January 13, 2017

A Few More Block Prints

        On Wednesday I visited the high school to talk about block printmaking.  The students in the senior art class were working on lino reduction block prints and their work was incredibly impressive.  The most complex reduction print I’ve ever done is 3 levels of carving and inking (plus paper), but these kids are doing four, thus totally outclassing me!  I really wanted to take pictures to share with the world, but out of respect for the students’ privacy I refrained.  So I have the work of another, unrelated, artist instead.

        The block prints of Neil Brigham (USA) caught my eye today in part because he does a lot of reduction prints.  Some have more layers of ink, but I particularly liked these first two, which are soothingly monochromatic.  They also serve to show that a reduction print can be fully realized and beautiful even if it is relatively simple - just two inks (for the owl) or three inks (for the shingle).
        Brigham does lots of great black and white work, too.  As an illustrator he does various little logos and spot illustration that are very pleasing.  Block printing works so well when you want a big punch in a little size!  But I picked out these two medium-sized pieces to share because I find them especially interesting.  The bird’s-eye view has such a nice balance of detail and simplicity, and I especially like how the white around the large building gives it a special emphasis.  In the riverboat I particularly like the treatment of the smoke, which I know would never be my own style, and the treatment of the plants in the foreground, which is almost how I’ve worked sometimes, but not quite.  It’s interesting that the very bottom plants are just outlines, with no filling-in or texture, and that the black shape isn’t correlated with the white outlines; it’s its own separate layer of plants.
        A quick search didn’t turn up any picture books illustrated by Brigham, but I’d love to see him do some.  I think he’d do a wonderful job.

[Pictures: Wisdom, reduction block print by Neil Brigham;
Down East, reduction block print by Brigham;
Winter, linoleum(?) block print by Brigham;
Harvest, linoleum(?) block print by Brigham (All images from Neil Brigham.com).]

January 10, 2017

The Fantastic Leonardo

        Leonardo da Vinci (Italy, 1452-1519) is known as an artist and a scientist, and an all-around Great Mind.  He was clearly also a fan of speculative fiction.  Speculative fiction didn’t exist as such in the fifteenth century, of course, but what else do you call an interest in inventing inventions that can’t possibly be built with present technology?  Or sketching from life the habits of animals that don’t exist outside the imagination?  Or then again, perhaps Leonardo wasn’t making these things up.  Maybe he really did have flying machines and all manner of other magical devices.  Maybe he really did draw his dragons from life.  In the sequel to The Extraordinary Book of Doors (one of my current “works in progress” that isn’t getting much work or progress, alas) I’ve discovered that Leonardo would have had access to a mythical beast sanctuary patronised by his own patron, Francis I of France and Francis’s good friend the Abbess of Tarascon.
        At any rate, over the winter vacation we went to an exhibit about Leonardo da Vinci at the museum of science.  It had a lot of 3-D models built to replicate sketches from his notebooks, and these were wonderfully pre-steam-punky and proto-sci-fi for sure.  Alas, there was no mention of the bestiary Leonardo wrote, which includes entries on the basilisk, dragon, unicorn, phoenix, jaculus, and lots more.  After extensive on-line searching for digitised copies or pictures of the sketches that illustrated these writings, I’m beginning to suspect that perhaps Leonardo didn’t illustrate his bestiary at all.  So here for you to enjoy are some of his unconnected drawings of creatures.  
        This first dragon is sure proof that Leonardo visited the mythical beast sanctuary.  See how Chinese this dragon’s head is?  Where would an Italian man in France see an Asian dragon unless he travelled through an enchanted doorway to a garden in China?… which just happens to be the location of the sanctuary maintained by the Abbess of Tarascon.  Moreover, the fur is a unique touch, clearly not something that you would make up from traditional legends - ergo it must be drawn from life.
        This little dragon, on the other hand, is of European stock, but just a hatchling, no larger than the cats with which it plays.  During the renaissance dragons were generally considered symbolic, but this one is obviously an active part of the household or barnyard where Leonardo was sketching.
        Leonardo was clearly a man who was not only intensely curious about the observable facts of nature, but also equally enthusiastic about the visions of his imagination.  I believe this is a common theme among the most creative thinkers throughout history.

