July 28, 2017

Words of the Month - From the Stars

        In honor of next month’s upcoming solar eclipse, I have some words for you that come from the sun and other stars.  Of course there are all the scientific words including Greek and Latin roots  helios, sol, aster, and stella, such as parhelion, solar, solstice, stellar, asteroid, astronomy, astronaut, and constellation.  But today I want to share some words that you might not have associated with the stars.
        First, a few where the root is still fairly clear:
helium - “sun’s element”, first detected in the solar spectrum during an eclipse in 1868
parasol - “defense against the sun”
starling - starred bird
heliotrope - flower that “turns to the sun”

Let’s continue with the botanical theme:
girasole - flower that “turns to the sun” from Latin roots instead of heliotrope’s Greek.  This is an archaic word for the sunflower in English, borrowed from Italian.  I’ve never heard it used, although perhaps it remains in some dialects.  However, it does live on in the Jerusalem artichoke, whose “jerusalem” is actually a folk etymology, a reinterpretation by others who weren’t familiar with the word girasole, either.
aster - flower shaped like a star

asterisk - “small star”, also pretty obvious when you think about it

        Here are a couple of words in which the sun and stars are much better hidden:
south - “sun-side” (in the northern hemisphere, anyway)
disaster - “ill-starred”

        And finally, two bonus words whose etymologies are disputed.  They may come from astrology:
desire - “from the stars”, with the sense of awaiting what the stars have in store for us
consider - “to observe the stars”, with the sense of study and contemplation
        … or then again, they may come from a different root with a sense of “stretching or extending”.  Just like the stars themselves, word origins are a long way off, and possible to study only from the faint signals that have made it all the way to us.

[Pictures: Solar eclipse, wood block print from Vberrimum sphere mundi by Johannes de Sacro Bosco, 1498 (Image from Indiana University);
Calendar of eclipses, wood block printing from Calendar by Regiomantanus, printed by Erhard Ratdolt, 1582 (Image from University of Glasgow);
De Eclypsi Solis, wood block print from an unspecified book on the Venerable Saint Bede, 17th century (Image from University of South Carolina).]

July 25, 2017


        I’ve been printing up a storm recently, and everything was going smoothly until we actually had a beautiful, perfect day after two weeks of hideously muggy, humid weather.  And suddenly my printing was a disaster.  I’ve always been aware that when I teach classes in highly air conditioned schools or conference rooms, it’s difficult to keep the ink from drying out too quickly, but I had never before seen the effect so clearly when printing at home.  Luckily for my printing spree (although unfortunately for the rest of life) the next day it rained all day and I was able to redo my printing efforts with better results.  In future I may have to make a point of checking the humidity in the weather forecast when planning when to undertake major printing efforts.
        In any event, here’s one of the pieces I printed.  It’s just a fun little thing, nothing too ambitious because I began it during my class last week and was working on it only intermittently when no students needed assistance.  It’s a wyvern, which is a two-legged, winged dragon.  (Introductory definition here.)  As usual when doing mythical creatures, I wanted to show my wyvern a little differently from how they’re usually seen, and this time I took that idea rather literally.  Wyverns are common in heraldry, but my wyvern is too curious to stay confined to a coat of arms.  He wants to get out and stretch his wings, see the world, seek his fortune, and find adventure.  I just hope he doesn’t cause too much trouble along the way!

