December 14, 2018

Continuing Progress

        I finally got a chance for some printing today, and went a little crazy, printing four blocks.  I made the following progress on the pieces I introduced last week:
        1. second and final layer of the umbrellaphant.  I’m quite pleased with this one!  Previously I had identified two species of umbrellaphant, the tusk-umbelled and the trunk-umbelled.  This one is clearly a third species, the auricle-umbelled umbrellaphant.  I feel quite clever for the way in which the two layers of ink seem to work well together whether they are perfectly aligned or not.
        2. capybureau.  This one did not print well, so it’s lucky I planned to do only a small edition anyway.   I don’t know whether the problem was the rubber or the ink, but oddly, the ink didn’t seem to want to stick to the rubber, which was strange, mysterious, and frustrating.  I washed the block and started again three times, which seems like a lot of work for a creature that, while I happen to think it’s charming, I don’t expect to be a huge seller!
        3.  sloth.  As opposed to the capybureau, I think this one will be popular, and since it’s small and will be inexpensive, I made a large edition (of 14.  That’s large, for me!)  You can see it here.
        4. first layer of the eale/yale.  As opposed to the capybureau, this one printed cleanly and easily, although of course in the first round it’s always a little hard to tell whether everything is actually perfect.  I also started the second round of carving, so hopefully I’ll finish this one some time next week.
        Some time next week I will also try reprinting the pterripus/pegasus which I was so frustrated with last time.  And that may well finish up my printing for the year, because next I should probably turn to preparations for my exhibit that is to be hung on January 2.  (Not to mention my preparations for Christmas!)

[Pictures: Umbrellaphant, rubber reduction print by AEGN, 2018;
Capybureau, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018;
Yale, first state, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018.]

December 11, 2018

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor

        “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” is the earliest known story of a castaway on a magical island, dating from some time around 2000-1800 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.  It includes many of the elements that are very familiar from a host of legends and folktales of the same type: it is framed as a tale within a tale, related by one man to encourage another.  The man (whom the story itself never actually calls a sailor) is thrown off course by a storm, shipwrecked, and is the only one from the boat to survive.  On the island he finds every kind of food in superabundance.   After three days he encounters a monstrous, magical serpent, who takes him back to his (the serpent’s) palace and hears his adventure.  The serpent then recounts a short tale of his own.  The serpent foretells that another ship will arrive and the castaway will return home safely.  The castaway promises to send the serpent gifts fit for a god, but the serpent smiles and points out that he already has fantastic wealth, and besides, once the castaway departs, the island will disappear so that he will never see it again.  When the ship arrives as predicted, the serpent loads the castaway with precious gifts and sends him home to a life of honor.  All of these plot points and story elements are archetypal, and I’m sure the self-proclaimed cunning-fingered scribe Amny son of Amen wasn’t the first to tell a tale like this, but it is interesting to see in it the roots of so many of the elements that have comprised a good fantasy traveller’s tale ever since.
        You can read one translation of the story in its entirety here, and another here.  In addition to the archetypal story elements I related above, there are some interesting details in this particular story.  The arrival of the serpent is excellent: I heard a sound as of thunder, which I thought to be caused by a wave of the sea, and the trees rocked and the earth quaked, and I covered my face. And I found that a serpent was coming towards me. It was thirty cubits (45 feet) in length, and its beard was more than two cubits in length, and its body was covered with scales of gold, and the two ridges over its eyes were of pure lapis-lazuli; and it coiled its whole length up before me.  Also, the serpent’s own tale is quite strange, regarding the destruction of all his 75 siblings and children, including a mysterious girl brought to him by prayer or chance, by a falling star which burnt them all to death while the serpent was away.
        Keep in mind that translating ancient Egyptian is not without its controversies, and there are variations in the details of different versions.  Nevertheless, it is clear to see that four thousand years ago humans were telling some of the same stories with some of the same themes of adventure, mystery, and wonder.  Maybe there’s nothing new under the sun, but maybe there are reasons we keep coming back to the same themes.

[Pictures: The Inquiry, illustration by Tristram Ellis from Egyptian Tales, 1899 (Image - and yet another translation -  from Project Gutenberg);
A page of the original Hieratic text of The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, “Papyrus Leningrad 1115” (Image from here).]

