Review of Scenes of Last Tokyo, Ashmolean, Oxford

A review of ‘Scenes of Last Tokyo – Japanese Creative Prints from 1945’

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK, 2 Feb – 5 June 2016, gallery 29, admission free

www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/details/?exh=134


Anyone interested in printmaking and/or Japanese modern culture may want to see this small exhibition before it closes in early June. It’s well worth the journey and the time. This review is based on my visit in late April.

The exhibition consists of a display of fifteen woodblock relief prints made by nine Japanese artist-printmakers and published as a set in December 1945, soon after the end of World War II.[1] The prints were made and published as a deeply nostalgic and sad gesture, recording famous sites in Tokyo that were extensively damaged or entirely lost in the incendiary air raids on the city during 1945.[2] The publisher, Uemura Masurō, presented the set of prints with an English title, Scenes of Last Tokyo – Fifteen Scenes of Last Tokyo in Original Woodcut.[3]

The printmakers were members of the Sōsaku Hanga movement. In a British context, we remain unfamiliar with this important development in modern Japanese printmaking, as publications and exhibitions tend to be relentlessly focussed on the ukiyo-e prints that were produced mainly during the Edo period (1600-1868). Ukiyo-e prints were produced in a commercial, publisher-led collaboration with an artist, carver and printer, intended for mass-circulation to an urban middle class.[4] Their production was defunct by the late 19th century.

In a very different cultural-political world from that in which ukiyo-e art had flourished, two new printmaking movements developed in the early years of the 20th century. The Shin Hanga (New or Revival Prints) movement was based on a return to the older collaborative mode of production, and sought to meet the demands of Japanese and Western markets for refined, highly crafted prints of contemporary, mainly romantic and picturesque subject matter.

The more radical Sōsaku Hanga (Creative Prints) movement embraced the modernist Western aesthetic of the artist as an independent creative agent. Sōsaku hanga printmakers were often artists who had already trained as oil painters in a Western, quasi-modernist manner, yet who also felt a need to retain contact with their native traditions, including a sensibility based on traditional tools and media, especially the use of washi (handmade Japanese papers). For this writer, the arising paradoxes and poignancies are part of the interest of this movement.

On the one hand, and on the model of the modern Western artist-printmaker, each sōsaku hanga printmaker was usually responsible for the whole printmaking process, through conception, design, cutting and printing. They were, therefore, free to define their own intentions and methods, while also being more directly exposed to market conditions. On the other hand, they were committed to the materials and methods that they self-consciously inherited from pre-modern Japanese art: the use of washi, sumi (carbon-based ink) and natural, water-based printing colours, and cutting and printing by hand with distinctive Japanese tools.[5]

By 1945, Japanese publishers and artists were using a wide range of contemporary Western printmaking techniques, and Japanese artists were beginning to take an interest in abstract as well as figurative art. In time, both these aspects of modernity were to affect the sōsaku hanga printmakers. However, in late 1945, their Scenes of Last Tokyo seems to catch them at an emotive moment, in the face of national defeat and loss, when the founding characteristics of their movement were clearly defined and were in a state of evident tension with each other. These are the terms in which I want to explore this exhibition.

Gallery 29 is a small space used for temporary displays of East Asian art. The fifteen prints, all c. 24 x 18.5 cm,[6] are presented framed along the gallery walls. There is an introductory panel, which informs us that the print set was donated to the Ashmolean by Christopher Dyment in 2015, a panel that translates the original introductory Japanese text, and each print is accompanied by an informative label. There is no catalogue and (when I was there) no leaflet, no postcards in the museum shop, and a polite but strict interdiction on photography. All this, together with copyright law, has the usual impact on anyone who, like myself, has a substantial interest in such prints, but does not detract from the fundamental value of this rare showing of a whole (and historically important) set of sōsaku hanga prints. It does increase the importance of getting to the exhibition in person, if such work interests you.

The website of the Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints is an alternative and important source for reproductions of the whole set of prints (shown as a single image), some individual printmakers and prints, translations of the introductory Japanese text, and for a commentary on the Japanese text and the print set as a whole.[7] In the following text, links to reproductions of individual prints are traced in the endnotes. The contributing printmakers are:[8]

  • Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955): 3 prints
  • Hiratsuka Un’ichi (1895-1997): 2 prints
  • Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976): 2 prints
  • Kawakami Sumio (1895-1972): 2 prints
  • Maeda Masao (1904-74): 1 print
  • Saitō Kiyoshi (1907-97): 1 print
  • Sekino Jun’ichirō (1914-88): 1 print
  • Azechi Umetarō (1902-99): 1 print
  • Maekewa Senpan (1888-1960): 1 print

With respect to the use of papers and printing inks, it is not easy to come to firm conclusions when looking at framed prints. But it seems safe to observe that all prints are on lightweight, off-white or light ivory washi, and all are printed with some combination of sumi and water-based colours. In some cases, it is not certain that sumi is used and may be present only as a dilute grey tone. In fact, the use of sumi throughout this set of prints is interesting, as the use of a sumi-printed keyblock,[9] that controls and frames a print’s design, is a distinctive feature of ukiyo-e and shin hanga prints.

Only one print, Sekino’s Benkeibashi (Benkei Bridge),[10] has the feel of an ukiyo-e or shin hanga print, with a finely cut, sumi-printed keyblock that incorporates a frame. Several others make use of a sumi block but none other uses a sumi frame, and, more typically, the ink block is integrated to a greater or lesser extent into the whole image. The master in this respect is, not surprisingly, Hiratsuka.[11] In his Asaka Rikyū (Asaka Palace),[12] the whole image is delicately cut and printed in light colours, except that two iron Western-style lamp posts are printed in black sumi. (Given the cultural inversions involved here, was he being consciously ironic?) In contrast, his Sukiyabashi (Sukiya Bridge)[13] integrates the use of sumi with other colours, to striking graphical and descriptive effect.

All prints make some use of Western geometrical-optical perspective, but in different degrees of precision and in different manners that are hard to summarise. Some works are carefully staged with the aid of perspectival devices; notably Hiratsuka’s Sukiyabashi, and Onchi’s asymmetrical Tōkyō eki (Tokyo Station)[14] – both of which, incidentally, are atmospheric in ways that owe more to Western than East Asian painting. But they do it differently, with Onchi’s print being the more thoroughly Westernised in overall handling and specific feeling.

Some images are structured so that they present the viewer with a frontal, nearly flat scene, although the underlying spatial structure still quietly obeys the rules of perspectival recession. The clearest example is Maeda’s Teidai Akamon (Imperial University Red Gate),[15] in which the gate and its side structures span the width of the image, with a soft foreground recession and packed layers of depth, represented mainly by trees, beyond the gate. Onchi’s Nijubashi (Bridge to the Imperial Palace)[16] gets the best of both worlds (East and West) by organising a view into deep space via several flat steps (like stage designer’s flats); a tree in the foreground partly obscuring the view of the bridge, placed in the middle ground, while the palace itself occupies a small but clearly defined position in the background.

And so on. Much more could be said along similar lines about the way in which these nine artists, in fifteen prints, find diverse solutions to the problem of combining Western and Japanese pictorial conventions within works produced in Japanese technical terms. It is worth saying that, in their use of Western pictorial (painterly) conventions all these artists except one seem to be drawing on a knowledge and understanding of an essentially French realist modernism, as they would have been aware of it at that time in their lives. The exception is Kawakami, whose two prints are more suggestive of French or German expressionism.[17]

Taking the Scenes of Last Tokyo as a whole, there is an evident struggle to find a balance between Japanese subject matter (itself complicated and with its own traditions of serial presentation, especially in the medium of print) and the use of Western pictorial devices and conventions (not only perspective but also clear layering of landscape space, and sky depicted as sky), mediated through the particular possibilities of the woodblock print (use of washi, mainly but not universally soft colours and textures, use of woodgrain, non-realistic colours, simplified forms and other devices derived from the ukiyo-e tradition).

The two artists who managed this balancing trick most deftly were, I feel, Onchi Kōshirō and Hiratsuka Un’ichi, both of whom, especially Onchi, were leading figures within the sōsaku hanga movement. Yamaguchi Gen[18] and Maeda Masao[19] come good seconds yet not with quite the same conviction and clarity as these first two. All nine printmakers are interesting in some respect while the much of the interest of Scenes of Last Tokyo lies in its existence as the result of a collective enterprise, expressive of sōsaku hanga intentions, produced in direct response to a crucial moment in Japanese modern history. If any one print says it all – perhaps more by chance than as an expression of the artist’s intention (it would be nice to know) – then, for me, it is Hiratsuka’s Asaka Rikyū, in which the palace buildings stand quietly in deep recession in the background of the scene, while the Westernising black, iron lamp posts are prominent features of the foreground. This spatial irony then turns in on itself, as the lamp posts are the sole features of the work to be printed in that ‘treasure’ of pre-modern East Asian art, the black ink of sumi.

© Paul Griffiths, 2nd May 2016


[1] After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered in August 1945.

[2] “During 1945… incendiary raids by American bombers brought death and destruction to [Japan]. By the spring, the B-29 squadrons were large enough to amount attacks in which hundreds of bombers dropped thousands of tons of incendiaries on Japan’s cities, night after night, methodically incinerating them and later returning to destroy surviving target areas.” Totman, Conrad. 2005. A History of Japan (Second edition). Oxford: Blackwell: 447.

[3] Merritt, Helen and Nanako Yamada. 1995. Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press: 216, 277. ‘Last Tokyo’ may be the publisher’s mistranslation of ‘lost Tokyo’ (see note 7).

[4] This and the following general account of Japanese printmaking is based on Merritt, Helen. 1990. Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

[5] There are some good English-language technical accounts of Japanese woodblock printmaking. For the new (smart) kid on the block, see: Vollmer, April. 2015. Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Art of Mokuhanga. Berkeley: Watson-Guptill.

[6] Merritt & Yamada, ibid.: 277.

[7] http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/articles/scenes-of-lost-last-tokyo-tokyo-kaiko-zue-

[8] This list gives the artists’ names as they are first encountered on the gallery walls, from the information panel onwards.

