This past week I taught a printmaking class to a group of kids entering grades 5-7. On Friday we held an open house to show off all the work they’d done in five mornings, and we filled five large tables with the display. Obviously I can’t post all that here, so I’ve picked just a few samples.
Specifically, I’ve picked only straight-up rubber block prints that require no other discussion, since I’m saving some of the other work to show another time. Even so, you’ll notice that some of the kids experimented with multi-colored inking, and some achieved a variety of textures. Some were thinking in terms of outlines, while others thought more about shapes and areas. I love the way the block print medium gives a boldness and graphic impact to all their work. Why do you think I do block prints myself? Because the medium just looks good! (That and it’s so much fun to do, of course.)
Next week I have another class with another group of kids and the chance to see yet more fabulous work. (Also the chance to tweak my projects and presentations based on how things went this week.) It’s a busy two weeks - I’m teaching a second art class for younger kids each day, too - so it’ll be nice to be able to sit down and relax a bit when it’s over, but what a privilege to see what these kids can do!
[Pictures: Horses, rubber bock print by AD, 2014;
Hawk, rubber bock print by AM, 2014;
Owl, rubber bock print by KK, 2014;
Village, rubber bock print by TS, 2014;
Sea Turtles, rubber bock print by LJ, 2014;
Girl, rubber bock print by BW, 2014;
Flower and insects, rubber bock print by CC, 2014;
I’m in the midst of week one of my two weeks of teaching summer art classes. Each day I’m teaching relief printmaking in the morning and assorted art projects in the afternoon. The afternoon group are younger kids (entering grades 3-5) not my usual beloved middle schoolers, so I confess to having a steep adjustment curve to their attention spans and concentration levels. (And my feet are pretty tired by the time I get home each afternoon - it’s been twelve years since I taught full time!) That said, both groups are doing some really fun work. So far the younger kids have painted scenes inspired by Rousseau’s jungles and made collages inspired by Matisse. The middle school printmakers have made collagraphs using glue and string, and have done several rubber block prints. I’ll treat you to some of the masterpieces of printmaking at the end of the week. In the meantime, I wish to direct you to a great review of The Extraordinary Book of Doors on Charlotte’s Library, a fabulous blog focussing on middle grade speculative fiction. I’m so grateful that Charlotte read Doors, and so pleased that she enjoyed it. And finally, while I’m making announcements, Goodreads has recently launched a feature called “Ask the Author.” I’ve answered one question so far, but would love to start more conversations, so please go to Goodreads and ask me some questions!
Here’s a charming little woodcut of a rather odd critter from renaissance books of natural history. The mimick or Getulian-dog (Canis getulus) is described in Conrad Gesner’s Historiae animalium from 1551-8 along with other dogs, such as greyhounds, spaniels, and bloodhounds. It appears again in Edward Topsell’s The history of four-footed beasts and serpents from 1658. (I’m not sure whether it’s in Topsell’s original History of four-footed beasts first published in 1607.) The spaniels and other dogs are still with us, but of course we know of no mimick or getulian dog nowadays. So, is the Getulian dog now known by another name, or is it extinct, or has it always been mythical? According to the worthy naturalists Gesner and Topsell, this dog has shaggy hair, long legs, short tail, curved back, and a face sharp and black like a hedgehog. I think it looks pretty adorable, but its appearance isn’t what makes it special. It is “apt to imitate al things it seeth, for which cause some have thought that it was conceived by an Ape.” Mimicks are trained to act out human parts in plays, or to perform as servants for poor men. “In Egypt in the time of king Ptolemy [they] were taught to leap, play, and dance, at the hearing of musicke.” Topsell places the Getulian dog in England, although its name “Getulian” would imply an origin in Northern Africa, which would also fit with its prevalence in Egypt in Gesner’s time. So, what could this creature be? Nowadays some people think it must be the poodle, on account of the long legs, shaggy hair, and sharp nose. Some think it’s really an ape such as a baboon, on account of the behavior. Of course I think it would be fun if it were really something magical, but I’d enjoy finding out a real explanation, too. As for this illustration, which I find so delightful, it’s never easy to learn much about the artists responsible for renaissance woodcuts. Gesner named Lucas Schan of Strasbourg as one of his main illustrators, but I have no idea whether this particular image was drawn by Schan, by some other artist, or possibly even by Gesner himself. And whoever drew it, it was presumably carved by someone else entirely. The illustration I’ve shown here comes from Topsell, but was clearly copied as exactly as possible from Gesner. The only difference is that it’s reversed, presumably because it was copied exactly from Gesner’s printed image onto Topsell’s block, which then flipped when that second block was printed. But whatever anonymous artist or artists deserve credit for this one, I think it’s great, with confident curves and curls. Unlike many contemporary illustrations of beasts, it doesn’t look distorted, stiff, or unnatural. It looks odd enough to be interesting, but natural enough to be believable.