December 7, 2018

In Progress

        To my dismay, Life has been Happening a little too urgently recently, and the blog is low enough down the list of priorities that it’s falling right off the bottom.  However, tomorrow I will be at the Needham Winter Arts Festival, so be sure to come check it out if you’re local!  Then Sunday is booked solid and double-booked, and Monday’s going to be pretty crazy, as well… but after that I very much hope that things will settle down!  In the meantime, I am making a steady crop of new blocks which I carve as I sit at all my shows in the past few weeks.  So here’s a little view of what’s been happening: mostly more and more fantasy creatures.
Top left - a design for a eale, aka yale, now finished sketching and transferred to rubber to carve tomorrow.  (At least, I will carve the first round, as it will be a two-layer reduction print.)
Top right - umbrellaphant block, which will also be a two-layer reduction.  I printed the first color yesterday so that I can carve the second round tomorrow.
Center - capybureau, carved but not yet printed.
Bottom left - pterippus, aka pegasus, carved and attempted to print.  I printed more than 20 and not a single one was really good, which was extremely frustrating.  I will have to try again later.
Bottom right - some first sketches of a possible bunyip.  I don’t know when or whether I’ll get to this guy.  I think he’s pretty cute, but what to do with him?  Is he just going to sit there?  Or does he need a background?  Or what will make him sufficiently interesting that anyone should care?
        In addition I have some ideas for two more possible small blocks which are not fantasy creatures.  One or both may even be mini blocks, which means they won’t provide me with an awful lot of carving.  Nevertheless, I plan to finish up the designs tonight to carve tomorrow.  I hope all this will be enough.  If I had more inspiration for the bunyip, I’d definitely do that one, too, but at the moment inspiration feels a little beyond my present capabilities, so I’ll have to stick with just getting to work!

[Picture: photo of various blocks and sketches by AEGN, 2018.]

November 26, 2018

Trumpet Joy

        Having featured the cello a couple of weeks ago, it is now the trumpet’s turn, to celebrate a successful audition by my son P (I'm so proud).  Once again we’ll start with my version, at rest.  If you can’t hear it anyway in a purely visual medium, you may as well just focus on the physical beauty of the shining brass tubes.
        Taking that further is this abstraction on the theme of the trumpet by D.S. Wade.  It’s a fairly large piece (30 inches) with a veritable rainbow of ink.  Like the trumpet itself, it’s bold, even brash.  Are the shapes around the sides valves, or quarter notes?
        To give ourselves a bit of historical depth, here’s a trumpeter by Jost Amman.  Clearly this trumpet is a somewhat different beast, much longer and without valves.  Some early trumpets were actually held together with cords, so while the flag hanging from this is obviously decorative, it may also be part of the cords holding the different segments together.  I would be greatly amused if the trumpets
in P’s band were adorned with flags… or if the trumpeters wore such fabulous hats!  (Though I can’t see P appreciating the fashion.)
        It appears that, unlike cellos, I have featured only one previous trumpet, a beautiful jazz one by Eric Hoffman, here.

[Pictures: Trumpet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
A Mazing Trumpet, reduction woodcut by D.S. Wade (Image from DSWade Artist);
Trumpeter, woodcut by Jost Amman possibly from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568 (Image from here).]

November 20, 2018

Turkey Time

        We have a flock of wild turkeys in the neighborhood, “living dangerously” as D says of them this time of year, although in fact I doubt many people in our suburban town would have the slightest idea how to get from a flock of large, intimidating birds to a Thanksgiving feast.  But if they won’t be gracing our tables, the wild turkeys do provide a touch of seasonal decor to the landscape.  The truth is that turkey has never been one of my favorite foods, so I’m just as happy to see them at the end of the street as on my holiday table.  And of course I’m happy to see them as block prints, too.  Their feathers don’t have spectacular color, despite some rich iridescence, but they do have wonderful patterns, which means they make great block prints.
        We start with Thomas Bewick, whose fine engraved details show the patterns of the feathers wonderfully.  The second wood engraving looks the most like our neighborhood birds, quite skinny.  I don’t know how much meat they actually have on them, but they really look more like dinosaurs than fat, friendly cartoon turkeys.  The final piece, by Wiktorya Gorynska, may be domestic turkeys.  The white one in particular looks more like a dinner turkey.  These are presumably both males, with their tails up, wings out, and feathers puffed for maximum glory.  The one in the foreground is the closest to what generations of American children have drawn by tracing around their hands and coloring with brown and orange.
        There are a total of 7 turkeys in this post, which is a pretty paltry flock.  Our local turkeys are usually in groups of one to two dozen, scraggling over several properties at a time as they make their leisurely way up the street.  They are generally all females, or perhaps females and juveniles, and while they are certainly not much fussed by the presence of people or cars trying to get past, they are also not very aggressive or troublesome.  I’m grateful to have them around, adding a little interest to our local wildlife, and while I’m not a vegetarian and have no objection to eating one of their cousins on Thursday, I wish them all the best.  And Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

[Pictures: Turkey, wood engraving by Thomas Bewick, presumably from A History of British Birds, 1797 (Image from Morris Library, SIUC);
The Turkey, wood engraving from The Illustrated Alphabet of Birds, 1851 (Image from Childrens Library);
Turkeys, wood block print by Wiktorya Gorynska, c 1929 (Image scanned from The New Woodcut, Malcolm C. Salaman, 1930).]