[9] “In colour printing [the keyblock] is the printing matrix having the most work, the outline or the part of the colour separations which pull the whole image together; either printed first or last.” Simmons, Rosemary. 2002. Dictionary of Printmaking Terms. London: A & C Black: 68.

[10] http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/sekino-jun-ichiro-1914—1988/benkeibashi

[11] Neither of his two prints is reproduced individually in the Lavenberg website but they can be seen in combined reproduction on the general page (see note 7), in the first row, third from left, and third row, also third from left. But see also the following two notes.

[12] Merritt, Helen et al. 2001. Hiratsuka: Modern Master. The Art Institute of Chicago: plate 24.

[13] Merritt et al. ibid.: plate 25.

[14] Go to note 7: image at bottom right corner of the combined reproduction.

[15] http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/maeda-masao-1904-1974-/red-gate-at-tokyo-university

[16] http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/onchi-koshiro-1891—1955-/nijubashi-bridge-to-the-imperial-palace-

[17] Most strikingly in the street scene, Yoru no Ginza (Night at Ginza): http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/kawakami-sumio-1895—1972-/night-at-ginza

[18] Take his Meiji jingu (Meiji Shrine) as an example: http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/gen-yamaguchi/meiji-shrine

[19] see note 15.

Valley (Gaoutabry walk), 2016

Valley (Gaoutabry walk), multiblock woodblock print

primary documentation

  • artworks record: 2016-04-15
  • notebook14: 5, 6; extensive whiteboard notes
  • work: 03.03-15.04.16
  • matrix: 1 x plyblock 30 x 22.5 cm, cut as sides A and B
  • registration: kentoban and tracing paper template
  • paper for trial prints: machine-made hosho (pad paper)
  • paper for final prints: handmade hosho (washi), sized, 73 gsm
  • inks: bokuju, Sakura block printing colour, Chinese watercolour

 

ABOUT CONCEPTION AND PLANNING

This, the first print made since I completed the OCA printmaking course a year ago, follows on from ‘journeyed’ landscapes such as Peninsula, Journey and Winter. In January 2016, I made two walks to a dolmen at the head of the Gaoutabry valley, in the Massif des Maures, in the French Var. These walks are the subject of a travel journal, Dolmen de Gaoutabry, Massif des Maures.[1] The journal and this print can be understood as complementary works, and a reading of the former would give some insight into the imagery used for the latter.

I am interested in a landscape’s porous nature-culture interface, mainly as experienced through walking. Contemporary landscapes are signed environments. Our experience is mediated through signs (informative to instructional), and we make signs of our own passing. In this context, Peircian semiology (index, icon, symbol) assumes a particular force, and the imagery of this print is largely a play on such semiotics.

It is also important that the print works visually; as beauty, pleasure and satisfaction; as visual thinking; and as something intentionally made (by someone) to be looked at (by others).

I am most interested in woodblock printmaking based on modern Japanese models. I want to return to Yamaguchi Gen’s documented method,[2] and have used this print to help me to reconsider his approach in terms of my needs. His method can be summarised as follows:

  1. design;
  2. carving;
  3. paper dampening;
  4. printing.

While this probably simplifies what Yamaguchi did, it provides a good model for working with multiblock relief prints. For present purposes, I revise it to the following form:

  1. initial decisions;
  2. design;
  3. design transfer;
  4. cutting;
  5. trial prints and associated dampening/drying;
  6. possible re-cutting and decisions about final materials;
  7. final prints and associated dampening/drying.

In the following account of making Valley, it will become clear that, despite such careful planning, the final results are variable, something is still not working well for me, and it’s important to try to make some sense of this.

STAGE (1): INITIAL DECISIONS

It took a long time for my thoughts to settle down to a point where I was sure that what I intended was to (1) return to the journeyed landscape theme, (2) make a link between a print and the Gaoutabry travel journal, (3) work with woodblock resources available to me at the time, and (4) make this a reflective exercise in adapting Yamaguchi’s method to my needs.

Point (3) has an immediate, practical impact on image design, and I decided to work with the following materials (fig. 1):

  • one or two 30 x 22.5 cm plyblocks (maximum three block sides);
  • nine sheets of machine-made hosho (39.7 x 28.4 cm pad), marked P1-P9;
  • plyblock kentoban prepared with 2.5 cm margins;
  • 35 x 28 cm tracing paper template and carbon paper for design transfer.
(1) basic resource choices

(1) basic resource choices

 

STAGE (2): DESIGN

Images from the walks in the Gaoutabry area were chosen using Lightroom on-screen, and selected elements were traced directly from the screen display (fig. 2).

(2) tracing from the computer display

(2) tracing from the computer display

These elements were collaged together with tape, and the result traced in reversed reading to the 35 x 28 cm tracing paper template, with the addition of two drawn circles (fig. 3). The design, as it would affect block cutting, was complete.

(3) design transferred to the template

(3) design transferred to the template

 

STAGE (3): DESIGN TRANSFER

I assumed that the print could be achieved with two sides of one block, designated sides A and B. Side A would consist mainly of a field of light ink or colour, corresponding with almost the whole block surface, while side B would consist of localised elements. At this stage, the question of what inks and colours would be used could be left undecided, as long as there was the possibility of cutting more blocks.

The problem underlying design transfer is to ensure good registration between the kentoban, design and two, possibly more block sides. The solution was to make a kentoban-template assemblage that could be kept intact throughout the work process, and used when needed. (I got the idea by recalling how I used precision registration techniques years ago, when I was a professional maker of geological maps.)

The template was registered on the kentoban and securely taped in place so that it could be flipped up and down without loss of registration. Then the block was slipped beneath the template to register with the kentoban (fig. 4).

(4) kentoban-template-block registration

(4) kentoban-template-block registration

The design for side A was transferred to the block with carbon paper and soft pencil (fig. 5), and the kentoban-template assemblage was put aside.

(5) side A: design transfer

(5) side A: design transfer

 

STAGE (4): CUTTING

Given previous print documentation, there is no need to say much about this, and figs. 6, 7 sufficiently illustrate the cutting of side A.

(6) side A: early stage of cutting

(6) side A: early stage of cutting

(7) side A: cutting complete

(7) side A: cutting complete

The interesting thing is that the kentoban-template assemblage enables a cyclical approach to design transfer and cutting, making it possible to check the cutting of one block side before working with another side. Side A was re-registered with the kentoban-template assemblage (fig. 8), the design and cut block were compared, and some minor discrepancies were dealt with by adjusting the drawing of the design.

(8) side A checked against the kentoban-template assemblage

(8) side A checked against the kentoban-template assemblage

Next, the modified design was transferred to side B, as before (fig. 9), and this side cut accordingly (figs. 10, 11).

(9) side B: design transfer

(9) side B: design transfer

(10) side B: early stage of cutting

(10) side B: early stage of cutting

(11) side B: cutting complete

(11) side B: cutting complete

The last act of this stage was to re-check the cutting with the kentoban-template assemblage. This showed that very localised parts of side B had been slightly over-cut (fig. 12). This was left as it was, and it proved not to be problematic.

(12) side B: localised over-cutting

(12) side B: localised over-cutting

 

STAGE (5): TRIAL PRINTS

Trial prints on machine-hosho were made in two runs of three prints each. The sheets marked P1-P9 were trimmed to a width of 27.5 cm (block width + double the kentoban margin); P1-P3 and P4-P6 were used for the first and second trials, respectively, and the remaining sheets were not used. Making the trial prints enabled me to:

  1. check the cutting and mutual registration of the block sides;
  2. assess decisions about colour choices and their distribution between sides A and B;
  3. co-ordinate the cycle of dampening, printing and drying;
  4. consider the change from trial to final print papers.

Figs. 13, 14 illustrate the chief steps in the production of the first trial, and fig. 15 illustrates a result at the end of the second trial.

(13) first trial; side A printed, dilute bokuju, pure bokuju

(13) first trial; side A printed, dilute bokuju, pure bokuju

(14) first trial; print complete, Sakura colours added

(14) first trial; print complete, Sakura colours added

(15) second trial; bokuju, Sakura colours, Chinese watercolours

(15) second trial; bokuju, Sakura colours, Chinese watercolours

 

STAGE (6): DECISIONS FOR FINAL PRINTING

Making the trial prints was a rolling process, in which some changes could be made during and after printing each trial. The following comments summarise the actions and decisions that would affect the final printing.

(1) cutting and registration

Trial printing revealed several minor registration problems, some of which could be dealt with quickly during printing, while a final, limited re-cutting was done on side A.

(2) colours decisions

The two trials, each with some changes in colour use and dilution, were needed before I felt sufficiently confident about colours, their dilutions, distribution between sides A and B, and the sequence in which they would be printed.

(3) dampening, printing and drying

A dampening stack had been made with double-layers of dampened maobian (grass paper) between each undampened hosho sheet, and left for an hour or more. The hosho sheets were excessively moist at first, so, for the second trial, one sheet of maobian was interleaved between them. I felt I could work with the same arrangement for the final prints.

(4) paper decisions

It was an important part of this project to move, for the final prints, from a machine-made to a handmade Japanese paper (washi). I started to think about this while making of the trial prints. I was aware of some limitations in my existing stock but most exercised by the problem of working with relatively lightweight washi in a dampened condition. Problems with ink bleed and fibre disruption are much greater with these papers. I decided to use 73 gsm sized hosho. I had five 46 x 56 cm sheets left in stock and three sheets would yield six, cut to ~28 x 38 cm, leaving the deckle intact at the top edge (fig. 16).

(16) cutting handmade hosho for final prints

(16) cutting handmade hosho for final prints

 

STAGE (7): FINAL PRINTS

Final printing, on six sheets of sized hosho, was done in one long session. Work was done in the following sequence, with prints going back into the dampening stack through steps (2) and (3), then into a drying stack at the end of step (4):

  1. building a dampening stack;
  2. side A: single, separate prints of the main field and disc;
  3. side B: separate prints of the tracks, dolmen sign and red disc, repeated where necessary;
  4. side A: repetition of the print of main field;
  5. drying stack completed and left overnight.

Figs. 17-23 illustrate the main developments through steps (1) and (2), including attempts to deal with arising problems.