[Picture: Freedom, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 21, 2017

Student White Line Prints

        Last summer I did a couple of posts about the Provincetown white-line style of block prints, because I was planning to have my students give it a try in my summer printmaking class.  You can refresh your memory in the post about the style, and the post on my own attempts at the technique.  But I never did post any student work because that year’s class were meticulous workers and ran out of time before we got to the project.  But this year’s group got to try it, and they did a great job with it.
        The work I’ve posted here today was done by kids going into fifth and seventh grade (although the whole class had students going into 5-9).  I explained that they needed to think about making a design like a coloring book: just outlines around areas, with no areas too big or too tiny, and no need to think about black and white or texture.  Although this was a bit of an adjustment from how I’d been trying to get them to think about all their other block print designs all week, it is a fairly natural, easy way for them to think of designs, so in the end they probably did better with it than I do!
        Like the one sample I had done last summer, these designs were carved into rubber and colored with markers, which works reasonably well.  I encouraged the kids to try a few different color schemes, which some of them really took to, as you can see with the crazy-colored cows.  I also encouraged them not to leave too large a plain background, and you can see in the bird an example of a student who had more plain background than I wanted them to aim for - but it still works out pretty well.
        From a teacher’s perspective, this is a good project for the end of the class because it doesn’t use printing ink.  That means a) the cleaning of ink plates and brayers can begin a little sooner, and b) more importantly, there aren’t any prints at the end of the class with ink still tacky, making it easier to stack up all the art and get it home without a mess.  For more detail about the step-by-step, check out the previous post on the technique.  Some additional tips for success with students are:
   1. Pre-cut each block with an extra half inch of rubber on one side, and draw a line to mark the extra area.  This is the place where they will tack their paper to keep it registered while coloring and printing.
   2. Pre-cut paper to exactly the size of the finished image and give it to students to draw their designs.  That way you don’t have to worry that they’ll get confused and put carving in the extra area.  When they transfer their designs to the rubber, just show them to line it up even with the outside edge, and their paper should end at the line drawn on their rubber.
   3.  Fold each sheet of printing paper along one edge.  Then when a student is ready to print, you can line up the crease of the paper just outside their carved area and tack it down with thumbtacks onto the extra rubber.  The fold makes it clear to them how the paper folds back so they can color an area, and folds down so they can press it.
        From the students’ perspective, this project made a nice variety from the other printmaking projects, was quite quick and simple to carve, and was a lot of fun.

[Pictures: House and Waterfall, block print by EA, 2017;
Cow, block prints by AA, 2017;
Bird, block print by ELZ, 2017;
Dragon, block print by EZ, 2017.]

July 18, 2017

Books of Hours

        I’ve been working for some time on a project inspired by Books of Hours, so before I share my pieces, here’s a little background.  The book of hours developed towards the end of the 13th century out of the texts outlining the daily Divine Office to be performed in monasteries, as an abbreviated version for use by lay people.  They were prayer books, but they were also status symbols as the only book (if any) most families were likely to own.  Lavishly illuminated books of hours were enormously valuable, but with the advent of printing, simpler, mass-produced versions became affordable for the rising middle class as well.  In either form they were enormously popular, and from about 1275-1525 more books of hours were produced than any other title.
        The luxury illuminated books of hours are the most famous.  While most books of hours are illustrated with religious themes, some have secular scenes that offer valuable and fascinating clues about daily life, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries.  In addition to the illustrations that are entire scenes, decorative borders are common and range from botanical designs, to abstract embellishments, to detailed trompe l’oeil arrangements of plants and insects.  I enjoy the appearance of the text, too, usually in gothic script and often with fancier initial letters.  Of course, I’m showing examples of printed volumes rather than the more famous and colorful manuscripts.
        I’ve been interested in books of hours for their appearance, but recently began thinking about the content, as well.  A book of hours generally contains a calendar of the church year, excerpts from the  gospels, and a cycle of psalms and prayers to be observed at various times through each day and on particular occasions.  The content of books of hours was never officially standardized so there is quite a bit of variation in both contents and order.  Some elements are very common, others more personalized.  The early books were all made to order on commission, but even the mass produced editions were often adapted to a particular market with variations for geographical region and price point.
        I’ve included pictures to represent a couple of different styles of border, both made in segments for ease of printing.  One appears to have hand rubrication, the others printed.  I also have two illustrations for the month of July.  The first is a pleasing family scene, but I don’t know whether it represents an episode from the life of Mary, or a stage in the life of a human, both of which were popular themes for books of hours.  The other July is an engraving rather than a wood block print, but I included it because it represents the other popular theme, daily life through the seasons.  You can see how such illustrations are great resources about clothing, tools, practices, etc.
        Here's a previous post featuring a printed book of hours, and in another post before too long I will share what direction I took these various ideas.