[Picture: The Mimick, or Getulian-dog, woodcut from The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell, 1658 (Image from University of Houston Libraries).]
I’m on vacation, so this will be short, but yesterday I was at the Portland Museum of art and saw there one of Leonard Baskin’s monumental wood block prints. At 72 inches tall it’s life sized, if not life-proportioned, and very dramatic and striking. Do I like it? Probably not, but it’s definitely a pretty cool woodcut, pushing off in yet another direction of what’s possible and what a relief block print can be. For Baskin everything was intensely political - he said “Art is content or it is nothing.” But when I looked at this I was thinking at least as much about process as about content. It’s interesting to me to think about how Baskin (U.S. 1922-2000) might have planned and carved and printed a block so big. (The exhibit I actually enjoyed most in the museum was a show of work by Richard Estes - it turns out he does a wider range of work than I had realized, and I really loved some of it much more than I’d expected. If you’re in Portland ME be sure to check it out. I think the show runs through September.)
The movie “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is not to be confused with the book How to Be a Pirate, the second in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series, by which the movies were inspired. About the only thing the books and the movies have in common is a few names. Now, normally this really irritates me. I’m always railing, “If you thought the book would make a good movie, make the movie follow the book. And if you think the book won’t make a good enough movie, then don’t make it into one! Go write your own movie script!” Major pet peeve of mine, actually. But in the case of “How to Train Your Dragon,” I find myself relaxing my rule for the simple reason that I actually like the movies better, different as they are from the books. I do like the book series. Hiccup is a great character and his adventures are funny, convoluted (in a good way), and generally heartwarming when it comes down to it. They illustrate the value of thinking, creativity, loyalty, and other Good Stuff. They’re cleverly written. They’re also aimed very squarely at a fairly narrow target audience of, say, 8 to 10 year old boys who find potty humor fabulously subversive and hilarious. Since I am not, as it happens, an 8 to 10 year old boy who finds potty humor fabulously subversive and hilarious, I roll my eyes and do my best to tolerate those elements of the books, because I enjoy other elements. But the movies have succeeded in making stories, characters, and situations that appeal to a much broader audience. They succeed in emphasizing some of the deeper elements in the stories, while eliminating the gratuitous pee-pee-poo-poo stuff. Also, Toothless in the books is just completely irritating, while Toothless in the movies is awesome.
[WARNING: This paragraph may contain potential SPOILERS.] The villain in “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is not Alvin the Treacherous, but a new-for-the-movie character called Drago. But the worst actions are committed by Good Guys under mind control. It turns out that dragons have no free will and are helpless to disobey the thoughts of an alpha dragon - a concept about which I’m definitely not best pleased. I like free will. But the yoke of evil was successfully thrown off - Yay! - so it was okay in the end. There was one major plot element never explained (why should the evil alpha dragon do what Drago says, anyway?) and two plot pieces that D and I thought might have (and should have) gone a little differently. We thought Astrid should have become the new chieftain of Berk, since according to Hiccup, she’s the one who’s actually good at that sort of thing. And we thought something further should have happened with the deposed evil alpha dragon - redemption, banishment, penance… something. Anyway, our final review for “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is that it wasn’t as good as the first movie, which really is one of our top favorites, but still excellent. P and T enjoyed it a lot, P despite the mind control, which is a plot element he utterly loathes. We didn’t watch it in 3D, so all the soaring shots designed for maximum 3D spectacle were wasted on us, and seemed unnecessarily long, although they were still quite beautiful. The scenes in the secret dragon cavern were absolutely lovely. We recommend this movie with all eight of our family thumbs up.
