August 28, 2023

Words of the Month - Checkmate

         The game of modern international chess was not standardized until the end of the nineteenth century, but of course its roots go back much farther - which has given it plenty of time to have a surprisingly large influence on the English language.  Records of chess first appear in the seventh century, placing its origins in India, although the first depictions are from Persia, where it was called chatrang.  In English, however, as well as many other European languages, the name for the game came ultimately from the Persian word for “king”: shah (passing through Old French and Vulgar Latin on the way).
        By the Middle Ages chess was an important part of culture for the nobility, and ever since it’s been considered an indication of high intellect, judgement, and even moral allegory: foresight, caution, staying a step
ahead of one’s opponent…  The cultural importance of chess turned it into a reference point that gave us lots of other words.
        checkmate - from the Arabic phrase shah mat meaning “the king is dead” or possibly “the king is helpless”.  This word is widely applied to any situation in which someone is stymied or thwarted.  The verb check, “to bring something to a stop” (1620s) (think of checks and balances (1782), or of unchecked power) is simply a shortening of checkmate, and from there it just kept spreading to a whole host of other meanings, including…
   • to hold up or control something, by verifying against an authority, ie to check a fact, to put a check mark on a list (by 1856), or to leave your belongings in the coat check (c 1812)
   • check in or out of a hotel, or a book from a library (1909)
   • check (out) - to investigate (from 1959)
   • check-up - careful investigation (especially of health) (1921)

        Then there’s the black and white pattern of the chessboard itself, giving us
   • check (cheque) and checker - pattern of squares in alternating colors, as well as a fabric with that pattern, plus the checkered career of certain businessmen, for example
   • exchequer - department of revenue, this name comes from the use of a checked cloth on which counters were used to reckon sums of money (from c 1300)
   • check - the bill in a restaurant (1869), check - money order drawn on a bank (1798)

        stalemate - when a chess player has no available moves.  Somewhere along the line people added the “mate” of checkmate somewhat inaccurately to the original word stale, with the same meaning.  (It’s related to stall “to delay, or to be stuck.”)
        pawn - the name of the chess piece comes ultimately from Latin pedonem meaning “foot soldier,” and eventually expanded to the metaphorical sense of a person who is powerless and manipulated in the schemes of others (1580s)  (But it is unrelated to the meaning “something given as a security deposit.”  Also, the chess piece rook does not seem to be related to the other meanings of rook in English.)
        Finally, you can revisit the origins of gambit.

        I was certainly surprised that all our various and seemingly boring, basic meanings of check derive from a game!  Were you?  As for me, I’ve never enjoyed playing chess; I don’t like my recreation to be that adversarial and stressful!  But I do enjoy the aesthetics of the pieces… and of course I have to appreciate something that builds a whole world from simple black and white.

[Pictures: Chess board, wood block print from Repetición de amores y Arte de ajedrez by Luis De Lucena, c 1496 (Image from Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliográfico);

Detail from Metamorphosis II, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1939-40 (image from Sotheby’s);

The Book of the Duchesse, wood engraving by William Harcourt Hooper after Edward Burne-Jones from the Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896 (Image from The British Museum);

Irrational Position, color woodcut by Elke Rehder, 2000 (Image from Art 3000);

Bandemor and the Lady, wood engraving by Samuel Williams from The Castle of Claimarais, 1830 (Image from The British Museum).]

