Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jig Trouble

Beginner's luck, that's what I'm calling my last month of success with the registration jig. I've pulled hundreds of impressions with fantastic registration and no problems.

[Jig and print]

Well, that run came to an end today. I decided to try cranking up the press tension 1/4 of a millimeter. On the first print with the new setting, one of the registration pegs sheared off.

"Huh. Must have been a weak spot in the wood," I thought to myself. Uh, nope! The next impression sheared off another peg. Then another and another.

[Last print with two sheared pegs stuck in the paper.]

Ah, well! This is why I use the CNC cutter, right? I can just make a new one. Well, yeah, I can. But maybe I should have had more coffee first. I was apparently asleep at the wheel.

[Ink missed the paper]

See those skipped spots on the print? It must have been badly inked, right?

[Ink still on the block]

Well, no. The ink is still sitting there on the block. What!? Why?

[Hanger slot from when this piece of wood was going to be a sign]

Oh, look at that! There's a bit of support structure that's missing from the jig. It didn't seem like a big deal when I carved it. I mean, the block is 1/2" thick birch. It wouldn't flex so much over such a short distance that it totally misses the paper, would it?

Well, yes, it would. Back to the wood shop. This time I'll pay closer attention.

Friday, January 29, 2016

First Test With Cobalt Drier

Yahoo! My shipment of printmaking chemicals arrived today, chief among them the cobalt drier that I couldn't wait to try. Here is the first layer of the first test...

[Transparency gradient test]

When you look up close at the last four prints, you can see that I experienced my first challenge with the drier. It made the ink thicken up while I was working. In the following image, you'll notice that #1 is nice and smooth. #2 has uneven coverage because the ink was thickening on the slab. #3 has even more blotchy areas of poor coverage. In #4, I'm compensating by layering some extra ink onto the plate, but I still have poor coverage.

[The last four prints]

[The second to last, up close]

[One drop of cobalt drier and one drop of black in a pool of transparent tint base]

The real tests will be tonight and tomorrow when I lay down the next layers. If the drier has done its job, the next layers will sit on top instead of blending with the previous layers. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Local Pigments: Diversion or Time Investment

I really am trying to avoid "rabbit holes" while I develop the new printmaking business. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a diversion and the development of a personal style. This next little project is right on the edge.

The mountainous area where I live is rich in natural pigment minerals. We have a vein of deep red clay on the ridge where I hike all the time. There is so much pure clay that there was once a brick factory in the town on the other side of that ridge. Five miles away is at least one vein of gold ochre that washes into the creek.

[Red Ochre and its source]

[A collection of pigment stones - black, green, red, three shades of gold.]

I'm going to go on a tiny tangent and see if I can powder these stones finely enough to use them as pigments in my own homemade printmaking inks, and here's why...

Selling craftwork, in my experience, is all about selling the story behind it. When people see my new body of work, I want them to understand that my artwork is intimately tied to my lifestyle. With the weaving, I bridged that gap by showing folks pictures of my yurt-based studio as a way to understand my methods and my motivation for doing what I do.

The new work will contain lots of imagery from the nature that I see every day, but I'd love to be able to take it up a notch and include minerals that I find on my hikes into the work itself. Eventually, I'd like to pay for hiking trips by visiting places with unusual pigment stones and adding them to my collection of art materials.

The new story, in a nutshell, is that I have found a creative outlet that allows me to deepen my relationship to natural places, and to make a small part of my nature experience available for others to bring into their lives.

That said, I also need to be mindful of the return on my investment of time to develop this portion of the art. I cannot let it become a diversion that prevents me from producing the work I need to get my business off the ground. If it starts to take up too much time, I'll shelve it and use commercially available pigments until some future point when I can afford to invest time into using raw pigments.

Such is life! It's a balancing act between what I want to do and what I can afford to do.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ink Layering, More Learning

Remember how I learned about drying one ink layer before printing the next one? Well, what I haven't learned yet is how to tell if the previous layers are dry. In past experiments I baked the prints in a toaster oven and let them sit for 24 hours. In this experiment, I did not bake them in the oven. I thought that transparent tint base and/or plate oil was allowing the layers to dry in just one day. I was wrong.

The strange thing is that the layers didn't blend together right away like they have in the past. They blended when I baked them. After printing the fourth layer, I could see that the ink was thick and glossy so I decided to bake the prints to dry all four layers more quickly.

[Unbaked on the left, baked on the right]

In the image above, I was testing the results of printing light inks first with darker inks over them, varying the transparency for each print. The blending of lower layers with upper layers is most apparent in the area on the lower left where there is yellow below black. The yellow bled into the black, giving the appearance of sitting on top of it.

[unbaked vs baked]

Again in this image, the blending is apparent after baking. In this case the orange is printed over the black. Baking causes the black to blend forward, mostly obliterating the little opacity that I was able to achieve.

[Viscosity effect?]

One last complication with overprinting on inks that aren't quite dry is an inadvertent masking effect. You can see on the plate that wet black ink is lifting from the print, preventing all of the orange ink from being laid down.