(17) building a dampening stack

(17) building a dampening stack

(18) completed stack left for 2+ hours

(18) completed stack left for 2+ hours

(19) side A: main field, dilute bokuju + Chinese indigo

(19) side A: main field, dilute bokuju + Chinese indigo

(20) side A: disc, pure bokuju, tamped before printing

(20) side A: disc, pure bokuju, tamped before printing

(21) side A: print placed in the dampening stack, disc protected

(21) side A: print placed in the dampening stack, disc protected

(22) troubleshooting: cleaning the block in between prints

(22) troubleshooting: cleaning the block in between prints

(23) troubleshooting: attempting to adjust paper dampness

(23) troubleshooting: attempting to adjust paper dampness

Figs. 24-26 illustrate work done in step (3) and the completed drying stack, step (5). No photographs were taken during step (4), which was done as very quickly (but see fig. 19).

(24) side B: the tracks, Sakura green + Chinese indigo

(24) side B: the tracks, Sakura green + Chinese indigo

(25) side B: dolmen sign, Chinese burnt sienna + rattan yellow; circle, Chinese rouge red

(25) side B: dolmen sign, Chinese burnt sienna + rattan yellow; circle, Chinese rouge red

(26) completed drying stack

(26) completed drying stack

Because of the speed of work, with prints going directly into the drying stack, it was not possible to assess results until the following day, although my feeling about the results, as printing was in progress, was not good. There were obvious problems with the sized hosho being too damp (see fig. 23), while step (4) was not pre-planned but introduced into the work sequence because I could see that the printing of the field of dilute colour on side A was not working well.

However, when the work was taken out of the drying stack the following day and assessed more coolly (with Françoise adding a less emotionally engaged point of view), things did not seem so bad. My judgement is that two prints are not acceptable (fig. 27), three are acceptable or marginally acceptable (fig. 28), and one is good but not free of flaws (fig. 29).

(27) prints 3, 5: not acceptable

(27) prints 3, 5: not acceptable

(28) prints 1, 4, 6: acceptable to marginally acceptable

(28) prints 1, 4, 6: acceptable or marginally acceptable

(29) print 2: good

(29) print 2: good

The main, common problems are these: (1) large areas of ink/colour not printing uniformly; (2) unwanted ink bleed, mainly due to excessively damp papers; (3) paper distortion where areas of colour (printed from different block sides) touch, again partly due to paper dampness and also to variations in the application of ink/colour to the blocks.

Such problems apart, I am not concerned by variations between prints, as my objective is not a set of identical, editioned prints. But I would prefer to have more ‘good-acceptable’ results than this, and I may one day try again with the remaining sheets of sized hosho. Backing the prints should also be considered.[3] For these reasons, these prints are left unsigned for now.

 

COMMENTS

I imagine that Yamaguchi Gen could work without giving much thought to planning each print: through extensive experience, a working method had been internalised. I still need to plan consciously so that the work proceeds without disruptive distractions. I have to predict where problems are most likely to arise, then prepare for possible solutions.

Having a workable plan enables one to focus on each task with a sense of physical-mental ‘flow’, which is good for the work’s progress and for the engaged maker. Good planning is certainly about trying to limit failure but otherwise is as much about the process as the result.

Whether the work is counted as four stages (Yamaguchi) or seven (mine), it is clear from the present account that such lists cannot represent the extent to which aspects of the work are interdependent and repetitive. For example, in the making of Valley, design transfer, cutting and trial printing were not a simple sequence, but a repeating cycle of actions. The point is that a plan gives me an efficient working structure that allows for variation and adaptation.

Yet is clear that a workable plan is not a guarantee of success. In the present case, I made a clear distinction between trial and final printing, hoping that this would help me to find a better solution to the problems associated with printing on dampened washi. This has not greatly succeeded, and I still have uncertain control over this aspect of printmaking.

I feel that, after nearly twenty years of making such prints, I have effectively exhausted my existing sources of practical knowledge, mainly in the form of printmaking handbooks.[4] Of course, I must look through them again, and it seems important to keep going and building on experience – but not immediately, as the approach of summer means more time outdoors and less in the studio. What would make a real difference to my printmaking now? It would not be another OCA course, as they are not structured around methods as specific and eccentric as Japanese woodblock printmaking. I am left with the thought that I should look for a tutor with extensive practical experience of Japanese methods of woodblock printmaking.

© Paul Griffiths, 18th April 2016


[1] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2016/01/24/dolmen-de-gaoutabry-massif-des-maures/

[2] Petit, Gaston, and Amadio Arboleda. 1977. Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: 45-54, plates 4-11.

[3] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2015/07/29/backing-a-simple-print-made-on-east-asian-paper/

[4] I won’t repeat the references here but, in addition to Petit and Arboleda’s book, I’m thinking of authorities on East Asian woodblock printmaking such as David Barker, Ralph Kiggell, Tuula Moilanen and Rebecca Salter.

Indian Summer, 2009

Indian Summer, woodblock print with direct printing from found objects

Through 2006-09, I made a few woodblock relief prints, including reduction, single and multiblock prints. Two were well documented with studio notes and photographs, with the intention of writing them up as a studio resource, and I choose to write up Indian Summer because it was the least conventional of these prints, as it combines direct printing from found objects with limited use of a cut woodblock.

the work

  • bokuju and water soluble printing ink on machine-hosho, 19.9 x 28.2 cm
  • studio work: 30.10–04.11.09
  • notebook02a: 35-49; notebook08: 19; whiteboard notes
  • artworks record and photography: 2009-11-04
  • this documentation: 02.03.16

basic resources

  • source materials: found objects
  • design materials: basic graphical equipment
  • printing matrix: 14.7 x 20 cm woodblock and found objects
  • tools: chisels and gouges, inking brushes, baren
  • printing paper: 20 sheets machine-made hosho, 19.9 x 28.5 cm
  • inks: bokuju, Akua Kolor relief printing inks
  • registration: kentoban board
  • dampening/drying stack: wooden boards, cardboard, newsprint, weights

 

[1] INTENTIONS AND WORK SEQUENCE

I had several things in mind when I made this print, the most important of which are these:

  1. I wanted to experiment with a procedure based on the printmaking of Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976),[1] and that also refers to his use of found materials in semi-abstract images.[2] I took such an approach further later, in Migrateur, and discuss my interest in Yamaguchi Gen in more detail in my account of that print.[3]
  2. I wanted to make the whole procedure as little dependent on craft skills as possible, while also keeping the process as open-ended as possible.
  3. The work was to focus on printing more than cutting.
  4. I wanted a small, easily reproducible print, and hoped for a small edition, but would have been satisfied with a good monoprint.

The work was done rather intensively over a period of six days, with the fourth day being particularly complicated:

  • Day 1: preparations, including preparing materials for dampening;
  • Day 2: 1st and 2nd rounds of printing, left in dampening stack;
  • Day 3: checking results, new dampening stack needed;
  • Day 4: adjustments to dampening stack, 3rd round of printing, another new dampening stack, cutting the board, 4th round of printing, left in drying stack;
  • Day 5: setting up a 2nd drying stack, left for a few hours, opening the stack at end of day;
  • Day 6: assessment of results.

Printing and cutting were simple tasks but cumulatively time-consuming. Much time was taken up dealing with recurring problems with dampening the papers correctly for printing. Mould affected the materials used for dampening but, fortunately, not the printing papers. Because of the complications with dampening and drying the papers, which mostly affected the end of each day’s work, it makes sense to organise the following account primarily by the sequence of days.

 

[2] DAY 1: PREPARATIONS

First, some objects suitable for direct printing were collected from the home environment (fig. 1). These were not intended to have any particular symbolic or allusive significance.

(1) found objects and other materials

(1) found objects and other materials

These found materials were to be used together with a 14.7 x 20 cm woodblock, and machine-made hosho taken from a 39.8 x 28.5 cm pad. Ten sheets from the pad were cut neatly in two, to yield 20 sheets, 19.9 x 28.5 cm, each of which was marked on the back (rough) side with an X that would define the registration corner (fig. 2).

(2) preparation of printing paper

(2) preparation of printing paper

The procedure for dampening and drying papers was similar to that used for Rhayadr Cynwyd,[4] so it is not described in detail, except to note the use of newsprint for the purpose (fig. 3). However, dampening/drying posed several problems, which are noted below and discussed in the final comments.

(3) materials for dampening stack

(3) materials for dampening stack

A small amount of nori paste was made in advance, with ~ 50:50 mix of wheatstarch paste and water. Nowadays, I buy prepared nori in tubes: much easier.

Finally, the materials that were likely to be needed for printing were set out on the table, in an organised manner that changed a little as printing got under way (fig. 4).

(4) set-up during first printing

(4) set-up during first printing

As a result of ‘builder action’, I have now lost the good big work table I had in those days.

 

[3] DAY 2: FIRST AND SECOND PRINTINGS

Day 2 was occupied with the first and second printings, which required different inks and different procedures.

1st printing: uncut block, dilute bokuju

The first printing was done with dilute bokuju, printed from the whole surface of the uncut block (fig. 5). This one dish proved adequate for the whole print run, but the dilution had to be adjusted, as noted below.

(5) preparation of dilute bokuju

(5) preparation of dilute bokuju

The work sequence was:

  1. dampen the block with clean water (fig. 6);
  2. add nori and bokuju to the block (fig. 7), and brush the nori+bokuju mix uniformly over the block surface;
  3. print from the block, registered to the kentoban board, with the baren (fig. 8);
  4. return each sheet to the drying stack.
(6) dampening the block

(6) dampening the block

(7) adding nori and dilute bokuju to the block

(7) adding nori and dilute bokuju to the block

(8) printing with kentoban and baren

(8) printing with kentoban and baren

The first few sheets to be printed were too pale. This would have been partly because the block was still not moist enough to take in the ink, in stage (2), above. But it was also obviously the case that the initial bokuju-water mix was too dilute. By the time I got to the fourth sheet, I had the dilution of the bokuju about right (fig. 9).

(9) typical good result of first printing

(9) typical good result of first printing

As printing the rest of the sheets progressed, it was possible to be increasingly parsimonious with the application of nori+bokuju to the block. When this printing was complete, the 20 sheets of hosho were removed from the drying stack and placed in a new dampening stack.