August 23, 2023

Printing Trades

         The 1827 edition of The Book of English Trades covers a variety of professions related to block printing, and I enjoy both reading how the jobs are described as well as seeing the woodcuts illustrating them.  I’ll start right in with two illustrations of The Engraver, from two different editions of this book.  The first is dated 1827, while the second is undated (some time between 1800-1829).  The second book is very much shorter and the text quite different in some places, while other sections are word-for-word the same.  After a lengthy description of the various processes of copper engraving and etching, we learn “Engraving on wood is a process exactly the reverse of engraving on copper.  In the latter the strokes to be printed are sunk or cut into copper, and a rolling press is used for printing it; but in engraving on wood all the wood is cut away except the lines to be printed, which are left standing up like types, and the mode of printing is the same as that used in letter-press.”  These illustrations both show copper engravers, as you can tell because they work on large sheets, while wood engraving would be much smaller pieces, usually placed on a sandbag.  I do like the pictures hanging on the walls, as well as the various tools on the tables.  The screen placed over the window in both
 pictures, “is to keep off the glare of light, which would be mischievous to the Engraver’s business.  The screen consists of four laths joined at their ends, and covered on both sides 
with silvered paper.”
  I certainly don’t use a screen like that when I work, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same set-up.
        Next we see The Copper-Plate Printer who prints the plates engraved or etched by the copper engraver.  And then I also have The Letter Press Printer, who prints, in addition to type, the wood engravings, as mentioned above: the former use a roller press, while the latter 
use a Gutenberg-style press.  Nowadays most printing studios have roller presses, whatever the type of block being pressed, but on the other hand there are now some small hand presses that use an action more like the downward pressure of the letterpress press.  These particular illustrations show a variety of additional details, including the printed sheets hung up to dry from clotheslines.  Also you can see the type cases with all their little cubbies, and in the second Letter-Press illustration you can also see the inker with his two round leather balls that are used instead of a brayer.
        Neither of the two printing professions shown here has much to do with me because I don’t use a press.  In some ways my printing process has more in common with The Calico 
Printer, who presses by hand.  (He presses his block down onto the fabric, though, whereas I usually press my paper onto my block.)  The description of the process could just as well refer to my own blocks, “Cutting the pattern in wood being the most curious part of the process, we shall describe that particularly… On this [block] the design is drawn; and those who cannot draw themselves make use of designs furnished by others whose profession is to draw patterns.  The drawing marks out so much of the block as is to be spaced or left standing.  The rest they cut off, and take away very curiously with the point of exceedingly sharp knives, or little chisels or gravers, according to the bigness or delicacy of the work; for they stand in need of no other instrument.”  For this pair of illustrations, the second book didn’t include the calico printer, so I’ve taken an illustration from a third book of trades, which dates to 1847 and the United States.  You can see that its illustrations are not as detailed or accurate - nor as pleasing - as the others.  But I do like its explanation, “The art of calico printing furnishes employment for a great number of persons, among whom are the pattern-drawer, who provides the design, the block cutter, and the engraver, who produce the blocks and cylinders for print, the chemist, who provides the colours, the printer, who applies them, and a great number of minor workmen.”  My artwork provides employment for only one - except that of course I, too, need the work of others to produce the paper and the ink, as well as all the tools I use.  It’s good to be reminded that everything we encounter required countless people to do their jobs to make it happen.
        Speaking of other people’s work, I shared this book’s illustrations of several other professions here.

[Pictures: The Engraver, The Copper-Plate Printer, The Letter Press Printer, and The Calico Printer, woodcuts from The Book of English Trades, and Library of Useful Arts, 1827 (Images from Internet Archive);

The Engraver, The Copper-Plate Printer, and The Letter Press Printer, woodcuts from The Book of Trades, 1800-1829 (Images from University of Wisconsin-Madison);

The Calico Printer, woodcut from The Book of Trades, 1847 (Images from Library of Congress).]

