August 21, 2019

Bestiary Progress Report

        The Kickstarter campaign for my mythical bestiary ended three and a half months ago, so here’s an update on what’s been happening since then:
        1. I completed the last few block prints, including the custom creatures designed for the highest-tier backers, and I worked on the writing, editing, proof-reading, finalizing, tweaking, and re-tweaking, as well as converting all the files to the CMYK color profile the printer requires.  So I was all finished with the content of the bestiary… until…
        2. I decided that I needed to add another creature (the wapaloosie), make a new author portrait, and sprinkle yet a few more little critters here and there (including this pyrallis.  What’s a pyrallis?  More here.)  So I finished up those blocks, and got them integrated into the layout, which required the writing of some new text and a certain amount of pushing and shoving in the notes pages.
        3. The next task was producing a pdf to the specifications required by the printer.  This was a new one for me.  I thought the whole point of a pdf was that it was a pdf, but no, only certain pdf formats will do for these guys.  Much frustration ensued, including calling in help from a couple of generous neighbors, and the third attempt was the charm.
        4. Once the cover and interior pdfs were uploaded and passed the automated check, there was a more in-depth check by the printer, followed by a digital proof for me to check.  I looked it over this morning and it seems good, so all that remains is to order a physical proof copy.  This will be when I confirm that colors are accurate and printing is sharp.  (Or, of course, discover that they are not okay, at which point I will have to redo some percentage of everything.  Needless to say, I hope it will not come to that.)
        5. Meanwhile, the magnets have arrived!  (Sets of mythical creature magnets were one of the pledge prizes in the Kickstarter campaign.  I’ll also be selling them at my upcoming shows.)  In order to keep the cost down, I ordered them in large sheets and have to cut them apart myself.  I’ve been doing a few at a time for a couple of weeks and I now have about 50 sheets cut, so I’m making progress.  I think they look good, and so does my daughter as an independent witness.
        I also need to start work on the calendars (another pledge prize) while I await my proof copy of the bestiary.  And to help educate and entertain you in the meantime, here’s a map of where the bestiary’s featured creatures hail from.  This map won't appear in the book, primarily because of the ambiguity of assigning locations to some of the beasts.  Should they be put in the place that tells stories about them, or in the place where the stories say they reside?  (Lots of cultures have stories of exotic creatures that live in other lands far distant.)  Where should they be pinpointed when their legends are widespread, or shifted over time?  What about creatures that don't come from this Earth at all?  Still, this map gives a general idea of their diversity: heavy on Europe and the Middle East, but a sprinkling across the rest of the globe.
        The beasts and I have been busy!

[Pictures: Dragonfly (Pyrallis), rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
Mythical creature magnets;
Map of creature locations.]

August 14, 2019

First Impressions of London

        William Caxton set up the first printing press in England in 1476 and got right to work with this edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  This leaf is displayed in the Museum of London (which, by the way, I highly recommend to anyone who gets a chance to visit).  The typeface, while not particularly legible to my modern eyes, is modelled on contemporary handwriting, and is quite beautiful.  For this piece, as the others featured today, I have no way of knowing who might have been responsible for the actual design and carving of any blocks.

        Four years later Caxton published The Chronicles of England, with this illustration of London.  Practices of the day being what they were, I suspect it is merely a generic city, rather than an attempt at accuracy.  The towers do not particularly resemble those of the White Tower of London, which would have been a major icon at the time, but perhaps they were considered close enough.  The image illustrates the mythical story of the founding of London by Brutus of Troy, and of course the city doesn’t look very Trojan or Roman in this picture, either.  Nevertheless, it’s a very pleasing little wood block print with its crowd of walls and windows and spires.  This particular sheet comes from an edition of 1497, printed by Caxton’s successor Wynkyn de Worde.
        This seventeenth century view of London is not any more recognizable, but to be fair, most of the London it depicts was wiped away by the fire it depicts.  The Great Fire of London was in 1666 and this image comes from 1651, courtesy of astrologer William Lilly and his book of predictions about the future of England.  He was far from the only one predicting a great fire, and I suspect that any reasonable person looking at the great heap of flammable material that was the City of London could surmise that it was only a matter of time.  Lilly, however, was famous enough for his prediction that after the Great Fire the Commons Committee investigating it called him in for questioning.  Pleading that he really had not known any details, he was released.  Far better to be deemed a poor astrologer than a successful arsonist.  All that’s tangential, however, to the charm of the wood block print, which really has
wonderful details, especially the ships on the Thames.  I include also my photo of the book as it’s displayed  in the Museum of London because I really like the pictures on the facing page, as well.  I have no information as to what they might foretell, although I’d guess that the dragon could represent Wales and the lion England.  Taking it at face value, however, it appears that a dragon once upon a time encountered a mole, and for reasons unknown they tied their tails together.  They subsequently separated, a lion came along, and they all lived happily ever after?  The picture of London burning seems a lot more literal of interpretation.
        I ran into plenty of other relief block prints in the various museums we visited, so it doesn't take an astrologer to foretell that more will appear here in time.