[Pictures: Two mechanical models based on sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, photos by AEGN;
Study of a dragon, pen and ink and metalpoint sketch by Leonardo, 1513 (Image from Universal Leonardo);
Detail from Cats, lions, and a dragon, pen and ink wash over black chalk by Leonardo, c 1513-15.
Young woman seated with a unicorn, pen and ink sketch by Leonardo, 1479 (Image from Universal Leonardo).]

January 6, 2017

Vik's Scenery

        Karel Vik (Czech, 1883-1964) is another of those many block print artists for whom I can’t find a lot of biographical information.  I’d be able to tell you more about him if I could read Czech, but I can’t, so I’ll just tell you about his work.  Primarily landscapes and other scenes, most of Vik’s wood block prints are multi-block, multi-color efforts.  Many have one or more tone blocks for shading, and these often have that dull, mid-century look with muddy beiges, olive greens, greyish blues.  I’ve just betrayed that these are not my favorites!  But Vik was undoubtedly extremely skilled, and I have for you today a few pieces that I like very much.
        Vik clearly had a taste for dramatic natural scenery and dramatic, elegant architecture.  Many of his pieces feature beams of light, whooshes of wind or cloud, and other quite melodramatic effects.  But I’ve chosen to begin with a peaceful scene.  I like the level of detail and realism: all sorts of details and textures, but not trying to be entirely photorealistic.  I see four color blocks in this one, with relatively little of the white paper still showing through after all those layers of ink.
        I see three blocks for this straightforward scene of a church and palace in Brno.  It’s magnificent architecture, so it might seem like there’s not much originality to showing it, but there are a few touches that I think are interesting, especially the framing of the right side of the view with the edge of some other wall.  I also like the car in the lower left corner, which dates the piece wonderfully.
        Another interesting view is this interior of a courtyard, with its contrast of smooth, cobbled, and tiled textures, and the whorled capitals of the columns.  In this case I think the beige tone block is effective, although I’d be curious to see what the piece looks like without it.  I like the way the highlights fall on the rear and left surfaces of the building.
        I’ve included this scene of a mountain stream as a representative piece with only one, black block.  It’s much simpler than many of Vik’s pieces, with less texture and more undifferentiated black.  I’m not quite pleased with the lines depicting the foaming water, but I very much like the skill and economy of the tree trunks.  I’m also interested to see the areas, especially on the right, where the ink hasn’t printed completely dense.  This is the case with so many of my prints, but relatively few of those printed in professional print shops.  I don’t know whether Vik printed his own editions or not.
        And finally, a scene I find particularly interesting and more unusual.  I see three colored blocks, but I think it would have been just as good without the lighter brown, which doesn’t seem to me to add anything vital.  But I guess it doesn’t detract, either, so I probably shouldn’t complain.  At any rate, I definitely admire the carving of the texture of the wood to give shading, and the way the beams down below in the shadows are suggested with that texture rather than with outlines.  I think the lighting is impressive altogether.

[Pictures: Most na hrad Valdštýn, color woodcut by Karel Vik, 1930 (Image from Galerie09);
Church of St Nicholas with Místodržitelský Palace in Brno, color woodcut by Vik, 1928 (Image from Mutual Art);
Courtyard of Renaissance Chateau in Slovakia, color woodcut by Vik, 1932 (Image from Mutual Art);
Mountain River, woodcut by Vik (Image from Mutual Art);
Zvonice v Rovensku pod Troskami, color woodcut by Karel Vik, 1929 (Image from Galerie09).]

