March 29, 2016

Words of the Month - First Impressions

        Printmaking hasn’t left its mark only in the world of art.  There are quite a few words, too, that come from print-related roots.

print - The first meaning (c. 1300 from French) was the mark or impression made by a stamp or seal - in other words, relief printmaking.  From there we gradually turned it into a verb, and simultaneously expanded the meaning to include printing on a press, handwriting in imitation of press-printed typography, making copies of photographs, and so on.

press - Ultimately from Latin, the word describes all sorts of things that exert force, including crowds as well as machines for squeezing clothes, grapes, cheese, unfortunate people, and so on.  The printing press came to England in 1476, and from there we developed the meanings of journalism and journalists.  There are many words that include the root press and have come to express a wide variety of figurative senses.
     express - (late 14th century) to press or squeeze out one’s thoughts or vision
     depress - to force or push down, first physically (and politically, early 14th c) and later emotionally (1620s)
     suppress, oppress, repress - all along the lines of squashing things into powerlessness
     impress - (late 14th century) to stamp deeply on the mind
And from there we also get impressionable, and impressive.
     pressing - urgent, exerting force or pressure
     espresso - borrowed from Italian later, of course (1945), but it’s coffee made with steam pressure.  (No printmaking there.)

stereotype - (1798) a method of printing from a solid plate, and from there an image reproduced without change.  You can see the connection to the figurative sense of a preconceived and oversimplified image of a particular group of people, which was first recorded in 1922.

cliché - (1825) derived from the French for “click,” this was the printer’s jargon for the printing block used in stereotyping.  It came to have a figurative sense of something reused over and over without originality, first recorded in 1888.
        Those last two reveal a rather unflattering view of printmaking: the mindless reproduction aspect of it.  When I’m printing I hope to be less clichéd and more expressive - and maybe even make an impression on someone!

[Pictures: Printing Press, wood engraving by Carl Montford (Image from Davidson Galleries);
A Koenig-type cylindrical press manufactured by Applegath and Cowper, early nineteenth century (Image from;
Printing Press, wood block print of the German school, 15th century (Image from]

March 25, 2016

Mythical M

        The letter M brings us to the midpoint of the mythical alphabet, and provides a nice selection of creatures from all around the world.  There are a nice mix of wood block prints to illustrate them, too, both ancient and modern, both serious and whimsical.

manticore - A fearsome monster with the body of a red lion, the head of a man, and three rows of sharp teeth.  It may have a tail like a dragon or a scorpion, it occasionally has bat wings, and sometimes it can shoot venomous spines.  But all accounts agree that it devours humans viciously, leaving nothing behind.  (Persian)

merfolk - Mer people are humanoid from the waist up, with fish tails from the waist down.  Generally the mermaids are said to be beautiful, with long flowing hair, while the mermen don't get mentioned nearly as often.  Sometimes mermaids act as sirens, luring sailors onto
reefs or causing storms, while sometimes they rescue the victims of shipwrecks.  Cultures all around the world have aquatic humanoids, though not all have fish tails.  See here for a Japanese mermaid.  (Universal)

makara - Another creature with piscine hind parts, but usually with the front half of a deer, crocodile, or elephant.  There are many variations in form, sometimes even with peacock tails, but they are often guardians of gateways or thresholds.  They often also serve as mounts for Hindu gods and goddesses, especially Ganga and Varuna.  (Hindu)

Minotaur - In Greek mythology the Minotaur is not a species but a single monster, the offspring of a bull and a human woman.  Oddly, he fed on meat, and his step-father Minos kept him in the original labyrinth and sent in human sacrifices for him to eat, until he was killed by Theseus.  Now you may encounter other minotaurs elsewhere in fantasy.  (ancient Greek)

mušḫuššu - Also known as a sirrush, a dragonoid with feline forelegs, eagle-esque hind legs, and horns.  Previous post (and picture) here.  (Akkadian)

mokele-mbembe - A cryptid swamp monster of the Congo River area, which looks like a small sauropod.  The name means “one who stops the flow of rivers” in Lingala.  (Bantu)