[Pictures: Page from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (“The Clerk’s Tale”), William Caxton, 1476;
London, wood block print from The Chronicles of England published by Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, 1497 edition;
Predicting the Great Fire, wood block print from Monarchy or No Monarchy by William Lilly, 1651 (Image from Museum of London; other photos taken by AEGN at the Museum of London).]

August 7, 2019

Impressions of London

        Today’s theme is block prints of London, and I’m sticking with the iconic sights.  This first one, by Abigail Daker, covers all the bases with all the famous skyline elements from St Pauls and Big Ben to the Gherkin and London Eye.  Everything’s stacked up cheek by jowl, not laid out the way it is in real life or any way you could possibly see it; it’s a London sundae.  I especially love the way the background is patterned.

        Big Ben returns in this second piece, by Katie Jo Heiner Shupe, along with some of London’s smaller icons: a telephone box and a double decker bus.  This one is capturing a particular specific scene.  I like the details of every stone of the sidewalk and the building framing the picture on the left, and the textured clouds in the sky.
        By contrast, here’s a piece with sparser lines and lots of white space depicting the Tower of London by Lance Duffin.  It may be simple, but it captures all the necessary details so that its subject is instantly recognizable.
        We couldn’t possibly depict London without the Underground, so here’s the Piccadilly Station entrance with its iconic round symbol, and the statue on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in the background.  Fun fact: although usually called Eros, the statue was originally intended to depict Anteros, Eros’s little brother and god of requited love.  As for the block print,  by John Gledhill, it’s especially interesting in not putting white outlines around the various black objects, including the posts flanking the underground entrance and the man’s suit and briefcase.

        And finally, a juxtaposition of old and new: St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge, by Susan Short.  This one has an interesting depiction of the shadow of the bridge’s cables falling across its pier and the Thames below, but perhaps the most interesting thing is that it’s printed on paper that has a subtle wood grain pattern.  This makes a lovely, pale, slightly rosy sky in the large blank area that emphasizes our low viewpoint.
        So, five cool views of the city of London, five artists, five different icons on which to focus, with different styles, different levels of detail and texture.  (It's also interesting that 4/5 are in vertical rather than "landscape" format.)  What fun!

[Pictures: Central London Skyline and Landmarks, linocut print by Abigail Daker (Image from the artist’s Etsy shop abidaker);
London, linocut print by Katie Jo Heiner Shupe (See the artist’s Etsy Shop BonVoyart);
Tower of London, linocut by Lance Duffin, 2018 (Image from Flickr);
Piccadilly III, linocut by John Gledhill, c 2014 (Image from the artist’s web site.)
St Pauls & Millenium Bridge, woodcut by Susan Short (Image from the artist’s web site.)]

July 31, 2019

Portrait of the Artist with Muses

        I had just declared myself finished with all the prints for my bestiary, when I decided that the image I was using for the author just wouldn’t cut it.  The thing is, it was originally intended as a portrait of another author, and a romance author at that, and I decided I wanted something more appropriate to this work.  I wanted something that reflected the artist/author observing and recording the marvelous creatures of the Realms of Imagination.  So, hmmm… A person surrounded by all manner of wild and wacky mythical creatures… What does that remind me of?  Why, the Temptation of St Anthony, of course!  Obviously I wouldn’t show demonic creatures attacking my human, but rather human and creatures regarding each other equally with curiosity and delight.
        If you go back to the previous post and look again at Schongauer’s famous “Temptation” you will see at once that I stole one of his monsters wholesale.  The fishy thing on the left is lifted with only minor modifications and placed in the same position in my block.  I did replace its arms with wings, and I gave it scales under the influence of Michelangelo’s copy of Schongauer’s work, but I just love its trumpet schnozz, its lugubrious eye and jowls, and its wild spikes.  Another of Schongauer’s monsters also contributed: the beast on the far right provided its head and wings, and the inspiration of its tail.  Again, I switched out its arms and instead gave it legs and a pot belly.  I also made its expression much more cheerful.
        Schongauer’s is not the only “Temptation” that tempted me, however.  The malacomorph on the tree branch has its snail shell as part of my running joke of sprinkling malacomorphs throughout the entire bestiary, but I was inspired by Cranach’s frill-faced beast in embellishing its head.  (The frill in my first sketches looked more like Cranach’s, but eventually got modified with a little touch of the weird frills on Schongauer’s bottom right
beast.)  And finally, my bottom right monster is copied from one at the lower left of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.  I thought it was, frankly, adorable.
        As for the “artist,” that’s a portrait of me, of course, wearing something that I hope is vaguely suggestive of a nineteenth century explorer’s khaki.
        I like to think that all these beasties are really not demons, but just misunderstood!

