Slowing Down to Really See

It’s been a while, but I finally started a new series—and it feels really good to be making prints again. These last several weeks have been really hard, for a lot of reasons. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, and devastated, and heartbroken. For a lot of those days (and weeks, really), I didn’t feel like making art at all. I felt like I should be doing something better with my time–something more beneficial.

The truth is, I’m still thinking about what I can do that’s helpful right now. I’ve been thinking about what I can change in my life to support people who need to be supported, and amplify the voices that need to be heard right now. Thinking about all of that can be paralyzing really, but it helps—as it so often does—to find balance. For me, that balance means giving myself time to make things. Sometimes “make things” means sewing masks to send to hospitals and clinics (yes, help is STILL needed for that—if you’re feeling crafty and want to help, you can check out the group that I sew for, the Carolina Mask Project. There are lots of other similar organizations out there—I’m partial to CMP, but you might find another in your region.) Sometimes, “make things” means art.

I’d been thinking about a new series for a while, and was finding it hard to make time to just get cracking on it. I carved a block that was a complete failure, and then started a big 12 x 12 woodcut that I imagined being three layers of color—and three separate blocks. I carved the three blocks, and did some text prints, and they came out okay. And then I started printing for real, on the nice Japanese paper, and hit a road block. The first layer of ink went on nicely, but the second wasn’t behaving the way it should. Rather than push through and try to force it (like the old Lauren would have done), I stepped away and gave myself time to think about it and troubleshoot. (That first block that was a failure? I just pushed through and didn’t pay enough attention. I tried to learn from that.)

I didn’t want to stop completely, so I started carving smaller linoleum blocks to keep myself going. I decided to do these in black and white, and then add a little pop of color with a separate block. Sometimes, scaling back and doing something simpler, in black and white, helps me concentrate on the shapes, and the light and shadow.

The old Lauren snuck in for a minute though, and printed these nuthatches without noticing that the location of the bird’s eye was off. After laying out one of the finished prints to photograph, I thought, why does this bird look weird? What’s wrong with this nuthatch?

And then I realized two things: I’d forgotten to add its characteristic cheek stripe, and the eye was off a little. The thing about linoleum is that once you carve something out of the block, you can’t go back in and fix it. But what you CAN do is pochoir. (That’s fancy French for “stencil.”) Sometimes, this technique can be a lifesaver. In this case, it saved this derpy looking bird from ruin.

>>Above: the nuthatch print and the special Pochoir patch. Just place it over the area, use a stipple brush to apply the same kind of ink used in the original print, and voila! Below is the finished print, complete with proper cheek stripe.

Pochoir’s not just meant as a way to correct errors, of course. There’s a long history of using it in other printmaking techniques, including letterpress printing, as a way to add a small bit of color that doesn’t require another printing plate or press run. It’s a way to add some spot color, or color that has a little texture in it from the brush. (Google it if you want to go down the rabbit hole and see the endless possibilities.) I’ve used it for spot color with small editions of letterpress pieces in the past—it’s a technique I learned while at The University of Alabama.

Below: The blackbird, which was actually the first bird I carved, was much more successful. I tried really hard to cut slowly and deliberately, paying attention to the marks I was making and the spaces I was leaving behind. I’ve been doing linocuts and woodcuts for twenty years, and there is a pattern I can quickly fall into: this is a laborious process, and sometimes I find myself just wanting to get finished so I can move on to the business of pulling prints. (That’s the reward stage.) But that’s how I make mistakes—I rush, thinking of the goal line, instead of taking my time and enjoying the carving process, too. So this series is my personal exercise in taking my time and paying closer attention.

First error made, first lesson learned.

Below is the finished block with the nuthatch (and his bare cheek that I so carelessly carved away). I’ve had these tools for years, and they are by far my favorites—Japanese imports from McClain’s print supply, for anyone who geeks out over tools, like I do. (Bonus: these are made from steel used in samurai swords, which in itself is pretty badass—when you keep them honed properly they last a lifetime. Honing and sharpening is something else I revisited recently, because taking the time to do that was something ELSE that I’d let fall by the wayside. But now I’ve seen the error of my ways, and I’m in the “let’s keep these tools in top notch condition” camp. If you have carving tools that need some proper love, check out this video for a quick and easy lesson from Draw Cut Ink Press. It’s one of the best demo videos I’ve come across, so show them some love!)

After a week of carving, doing test prints, and finally doing the first of the open edition, I’ve got prints I’m happy with and the first ones are up in my Etsy shop. These two pair nicely together, and there will be more to come. I’m enjoying slowing myself down to do these, and really think about how I want to use the space and create the image. It feels good to chip away at these in the evenings and on weekends, and give myself time to work a little, think about them, and go back and do some course-correction. It’s also helping to balance out my brain, and think about those other big things that we all need to be thinking about right now. Sometimes, carving and printing is like a kind of meditation for me: it’s a way to calm down and focus, and stop that cacophony of other thoughts that make my head feel like a pinball machine some days. And sometimes, when I’m working on prints in that quiet headspace, that’s when the most important realizations are able to appear.

I hope you’re able to find balance in these days, too, and find a way to have that quiet space to breathe and reflect, and feel more whole.

 

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