Menehune - Similar to dwarfs, Menehune are small humanoids who are exceptional craftspeople and built lots of stuff on the Hawaiian islands before humans from Polynesia populated the islands.  Their favorite foods are bananas and fish.  (Hawaiian)

monopod - Humanoids who have only one leg and a very large foot.  They leap about quite nimbly, but sometimes in the heat of the day they lie on their backs and hold up their foot as a parasol.  According to the Greeks and Romans, they live in India.  (ancient Greek)

[Pictures:  And Japheth played the big bass drum (Manticore), wood block print by Ed Emberly from One Wide River to Cross, 1967;
Mermaids, engraving from Le Imagini De gli Dei by Vincenzo Cartari Reggiano, 1624 (Image from Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek);
Sea Life, woodcut by Bernard Lodge (Image from Bernard Lodge Moonfruit);
Picasso (Repentant Minotaur), woodcut by Christopher Gonzales-Aden, 2000 (Image from Christopher Gonzales-Aden);
Monopod (Umbrella Foot), woodcut by Hartmann Schedel from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Manticore, wood block print from The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes by Edward Topsell, 1607, (Image from Internet Archive).]

March 22, 2016

Wood and Water

        Today is World Water Day, when we’re encouraged to consider the importance of clean water and the issues around its availability and distribution, and our use of it.  This makes a good excuse to feature two wood block prints featuring scenes of water.  These are both by British artists who embraced color wood block printing between the two world wars.  Having borrowed inspiration and techniques from Japanese wood block prints, these artists produced work with a completely British feel.
        I really love this waterfall by Mabel Royds (English,1874-1941).  It’s clearly been made from several blocks, but in addition a least one of the blocks has been inked with multiple colors in gradation to make the grey-to-blue rocks.  I love the close-up framing on the water.  It looks cool, refreshing, and appropriately life-giving for World Water Day.
        This stream by Eric Slater (English, 1896-1963) looks to be made with an even more Japanese technique, but it has a distinctive style of breaking the image into areas of relatively flat color, almost like a paint-by-number.  The low contrast between all the different yellowy greens give this scene a warm look as of one of those very still humid summer days.  This is not a fresh, cold mountain stream, but an unhurried meadow stream.
        Never take water for granted.

[Pictures: The Waterfall, color wood block print by Mabel Royds, c 1938 (Image from National Galleries Scotland);
Stream, color wood block print by Eric Slater, between 1926-38 (Image from Modern Printmakers).]

March 18, 2016

Mythical L

        Welcome to another episode of Mythical Creatures, where we celebrate the strange and wonderful magical beasts who inhabit our world beyond the realms of mere fact.  Today’s creatures are brought to you by the letter L, and in acknowledgement of St Patrick’s Day, we’ll begin with

leprechaun - the stereotypical Irish fairy, a small bearded personage who lives a solitary life as a cobbler, but delights in playing practical jokes on humans.  Humans often attempt to capture leprechauns, because they may bargain for their freedom by granting wishes or paying ransom from their hoard of gold hidden at the end of a rainbow.  In the past century leprechauns have updated and standardized their look.  They used to wear red, but now wear exclusively green; they used to wear a variety of hats and coat styles, but now invariably wear something like a green top hat with a buckle.  They appear in all manner of tales from sugar cereal commercials to horror movies.  A fairly traditional depiction is “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” the Disney movie based on books by Herminie Templeton Kavanagh, which I have not read.  An interesting new depiction is the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer.  (And don’t forget about the wild ape-leprechauns of Borneo!)  (Irish)

lindworm - a dragonoid that is usually wingless, and either limbless or with only front legs.  It’s venomous rather than fire-breathing.  Many of the dragons in older Germanic/Norse mythology can be classified as lindworms, including Fáfnir, Jörmungandr, and the Lambton Worm.  (northern European)

llamhigyn y dwr - Also known as the Water Leaper, this strange creature is like a giant frog with no legs, bat wings, and a long tail with a stinger tip.  It skips across the water and wreaks all kinds of evil up to and including devouring fishermen.  In addition to the stinger, it can stun prey with a horrible screech before dragging it into the depths.  I’d never heard of this one before, and am quite delighted to have discovered it!  (Welsh)