[Pictures: July from Ces presentes heures a lusaige de Paris printed by Thielman Kerver, 1540 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
Book of Hours at King’s College, Cambridge, 1498 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Horae in Laudem Beatissimae Virginis Marie as usum Romanium printed by Thielman Kerver, 1556 (Image from Les Enluminures);
July from Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis of Marguerite of Valois, 1597 (Image from University of Virginia Library).]

July 14, 2017

Paris in Relief

        In honor of Bastille Day, here are a few images of Paris.  You may notice that there are no images of the Bastille - I looked, but found only boring engravings.  You may also notice that there are no images of the most famous French landmark of all, the Eiffel Tower.  That’s because I already did a post with relief block prints of the Eiffel Tower, and you can go back and see them there.
        I begin with two views of Notre Dame, back and front.  They have wonderfully different styles, Latour’s back being all bold shapes in strong black and white, and Zber’s front of the cathedral being skritchy and textured, and slashed all across by the falling rain.  I like how he lets the carved texture of the background become stormy clouds.  Latour’s sky, on the other hand is very calm, but it does interestingly show a second block of pale grey for added depth.
        Next up is an iconic Paris café, with white-aproned waiter.  I wonder about the shapes and textures in the window, almost abstract and not clear whether they represent the interior of the café, reflections in the glass, or what.  I like that it doesn’t matter that I don’t quite know what I’m seeing; it works anyway.
        And lastly, Sacré Coeur and Montmartre, lit up after dark.  I’m not sure how many blocks, or even how many shades of grey ink went into this, but the effect is very dramatic.  I like the contrast between the detailed foreground and the solid mass of background buildings, but with more detail again on Sacré Coeur for focus.  And the layered fringes of chimneys are cute.

        On this Fête Nationale, let these relief block prints help you cheer “Vive la France!”

[Pictures: Notre-Dame Cathedral, wood block print by Alfred Latour, 1919 (Image from Jerry Martel);
Notre Dame, Paris, wood block print by Fiszel Zylberberg (Zber), 1936-41 (Image from ArtShik);
Aux Deux Magots - Paris, linocut by Géraldine Theurot, 2011 (Image from A Little Market);
Montmartre, woodblock print by Jun’ichiro Sekino, 1959 (Image from JohnnyBass10).]

July 11, 2017

Garden Apartments

        When we left for vacation I had nine (9!) blocks carved and ready to print, and when we returned I had lots of work to do to take care of all the mail, bills, errands, laundry, etc, that are the aftermath of being away.  Today was the first chance I had to print, so here’s the latest piece.  (Only eight more to go.)
        From the technical perspective, this was too big with too much dark space to print with regular water-based ink.  Water-based ink dries too quickly, so that the first areas inked are already drying by the time the last areas are inked and the paper is pressed.  So this was a job for Caligo Safe-wash oil-based ink.  I just bought some colors of Caligo and this was my first use of the phthalo green.  Not only did the slow-drying consistency work well for my purposes here, but I really love the color.  I want to print with dark green quite often, and usually mix some black with the standard Speedball green to get it, but piney phthalo green is so much prettier.  Extra bonus: the green has hardly any odor compared with the Caligo black.
        From the creative content perspective, this is the sixth piece in my ongoing series of little fantasy towns in interesting places.  “Series” is a loose term; I never planned any particular number, or brainstormed ahead of time where the different towns would be.  It’s really more of a recurring theme.  The idea of little magical towns, of fantastical places for fantastical beings to live, is one that has always appealed to me since I was a kid.  I was making fairy houses of natural materials forty years before the current trend for commercially made fairy house miniatures, and I can remember one summer drawing lots of pictures of little thatched cottages falling from the sky in raindrops.  Now, of course, when a fun theme for a magical town occurs to me, I make a block print.  The others so far in the series have been Tree Palace, Sky City (available as note cards here), Aspidochelone, The Open Book, and Bookby-upon-Shelf.  For this garden village I had fun thinking about what plants in the garden might be inhabitable, and what beneficial insects might be living there along with the small people.  I just hope the rabbits and chipmunks don’t destroy the whole town!