January 3, 2017

What's New in the Studio - Nymph

        I finished printing this block on Sunday (another tough one to print cleanly.  Mysterious - and annoying.)  It represents a water nymph and I wanted to give her a bit of an art nouveau flavor.  I’m not very good at stylizing things, but at least I had fun with the curls and swirls of her hair.
        This is not just any nymph, however.  For the sake of my hypothetical future fantasy alphabet, I wanted to give this nymph the option of being a xana, the Asturian water spirit I discovered last year.  In order to make sure she can be a xana I had to give her curly, light hair, and I made sure that she was living in a habitat that could occur in northern Spain.  The willow and yellow water lilies (the smaller flowers) are common there.  They’re actually quite widespread and could be growing in many other parts of the world, as well.
        The xana of Asturian legend, like many traditional nature spirits, is what we might call chaotic neutral.  They may be benign or helpful, or they may be downright malignant, or they may simply look after their own interests without much caring about the effect on humans.  But I wanted to show a nymph with the same sort of curiosity about us as we might have for her: cautiously observing, intensely interested, but ready to sink back under the surface out of sight in an instant, leaving the human to assume that any slight sound or glimpse of movement must have been just a frog.

[Picture: Freshwater Life, rubber block print by AEGN, 2016.]

December 30, 2016

Words of the Month - Words of the Year

        It is, of course, absurd to attempt to encapsulate any whole year in a single word, but nonetheless, it clearly appeals greatly to the human urge to categorize, simplify, and identify patterns.  The Germans did it first, in 1971, and there have been English “words of the year” since about 1998 (as far as I can see.)  There isn’t just one, because of course there is no one official language organization for English.  So here are some Words of the Year 2016 from several sources.

post-truth - relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.  This word was selected by Oxford Dictionaries.  The word was first seen in print around 1992, but has been gathering steam in the past decade, and the pressure cooker exploded in 2016.  (Note truthiness, which was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2005.)

surreal - marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.  This word was selected by Merriam-Webster, based on spikes in look-ups of the word on-line over the course of the year.  Apparently people look up the word surreal every time there’s a terrorist attack or political upheaval of some kind.  As Merriam-Webster explain, “Surreal is looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise.”  The word actually dates to the 1930s to refer to the artistic movement, and as an art-historian-type, the 2016 sense strikes me as not quite an accurate usage - at any rate, I don’t think of terrorism as being “surreal”… but I guess if enough people do, than the meaning simply shifts.

xenophobia - fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.  This word was selected by Dictionary.com, again based on spikes in on-line word searches.  The UK vote to leave the European Union and the US presidential election especially drove this, although the refugee crisis has also been significant in the new “popularity” of the word.  As Dictionary.com point out, “while our lookup data can tell us what Dictionary.com users are interested in, it doesn’t tell us the reason for the interest… What we do know is that… xenophobia was a recurring subject of discourse in 2016.”

singular “they” - This word was selected as the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.  They have not yet chosen their word for 2016 (but are now accepting nominations, if you want to send them some suggestions.)  Read my previous post on the use of they as a third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun; it’s a usage that’s been around since at least Chaucer.  But what’s new is that they is now also being seen to include non-gender-binary usage.  It can mean he, she, or neither/something else.  It simply means that gender isn’t being specified in the sentence.

        I’ll be curious to see what the American Dialect Society select for 2016, and whether it continues in the depressing vein begun by the others.  Words have incredible power.  They can shine a powerful light on the truths of our society and culture, and they have the power to hurt us and to define us.  But they also have the power to uplift us, and we don’t have to let them confine us.  Let’s make 2017 a year in which we make sure that the words that describe us are more inspiring.
        Best wishes to all for a new year of unfaltering hope and many joys.

[Picture: All the Year Round, color wood block print by Kent Ambler (Image from kentambler.net).]