Here’s another artist I couldn’t find too much information about. Toshijiro Inagaki (Japan, 1902-1963) was primarily known as a designer of kimono patterns. These patterns were made by using stencils to print on fabric with a resist medium before dyeing. Although most of the pieces I found on-line were labelled as woodcuts, in one place the similar-looking style was labelled as being printed from paper stencils, which is what they actually look like. Still, it’s
unclear to me whether some of those stencil-looking pieces were done with stencils, or whether he just did his woodcuts with that same style. The pieces I’ve selected to show here mention embossing in their descriptions, which would mean they’re definitely woodcuts. But whatever the medium, the style clearly reflects a stencil sort of way of looking at shape, color, and space. Inagaki’s pieces mostly have large areas of ink and no ink without any small, detailed texture cuts. They differ from the traditional Japanese wood block printing technique in being carved and printed from single blocks. When they have multiple colors, the colors are inked all over the single block at once, blending. This, too, is reminiscent of fabric printing.
I’ve been able to find pictures of many of Inagaki’s pieces that have been printed in several different color variations, including pure black options. I tend to favor those, of course, but I’ve included one of the colored ones today so you get more of a feel for Inagaki’s typical work. (Not that I can claim to be an expert on his “typical work” with the small amount of info I found.)
I did find one interesting note stating that Inagaki was part of the sosaku hanga movement that “advocated that to be ‘art,’ the woodbock print must be self-drawn (jiga), self-carved (jioku), and self-printed (jizuri) with the desire of expressing the self.” Yet in other places I found statements that his blocks were printed by someone else. Another mystery.
Finally, I include one last example by Inagaki that is much more traditional. There’s no statement about how many blocks this piece used, but if it was just one, it was presumably inked in multiple stages at least. It’s very simple, but very pleasing, I think.
[Pictures: Temple in Forest, woodblock print by Toshijiro Inagaki, 1950s;
Mt. Arashiyama, woodblock print by Inagaki, 1950s;
Yasaka Pagoda, woodblock print by Inagaki, 1950s;
Path in a Grove, woodblock print by Inagaki, 1950s (Images from artelino);
I’ve written about eponyms before: those words that derive from proper nouns. Usually we think of the ones with etymologies from people’s names, but I also listed some that come from brand names. Today I’ve got another list of eponyms, this time words that derive from the names of places.
Not surprisingly, many words for products are named for their place of origin, especially textiles: denim - c.1690 from serge de Nimes, but as the modern type of coarse cotton cloth the word dates to c.1850 buckram - early 13th c, from Old French (possibly by way of Italian), from Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (At least, it may be - like so many etymologies, this is uncertain.) Originally a delicate fabric, it’s now the coarse fabric used for bookbinding and millinery. madras - 1833, bright-colored muslin from the Indian state now called Chennai (In an interesting side note, the emphasis is generally on the first syllable for the fabric even though it’s on the second syllable for the place name.) shantung - 1882, coarse silk named for the Chinese province where it was made
There are also many articles of clothing with names derived from places. jeans - Originally a fabric from Genoa, Italy (or, as the French call it, Gênes), the word now usually refers to the particular style of trousers introduced by Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis in 1873. Strauss didn’t start calling their product “jeans” until 1960. dungarees - Also originally a fabric (early 17th century) before it became a garment (c.1868) from the name of a village now part of Mumbai, India. bikini - 1948 from French, named for Bikini in the Marshall Islands, where the US tested the A-bomb. The origin isn’t entirely clear, but it’s presumed to be because of the explosive impact of the bathing suit on viewers. cravat - 1650s, from French, from German, from Serbo-Croation Hrvat for “Croat”, the neckwear was copied from a scarf worn by Croation mercenaries in the French army. jodhpurs - 1899 as jodhpur breeches, from a former state in northwest India
Other products are also named for their city or place of manufacture, including some that are well-known, such as cologne - 1814 from the French name for Köln, Germany And others that are more surprising, such as badminton - 1874 from the Gloucester estate of the Duke of Beaufort. Here the game was first played in England (by British officers who had encountered it under the name poona in India). bayonet - 17th c, possibly from Bayonne, France, where the daggers may have been first made or first stuck on the ends of guns - but also possibly a diminutive of Old French bayon “crossbow bolt.” You never know.