 

2nd printing: found objects, Akua Kolor

The patterned back of a cut wall tile was used for the third printing (fig. 10). Its intended position relative to the printing paper was marked with a pencil on the base of the kentoban board. Then the pattern was carefully brushed with a mixture of nori and Akua Kolor yellow ochre, and printed (fig. 11).

(10) inking the back of the tile

(10) inking the back of the tile

(11) printing the tile

(11) printing the tile

This was the end of Day 2 and, at this point, the work had to be left overnight. I had realised that the dampening prior to the first printing had not been sufficiently moist. But I over-compensated and made the papers excessively damp prior to this 2nd printing. I had to leave the papers in the dampening stack overnight, ready for the 3rd printing, but replaced some sheets of dampening paper with dry papers.

 

[4] DAY 3: NEW DAMPENING STACK AND MATERIALS

When the stack was inspected on the 3rd morning, I was still concerned about getting the dampening right while also avoiding mould. So I made an entirely new drying stack, built up with fresh, dry materials, and the work was left until the next day. This work, including preparing an abundance of sheets of dampening/drying papers, took up the whole day.

 

[5] DAY 4: 3rd PRINTING, CUTTING, 4th PRINTING

When I looked at the work in the drying stack the next morning, it was clear that some sheets had not printed well, but none was affected with mould and they were all in a good, softly damp state for continuing printing.

3rd printing: found objects, Akua Kolor

The 3rd printing all 20 sheets of hosho followed this cycle:

  1. two pieces of rough-grained wood (offcuts from a DIY job) were placed on the kentoban board, secured with blu-tack (fig. 12);
  2. one was inked with red oxide, the other with phthalo green-blue, without nori (fig. 13);
  3. they were printing with the baren (fig. 14), and each sheet returned to a drying stack.
(12) pieces of wood in place on the kentoban

(12) pieces of wood in place on the kentoban

(13) pieces of wood inked

(13) pieces of wood inked

(14) printing the pieces of wood

(14) printing the pieces of wood

Fig 15 shows the last print in the run of 20 sheets at the end of this stage.

(15) printing result after 3rd printing

(15) printing result after 3rd printing

At the end of this round of printing, all the prints were placed in a fresh dampening stack, to take up moisture again while the next stage, cutting the block, was in progress.

 

cutting the block and 4th printing, pure bokuju

The same side of the woodblock that had been used for the 1st printing was cut and printed, as follows:

  1. a simple design was drawn freehand in pencil on the block face (fig. 16);
  2. the outlines of this design were cleared with cutting tools (fig. 17);
  3. a final, patterned cut was made, freehand with U-gouges (fig. 18);
  4. each sheet was printed with pure bokuju (fig. 19); and
  5. the results were placed in a drying stack and left overnight (fig. 20).
(16) basic design drawn on the block

(16) basic design drawn on the block

(17) clearance of basic design

(17) clearance of basic design

(18) completed design

(18) completed design

(19) results of printing with bokuju

(19) results of printing with bokuju

(20) the final drying stack

(20) the final drying stack

It’s obvious from this last photo that, by this time, I was taking no chances with dampening and drying.

 

[6] DAYS 5 & 6: FINAL DRYING STACK AND ASSESSMENT OF RESULTS

I looked at the results the following morning and realised that everything was still too damp. There was no sign of mould, but several sheets of paper were wrinkled. So an entirely new drying stack was set up and left until later in the day. In the late afternoon, the 20 prints were laid out on the table in their order of printing, in rows from top left to bottom right (fig. 21).

(21) all printing results

(21) all printing results

I wrote extensive comments at the time, the main points of which are summarised here:

  1. It was impressive to see 20 versions of ‘the same’ print set out like this, and I felt that I was looking, not so much at an edition or potential edition in the conventional sense, but at a ‘total work’, understood as process and repetition.
  2. A related but not the same thought was that such a woodblock print is best done as a totality. In the past, I had normally first made a small number of prints, intending to return to them later, to extend the work to make a decent edition. This strategy had never worked for me, and the lesson to be taken from this print is that it is better to set up to print a large run at the start, to be able to select an edition from the result.
  3. But the complication is that this experience suggested that a run of about 20 prints is probably both a maximum and a minimum: a maximum because of the time and sheer effort involved; a minimum to ensure that enough of the attempted prints succeed.
  4. What did I feel about the image itself? I was pleased with it but also struck by how much it looks like a dated piece of modernist abstraction or semi-abstraction, hinting at landscape or rural imagery, based on a ‘natural’ (direct) use of materials.

Some final decisions were made that day and the following morning. These were:

  1. to treat the given paper size, 19.9 x 28.5 cm, as the whole work size;
  2. to keep and number on the back all 20 prints;
  3. to choose from among these to identify an acceptable, numbered edition;
  4. six ‘best prints’ were identified on the basis of printing quality, and these were signed and titled 1/6-6/6, Indian Summer 2009; the title being a reference to that year’s unusually prolonged mild autumn season (fig. 22);
  5. one of these was identified as the best print for the purposes of reproduction (fig. 23).
(22) six editioned prints

(22) six editioned prints

(23) Indian Summer, print 3/6 (14/20 in the whole print run)

(23) Indian Summer, 2009, print 3/6 (14/20 in the whole print run)

It has to be said that achieving these six ‘editionable’ prints had been exhausting. It had taken six days, each of which was nearly full (we had family visitors one day, and I had to break off to be sociable), much of the work, especially printing and preparation of dampening and drying materials, was physically exhausting (it got to my back then and this problem is greater these days). The nervous tension involved, especially because of the constant need to be concerned about paper dampening and drying, is also tiring.

 

[7] FINAL COMMENT

All I want to comment on now, from the point of view of 2016, is the problem of dampening papers, which was unusually great for this print, yet also sufficiently typical of my attempts at woodblock printmaking. While I was writing this account, I considered not discussing this issue or removing it to a separate section, rather than letting it clutter what may be conceived as a straightforward progression through design, preparation, cutting and printing. But I can’t ignore the extent to which dampening complicates all my woodblock printmaking, so I have left the account as it, and it seems appropriate that it is therefore a little difficult to read in places. What follows is not a full analysis of the problem, but just a pause to reflect on it, perhaps to get it into proportion.

Why is paper dampening done? Basically, the paper has to be moist enough for it to print uniformly, and to absorb the ink/colour into the body of the paper. It has to be neither too moist nor too dry. Then, once printing is complete, the papers have to dried and flattened.

The variables are complicated, for example: type, weight and texture of paper; how many sheets (of what dimensions) are being handled in a single session; how do sessions of cutting and printing relate to the needs of dampening and drying; the weather and studio conditions; and so on. Mould is always a threat, which can result in the loss of a whole set of prints.

Resolving these problems requires a good understanding of the physical properties of the printing papers (it is one reason I take so much interest in East Asian papers). It is also a matter of good planning and management. Experience counts for a lot, and the only way to get that is to keep doing the work.

In the case of this print, it seems likely that I had such serious problems because I did not plan with sufficient care the relationships between printing and cutting, and dampening and drying. But the paradox is that I had set myself an open ended task, and details of the work sequence were deliberately left undecided until each point came when a decision about design, printing or cutting had to be made.

It seems significant that it was a full two years before I tried to make another woodblock print, Migrateur. I worked on this over the winter of 2011-12, then work stalled when all design and cutting had been done, and the printing, including dealing with dampening, was still to do. I brought this work to a conclusion in 2013, within the OCA printmaking course. Whatever its merits, the OCA course was not organised around solving such issues, and, although I have made progress in dealing with the fundamental problems of woodblock printing with East Asian resources, the technical problems that I had with Indian Summer still recognisable define my limits as a woodblock printmaker.

© text, artwork and images, Paul Griffiths 2016


[1] Petit, Gaston, and Amadio Arboleda. 1977. Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: 45-54; plates 4-11.

[2] Petit, Gaston. 1973. 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists, Volumes I and II. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: vol II: 174-81; colour plates C-78-80.

[3] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2013/10/31/pm1-part-2-07-exercise-21-30-10-13/

[4] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2013/11/18/pm1-part-2-05-exercise-23-17-11-13/

Blue, green and yellow, 2009

Blue, green and yellow, abstract monotype

This is the last and best documented of a series of abstract painted monotypes that I made from December 2008 to July 2009. They were all made in basically the same way and most of them incorporated drawing that was added after the monotype printing had been done. I had intended to include drawing in this one but decided that the result of this printing could best stand on its own. These were the first monotypes I attempted, and were made with the resources that I had available at the time. While my resources and experience have changed since then, this is still a useful account of a particular way of working.

the work

  • water soluble printing ink on wove paper, 76.2 x 57.0 cm
  • artworks record and photography: 2009-07-25
  • studio work: 24+25.07.09
  • notebook06: 85, 86; whiteboard notes
  • this documentation: 28.02.16

basic resources

  • printing matrix: 100 x 60 cm perspex sheet
  • tools: packing tape, masking tape, inking plate, palette knives, flat brushes, baren
  • paper: Velin Cuve BFK Rives grain fin, 250 gsm; untrimmed sheet 76.2 x 57.0 cm
  • ink: Akua Kolor water soluble relief printing inks, release agent, tack thickener
  • registration: printing paper taped at one edge to prepared perspex sheet
  • clean-up: water and detergent, white spirit

 

[1] INTENTIONS AND OUTCOMES

This and the earlier monotypes were made in the wider context of an extended drawing project, in which drawing rules and processes interacted with each other; so the project as a whole can be understood as an experiment in the interaction of control and freedom. Especially when this approach was extended to include printmaking, it could be difficult to get the balance right, and works were most likely to fail when I allowed myself too much freedom. A first attempt at the present print failed for this reason, so the emphasis did shift towards control, in the form of clear pre-planning. My notebook comment made after finishing the print was, “I ruined the first attempt by not paying attention to the rules of my own game and suddenly starting to do ‘something else’. [This print] is no longer entirely and heavily prescribed beforehand but there is now a certain kind of orderliness; an internal logic that still allows for many possible developments, possible outcomes, once the work is begun. [But this] is not to say that the work, as completed, has been without trouble.”