leshy - a forest protector, this is usually a large humanoid with long hair and beard of growing plants, but leshies (Russian plural leshiye) can shapeshift into any plant or animal form.  They are often accompanied by wolves or bears.  They can be harmful to travellers by leading them from their way or playing tricks on them, but they can also be helpful by protecting herds from straying into the forest, or even teaching humans the secrets of magic.  (Slavic)

lylit - Also known as a leaf baby, the lylit is a small jungle creature with very large, round emerald green eyes.  Its forelimbs are wings, like a bat but retaining a thumb and two long fingers at the wrist, and like a bat it eats insects.  The tail is long and furry and usually curled in a tight spiral when the lylit is perched.  Their fur is greenish and changes in tone from pale lichen-grey to dark forest green depending on mood or for camouflage.  Lylits have no voice, but can share mental images with anyone whom they trust, so that they can communicate in pictures.  (from the Otherworld series by AEGN)

long or lung - Chinese dragon, longer description here  (Chinese)

leviathan - biggest sea monster ever, previous post here  (Jewish)

[Pictures: The Lupracaun or Fairy Shoemaker, illustration by Warwick Goble from The Book of Fairy Poetry edited by Dora Owen, 1920 (Image from Internet Archive);
The Bride & the Lindorm, illustration by Henry Justice Ford from The Pink Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang, 1897 (Image from MonsterBrains);
Lylit, drawing by AEGN, 2016;
Chinese Dragon, linoleum block print by Ruth Hayes, 2014 (Image from her Etsy shop ruthsartwork).]

March 15, 2016

Rainy Day

        March is behaving properly today with a steady, chilly rain, so I’m celebrating with this relief block print of another rainy day.  I don’t have much information about this one, but I’m guessing late 1920’s and linoleum.  The artist is Robert Bonfils (French, 1886-1972), not to be confused with an American Robert Bonfils who painted many trashy pulp paperback covers around the 1960’s.  Our Bonfils had this piece featured in The New Woodcut compiled by Malcolm C. Salaman in 1930, so he was clearly sufficiently prominent in the fine art establishment to be recognized in that book.
        I like the funny perspective, where the street seems to be arced over the top of a hill.  I like the suggestion of reflection at the people’s feet, making the ground look wet - in fact the street looks streaming.  The two women seem to be having an unpleasant time of it, one hunched against the rain, the other with her skirt blowing and her umbrella closed, presumably due to the wind - this piece is entitled “The Storm.”  The man, however, looks quite insouciant.  He might almost break out singin’ and dancin’ in the rain.  (Interestingly, the song “Singin’ in the Rain” by Freed and Brown was published in 1929, written somewhere right around the same time as this piece was made, despite not becoming popularized in the movie of the same name until 1952.)
        Personally, I’m happy enough to stay inside today, and get my rain at second hand, transformed through art from dreariness to beauty.

[Picture: L’Orage, relief block print by Robert Bonfils, c 1920’s (Image from The New Woodcut, Malcolm C. Salaman, 1930)]

March 11, 2016

Mythical K

        It’s time for some more fantasy poetry, so today you get another selection of mythical creatures and a bonus poem while we’re at it.  I don’t say it’s the finest poem ever written, but it’s got some evocative images, so go ahead and Unleash the Kraken!  (But first, Unleash the Kelpie!)

kelpie - a malevolent water spirit whose usual form is that of a black horse.  It can shapeshift to the form of a person, though sometimes retains its hooves in human form, and in equine form it can stretch long enough to hold as many people (often children) as it can lure onto its back.  It drowns its victims, of course.  (Scottish)

kappa - another water spirit, this one the size of a child, with scaly skin, webbed hands and feet, and a turtle beak and shell.  Its most interesting feature is the shallow bowl in the top of its head which must be kept filled with water at all times.  In fact, if you’re ever attacked by a kappa, your best defense is to try to trick it into spilling the water from its bowl, for example, by bowing deeply to it so that it bows back.  Kappas’ favorite food is cucumbers.  (Japanese)

kasa-obake - a tsukumogami in the form of a (usually) closed umbrella with one leg, one eye, and a long tongue.  They may haunt rainy forests or inhabit haunted houses, or even blow unwary people into the air, but are generally considered mischievous rather than truly evil.  (Japanese)