November 16, 2018

Upcoming Shows, Upcoming Prints

        Okay, it’s that time of year when, in lieu of creative thought, fascinating research, or deep philosophical wisdom, I just spend my time preparing for shows… so that’s what I’ll pass along to you today.
        Tomorrow:  the Village Fair at Needham Congregational Church.  On the plus side, in addition to artists, there’s a silent auction, a rummage sale with pretty nice stuff, and delicious home-made luncheon foods.  On the minus side, I have only one table and will be hard-pressed to display all my stuff.  But this is the place to get your holiday shopping done early!  More info here.
        December 1-2Gorse Mill Holiday Open Studios.  I’ll once again be in the most beautiful studio in the building (Maggie Schmidt’s), and will have a big display off all my stuff, open for two days.  There will also be a reception on Saturday evening.  This is the best place to see really amazing art of a variety of media.  More info here.
        December 8Winter Arts Festival at Needham Town Hall.  Thirty artists in the beautiful Powers Hall upstairs in the Town Hall, with music and dance performance for good measure.  You’ll still be in good time to score some great, unique Christmas gifts.  Shop local, support small businesses and the arts, and find one-of-a-kind treasures!  (Click on the flier for more details.)
        Also, even if you can’t make it to any of these shows, don’t hesitate to check out all the options on my web site and contact me for anything you Simply Must Have.
        Finally, lest you're worrying about my complete lack of creativity, I assure you that I have two blocks to carve this weekend, and they are the final two beasties for my alphabet of mythical creatures.  What do you think they’ll be?  Is the suspense killing you?  If the suspense doesn’t, the monsters might!  I never thought I’d actually complete this mythical alphabet, so I’m pretty excited.  You can see the progress so far here.  Plus, my mythical monster love is still not exhausted, and I’ve already started sketches for several more creatures to carve during my December shows.  So be sure to stay tuned — the block print and fantasy goodness is still going strong!

November 13, 2018

Cello Joy

        I had to take a cello in for minor repairs today, so I’ll make a virtue of it and share some cello relief block prints.  Most importantly the cello is beautiful to hear, but it’s beautiful to look at, too, so it’s easy to make lovely prints of such a lovely instrument.  First, my own, which I apparently haven’t posted before.  This is a portrait of a cello at rest, but only for a moment.  You don’t leave it propped on the chair like that unless you’re coming right back to play some more.
        Secondly, a design of the scrolls of a cello and a violin by Martha Briana.  This is a reduction print with lots of texture left in the various levels of inking.  There’s no denying that the scrolls of the entire violin family are very pleasing.

        And speaking of the entire family, this third piece is a four hundred year old wood block print of an early relative of the cello, from the book Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1571-1621).  Although it certainly looks a lot like a cello, it actually took a number of developments to get us from this instrument to the modern cello.  Perhaps the most evident difference in this image is that it has five strings!  It’s also got a lovely decorative tailpiece and endpin.
        Not until the final piece do we get to see someone playing.  Felix Vallotton (Switzerland/France, 1865-1925) has an amazing way of allowing all his shadowed areas to run together into vast areas of black.  I’m always suggesting to students (and myself) to consider that things show up best if they’re black on white or white on black, but here Vallotton has left his cello black on black with only minimal outlines.  I like how the lack of detail in most of the piece is
balanced by the detail of the small clock and decorative bureau handles.  I think the cellist looks like a proper intense Romantic, but his left hand’s fingers do look a little wobbly!
        Finally, if you still crave more relief block cello joy (and really, who wouldn’t?) you can revisit some previously-posted cello-themed pieces, notably these by Kunio Iizuka, Paul Beaver Arnold, Cyril Powers, and Ted Faiers.  Enjoy!

[Pictures: Cello, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009;
Violin and Cello Cuddle, reduction woodcut by Martha Briana (Image from Martha Briana’s web site);
Plate XXI from Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius, 1618 (Image from International Music Score Library Project);
Le Violoncelle, woodcut by Felix Vallotton, 1896 (Image from the Van Gogh Museum).]

November 9, 2018


        It’s fantasy poetry time, and here’s one by Vachel Lindsay (US, 1879-1931).  Lindsay was especially interested in poetry spoken and performed rather than read in silence off a still page, and this one is certainly written as if it records spoken, impromptu words.  Its subtitle is “What Grandpa told the Children.”
The moon?  It is a griffin’s egg,
Hatching tomorrow night.
And how the little boys will watch
With shouting and delight
To see him break the shell and stretch
And creep across the sky.
The boys will laugh.  The little girls,
I fear, may hide and cry.
Yet gentle will the griffin be,
Most decorous and fat,
And walk up to the milky way
And lap it like a cat.