 

[2] ESTABLISHING A DESIGN

To establish what I had in mind for this print, it will help to illustrate an earlier work in the series, which combined monotype printing with drawing (fig. 1). All these works were based on using a single, untrimmed sheet of BFK Rives, with its deckle edges intact. I treated the paper not only as a support for the work, which of course it must be, but also as a ‘field’, so that the whole sheet, including its unmodified edges, is taken to be ‘the work’. Within this field, the printed and drawn areas each occupied its defined area (with some overlap in a few of them); the ideal being that they interact with each other and with the white of the paper.

(1) Monotype/drawing No. 2, 2009, 76.1 x 57.2 cm

(1) Monotype/drawing No. 2, 2009, 76.1 x 57.2 cm

For the print being described here, I decided that the printed area should be a 46 x 46 cm square, symmetrically occupying the top part of the 76.2 x 57.0 cm sheet (fig. 2). Within this square, colours were to be printed in an organised grid, and in sequence, so that later colours were printed over earlier colours.

(2) the print design

(2) the print design

The diagram reproduced in fig. 2 was worked out on the whiteboard, and later transcribed to the notebook. This enabled me to control the layout of the print relative to the printing paper, and gave me a working sequence, in which packing and masking tape could be used to mark off areas as printing and non-printing, changing the tape as needed as printing progressed.

 

[3] INITIAL SET-UP FOR PRINTING

The initial conditions for printing are illustrated in figs. 3 and 4. The main thing to note in fig. 3 is the relationship between the printing paper and plate. Because an untrimmed sheet of BFK Rives is inevitably not perfectly rectangular, this creates a small problem for registration. The solution was to use packing tape to mark out a mask on the perspex sheet, in a precisely measured rectangle that encloses the sheet of BFK Rives as tightly as possible. The paper was attached at its end nearest to the wall (and farthest from the printmaker) with a strip of packing tape. The clip hanging from string was used to hold the paper out of the way while any work was being done on the plate, without losing registration.

(3) general set-up for printing

(3) general set-up for printing

Fig. 4 shows how the plate was prepared for the design given in fig. 2. The packing tape mask used to control the placement of the paper (fig. 3) was used as the basis for all subsequent measurements. Packing tape was used to lay out a second, internal 46 x 46 cm mask, corresponding to the area to be printed. Finally, two strips of 2.5 cm wide masking tape were added, at vertical positions corresponding to (A) in fig. 2. Masking tape does not necessarily roll out in a neat straight line, so a steel rule was used to guide their placement.

(4) plate masked for first printing

(4) plate masked for first printing

Everything was then ready for printing, which would take place in two stages, with an intervening change in the layout of the masking tape masks.

 

[4] FIRST PRINTING

Areas B, C and D (fig. 2) were printed from the plate as organised in fig. 4. Each area was printed in turn, beginning each with a thin coating of release agent. First, phthalo blue was brushed onto area B, staying as neatly as possible with masked area. This was then printed and, because the pick-up was not good enough, colour was brushed on again and reprinted (figs. 5, 6). I was still not satisfied with the pick-up but earlier experience had shown me that, after two rounds of printing, the situation doesn’t noticeably improve.

(5) release agent and phthalo blue brushed to area B

(5) release agent and phthalo blue brushed to area B

(6) printing area B

(6) printing area B

The same procedure was followed for areas C and D, again printing each area twice. Both areas are printed with a mixture of phthalo blue and titanium white, the proportion of white to blue being greater for area D. Fig. 7 illustrates the end result.

(7) areas B+C+D, printing completed

(7) areas B+C+D, printing completed

Printing these areas was followed by a thorough clean-up of the plate, first with water and detergent, then with white spirit.

 

[5] SECOND SET-UP FOR PRINTING

The plate was re-masked, ready for printing two horizontal stripes that would overlie areas B+C+D (fig. 8). Where the stripes were to overlie areas C+D, each stripe would bridge the gap between the two areas and terminate 0.5 cm inwards from their outer limits (fig.2, E). Where they were to overlie area B, the length of each stripe would coincide exactly with the width of the area (fig. 2, F).

(8) the re-masked plate

(8) the re-masked plate

All this required precise laying of the strips of masking tape and, once done, the plate was ready for second printing.

 

[6] SECOND PRINTING

The different parts of the horizontal stripes, E and F, were printed in much the same way as areas B+C+D, each stripe colour being printed separately and twice (figs. 9, 10). Stripes E were printed with lemon yellow and tack thickener, and stripes F were printed with phthalo green over a thin coat of release agent. An arising problem was that, with each successive printing, the pressure of the baren on the paper caused some of the phthalo blue printed as area B to pull back off the paper.

(9) printing stripes E over areas C+D

(9) printing stripes E over areas C+D

(10) printing stripes F over area B

(10) printing stripes F over area B

Fig. 11 illustrates the final result.

(11) Green, Blue and Yellow, 2009, 76.2 x 57.0 cm

(11) Green, Blue and Yellow, 2009, 76.2 x 57.0 cm

The print’s obvious technical limitations are commented on below. When I appraised the work at this stage, I felt that, despite these limitations, the result looks good as it stands: it looks ‘complete’. I didn’t feel that adding drawing would necessarily contribute much to the work, and that good figure-and-field relationships were already established between the rectangular sheet of paper and the square, printed area.

 

[7] COMMENTS

In common with other prints in this series (see fig. 1), this work was conceived in terms of an open relationship between control, mainly in terms of forward planning, and freedom, which could have been expressed as developments of an initial plan and/or the inclusion of drawing at some stage in the process. In fact, no substantial changes were made to the initial design, as represented by fig. 2, and no drawing was added. However, in principle at least, my options were open from the first stages of masking and printing onwards, and the final decision not to include drawing can be most positively understood in terms of a freedom to choose, rather than follow a pre-determined plan without further ‘intentional’ intervention.

In 2016, I can look at this print, and the other monotypes of 2008-09, with the hindsight of having participated in the OCA Printmaking 1 course through 2013-15. Two things need saying from this point of view.

First, in my experience, the quality of colour pick-up from the plate is a limitation on making monotypes without a press. The problems that I had with the present print were not much different from those experienced during the OCA course, when using different inks (Akua Kolor, Caligo Safewash) did not make a significant difference to how well the ink was transferred from plate to paper. This remains as an unresolved problem, which could benefit from further research and experiment, and I may invest in the pin press advertised by Akua Inks: it may be a better tool for this kind of work than a baren.

Second, some of the prints made for the OCA course gave me experience in using masks (stencils) to control a design and its placement on the plate and paper. I gave particular thought to the problem of using complicated masks in a series of Gardening gloves prints.[1] In these masked prints, some difficult problems with plate-mask-paper registration were resolved, and inks were rolled onto the plate with brayers.

In the light of this experience, it is possible that the kind of controlled design used for the present print could be better achieved by using stencil masks and by rolling the ink to the plate. A significant difference between these abstract monotypes and the Gardening gloves prints is the paper size, and adapting paper stencils to the relatively large size of a sheet of BFK Rives would need careful planning, if it is to be done with sufficient precision. But it is a possibility worth exploring in future work.

© text, artwork and images, Paul Griffiths 2016


[1] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2013/05/13/pm1-part-1-03-exercise-11-12-05-2013/

Dolmen de Gaoutabry, Massif des Maures

Dolmen de Gaoutabry, Massif des Maures

In January 2016, I took two walks to Gaoutabry dolmen; a late Neolithic burial site at the western end of the Massif des Maures; a range that extends along the Var coast, from Hyères in the west to St-Raphaël in the east. I had found directions to the site in Jean-Michel Pouy’s recently published walk guide.[1] The starting point for the walk is at a roadside parking area on the D88, due north of La Londe-les-Maures, exactly 2 km north of where the D88 passes beneath the D98/N98.[2]

My first walk, on 5th January, was in unseasonally mild weather, and the second, on the 15th, in classic mistral weather when, despite the cold wind, the low sunlight is beautiful. Pouy describes a short route to the dolmen, including a loop around an adjacent hill, Signal de Favanquet. On the 5th, I had intended to take this route but found an information board at the parking area that describes several local walks (photo 1). Circuit 1, given as a 7.4 km walk, extends Pouy’s route around the whole Gaoutabry valley. So I took that walk first then, ten days later, Pouy’s shorter route. I conflate both walks here, treating them as though I follow Circuit 1, ‘some day in January’.

(1) La Londe, circuits de randonnées

(1) La Londe, circuits de randonnées

The walk follows a broad dirt track, marked with blue signs and icons of a dolmen, as they are normally understood to be: a large cap rock, supported on stone pillars. We shall see that Gaoutabry dolmen does not take this form. The valley bottom is occupied by farms and vineyards (photo 2). At this season, the stark rows of vines alternate with white carpets of winter daisies.[3] The farmhouses are sheltered by maritime pines, Provençal cypress and a few, exotic eucalyptus trees.

(2) Vineyards and copses in the lower valley

(2) Vineyards and copses in the lower valley

Immediately beyond the vineyards and a few olive groves, the rising ground is covered with evergreen woodlands of Aleppo pines, holm oaks, cork oaks and, pleasantly, a few mimosas just coming into blossom (photo 3).

(3) Viniculture against a background of evergreen woodland

(3) Viniculture against a background of evergreen woodland

On higher ground, the woods are dominated by cork oaks, and other evergreen trees become uncommon or absent (photo 4). Downy oaks, being deciduous, would be obvious in winter among the cover of evergreen vegetation, but there is no sign of them. Their absence and the cork oak’s dominance is a striking feature of the Maures landscape.

(4) Cork oak woodland, and a vélocipède

(4) Cork oak woodland, and a vélocipède

I am now not far from the dolmen, passing around the north side of Signal de Favanquet. There is a good view into the valley, and aspects of the countryside that, so far, I have seen only as fragments, come together more comprehensively (photo 5). A patchwork of fields and hedges is shaped into the gentle slopes and folds of the valley floor, decisively enclosed by the woods and matorral scrub of the upper slopes.[4] The bare vines expose the reddish-brown soils, and I can see a small olive grove, close to a farmhouse buried in trees. I am beginning to understand the dolmen as being situated at the head of a well-defined valley, about 2 km long by 1 km wide. Circuit 1 (see photo 1) will take me around the whole valley, and photo 5 shows were the track cuts along the ridge on the valley’s far side.