knucker - a water dragon that lives in a deep pool fed by underground springs on the Sussex plains.  These pools are called knucker holes and are clear, bottomless, and always the same temperature.  Knuckers are extremely venomous, and their behavior is generally that of a stereotypical medieval dragon, rampaging about devouring livestock and villagers, and getting themselves slain by brave knights and wily farmers.  (English)

kobold - another small humanoid of the dwarf or goblin type, there are three varieties of kobold: those who live in households like brownies, those who live on ships, and those who live in caves and mines.  Their appearance can vary; usually they’re invisible, but sometimes they can appear in the form of flame.  (German)

krampus - demonic companion/counterpart to Saint Nicholas, previous post here  (German)

kraken - There has been much confusion over the nature of the kraken, which was originally described in Scandinavian accounts as something like a whale or crab, but is now usually understood to be a giant cephalopod.  It has also been conflated with the leviathan, as in this 1830 irregular sonnet by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
            Below the thunders of the upper deep;
            Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
            His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
            The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
            About his shadowy sides; above him swell
            Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
            And far away into the sickly light,
            From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
            Unnumber'd and enormous polypi
            Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
            There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
            Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
            Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
            Then once by man and angels to be seen,
            In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

        By the way, if you think there’s a strange preponderance of K creatures associated with water, just wait until we get to N!

[Pictures: Kelpie, linocut by Sarah Young (Image from Sarah Young);
Kappa, wood block print by Hokusai, 1815 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Hafgufa (= kraken) detail from the "Carta Marina" by Olaus Magnus, woodcut, 1539  (Image from Uppsala University);
The Kraken, linocut by Joe Hodnicki (Image from his Etsy shop SHARINGtheSTOKE).]

March 8, 2016

Mythical J

        J is a strange letter in the history of English, having begun as a mere variant of I without any sound of its own.  We borrowed the idea of using J for words such as judge from French (but note that the second “j” sound in “judge” is spelled the original English way.)  Not until the seventeenth century were I and J clearly distinguished.  J remains one of the least common letters in English,
beating out only Z, Q, and X, although as a first letter it may also beat K and Y.  At any rate, you’d think there wouldn’t be too many mythical creatures beginning with J, but I’ve got a nice selection for you today from around the world.

jabberwock and jubjub bird - These two, discovered by Lewis Carroll, benefit from the fact that J is intrinsically funny.  More on the jabberwock here.  The jubjub isn’t described in the Jabberwocky poem, except that we must beware it, but in The Hunting of the Snark we are told that it lives in a perpetual passion, wears costume that’s ages ahead of the fashion, refuses to look at a bribe, and stands at the door of charity meetings to collect.  (Victorian English)

jaculus - Also known as the javelin snake, this small dragonoid lurks in trees and launches itself at its prey as if it were shot by a catapult.  It’s the impact that kills the victim.  The jaculus usually has wings and sometimes front legs.  (ancient Greek)

jidra - A vegetable monster, growing from the ground like a plant but eating anything that comes within its reach.  It can be killed only by destroying its roots.  What I don’t have much information on is what it looks like.  Is it a beast with an umbilical stem like the vegetable lamb?  Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors”?  A hydra-like vine?  I wish I had more information about this one.  (Middle Eastern)

jian - another creature for which I have only a snippet of intriguing information.  The jian is a bird, but each one has only one eye and one wing, so a pair of the creatures are inseparably dependent on each other.  (Chinese)

Jörmungandr - a cross between leviathan and ouroboros, Jörmungandr is a sea serpent so large that he encircles the earth and clasps his tail in his mouth.  He won’t let go until Ragnarök, the end of the world, at which point *spoiler alert* he and Thor will kill each other.  (ancient Norse)

        Two other J animals I’ve discussed before are 
jasconius - a fish the size of an island, more here (medieval European)

jackalope - rabbit with horns, more here (20th century North American)

[Pictures: The Jubjub Bird, illustration by John Vernon Lord, 2006, for The Hunting Of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (Image from John Vernon Lord);
The Jubjub Bird, illustration by David Elliot, 2006(?) (Image from David Elliot);
Jaculus, illumination from an English bestiary (Bibliothéque Nationale de France lat. 3630), 3rd quarter of 13th century;
Jaculus, illumination from a French bestiary (Bibliothéque Nationale de France lat. 6838B), 13th century (Images from The Medieval Bestiary);
Jörmungandr, based on a linocut by End Wares (Image from End Wares).]