What I find so delightful about discovering the eponymous origins of these words is the evidence of just how interconnected the world really was, even as far back as the thirteenth century. But at the same time, I enjoy the reminder that even though products from faraway places might have been available, they were considered exotic and special, not ubiquitous and taken for granted. The world may have been interconnected, but it wasn’t homogenized. The fabric from Nimes wasn’t the same as fabric made elsewhere. Cologne was made in Köln, not in factories anywhere and everywhere. So what sort of special regional products do we enjoy today? Foods, certainly, but keep your eyes open and see if you notice others.
[Pictures: Silk weaving, hand painted wood block cut by Zhu Gui from Imperially Commissioned Illustrations of Agriculture and Sericulture, 1696 (Image from The British Museum);
Chiaroscuro (from Italian for “bright-dark”) is the use of strong light and shade in artwork. In relief printing it is specifically the use of multiple blocks to achieve lighting or shading effects. Probably invented early in the sixteenth century, these block prints were originally intended to reproduce the look of drawings done on midtone paper, with the artist working in both white and black ink. The German style usually used a black key block, or line block, with a tone block in some midtone, while the Italian style usually did not have a line block, but used each block for flat areas of different tones. This “Scene of Witchcraft” by Hans Baldung looks quite similar to the effect you would get by drawing some white and some black on grey paper, but of course it was printed on white paper with a black block and a grey block. It’s been carved so that black and white both appear as lots of lines, with relatively few areas of solid tones. You can also see how Baldung was trying to use the shadows and highlights for drama, which is a characteristic of chiaroscuro art in general.
The black in “Goddess of the Night” by Hendrick Goltzius is a more traditional key block, showing mostly outlines rather than areas of color. There are two grey blocks, however, light and medium, to allow for more sense of shadow. There are two things I particularly like about this one. First, the bats pulling the wagon - although they’re small, so I feel that four is really not enough. There should be at least a dozen! I also like the white symbols arching over the wagon without any black accents, so that they seem to be symbols of light floating in the dark air. I like the white highlights on the wheels, too. In fact, I think this one is pretty cool altogether. For contrast in technique, Domenico Beccafumi’s image of “St Peter” shows the Italian style, with four blocks in four shades of brown, no black, and no outlines at all. There’s relatively little paper showing through, making the white (or cream, technically) into a real highlight. Peter’s face, hands, and feet are very intricately modelled - perhaps unneccesarily so. Beccafumi may have been showing off a bit. Impressive it is,
though. I was lucky enough to see these last two pieces in person at the MFA, and they are strikingly gorgeous. Particularly on Peter, the laying on of successive layers of ink is very clear. There’s slight thickening of the ink at edges of carved lines, slight variations of pressure, and an undeniable sense of skilled hands at work. To the extent that chiaroscuro wood block printing techniques were invented to mimic non-woodcut techniques, I always grumble about failing to appreciate the unique and wonderful properties of relief printing. However, artists very quickly did take these ideas and techniques and begin to explore them in amazing and beautiful ways.