(5) Gaoutabry valley: contrasted environments

(5) Gaoutabry valley: contrasted environments

Soon after passing around the side of the Signal, the track comes to open ground, where trees stand in a meadow of grass and asphodels (photo 6). A footpath to the dolmen passes between the cistern and fenced-in sign.

(6) Footpath to the dolmen

(6) Footpath to the dolmen

The dolmen is first seen as a cluster of upright slabs of rock, barely distinguishable from other rocks that are part of the natural geology (photo 7). For a moment, the clearest indications that this is a special place are two information boards and some sand boxes that are, I assume, intended for barbecue picnics.

(7) First sight of the dolmen

(7) First sight of the dolmen

Closer to, I can see the dolmen as a discrete, humanly purposeful structure; different in kind but not material from the adjacent natural rock outcrops. These rocks are muscovite schists, iridescent in the low winter sunlight (photo 8).[5] Struck by the light at a low angle, they are partly in shadow, partly illuminated; a camouflaging, perception-disrupting effect that is intensified by the schists’ rippled surfaces, catching and reflecting light at different angles.[6] Their beauty holds my attention for a while before I begin to look at the dolmen.

(8) Low sunlight on the dolmen’s schist slabs

(8) Low sunlight on the dolmen’s schist slabs

The dolmen is a surprising thing to encounter, even when I am expecting to find it. Seeing it in shadow, against the light, gives me a first, clear sense of it as a made structure (photo 9).

(9) The dolmen, seen in shadow

(9) The dolmen, seen in shadow

The information panel (photo 10) provides some context for understanding what I can see, and the gist of its text is as follows: The dolmen was discovered in 1876 and excavations have found the calcined (burnt) bones of at least 34 humans, as well as pottery fragments, flint tools, pearls and stone pendants. These materials indicate that the dolmen was used in the late Neolithic (2800 BCE) and early Bronze Age (2000 BCE). The dolmen is a 6.5 x 1.5 metre rectangular construction of schist slabs, comprising a main chamber, antichamber and entrance passage. Given the weakness of these slabs, it is unlikely that the structure was covered with a large cap rock, of the kind conventionally associated with dolmens, and it is more likely that it was covered with wooden beams and a stone tumulus. Its orientation is aligned precisely with sunset at the winter solstice.

It can be added that, in the Neolithic (New Stone Age), a human culture using stone tools was based mainly on simple agriculture, rather than hunting and gathering. In Europe, this period lasted for about 4000 years, between circa 6000-2000 BCE (before the common era).[7]

(10) The information panel

(10) The information panel

To make a more meaningful connection between what the information panel tells me and what I can see for myself, I need to do something, and the most obvious thing is to look at the relationships between the dolmen’s construction and the adjacent geology. When I did some research back home, it became obvious that it made sense to compare these observations with the statement given on the information panel that the dolmen is aligned with sunset at the winter solstice. So let’s begin with that, then come back to the dolmen and the geology.

I have found an online application that can be used to calculate the azimuths (orientations relative to north) of positions at any latitude and any date within the last 6000 years.[8] Using this, diagram A is constructed for 3000 BCE (close to the oldest dates associated with the dolmen) and for the approximate latitude of the dolmen, 43oN. It indicates that 5000 years ago (and it would be hardly different now) the low sun at the winter solstice would have set on the horizon to the southwest, on a bearing of 236o.

(A) Solstice calculations and other measurements

(A) Solstice calculations and other measurements

An interesting thing to note about this calculation is that, at the winter solstice, an observer may have had a long view of sunset, looking down the Gaoutabry valley (see photo 1) and perhaps as far to the southwest as the coastal area that is now occupied by Hyères.[9]

Now I can come back to my observations at the site. The simplest task is to find the alignment of the dolmen’s long axis with a compass. The result, at about 043o/223o, does not precisely coincide with the winter solstice azimuth but is not very different.

On the ground, I was very aware of the close physical and geometrical relationships between the dolmen and the natural outcrops of schist. Just a few metres away from the dolmen, these outcrops form nearly vertical slabs, some of which are about the same size as those used for the dolmen and others are considerably larger (photo 11).

(11) Natural outcrops of schist close to the dolmen

(11) Natural outcrops of schist close to the dolmen

An outcrop of these schists forms a low, broad bar immediately adjacent to the dolmen’s long, northwestern side (photo 12, in which the rope enclosure separates the outcrop, to the left, from the dolmen, to the right). The physical fit between this outcrop and dolmen is so snug that it could be deliberate. Comparison of photo 11 with photo 13 suggests that the top of this outcrop has been altered, perhaps to provide construction material for the dolmen, and more obviously by repositioning of several large slabs to make a crude platform. Referring back to the information panel, it is possible that this flattened outcrop formed part of the foundation of a stone tumulus that may have covered the dolmen.

(12) The dolmen’s abutment with the schist outcrop

(12) The dolmen’s abutment with the schist outcrop

(13) The flattened top of the outcrop alongside the dolmen

(13) The flattened top of the outcrop alongside the dolmen

In addition to this close physical fit, the parallelism between the alignments of the dolmen and the natural outcrops of schist is a very clear feature of the site. To obtain a fairly objective measure of the orientation of the schist slabs, I observed their strike (a geological measure of horizontal alignment) at several places and the results are within the narrow range 040-052o from north; average 046o/226o. On this basis, the dolmen’s alignment is closer to that of the outcrops of schist than to the azimuth of the winter sunset solstice (see diagram A).

I apologise for so much technical detail but, without it, I cannot give substance to my sense of the dolmen’s intimate relationship with its site. Diagram A shows that there are discrepancies in measurements of azimuths and physical orientations on the ground, but I don’t make too much of these. What strikes me most is how many observations – astronomical, geological, topographical and architectural – seem to be in close unison. The following proposition is no stronger than speculation.

It is possible that the dolmen’s builders and users found a harmony in correspondences in their natural world between three sets of what we would call facts: (1) the position of the sun on the horizon at its descent on the winter solstice; (2) a place on the ridge above the Gaoutabry valley where there is a long view, down the valley and possibly farther, of this sunset; and (3) the coincidence of (1) and (2) with the physical presence and alignment of the schist outcrops. I would take the latter further and suggest that the people who built the dolmen made a significant connection between the passage of the low, mid-winter sun and the sunlight-catching beauty of these schists.

We leave here with a last glance (photo 14). Looking into its interior in the late afternoon light, the dolmen opens out towards anyone standing here; their view controlled by great flanges of schist on each side of the entrance. In this light, at this time of a winter’s day, the whole dolmen looks like a deliberate, specular assemblage.

(14) The dolmen entrance passage in the late afternoon

(14) The dolmen entrance passage in the late afternoon light

Leaving the dolmen, and rejoining Circuit 1, my walk continues anticlockwise around the head of the Gaoutabry valley. While the dolmen is still on my mind, I am paying attention again to the wider environment. Views into the valley confirm my earlier sense of the well-defined relationship between the local topography and land use (photo 15).

(15) The Gaoutabry valley from near the dolmen

(15) The Gaoutabry valley from near the dolmen

The evergreen character of the dense vegetation above the valley floor is also striking. In places, where cork oaks do not form a continuous canopy, the extensive ground cover of herbs and other shrubby plants is obvious (photo 16). If I have an impression of walking through a natural primary forest, it is misleading. The primary forests were exploited and cleared by the Neolithic people and their descendants, and the present woodland may have re-established itself only as human use of the land has diminished in modern, industrial times.[10]

(16) Cork oaks among the matorral scrub

(16) Cork oaks among the matorral scrub

These remarks are, in effect, a warning not to take present differences in land use, as seen in photo 15, too literally as an indication of how the Gaoutabry valley has looked ‘for all time’. It may be a very modern landscape, in which only the lower, best slopes and soils are put to profitable use, especially for vines, while the vegetation of the upper slopes is largely left to fend for itself, except as cover for recreational hunting.

Even so, it’s the present topography that catches the eye and feeds the imagination. Walking farther around the valley side, it becomes possible to look back into the head of the valley, to where the dolmen occupies the top of the ridge immediately adjacent to the conical hill of the Signal de Favanquet (photo 17). Here, vineyards occupy all the relatively flat land right up to foot of the steep slope below the dolmen. It is tempting to imagine that the ancient occupants of this valley could see the dolmen site from their homes and fields, and made a path from there, up the steep slope, to the dolmen.

(17) The dolmen site at the head of the valley

(17) The dolmen site at the head of the valley

Perhaps such a path did connect life in the valley with ritual occasions at the dolmen. But my imagination is affected by a contemporary landscape that may have little relationship with how this valley was, thousands of years ago. Perhaps what matters is that this walk has become charged with some sense of a relationship between an archaeological site and the landscape of which it is a part, including the intimate space of the Gaoutabry valley. My interpretations and speculations are provisional and circumstantial, and what matters more than being right or wrong is an engagement with the landscape through walking, observing and reflecting. Anyway, the landscape – as it has been and is now – is untouched by whatever I might think. It is always strange and, in this place, the presence of the dolmen simply heightens that impenetrable strangeness.

Eventually, the circuit takes me back into the valley bottom, through the vineyards and farms towards the parking area. The light at dusk on the vines and daisies is beautiful (photo 18).

(18) Evening light on the vineyards

(18) Evening light on the vineyards


 

 


Notes

[1] Pouy, Jean-Michel. 2015. Var: Les plus belles randonnées. Grenoble: Éditions Glénat.

[2] The relevant 1:25000 scale walking map is IGN 3446 OT Hyères.

[3] Strictly, the Southern daisy (Pâquerette d’automne, Bellis sylvestris).

[4] Matorral is a new term in mediterranean studies that replaces local language equivalents for the scrublands and undergrowth of the hills, such as garrigue and maquis. See: Martin, Philippe et les Écologistes de l’Euzière. 2011. La nature méditérranéenne. Paris: Delachaux et Niestlé: 47.