March 4, 2016

What's New in the Studio - Other Stuff

        I’m super busy right now with two big projects that are neither block printing nor juvenile fantasy, alas, but I’ll share them because I don’t have the energy to switch gears.  Most urgent is a set of banners that we hope will be approved to hang in the center of town for Needham Open Studios.  This is a frantic scramble to get designs (and money!) put together in time to submit on Monday.  Here’s the design idea I really liked, showing the process and the finished art.  We won’t be using this design concept because we decided it was too complicated to show up well, but I thought I’d share it here, at least.  [Actually, in the end we did use something very like this for half the banners.]
        The second project is more interesting.  It’s illustrations for a book about children’s Quaker meeting for business.  At first I was thinking of using block printing, but I couldn’t make that idea work, so now I’m working with a collage/mixed media/digital approach inspired in part by Ezra Jack Keats.
There are some interesting challenges in this project, from the mundane - how to make the pictures interesting and different when they’re essentially all just children sitting around a table together, to the spiritual - how to show visually that there really can be a divine spirit at work among gathered children.  Here’s a first two page spread for that project.  (No divine spirit in evidence yet, but I have a plan I’m experimenting with…)  [Post about the launch of the finished book here!]
        And the final thing that’s new in the studio?  My keyboard’s space bar isn’t working.  Like trying to do math without the zero, writing gets much more frustrating without spaces!

[Pictures: Mock-up of a banner for Needham Open Studios, AEGN, 2016;
Draft of an illustration, collage and digital manipulation by AEGN for Approved! by Nancy Haines, 2016.]

March 1, 2016

Dufy's Animals

        Raoul Dufy (French, 1877-1953) was a painter who experimented with various schools of modern art, especially Fauvism.  I confess to finding his paintings utterly uninspiring.  However, I recently discovered his wood block prints, which I find much more pleasing.  In 1911 he illustrated a bestiary by Guillaume Apollinaire with a series of thirty wood block prints.  Here are some of my favorites.
        First, this insect.  It’s called a housefly, although it doesn’t look much like one to me.  Still, I just love its composition, with stained glass wings and flowers all around it.  Although the fly is on a white background, around the edges of the block it morphs to a black background, giving it a lovely balance of light and dark, with the center illuminated.
        Next is the rabbit, rather small and camouflaged itself, but resting in a charming countryside.  The caterpillar is quite adorable, with its innocent eyes, mouth nuzzled up to a leaf, and embracing another leaf in its curl.  At the four corners are little foreshadowing butterflies.
        The crayfish is another laid out decoratively rather than depicted within a scene.  I suppose the fine, frondy plants are some sort of water weeds.  Dufy has managed to make this crayfish look rather delicate, despite his bold carving style.  Once again I find the switch from white background to black very effective.  I should do that more often myself.
        Apollinaire’s carp is celebrated for its longevity, and there was a Japanese koi said to have lived 225 years.  Dufy, however, has turned the fish into a fountain, thus ensuring that it can last even longer despite being out of the water.  I like the stately home and garden around the edges of the ornamental pool, suggested with just a few rough lines, but perfectly clear.
        Finally a very elegant peacock, artfully arranged with pillar, urn, balustrade and leaves filling in the corners of the triangle.

[Pictures: LaMouche, wood block print by Raoul Dufy, 1911, from Le Bestiaire ou Cortége d’Orphée by Guillaume Apollinaire (1918 edition);
Le Lapis, wood block print by Dufy from Le Bestiaire by Apollinaire;
La Chenille, wood block print by Dufy from Le Bestiaire by Apollinaire;
L’Écrivisse, wood block print by Dufy from Le Bestiaire by Apollinaire;
La Carp, wood block print by Dufy from Le Bestiaire by Apollinaire;
Le Paon, wood block print by Dufy from Le Bestiaire by Apollinaire (Images from University of Wisconsin, digitized by Google, here).]