[Pictures: Portrait of the Artist, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019;
The Temptation of St Anthony (detail), painting by Hieronymus Bosch or a follower, c 1500-1516 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

July 24, 2019

Temptation of St Anthony

        Any exploration of European art history ends up providing a crash course in Catholic saints and their iconography.  Today we’re looking at the Temptation of St Anthony, and we’re looking at it because of the marvelous monsters featured therein.  According to the Golden Legend and other hagiographies, St Anthony had a number of run-ins with demons while he was hanging out in the desert.  He was tempted by demons in the form of beautiful women, tormented by demon attacks on the ground, and ambushed by demons in mid-air.  These various episodes, both separately and combined, all tend to be titled “The Temptation of St Anthony,” although I think the alternate titles “Trial” or “Tribulation” make more sense.  In any case, it was a popular subject in medieval and renaissance art.
        First up, the famous engraving by Martin Schongauer, which is probably both Schongauer’s most influential piece, and the most influential version of St  Anthony’s Temptation.  You can see why this theme would be popular: it’s just so much fun!  The demons are wacky, grotesque, dementedly creative, with
wings and horns and tails, spikes here, fur there, scales on the other… It’s not often an artist of serious religious themes gets to let his imagination run so wild.  And there’s Anthony, just looking resigned: “Oh bother.  Demons again.”
        With Schongauer’s image as our baseline, let’s get back to the wood block prints.  Lucas Cranach the Elder’s is not as appealing a composition with its frenetic cluttering, but a close look at the individual elements provides plenty of delight.  How about the bottom monster with the head of a boar, the wings of a beetle, and the hindquarters of a lizard?  What about the frill-faced beast in the center top that looks more like a smug cat than a terrifying demon?  That does, of course, lead me to wonder to what extent the artists did intend their monsters to be frightening.  Did original viewers enjoy these prints for the frisson of fear as people today enjoy horror movies?  Or did they, like me, find the creatures as wonderful and amusing as scary?
        This epic scene by Jan Wellens de Cock is one that includes many episodes from the saint’s life in a single image.  In the middle of the bottom Anthony is being visited by a lovely noblewoman whose true identity is betrayed by her clawed foot peeking out from the hem of her gown.  The mid-air demon attack is also portrayed, in the upper left quadrant, and throughout the picture strange little imps can be seen converging on poor Anthony.  (Don’t worry; he withstands them all!)  The level of detail is quite impressive and I love the wonderful scenery as well as the monsters.  My favorite creature is the strange flying thing in the far upper left.
        And finally a smaller wood block print by Hans Weiditz which was an illustration in a book rather than the larger ones above, which were printed as individual sheets.  Again, it’s pretty busy, but the various demons have a marvelous array of features, especially the one in the lower right with a clawed duckfoot, insect wings, an arrow-pointed tongue, and a furry face.  I can’t help being most taken by the creature in the upper left, however, who pauses in his temptation of Anthony to look thoughtfully out at the viewer.  Does the artist want it to be a little more sympathetic, or are we being reminded that not all devils appear so evil?
        You may be wondering what’s the significance of all these crazy monsters.   Frankly, cool wood block prints is significance enough, but as it happens, there’s more.  As someone who, unlike the medieval and renaissance audiences of these pieces, has no fear of actual monstrous demons, but who instead enjoys fantastical creatures, these are a treasure trove of strange and marvelous beasties.  I will share in a future post something I did under their hopefully-not-too-demonic inspiration.

[Pictures: The Temptation of Saint Anthony, engraving by Martin Schongauer, 1470-5 (Image from Art Institute of Chicago);
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1506 (Image from Art Institute of Chicago);
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, woodcut by Jan Wellens de Cock, 1522 (Image from National  Gallery of Art);
The temptation of St Antony, woodcut by Hans Weiditz, c 1520-5 (Image from The British Museum).]

July 17, 2019

Herrick's Hag

The Hag is astride,
This night for to ride;
The Devill and shee together:
Through thick, and through thin,
Now out, and then in,
Though ne’r so foule be the weather.