[5] Schists are metamorphic rocks; ie, rocks that have been recrystallised by being subjected to very high temperatures and pressures deep in the Earth’s crust. The schists at Gaoutabry are rich in muscovite (white mica); a platy, reflective clay mineral.

[6] These surfaces may look like ripples in beach sand, but are a product of their metamorphic structure.

[7] Park, Chris. 2007. Oxford Dictionary of Environment and Conservation. Oxford University Press: 301.

[8] http://www.geoastro.de/SolsticeAzimuth/index.html

[9] I didn’t appreciate this possibility while I was at the site, where it is possible that trees would now obscure such a view at the moment of the winter solstice, but compare photos 9 and 15.

[10] Martin, ibid.: 71. Forest fires can also reduce this vegetation but, in historical terms, it may recover quickly.

© Paul Griffiths 2016

Summer 2015, drawings

Summer 2015 – a season’s drawings

© Paul Griffiths 2015

This is a note on the work I have been doing through a long summer between coming to the end of the OCA printmaking course in March, and taking a holiday in early September. The unusually hot Mediterranean summer has made sustained effort difficult, and I haven’t done very much. Yet I have been drawing, mostly in sketchbooks, have made a few watercolours, and have worked on three oil paintings. I have been reading a lot, which has fed into the art work in several ways. My main purpose here is self-critique. I concentrate on work done in two sketchbooks and one watercolour,[1] and place all this loosely within the framework of this summer’s reading.

Exactly what has been read is unimportant. One thing prompted another, and I followed complicated trails, Cézanne always present at the crossroads, and Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Bonnard signposting early and middle 20th century French modernism. Biographies of Cézanne,[2] Braque[3] and Matisse[4] were particularly significant. These have given me more insight into the social-personal world in which these people made work, tried to make a living from it, and vied with each other in reputation-building. Biographies can demonstrate how each artist’s work has developed, although neither entirely nor simply, in interaction and counteraction with that of their antecedents and peers. The making of modern art has been as highly social an affair as it has been highly individual.

Orchids and other house plants

Orchids and other house plants

The first two works up are still lifes. This one, of house plants, mainly served to get me going, once the printmaking was out of the way. There is an evident interest in spatial relationships: spacing, positive and negative shapes, sense of rhythm across the plane of paper. If it is also about observational rigour, then I have not resolved the issue of where the plants and pots are placed in space. The small table that supports them has folding legs that form a complicated pattern. I decided not to draw them, to avoid further visual complication, and to sustain an image that is centralised within the page. But there is something here that I am not risking.

Zambian head, bakelite inkpot, feathers and dip pen

Zambian head, bakelite inkpot, feathers and dip pen

I did more still lifes through April and May. This one, including a wood carving of a head, relates directly to what I was reading at that time. In the hands of Matisse, Picasso and other modernists, the established genre of the still life was understood in terms of new possibilities of formal and personal-psychological expression, and an interest in ‘the primitive’ was a strong part of that. I see the latter dimly reflected in my geological life and associated periods of work in Africa and elsewhere. The carved head is a memento from living in Zambia at the end of the seventies. The dip pen, bridging the space between the head and inkpot, was found in the courtyard of a house that I and my geological colleagues occupied on the bank of the Nile in northern Sudan, thirty years ago. We were working in deep desert and returning now and then to this pleasant oasis. Yet none of this personal experience is present in my drawing, which is good enough as another formal exercise but does not take anything further than that.

I began to draw outdoors in April, in the area of the oak wood and the small dry valley (vallon) that separates the wood from our property.

Looking across the vallon

Looking across the vallon

This example is characteristic of what I try to achieve in such drawings, which I associate with intimate landscape studies in the French sous bois tradition. The scene needs some decoding. I am sitting at the top of one bank of the vallon, looking across its floor to the opposite bank, which is marked by bands of limestone, several small oaks, and the fall of light from the afternoon sun. Except for some random patches of hatching, the trees that form the wood beyond the vallon are entirely omitted, as I felt that whatever I did to depict them would only detract from this visual-mental image of the vallon bank, in which a ‘hard’ structure of rocks and trees struggles to assert itself against the ephemeral structure of the fall of sunlight.

That’s a decently accurate record of what I understood myself to be doing at the time. What has to be added is how important it is to me to feel present in the experienced and drawn space. So such landscape studies have a phenomenological aspect, at least in terms of what I intend for myself.[5] I can’t say what the viewer of these works may experience.

A new subject has been opened up for me by recent work on the lane passing our property which, as a bye-product, has created a small platform at road level where I can look over the house into the woods beyond the vallon. Through early summer, I made several drawings and some watercolours of this view. Three are reproduced here; one of the watercolours first, as it gives some idea of the overall scene, followed by drawings that were made before and after it.

Rossignol woods, watercolour, 23 x 31 cm

Rossignol woods, watercolour, 23 x 31 cm

Rossignol woods, drawing 1

Rossignol woods, drawing 1

Rossignol woods, drawing 2

Rossignol woods, drawing 2

These represent the more successful attempts to make coherent sense of this scene, looking into deep space. The house roof is very close to where I am sitting. The telephone pole is about 40 metres away, while the far ridge, topped with a line of black pines, is roughly 500 metres away. I found that I couldn’t cope with the whole panorama, so only some early drawings (not shown) and this watercolour include the foreground around the house.

This is a different problem from working with the intimate, enclosed spaces of the vallon drawings. In this case, the visual complexity of a mass of trees cannot be so easily avoided. Some individuals and groups of trees, notably the black pines, ‘declare themselves’ clearly, by colour, tone and distinctive structures. So they tend to attract the attention and the act of drawing, at the expense of the much more difficult areas occupied by oaks, chestnuts and other trees. How could I make sense of such arboreal variety on the paper? I tried different strategies, but nothing quite cohered, and this project was a limited success.

Early summer storm

Early summer storm

This drawing is a response to an event. One day in early June, I was in the studio, undecided about what to do. Postponing a decision, I looked out of a window that faces in the direction of the coast, down the escarpment and 20 kilometres away. I could see that thunderheads were building up in the coastal area, then realised that they were growing and spreading rapidly. For the next hour or so, I alternated between taking photographs and working on this drawing, which became a composite of weather events. Eventually, as it rained ferociously and lightning was striking in the neighbouring woods, I had to change priorities and go out in the weather to check that all our drains were clear, otherwise we could be flooded.

The only technical comment that is needed is that the drawing of foreground (land) elements became so strongly tonal and structured, to establish a frame for the developing clouds and lightning strikes. Then everything else is to do with this ephemeral, shifting drama, including a moment in which a small group of swifts, caught off guard, fly out of the storm’s path.

Is this a study of the Sublime? I was responding to a drama in Nature on a magnitude beyond human control; to interpret that drama and, in some sense, be part of it. Yet, if the experience of the Natural Sublime induces fear and poses a threat to one’s identity, then this was not my case, at least not in any strong sense. Having to expose myself to the torrential rain and lightning while I checked drains was the only moment in which I felt truly threatened. But that’s all I want to say about this. Part of the point of this drawing is that it is an occasional piece; an immediate response to actual events, with all the roughness that must accompany such drawing.

As the hot summer wore on, it became increasingly difficult to work outside, so I mainly took advantage of the shaded parts of the garden or house. Several drawings were made in these conditions through July and August, one of which is illustrated next.

The house terrace

The house terrace

This was begun while I was in a drowsy state produced by a session with an osteopath earlier in the day. I am sitting indoors where I can look out of an open glass door and, with small turns of the head, look either inside the house or, more interestingly, outside, across the terrace, to a group of trees where we feed the woodland birds. Even when not looking directly outdoors, I am aware of the movement of the tree branches in the light wind, registered indirectly as a yellow-green flickering of light.

I hardly wake up while drawing, and am surprised at the end by how controlled it is, and how much detail has been registered, including some sense of the movement in the branches. It has helped that I have drawn the group of trees and their bird feeders often, but such experience does not guarantee of a good drawing.

By this stage of the summer, my reading has brought me to Bonnard, whose drawings I have admired since seeing them at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, in 1984.[6] The writing on Bonnard is relatively scattered but usually very good, as he has attracted some strong admirer-critics, such as the late Sargy Mann. The text that has given me a fresh insight into Bonnard’s work is John Elderfield’s essay, in the catalogue of a New York show of the late paintings.[7]

This drawing, with its transition between inside and out, and contrast between near and distant, is in part a response to that reading. It is also an extension of my more intimate outdoor drawings, such as Looking across the vallon. My reading of Elderfield’s essay has alerted me, not only to how Bonnard organised a painting but also to how he also organises and manipulates the viewer’s viewing. I come nowhere near that, but the awareness of such issues has sharpened the way in which I have brought this drawing together.

The false cypress

The false cypress

I end with two drawings made in early September. The subject of the first is a False cypress (a relation of the slender Provençal cypress) that stands just inside the entrance to our property. When we first moved here, ten years ago, we took little notice of this bush, because it was so small and had been planted by the previous owners in a visually dead position. It is now becoming a handsome bush; large and striking enough to impose itself on its unfortunate placement. Once again, I was simply looking for subject matter by walking around, and decided that this bush should be given proper attention at last.

The decision to omit as much of the surrounding setting as possible follows on from the decision to place the bush centrally and prominently within the sketchbook page. Otherwise, a complicated scene of walls, paths, trees and bushes would have greatly detracted from this strikingly simple, almost geometrically perfect conical form. This form, including its natural departures from geometric perfection, became the subject. It would have been possible to overwork this, making too much of botanical detail or the fall of light. My feeling is that I found a workable balance between loose handling and definition of the overall form, as it was experienced, in that afternoon light.

Conus shell and crow’s feather

Conus shell and crow’s feather

Can the same be said of this final still life of a Conus shell and a crow’s black feather? In the choice of a conical form, it follows on from the False cypress drawing, which I sought to complicate by adding the feather (the shell and the feather have appeared in several other drawings over the years). I felt that the False cypress drawing is a marked success, and I wanted to follow it with a similar success. This, for me, whatever its technical qualities, is why this drawing fails. Perhaps ‘fails’ is too strong, but I don’t feel at ease with it.