August 16, 2023

The Book of Trades

         I’m always fascinated by depictions of jobs, especially current jobs I’m not familiar with, and historical jobs that were done very differently in the past, or that are no longer done at all.  You can see a previous post that looks at some historical depictions of various jobs here, or words for some archaic trades here.  I recently came across another book of trades, this one from 1827, and illustrated with very pleasing wood block prints, unfortunately by an anonymous uncredited artist.  The book was originally published in 1804, but was considerably revised in about 1818.  You can tell by the number of new editions and updates that it was a very popular book.  It seems to have been intended at least in part as occupational guidance for youth, and presumably also as general education.
        I’m certainly interested in the descriptions of the various trades from a historical standpoint, but for purposes of this blog I’m focussing on the wood block prints, which are high quality, with plenty of detail.  Perhaps my favorite is the carpenter, with the scene of the roofers in the background, the array of tools and lumber against the wall, and the curly wood shavings in the foreground.  From the accompanying article I learned that “deal is the wood of the fir-tree.”  (Deal wood is not a word I have ever encountered outside of a book, so while the general gist has always been clear from context, I never knew the actual definition.)
        The illustrations of the Apothecary and the Confectioner both hit my love of the magical, mysterious, cluttered shop interiors.  I’ve loved the look of old shops since my childhood visits to the recreations in Western Reserve Historical Society.  In the Confectioner’s shop the bottles and boxes are carved a little faintly so that they melt indistinctly into the background.  The Apothecary’s goods, on the other hand, have blacker blacks, shadows of their own to accent them.  I also enjoy these people’s fashions.  The article on the Confectioner also includes two recipes for gingerbread - both quite different from modern gingerbread recipes (although closer to biscuits than sweet bread).
        Next are two woodcuts that show some interesting carving techniques.  In the illustration of the Plumbers I particularly admire the way the smoke is depicted, with glowing white highlights above the fire, shading darker and darker as it rises.  The article about the Plumbers is really all about refining and working lead, and the reminder of the sheer amount of lead to which people were exposed in daily life in 1827 is quite horrifying.  The author does, at least mention that “the health of the men is often injured by the fumes of the lead.” He concludes, “We recommend earnestly to lads brought up to [this trade]… that they never on any account eat their meals or retire to rest at night, before they have well washed their hands and face.”  The Button Maker shows very clearly how this wood engraver uses wavy lines instead of straight for all the different surfaces.  I don’t know why they’ve chosen to carve this way.  On the whole it’s certainly effective, although I wonder whether it wouldn’t be even more effective if some areas had straight lines for a variety of texture.  I would also have thought that straight lines would be easier.  Regarding buttons, we learn that “It is unlawful to import foreign buttons; and buttons made of, or covered with cloth, cannot be worn, without 
subjecting the wearer to very severe penalties.”
        Finally here is an idyllic pastoral illustration of the Lace Maker, sitting outside her romantic cottage, surrounded by flowers.  I like the way the flowers are actually modern-looking, loose squiggles enough to suggest them.  This is certainly a pretty picture, but the author notes that even though lace is very expensive, because of the time and attention required to make it, the women who do it still make very little money.  He also notes that it’s not uncommon to see women sitting outdoors making lace in good weather.
        Some other interesting trades covered in this book include Cork Cutter, Soap Boiler, Pin-Maker, and Wire-Drawer.  There’s also another suite of trades that are especially interesting to me: printmaking, of course.  So we’ll be back next week to see what printmaking trades looked like 200 years ago!

[Pictures: The Carpenter, The Apothecary, The Confectioner, The Plumbers, Button Maker, The Lace Maker, woodcuts from The Book of English Trades, and Library of Useful Arts, 1827 (Images from Internet Archive).]