        The gratuitous sexism jars me severely, but setting that aside as a product of its time, there are some really wonderful images in this piece.  I love the idea of the moon as some kind of mythical egg, but if I had thought of that myself, I wouldn’t have thought of a griffin, so that’s a bit of a twist in itself.  It’s also a griffin cub, really, and I picture the fat belly and overgrown paws of a puppy as it walks across the sky to lap up the spilled stars.  The last moon-griffin egg must have been laid yesterday, I guess, and won’t be ready to hatch until November 23.  Keep an eye out for it!

[Picture: Moon-griffin, photoshop design by AEGN from old, unidentified woodcuts.]

November 6, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part II)

        The most common way I use photographs is as research and reference, to check on the proportion of a head here, the shape of a leaf there, the curve of a shoulder, the pattern of a tile roof…  But sometimes I have a photograph that I want to turn directly into a block print, either because I really love the photograph, or because it is the direct inspiration for a block print idea.  My first point is that, unlike the photos I use just for reference, I use only my own photos for direct copying.  You can reread a previous post about Elizabeth Catlett’s use of a photo, where I discuss some of the issues involved in adapting someone else’s work.  What I want to discuss today are the aesthetic issues of transforming a photograph into a relief block print.
        Issue 1. In most cases I’m turning color into black and white.  So, black will probably be black, and white will probably be white, but what about all those other in-between colors?  Often their fate is determined not by their absolute value, but by how they compare to the colors around them.  A red flower against a yellow wall will be rendered as black, while the same red flower would be rendered as white if it were in front of a dark-leafed shrub.  Or take the case of the Eiffel Tower, where in fact the entire structure is painted the same color, but I’ve rendered some parts black and some parts white depending on their background, as suggested by my photograph.  The tricky part was the transition.
        Issue 2. I am not attempting photographic levels of detail in my block prints, so lots of a photograph’s details will need to be simplified.  The judgement is always which elements are essential and which are the bits that won’t be missed.  If there are ten of something, perhaps the image will be just as clear - or even clearer - with only six.  On the other hand, perhaps ten is an integral element, without which it just wouldn’t be right!  For my Boston Sand & Gravel Co., I’ve eliminated some of the structures in the foreground, and some of the words and signs.  Backgrounds especially can usually be simplified or even eliminated, and textures can often be simplified.  The ultimate goal is not to be faithful to the photo, but to make a good block print, which brings us to…
        Issue 3. I may be copying a photo, but that doesn’t mean I’m under any obligation to stick with elements I don’t want.  I get Artistic License to rearrange things, eliminate things, add things in, crop or expand, move things around or adjust their relative proportions, and so on.  Sometimes I leave everything pretty much just as the photo shows, as in the Stairway at the top, but other times I wield the artistic license and change things up.  In one of the pieces I carved during my last show, I worked from a photo I had taken back in 2000 in New York’s Chinatown.  You can see that my piece clearly copies the photo, but I did switch around some of the vegetables.  In the upper right I replaced some middling brown roots with pure black eggplants, and in the lower right I switched out some greens that were very similar to their neighbors for some nice dark spinach for greater variety.  I also changed a few prices, also for variety, and shifted the whole angle very slightly so that the vegetables showed their length a little more recognizably, instead of just their round ends.
        These Cormorants show some other types of editing from the original photo.  First, my piece is cropped in on just one area in the lower center of the photo.  I also cut some of the pilings right out, and moved others in from other parts of the photo.  And I added in two more cormorants lifted from other photos, because they weren’t present in this one.  Again, the goal is to make an appealing block print of cormorants, not to reproduce exactly a snapshot that in this case is not even a particularly good one. 
        So yes, I use photographs for many of my pieces, and find them very helpful indeed.  I also love taking photographs wherever I go, and you can revisit a previous post about how even if I never happen to use a photo directly for a block print, I think the practice helps keep the creative juices flowing.

[Pictures: Stairway in the Garden, wood block print by AEGN, 1998, photo by AEGN, 1995;
Eiffel Tower, rubber block print by AEGN, 2015, photo by AEGN, 2001;
February 15, 1999 - Boston Sand & Gravel, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999, photo by AEGN, 1999;
Market, rubber block print by AEGN, 2018, photo by AEGN, 2000;
Cormorants at the Old Pier, rubber block print by AEGN, 2011, photo by AEGN, 2001.]