever get printed on top of it). The third color layer is a dark amber yellow.
Finally I've printed a layer of green - in a landscape you'd call green, overall. The actual color of ink on the block is affected by the layer(s) beneath it on the print, especially the amber layer immediately below, because it's thin and partly transparent. I've carved away some more vegetation, too.
This layer is another basically instinctive choice, lavender that will show as an interesting gray when printed over the green below. As with all these layers, each time I carve away some more vegetation shapes, so there are lines and areas of each one that show through individually.
Another layer of green, this time a little darker and cooler - because more of this layer will show in the finished print, so it's getting closer to the overall color of the landscape in the evening moonlight.
A much darker green, defining the shadows, and much of the marshland has been carved away to remain the varied colors that have emerged so far.
Eighth (and final!) layer:
The last layer of color is actually a dark reddish purple, which seems "black" when printed over the green beneath, but hopefully is a little livelier and deeper than a plain black would be - hinting at the depth of shadows within the woods. It's subtle, and more apparent on the real print. I hope you'll get to see it one of these days.
There, made it through the rapids ;-) !