Writing this critique of a summer’s work makes me aware that, beyond the basic impetus ‘to draw’, I draw for different purposes and in different states of mind. There doesn’t seem to be much of a Master Plan, of the kind: I draw such and such subject matter, in such and such formal-stylistic terms, with such and such intentions. What, how and why I draw is obviously not entirely chaotic, but there is equally obviously a diversity of approach that seems to be largely incidental to the perceived needs of each moment and each drawing.

I don’t have a big problem with this state of affairs, yet wonder how anyone who looks at my drawings would understand my shifting interests and intentions, as they must register them through the evidence of the drawings themselves. What interests me most here, though, is not real viewers – those people who actually look at and give some thought to my work – but my ‘implied viewers’ who always seem, in my imagination, to be present as witnesses to what I do. If my intentions, however ill-defined, are always shifting their ground, then, within that same procedure of the imagination, the identity of my implied viewers is also liable to shift.

I think that I imagine the relationships between myself ‘as artist’, the work I am making at any one time, and my implied viewers, in such terms that the viewers’ interests and intentions are understood (all strictly within my imagination) as mapping onto mine in some degree. That is, I assume that we think in more or less the same artistic language, but without an assumption of their approval: they watch, understand, criticise; I grit my teeth.

I could propose that my implied viewers are people who I do know. But that does not suit their imaginary status. Things can get too personal. If I must identify my implied, imagined viewers at all, then I can get better traction if I relate them to my reading through this long summer. So it seems to me that I have been drawing under the (imagined) gaze of Cézanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Braque and, for that Zambian carved head, even Picasso. I don’t mean that the imagination works as literally as that, but putting the case in such terms is far better than supposing that I work in a vacuum chamber, entirely alone with my subject, my materials and my abstract, impersonal thoughts.

I have said already that the making of modern art has been as social a business as it has been individual. Through this summer, part of what I have learned, or understood more clearly, is how complicated this personal-social complex can be, including an apparently anachronistic dimension in which artists working generations after the lives of the great French modernists can still have an imaginative and productive working relationship with their world of work.

It’s not been a bad summer.


[1] One of these sketchbooks is A4-size, hardbound; the other is 35.6 x 28 cm, spiral bound.

[2] Danchev, Alex. 2012. Cézanne: A Life. London: Profile Books.

[3] Danchev, Alex. 2012. Georges Braque: A Life. New York: Arcade (first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, 2005).

[4] Spurling, Hilary. 1998, 2005. A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908 and The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

[5] I have in mind Merleau-Ponty’s writings on Cézanne and others, collected in: Johnson, Galen A (editor). 1993. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

[6] Harrison, Michael, with Judith Kimmelman (editors). 1984. Drawings by Bonnard. London: Arts Council of Great Britain.

[7] Amory, Dita (editor). 2009. Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors. New York, New Haven and London: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Yale University Press.

Winter, 2015

Winterwoodblock with back-drawing

This is the last of the prints made for the OCA course. It follows on closely, conceptually and technically, from Journey. It combines single-block and multiblock relief printing, with back-drawing, much as in Journey, while the close attention paid to procedures yields good results.

the work

  • bokuju, water and oil-based colours on paper; 46.0 x 30.0 cm
  • studio work: 24.02-07.03.15
  • sketchbook18: 10-13; sketchbook 19: 23, 24
  • notebook 13: 56-58
  • artworks record and photography: 2015-03-07
  • OCA Printmaking 1, Part 5, exercise 42; documented 08.03.15, revised 03.04.16

resources

  • blocks/plates: 2 plyblocks 45 x 30 cm, acrylic plate 42 x 30 cm
  • registration: cut line on-the-block for the plyblocks
  • printing papers: 12 sheets single-ply semi-sized pizhi (bark paper), 45 x 30 cm
  • inks and printing tools: bokuju, Sakura printing colours, Chinese water-based colour, and oil-based printing ink for the back-drawing

[1] CONCEPTION OF THE PRINT DESIGN

Conceptually and technically this print is similar, at a general level, to the previous print, Journey. One difference is that the design would not settle down easily. Another is that I decided to work with a thin, handmade Chinese paper. This had interesting implications for how I could work with woodblock printing and for how I could refine the final printed image.

As with Journey and other prints, the basic idea was that this print would be based on walks made in a particular period, in a particular area. Having made these decisions for this print, I began to work on a design and to produce several sketchbook drawings, confident that things would unfold as neatly as they had done for Journey. However, after a couple of afternoons of this, I realised that a sense of a whole image – a collage of drawings from photographs and existing sketchbook drawings – was not coming together and that there was no way forwards with the material that I had in hand. I think the basic problem was that I began work on the design with a clear conception of what I wanted from the available materials, but those materials, the existing drawings and photographs, would not yield a workable image.

OK, so I started again, concentrating on another area and on walks taken there mainly over the winter of 2013-14. The area in question is a massive escarpment with a densely wooded backslope. As with the walks and resulting materials used for Journey, part of the interest of this area is that these scrubby, dominantly oak woodlands are not old growth and, rather, hide the remains of an agricultural landscape that has been abandoned and left to the growth of oaks only in recent decades. On the ground, this recent archaeology is most obvious in the ruins of stone terraces (restanques), buried in the trees, some derelict farmhouses, some large oaks, like the one included in Journey, and, every now and then, some fields that are still mainly open and were probably still being tilled and planted until quite recently.

Part of the area in question is also supposed to be a nature reserve, and there used to be some information panels describing the (ancient) archaeological and natural historical riches of this place. However, the local commune has decided that cheap electrical power is more important, and much of the area of the reserve is now covered with a vast field of solar panels. Perhaps the local officials are right but I still regret the loss of a large stand of Atlantic Cedar from this area.

All this is barely suggested in the final design: a ruined farmhouse wall, tracks produced by heavy industrial vehicles cutting through the garrique, my shadow stretching across an abandoned field in the low winter sunlight. It’s enough (fig. 1).

(1) working on the final design

(1) working on the final design

 

[2] TECHNICAL PLANNING

My thoughts about the actual printing process developed almost as slowly as the design, and some critical decisions were taken only after the design was settled. Most of this does not need discussion here since it is technical ground that has been covered thoroughly in several previous prints. However, the following four decisions were critical:

  1. to print on a handmade pizhi (bark paper) obtained from a supplier in the USA;[1]
  2. to use two plyblocks, one of which is faced with an interesting grain on one side, so I want to try printing this side ‘blind’, without an image, in an attempt to pick up the pattern of the grain in the pizhi;
  3. a decision not to pre-dampen the papers, contrary to all my practice with woodblock prints so far, and with the thought that the initial blind printing may be enough to dampen these thin papers for all stages of the relief printing;
  4. some back-drawing is to be included.

 

[3] PREPARING AND CUTTING THE PLYBLOCKS

The print was to be based on four sides of two plyblocks, designated sides A-D, and some back-drawing would to be done separately, at the end, in whatever manner becomes most appropriate at that stage (figs. 2-4). A confusion between blocks B and C is possible here because I changed them around after cutting them.

(2) transferring and modifying the design on the block

(2) transferring and modifying the design on the block

(3) sides A and C ready for printing

(3) sides A and C ready for printing

(4) sides B and D ready for printing

(4) sides B and D ready for printing

 

[4] PRINTING THE PLYBLOCKS

These decisions were made, partly in advance of and partly during printing (figs. 5-9):

  • side A – printed blind with dilute Sakura blue;
  • side B – (1) the track is printed with Sakura green; (2) the shadow is printed with a mix of Sakura blue (the last of the tube), Chinese sky blue and bokuju; (3) the ruined wall is printed with a dilute version of (2);
  • side C – (1) the track is printed with Sakura warm brown, and (2) part of the wall with a dilute version of (1);
  • side D – (1) the track outlines with bokuju, slightly diluted, and (2) the wall linework with a well-diluted mix of bokuju and Chinese sky blue.
(5) side A – printing in progress

(5) side A – printing in progress

(6) side A – a completed print

(6) side A – a completed print

(7) side B – printing in progress

(7) side B – printing in progress

(8) side C – a completed print at this stage

(8) side C – a completed print at this stage

(9) side D – at the end of relief printing, preparing for back-drawing

(9) side D – at the end of relief printing, preparing for back-drawing

 

[5] BACK-DRAWING

Fig. 9 also shows the beginnings of preparation for back-drawing. I had had time to think about it, and decided that all I wanted was a simple line for the silhouette of the hill, and some judicious smudging, to suggest the mass of the hill and the air around it. This was a good moment to use up the last of a tube of dense black, oil-based printing ink that I have had in stock for about 20 years. The method was exactly the same as that used for Journey, with the addition that progress was checked after the line has been drawn and, if necessary, the paper was smudged into the ink a little with the finger tip (fig. 10).

(10) back-drawing in progress

(10) back-drawing in progress

 

[6] FINAL RESULTS

Of the twelve sheets of pizhi that I began with, four were rejected at different stages for various reasons and eight were deemed satisfactory-to-good (fig. 11). Fig. 12 reproduces the print that I am particularly happy with, which is the fourth from the left in fig. 11.

(11) eight sheets at the end of printing

(11) eight sheets at the end of printing

(12) Winter, 2015; 46.0 x 30.0 cm

(12) Winter, 2015; 46.0 x 30.0 cm

 

[7] COMMENT

There is a not a lot that needs saying, as the critical general observations about my thinking for these experimental and combinagtions prints have been made in the documentation for the previous three prints. The only comment that I do want to make about this print is that it seemed as though it was on the verge of failure, for all sorts of reasons, from the start, at the design stage, and well into the printing process. Yet, in the event, I much better pleased with the result than I thought I would be until the eight sheets were hung on the wall, where I could review them all properly.

© Paul Griffiths 2016


[1] OAS (Oriental Art Supply), whose papers I have used for a long time. This pizhi is single-ply, so very thin, and were it not for the strength and length of the fibres, it would be almost impossibly fragile. Classically, a pizhi is made mainly of kozo (paper mulberry) and other bark fibres, but, in this case, the paper is flecked with what look like bits of wood pulp.