[Picture: Garden Apartments, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

July 7, 2017

Venice in Relief (III)

        I’m back from Venice where I saw this amazing wood block print, along with its blocks, in the Museo Correr.  This aerial view map of Venice from 1500 is by artist Jacopo de’Barbari (Italy, c 1445- c 1516) and it measures 1.3x2.8 meters.  Take a moment to consider what actually went into an undertaking like this wood block print.  First of all, it’s a map and therefore required all the surveying, detail, and accuracy a map requires.  Every street, every square, every building, is depicted accurately, at least as far as we can tell from the landmarks that are still extant (which in Venice is a lot!)  Secondly, it’s an aerial view, in a time long before any human had ever actually been that high up.  The view was created using the exciting new tool of geometric perspective, and required both imagination and mathematical precision.  Finally, there’s the work of carving and printing an image so large.  It was made from six blocks of
pear wood, which are also on display along with the printed map.  (They are under glass in a fairly small, dim room, so I apologize that the photos aren’t great.)  It took de’Barbari three years to produce this epic wood block print.
        Try to see the detail of the carving.  My photo shows the carving of San Giorgio island and a big puffing cupid head, which are the bottom center of the whole map.
         So what’s the significance of the aerial view?  Well of course for one thing it has to show the whole city’s layout to be a map at all, as opposed to simply a cityscape as all the other block prints of Venice in my previous posts (I and II).  But beyond that, this image places the viewer in heaven; you see Venice as a god might see it, identifying the human with the divine in the new humanist spirit of the renaissance.  I think it’s hard for us today to imagine the groundbreaking excitement of this wood block print as a sort of demonstration and manifesto of all that humans (especially Venetians!) could accomplish.  It illustrated the commercial and maritime power of Venice, the power of surveying and geometry to tame the world, the power of the human imagination and craftsmanship to capture and define it, and the power of the new technology of printing to spread all these ideas and technologies as never before.  Venice was the European capital of printing at this time, so this monumental exemplar of printing advertised Venice’s accomplishments in that field, as well.  It was a huge hit immediately upon its publication, and its success was lengthy.

[Pictures: Venetie MD (Aerial View Map of Venice), wood block print by Jacopo de’Barbari, 1500 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Wood blocks for Venetie MD, and detail, photos by AEGN.]

July 4, 2017


        To follow up my post on the mythical golden city of El Dorado, here is the 1849 poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Gaily bedight, 
   A gallant knight, 
In sunshine and in shadow,   
   Had journeyed long,   
   Singing a song, 
In search of Eldorado. 

   But he grew old— 
   This knight so bold—   
And o’er his heart a shadow—   
   Fell as he found 
   No spot of ground 
That looked like Eldorado. 

   And, as his strength   
   Failed him at length, 
He met a pilgrim shadow—   
   ‘Shadow,’ said he,   
   ‘Where can it be— 
This land of Eldorado?’ 

   ‘Over the Mountains 
   Of the Moon, 
Down the Valley of the Shadow,   
   Ride, boldly ride,’ 
   The shade replied,— 
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’ 

        Poe wrote this poem during the California Gold Rush, so the search for actual physical gold was very much on people’s minds.  He keeps it ambiguous enough, however, that it can equally apply to any much-desired treasure, physical or intangible.  Most people seem to interpret it as a pessimistic reminder that we spend our lives chasing impossible dreams, but I think it can be read a little more optimistically.  A human may not be able to get over the Mountains of the Moon or through the Valley of Shadow, but perhaps the pilgrim spirit can.  After all, the spirit doesn’t say, “Give it up; it’s hopeless.”  He says, “Ride, boldly ride!”

[Picture: In search of Eldorado, illustration by William Heath Robinson, early 20th c (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]