December 23, 2016

A Visit from St. Nicholas

        Arguably the best-known fantasy poem in the English language is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” aka “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the way it’s spread and shifted since its first publication in 1823.  For example, some editors have bowdlerized the line “the breast of the new-fallen snow,” and others have changed “ere he drove out of sight” to “as he drove out of sight,” thinking “ere” too archaic.  In my opinion, such editors are seriously insulting readers of all ages.  Children are perfectly capable of taking the occasional unfamiliar word in stride, just as they can take the “sugar plums” and the “laying his finger aside of his nose,” both of which were unfamiliar concepts to me as a kid.  The names of the reindeer have also shifted, from an originally Dutch version (Dunder and Blixem) to, more commonly, the German version (Donner and Blitzen).  I don’t know why that is.
        Clement Clark Moore’s image of St. Nicholas was enormously influential, along with Thomas Nast’s illustrations.  (That’s if indeed we assume the poem was written by Moore.  There is a certain amount of controversy over that, although apparently the balance of expert opinion tips toward Moore.)  The plump “right jolly old elf” with the white beard and the pipe are now the invariable image of Santa Claus, but there were many possible versions in the first half nineteenth century.  The one thing that I think hasn’t stuck about Moore’s version is the size.  We see “a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer, with a little old driver.”  As a child I took this to mean that St. Nick was actually much smaller than a normal adult.  Then it occurred to me that perhaps this was perspective and they looked small because they were distant.  But then I shifted my interpretation back again: we hear “the prancing and pawing of each little hoof,” and of course he was able to bound down the chimney which, in a chubby man, certainly implies general smallness.
        Finally, it’s worth noting that St. Nick’s job here is just to fill the stockings.  There’s no Christmas tree mentioned in this house, and Santa Claus isn’t delivering a ton of large consumer goods.  We’ve had serious gift inflation in almost two centuries.  Not that I’m complaining - I love a treeful of gifts for all - but it’s worth noting that originally we were expecting a few little treats, not dozens of Nintendos!
        And finally, let’s give a special mention to some of the best fantasy elements of the poem.  There’s the miniature aspect, of course, and there’s the flying reindeer and sleigh.  There’s the rising up the chimney, which sounds much more magical to me than the bounding down.  And my favorite line of all, “Away they all flew like the down of a thistle.”
        And so I’ll close, like St Nicholas, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”  But I’ll also add, “Happy Channukuh,” and “Happy any other holidays you may be celebrating!”
        (You can refresh your memory of the entire poem here.)

[Picture: Illustration by anonymous artist from Christmas Rhymes and Stories by Clement Clark Moore, 1884 (Image from Reusable Art).]

December 20, 2016

Color Our Collections

        It’s hard to step foot in a mall or store these days without seeing the fancy coloring books that are all the rage.  If you enjoy coloring, you should definitely check out the coloring pages provided by a number of museums and libraries, featuring items from their collections.  I’m particularly partial because any librarian looking for black and white images suitable for coloring is likely to end up with a preponderance of wood block prints to reproduce, and that’s what you’ll find in these coloring books.  Admittedly, not all the images really make the greatest coloring pages - some have grey-tones, which aren’t so nice to color over, some have too much open space, or not enough interesting details.  Still, the pictures are fun to look at in any case, and you’ll find a nice variety of abstract designs, pretty scenes, and all sorts of images that are just plain weird.  So grab your colored pencils or fine-tip markers, print out a few of these historical pages, and go crazy!  It’ll be a good way to create a calm, colorful oasis in a busy, stressful season.
        The Dittrick Medical History Musem in Cleveland has provided this cool seventeenth century mechanical hand.  I wonder whether anyone was ever successfully fitted with one of these pre-steampunk cyborg attachments!  And I love that it's emerging from clouds like a divine apparition.  The whole coloring book is here.
        From Oxford’s Bodleian Library we get a wonderfully fancy initial, with monsters and flowers, two of my favorite things.  I think this one would work particularly well as a coloring page.  The whole coloring book is here.

        If you want something more modern, how about this great abstract design from the Smithsonian Libraries?  It doesn’t have as much detail, but it could be very bold, with lots of scope for experimenting with color choices.  The whole coloring book is here.
        The New York Public Library gives us this image of an astrolabe, which could make for a particularly interesting coloring page because in the original the lines aren’t intended to outline shapes or build up an image, yet they divide the space into lots of interesting areas with lots of possibilities.  What would it look like with the emphasis on shapes instead of lines?  The whole coloring book is here.
        And one more bonus coloring book for you, from the University of Minnesota.  It features a few nice mythical creatures, available here.

