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

Moon-Griffin

        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.]

November 3, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part I)

        At my last show someone asked me, “I hope you won’t be offended, but do you ever work from photographs?”  The idea that I might be offended by the suggestion is sort of a funny one.  I consider working with the aid of photographs to be essential research into my subject.  Yes, I know that there has been a certain snobbery that a true artist needs no such aids.  That must be related to the idea that Renaissance artists were somehow “cheating” if they used a camera obscura, as if bringing some ingenuity to bear on a problem is genius, but bringing all your ingenuity makes it too easy or something.  But I never went to art school and was never trained to be a “true artist” anyway, so I’m going to set any judgments aside and simply describe some of the ways in which I do use photographs.
        First of all, whenever I’m planning to make a print of a real plant or animal, I gather lots of reference photos that show my subject from the angle I’m thinking of depicting it, as well as lots of other angles.  For example, if I’m doing a cat I might have photos to help with the pose, and photos for inspiration with the fur pattern, and photos to help with the face, and maybe additional photos for a detail of a paw or some other specific element about which I’m not quite sure.  I use photos of my own whenever possible, and I do use sketches from life when my own cat cooperates, but I supplement with a variety of photos from the internet to add to the research.  In these cases I’m not copying any single photo, but I’m certainly using the photographs to teach me details of what my subject looks like in real life.  Otherwise, how could I possibly know the proportions, or the way the joints bend in a particular position, or any of the other details I crave for accuracy?  Block printing often simplifies elements, but that makes it all the more vital that I start with the way things really look so that I can decide what to modify.  In this picture of a woodpecker, for example, I had some photos of birds on my feeder, but found additional photos that showed the bits that were obscured in my photos, as well as pictures of tree trunks with interesting bark.
        Even when I’m making a fantasy scene, I collect photos to help.  After all, nothing is really entirely new; it’s always composed of elements or analogies with real things.  I collect photos of trees for the forest setting, or lions’ paws for the feet, or birds’ or bats’ wings, or flames, and so on.  When I’m depicting a mythical creature with a long history, I do lots of research into how it’s been portrayed before, so that I can find the right balance between making my version “accurate” to its roots, and yet not too boringly generic.  How could I possibly know whether I was doing something new, if I didn’t know what had been done before?  Again, the idea is not to copy any one photograph exactly, but rather to use the photographs as research.  In the picture of the hercinia, for example, I looked at photos of birds to help get the flight right (I believe I ended up using pictures of terns for the basic shape), and lots of pictures of old growth European forests to get ideas for trees, mushrooms, fallen branches, and so on.  (Those pictures were mostly of the Schwartzwald in Germany and Bialowieza National Park in Poland.)  If you were to go searching on the internet for photographs of those forests you could probably recognize a tree here and a branch there, but you would not find any scene exactly like the forest through which my hercinia, which is not exactly a tern, flies.
        So that’s one way of using photographs, but perhaps that’s not what people are thinking of when they say “working from photographs.”  Tune in next post to find out about when I do, in fact, copy a photograph directly.

[Pictures: Downy Woodpecker, rubber block print with watercolor by AEGN, 2006;
Feathers to Light the Way, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]