A Thorn or a Burr
She takes for a Spurre:
With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,
Through Brakes and through Bryars,
O’re Ditches, and Mires,
She followes the Spirit that guides now.

No Beast, for his food,
Dares now range the wood;
But husht in his laire he lies lurking:
While mischiefs, by these,
On Land and on Seas,
At noone of Night are working,

The storme will arise,
And trouble the skies;
This night, and more for the wonder,
The ghost from the Tomb
Affrighted shall come,
Cal’d out by the clap of the Thunder.

        Here’s a poem by Robert Herrick (UK, 1591-1674).  I’m no expert on Herrick, but I think this seems a little unusual for him, as he’s famous for poems celebrating the joy and beauty of both the English countryside and the English young women.  He is one of the foremost poets of the carpe diem genre, author of that most famous line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”  So how does a poem about a witch consorting with the devil at midnight fit into that?
        To me the tone of the poem evokes a rollicking song - I can imagine this set to foot-stomping music - that plays the fright for entertainment.  Such a galloping rhythm and rhyming couplets are now usually associated with comic poetry, and the images focus more on the wild ride than any specific evil the witch is committing.  But how was it intended and received in a world that still knew a very real and serious fear of witchcraft?  Witchcraft trials were at their peak in Europe during Herrick’s young adulthood.  When Herrick published this poem in 1648, self-proclaimed “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins had just been responsible for the executions of an estimated 300 accused witches in England between 1644-1647.
        So, was this poem intended as fantasy, or as warning of true perils?  I don’t know, but of course I’ve shared it today as a fantasy poem.  Read it aloud to enjoy the rhythm, and the phrases such as “a lash of a bramble” and “husht in his lair he lies lurking.”  I particularly like the idea of the demonic thunder frightening the ghost right out of its tomb.

[Pictures: Witch and Devil riding, wood block print from the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, c 1493 (Image from Cornell University (Shared Shelf Commons));
Matthew Hopkins Witch Finder Generall, wood block print from The Discovery of Witches by Hopkins, 1647 (Image from The British Museum).]

July 10, 2019

Nature at Work

        Here’s a cool illustration from a medieval French manuscript.  Don’t worry, this is not an image of animal abuse; it portrays Nature, personified as a woman, sculpting a bird on her anvil.  She has already created several other animals and birds and even a man, who will be brought to life by the divine breath when she’s finished making them.  I love that Nature is dressed so elegantly (if perhaps not very practically).  I love the beautiful blue sky and the details of the smith’s tools and forge.  I love the very plain, dull earth, as if Nature’s work is only just beginning.  I also appreciate that this personification of Nature is a woman, giving some recognition and scope for female power and creativity in a culture that didn’t usually allow much.  It’s a beautiful little painting, finely detailed, luxuriantly colored, and edged with shining gold illumination.
        The illustration appears in a French manuscript from about 1405, of Le Roman de la Rose, a poem about the art of courtly love.  The Romance of the Rose was one of the most widely read books of the middle ages, especially for a secular work.  I haven’t read it, so I can’t tell you anything about how our image of Nature fits into it, but it seems to come from the second section of the poem, wherein various allegorical personages hold forth on Love.  Just for fun, here’s also a wood block print of the same scene from an edition printed in 1503.  This Nature looks less aristocratic and more like a hard-working craftswoman as she hammers her little doll-like human.  However, it makes a good demonstration of why manuscript books were considered higher quality and higher prestige than early printed books: the hand-painted illustration is clearly a much more beautiful work of art than the rather crude wood block print.

[Pictures: Personification of Nature making a bird, painting by anonymous artist from Le Roman de la Rose, 1405 (Image from The J. Paul Getty Museum);
Personification of Nature making a man, wood block print by anonymous artist from Le Roman de la Rose, 1503 (Image from Digital Library of Medieval Manuscripts).]