August 9, 2023

Experiments with the Gelli Plate

         In general I have little interest in monotyping (with the minor exception of trace monotypes, which you can read about here).  But when I saw ways that people were combining the Gelli plate with relief blocks, I began to get a little more interested.  So I used a coupon to get myself one.  The gelli plate is a stable, long-lasting version of a soft, smooth surface used for monotype printing.  Good thing it doesn’t have a short shelf life, because mine proceeded to sit upon the shelf for months while I was too busy with other projects to try it out.  But this weekend I finally had some time to play with it a bit.
        The first project I wanted to try was to monoprint leafy backgrounds for a small tree sparrow block I carved years ago.  My first attempts were, frankly, very disappointing.  The 
paint itself seemed to have so much texture that it drowned out the details of the leaves.  I’m still not really sure why my prints don’t seem to have the smoothness I see on-line, although my theory is that it may be because I’m using very old paint.  But the other variable I was able to change for my second attempt was rolling excess paint off my brayer between each print.  That definitely helped.
        In any case, here’s the process I used for these little prints.  First I stamped the bird on scrap paper, folded up the 
paper, and
 cut around the image to make a whole stack of bird-shaped masks.  After rolling the paint on my gelli plate, I put down a mask, and then arranged a few leaves across it, so that a leaf stem lined up with the bird’s feet (see 
Figure 1).
  I then pressed scrap paper over this to pull up all the paint in the background.  You can see that in Figure 2.  I then removed the leaves and mask and pressed paper onto the paint that had been protected by them.  (To clarify, the leaves protect some paint, but the mask removes it all.)  You can see that in Figure 3, although this one is backwards because at first I got confused and put the mask on facing the wrong direction.  The final step was to print my little tree sparrow into the blank space left for it, using archival stamp pad ink.
        There are certainly plenty of other things I could have done with this, and steps I could have added, but for my first attempts I wanted to keep things relatively simple.  The perfectionist part of me is definitely not entirely happy with these, pointing out that the leaves still didn’t print the way I wanted, and the birds are not always lined up as accurately as I intended.  However, the non-perfectionist part thought they were still pleasing enough for a little piece, so I selected and 
labelled a variable edition.  In an edition of a normal block print, there are always slight variations because they are made by hand, after all, but the goal is for them all to look the same.  A variable edition obviously means there are larger, more deliberate variations, usually in ink color or paper, while monotypes generally are completely unique with “editions” of only 1 of each design.  This piece is somewhere in between.  I’ve labelled it as an edition of 10, but each of the 10 is quite different.  There are variations in paint color and positioning, and most of all, each one has different leaves.  I used sugar maple, Japanese maple, forsythia, stewartia, and mulberry.  (I wanted to try oak and beech, as well, but was too impatient to go out on a quest to find any leaves of the right size.)
        There are other techniques I want to try with the gelli plate, particularly with collagraphy.  Again, my few first attempts were not very satisfactory, but I definitely intend to experiment some more at some point.  So I’m sure you’ll see more monotype touches showing up in the future.  Have you ever played with monoprinting?

[Picture: Tree Sparrow, rubber block print on monotype background by AEGN, 2023;

all photos by AEGN, 2023.]