[Pictures: Mechanical Hand, wood block print from The Works of that famous chirurgion Ambrose Parey, translated out of Latine and compared with the French, 1634;
Initial S, wood block print from Lucain, Suetone, et Salluste, 1490;
Largo, woodcut by Oswald Herzog from Plastik: Sinfonie des Lebens, 1921;
Astrolabium Physicum, engraving by Martin Waldseemüller, 1517.] 

December 16, 2016

Bryan's Songs

        I’ve recently discovered another book illustrated with wood block prints.  Walk Together Children is a a collection of Black American spirituals, simply the music and lyrics, illustrated with large wood block prints by Ashley Bryan.  These blocks are quite rough-hewn, with the space entirely full of details or textures.  Interestingly, the pages of music are also carved, but I’m focussing on the pictures, and I’ve selected a few to share with you today.
        First up, a really beautiful portrait of a family.  They hold up their heads with dignity, and their faces are rough-worn but they look as if they might be just about to smile.  Their eyes are especially beautiful.
        The people in this second piece are much less detailed, and the two at the back of the boat look a bit wooden, although the family in the middle are lovely.  The huge waves and rough water almost dwarf the boat, and the oarsmen are straining.  The child looks quite unhappy - I hope he isn’t going to be sick! - but by contrast the man and the woman in the middle are quite calm, singing in their faith.
        I like all the details in this view of small houses, possibly slave quarters, or possibly a humble freehold.  Overall the piece is quite busy with a lot going on, rather jumbled together, but I like the one white leaf on the plant in the lower right, and I like the tree in the upper right.  I like the chickens, and the pattern of the crookedy shingles on the roof.
        Finally, here’s a piece with several separate elements, rather than a single cohesive scene.  My favorite part is the tree with the animals, especially the owl and the monkey.  I like the way the leaves fill in all the spaces between things, sometimes black and sometimes striped.  I’m dubious about the angel’s embouchure, having a couple of trumpeters in the family, but I like the wings.  The young man in the lower left is once again beautifully portrayed.
        I’ve seen some of Ashley Bryan’s other artwork, including sculptures made from found objects, and he always has a nice sensibility of finding the beauty in the ordinary.  It’s a real treat to see how his block prints reflect the dignity and joy in songs born of injustice and unspeakable hardship.
        (Also, I featured a couple more of Bryan’s block prints here.)

[Pictures: O Freedom;
Deep River;
My Good Lord’s Done Been Here;
Where Shall I Be?, all wood block prints from Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals, by Ashley Bryan, Atheneum, 1974.]

December 13, 2016

The World Turned Upside Down

        A title like Rhymes for Children Illustrated with Appropriate Wood-cuts kind of makes you wonder whether all the other children’s books were illustrated with inappropriate woodcuts.  But in fact the publisher probably felt quite pleased at finding appropriate illustrations for these poems, seeing as he clearly didn’t have them purpose made, but simply rifled through the boxes of old wood blocks in the basement looking for something to reuse.  Despite being published in 1919, the illustrations are distinctly nineteenth century in style, some even late eighteenth century.  In some cases the insipid little poems match the illustrations so very appropriately that I wonder whether the publisher actually commissioned verse to match the available illustration.  In any case, this isn’t a very high-quality production and I would have thought that by 1919 children were expecting something better, but there is one illustration here that tickles my fancy greatly.  The poem it heads is entitled “The World Turned Upside Down,” and relates a rather abrupt tale of birds, fish, and small animals turning hunter and wiping out sportsmen.  But given the apparent making of the book, I wonder what this block was originally intended to illustrate.  
        The fish fishing for a man is obviously what inspired the poem, but you can also see that fish are flying in the air and birds swimming underwater, and a lamb is attacking a lion or wolf.  I'm not sure what the balls under the tree are - apples growing from the ground, perhaps?  “The World Turned Upside Down” was the name of a British ballad from the mid-seventeenth century, which had nothing to do with fish or birds or any of the rest of it, so the original block print doesn’t illustrate that.  It leaves me very curious as to what the original block print illustrated.  Anyway, I think it’s funny.

[Picture: The World Turned Upside Down, wood block print from Rhymes for Children, 1919 (Image from Internet Archive).]