July 3, 2019

Apple Pie and Chow Mein

        In honor of July Fourth, let’s have a look at Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s illustrations for Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet S. Wong (2002).  Chodos-Irvine uses a variety of printmaking techniques, most of which fall into the collagraph category.  What she does differently from the collagraphs I’ve featured before, however, is to print in multiple layers with multiple “blocks” for multiple colors.  You can see how the various cut-out shapes build up the picture, not minding that they don’t fit together precisely, and how the textured patterns are printed on top of solids.  Chodos-Irvine is known for the bright, bold colors and textures of her illustrations, which come from using all manner of textured materials which she collects.  She particularly went to town with the textures and patterns in her Caldecott Honor-Winning Ella Sarah Gets Dressed (mentioned in my previous post on print-illustrated Caldecott books.)
        Chodos-Irvine has a web site with some pictures and explanations of her process and her inspirations.  (Step-by-step creation of a piece here.)  Check it out if you want to see more.  You can see that she works very messily!  This is not so surprising when she’s using so many sorts of different materials and inks at once.  She lists some forty materials that she has used in printmaking, including posterboard, textured vinyl, paper doilies, corrugated cardboard, ribbon, styrofoam…  In other words, anything you can ink up and press is fair game.  She clearly has fun with it.  Indeed, she says, “If you are going to be illustrating children’s books, you might as well be smiling, right?”
        Of course I picked today to feature Chodos-Irvine because of the July Fourth connection with the book.  It’s about a girl who doesn’t think people will want to eat Chinese food on the 4th of July - only apple pie.  But of course they do want Chinese food.  The book doesn’t preach, but I’m going to: July 4th is when we celebrate the United States of America, and you cannot, simply cannot, celebrate all that the USA has been, has stood for, and can be, without also celebrating all the immigrants of which we are composed.  (Besides, Chinese food is yummy every day of the year!)
        To those who will be celebrating tomorrow, Happy Independence Day, and remember as you cheer the fireworks and parades, that what makes America great is not hatred, oppression, and exclusion, but the possibility of an American Dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.  The prouder we are of that ideal, the harder we have to work to make it true.

[Pictures: Chow mein in our kitchen, collagraph by Margaret Chodos-Irvine from Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet S. Wong, 2002;
printmaking materials, photos by Chodos-Irving, 2013;
Soda and potato chips, collagraph by Chodos-Irvine from Apple Pie 4th of July, 2002;
Fireworks show, collagraph by Chodos-Irvine from Apple Pie 4th of July, 2002 (Images from Margaret]

June 28, 2019

Words of the Month - Pluralia Tantum

        A plurale tantum is a word that, grammatically, appears only in the plural form and never (or, if you’re being less precise in the definition, very seldom) in the singular.  (Plurale tantum is Latin for “plural only” and its plural is pluralia tantum.)  In English, pluralia tantum are often things that occur only in sets, such as eyeglasses, or things that are always a collective, such as suds.  Still, there really isn’t any logical reason why the grammar should have to work this way.  For example, you could certainly say to the person washing dishes, “Oh, you got a sud on your nose!”  Logically this makes perfect sense, but in English it is perceived as being a humorous “error” for effect.  (See a previous post on similar linguistic humor a lá P.G. Wodehouse.)
        You can give thanks, or say “You have my thanks,” but you cannot give a single thank, even though clearly it is possible to thank someone a single time.  Or take riches.  You cannot have a single rich.  On the other hand, you can have wealth in singular only, and not many wealths.  (A word that can be grammatically single only, usually a mass noun, is a singulare tantum.)  There’s clearly no logic there.  Besides, different languages choose different words to treat this way, proving that there’s nothing intrinsic or inevitable about English’s selection.
        Other examples of pluralia tantum include alms, blues, clothes, electronics, feces, graffiti, heebie-jeebies, heroics, hysterics, knickers, kudos, news, odds, outskirts, remains, spaghettisurroundings, and tenterhooks.  To test them out, try “Mary has lots of electronics, but Joe has only one electronic,” or “Can you believe he came to the door wearing only a clothe?” or “They lived on the northern outskirt of town,” or “Billie sang the blues, but Ethel sang only a blue or two before she quit.”
        Words that are pluralia tantum in normal conversation but which can have exceptions include trousers, pants, jeans, pajamas, and scissors.  I have seen stores advertising
“The perfect trouser for spring,” which always looks stupid and pretentious to me, but clearly works in the fashion industry.  And I would never refer to a single scissor, but I have seen it done, alas.  Amazon, for example, will sell you an 8-inch Scotch Precision Scissor.
        There are also plenty of words that are pluralia tantum in one definition, but normal in another.  Glasses is a case in point.  You can have one glass, but never for your eyesight.  Likewise, you can witness a single spectacle, but again, never for your eyesight.  You can have brains, but if you have a single brain, well… duh.
        Reggie says, “Igor sure has a lot of brains!”
        “Smart, is he?” asks Gladys.
        “No, I mean in jars.  Shelves and shelves of them.”  And this is why it’s important to know your pluralia tantum.
[Pictures: Rub-a-dub-dub, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002;
Princess Zita, linocut by Julia Forsyth, 2017 (Image from JuliaForsythArt on Flickr).]