August 2, 2023


        This blog is not about my life, per se, although of course in another sense everything here is filtered directly through me and my perceptions and opinions.  I generally mention only in passing my own personal doings outside the explicit work of block printing and writing fiction.  I don’t have any desire to make my personal life public (although again, to be an artist of any kind is inevitably to turn oneself inside out to the public gaze), and frankly, I don’t see why anyone beyond my own mother should care about my own little doings.  However, recently it occurred to me that various of my hobbies are not unconnected to the work of making art and writing stories and poems.  The art and writing are not coincidental or arbitrary.  Rather, they are of a piece with the other preoccupations of my life.  So I thought it might be of mild interest to explore how my hobbies connect with my work.
        First, a quick definition.  Because I’m self-employed, working at home on my own schedule - and working at something I love and enjoy doing - the difference between a hobby and work is one of priority.  Work is all the things I prioritize on a level with getting my family fed, taking care of the cat, fulfilling commitments I’ve made to various organizations, etc.  It’s work if I say “I have to get this done.”  Hobbies, on the other hand, are lower priority.  There’s nothing wrong with them and they can still be important, but I have to get dinner on the table or attend some committee meeting - or finish printing - first.
        So, what hobbies am I highlighting today?  In my little bio section on my web site, I’ve described my interests thus: In addition to block printmaking and writing, I enjoy reading (of course), nature photography (with a simple point-and-shoot camera), spontaneous research, gardening, quilting, and failing to do housework.  So let’s have a quick look at how those actually connect with the work that I do present to the public.
        Reading - Well, that’s easy!  Everyone knows that the best way to improve your writing is to read, that what you read is a massive influence on what you write (a bit about that here), and that it’s always a good idea to keep up with both the history and latest trends in your field.  Check out any of the posts under the “List of Books” label in the sidebar to see some of what I read in the fantasy (and block printmaking) genres.
       Photography - (Mostly nature, but also architectural elements, and anything else that strikes my fancy.)  Although the snapping of a photograph is a very different process from the making of a relief block print, there are similar mind-sets at work.  For one thing, there are issues of composition (more on that here).  For another, there’s the whole practice of looking for beauty, noticing, and celebrating, in the everyday as well as the extraordinary.  Or, of course, being open to just how extraordinary the everyday can be.  Quite frequently my photos become the basis of a block print (more about that here and here), but even when they don’t they’re part of a habit of observation and delight (more about that here).  I share a lot of that on my Instagram.
        Spontaneous Research - Often the research necessary for a block print or for writing a story is not spontaneous, but is very much directed by my need for a particular specific piece of information.  However, whether I’m in the midst of particular research, or just come across something that sparks questions, I do love following the twists and turns and rabbit holes of research.  Wikipedia’s always a great place to start, but I also love getting into primary sources and flipping through digitized old books of all sorts (but especially with woodcut illustrations, of course!)  Intellectual curiosity is a wonderful thing in its own right, but it can turn out to be very useful, too.  There have been many times when some little thing I’ve come across during spontaneous research ends up igniting a new idea or being just the thing I later need to add a little spark to an idea for art or writing (an example of that here).  I love having my metaphorical attic cluttered up with random but wonderful tidbits!  (Truth be told, my literal attic is also cluttered up with random wonderful stuff, as well.)
        Gardening - I’ll admit that my gardening (including houseplants, flowers, and vegetables) took a big hit when children began dominating all my time instead, and it has only gotten lazier and lazier over the years.  Still, I do enjoy growing things, as well as admiring and sometimes eating the things I grow.  Elements of gardening are reflected in many of my block prints, stories, and poems, but there’s also a connection in the way I think about things.  Many of the metaphors through which I view the work of creation are gardening metaphors: planting seeds, turning over compost, mulching and resting, watering and pruning and nurturing…  (You can revisit a few previous posts in which I employ gardening metaphors here, as well as here and here.)
        Quiltmaking - If you want to see a few more pictures of my quilts, look here, here, here, and here.  This is one of those hobbies that can be not only time-consuming, but space-consuming and mind-consuming, as well.  For that reason it’s the one item on this list that is least connected to the art and writing.  In fact, whenever I’m doing more quilting, I’m doing less art and writing, and vice versa.  There is actually a limit to how many things one can really focus on and do at once.  Which brings me to
        Failing to Do Housework - Okay, this is not really a hobby, and in some ways I don’t enjoy it.  I’d love it if the housework managed to get itself done without detracting from my art and writing time.  But alas, it doesn’t, and that brings me back to the priorities I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  When I prioritize art and writing as work, that means I have to be willing to say that some of the housework just isn’t going to get done.  Yes, I get dinner on the table every night, and yes, I do the laundry and the dishes… but dusting is an occasional thing, and the kitchen floor does not get scrubbed on a daily basis.  Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get scrubbed on a weekly basis.  In short, my house is not the cleanest, tidiest house on the block.  But it is instead filled with art and writing (mostly not even my own), curiosity, wonder, people whose work brings them joy, and work that hopefully brings joy to others.
        What hobbies do you enjoy?  And how do they contribute to the kind of life you live?  Are they pure respite from your work, or do they contribute to it or enhance it in any way?

[Pictures: all photographs by AEGN,

all quilts by AEGN.]