I cannot afford to bake my prints to ensure that they're dry. Before the year is over, I'll be taking the printmaking studio off the grid and moving it up the hill into the yurt where I have no electricity. I've already ordered the drying agents that I expect to use for speeding up the drying of each layer before printing the next one. After seeing the weird results from these tests, those tins of drying agents can't arrive soon enough!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Marketable Experiments, Semi-Scientific Method

Weeks ago I stopped trying to produce the kind of art that I want to produce in order to focus on learning the basic qualities of my ink. I think I've finally got a decent enough grasp of those basics that I can start producing work with some level of control over the outcome. I've still got lots of "student experiments" to conduct but I've reached the point where my results are consistently decent.

The reason I need to do so many experiments is that ink is complex. There's hue, which I've pretty much got nailed. I can mix up any "color" of ink from the process primaries - cyan, magenta, and yellow. Then there are shades, which are created by adding black to these primaries. I'm pretty good at these, too. Walnut brown is orange and black, for instance.

Then, there are tints, which can be created by adding white or making the ink more transparent to reveal the underlying paper. This gets complex because transparency also reveals the inks on layers beneath, mixing colors together in complex ways. With 4 transparent layers, there are 14 permutations of 1, 2, and 3 ink colors. And this layering is not easy to predict. Tints and shades are almost never mutually exclusive. Think of the 1980's with all those beiges, and tinted greys. (Some folks use the word "tone" to describe a color that is both a tint and a shade. This class of colors is pretty much all that many artists use, so I'm not convinced that it needs a word or that the word is meaningful in actual use.)

Then there are other factors like ink layer thickness and paper weight that effect the result. There are production methods like the addition of drying agents, tack reducers, and opacity enhancers that will affect the result. It's going to take a long time to even partially master the ways that each factor affects the final print.

In a turn away from my normal, scientific nature, I'm not measuring the inks in my experiments. I'm testing certain qualities of the ink with each test, but I'm mixing it all off the cuff and just looking at the results. Part of the reason for this is that the quantities I'm dealing with are TINY. It's impossible to reliably measure. "Did I add .15 grams of black or .16? Isn't there still about .04 grams still stuck on the palette knife?" Another part of my reasoning is that I want this next art form to be handled more intuitively. I want to achieve the mastery that lets me open cans of ingredients, mix them together, and have a pretty good idea how they're going to affect the piece that's building up on the paper.

To build that intuition I've got to try lots of things, changing one particular aspect in each experiment and taking note of the results. And, to build up inventory to fill my booth this fall, it would behoove me to start focusing on making my experiments complex and beautiful enough that it isn't obvious that they're experiments. I'll be signing them and labeling each one "Trial Proof" to let folks know that they are unique.

Behold, the first geometric experiment idea!

[Simulated transparency experiment]

The shapes are complex enough to hold a viewer's attention, and there are multiple locations of each ink layering permutation so that I can see how each resulting color interacts with the colors around it.

[Geometric experiment block]

Here's the block that will produce this result. It's a fairly simple shape.

[Two exercises on the drying rack]

[Experiments on the table]

And here are the first two experiments that I'm running with this new block. In both sets, you can see that I'm testing the results of slowly adding pigment to a transparent base. The orange-ish set is a viscous ink. The black set is a watery ink, created with lots of plate oil. I think that the resulting print will not have the problems that I've seen in the past with ink layering up until it takes many days to dry the final layer. I don't know, however what sort of transparency tradeoff I'll be making with that reduced ink load.

That's why it's an experiment, right?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Business Development Outline

I know I'm a little late for an introspective New Year post, but it is the time for me to plan out the year. This year is going to be a bit different since I'll be spending half of my time developing a new business and the other half running the business that I already have.

Here's an outline of how I plan to have the printmaking business just off the ground by May 1. There will be some multi-tasking, but this outline is mostly meant to be followed top-to-bottom. If things go anything like I plan, I'll start the year with nothing but some equipment and a dream and end the year with a retail booth full of my printmaking work.

  • Education
    • Focus on specific skills
      • ink opacity
      • color layering
      • ink drying additives
      • image processing
    • Study historical artists
    • Research current artists
  • Product Development
    • Focus on one style
    • Develop products appropriate for each size
  • Production
    • Develop faster system for processing images to generate color separations
    • Develop faster and more accurate system for registering and carving blocks
    • Design and build print organizing system
    • Design and build drying racks
    • Develop systems for printing and drying multiple large projects at once
    • Record-keeping is an important part of print work.
  • Merchandising
    • Develop and invest in protection for prints
      • Cellophane envelopes
      • Matting
      • Framing
  • Marketing
    • Online
      • Store
      • Social Media
    • Galleries
      • Consignment
      • Shows
  • Retail Display
    • Propanels
    • Print bins
    • Lights
If I'm going to be ready to apply to higher-end shows in 2017, I'll need a new booth full of new work so that I can take a "booth shot" this coming fall to use in next year's applications. It's a big goal, but if I just stay focused and do a little bit every day I should be able to get there just in time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

More Experimentation: Transparency

So, I still feel like I have a lot of basics to cover before I'm ready to really start designing and producing artwork that's even sort of under my control. Since there is a lot of drying time required for each layer of these tests, I've begun the next experiment before the first one is finished.

In this last experiment, I was testing to see if drying the ink between layers gave me better and more reliable opacity. It did. I was also testing to see how light colors cover dark ones and vice versa. Darker colors at full opacity obliterate lighter ones. Lighter colors retain some transparency and blend a little bit with darker layers below them.

[Opacity tests]

The one that blended with the best range of resulting colors was the one that went from darkest to lightest. It's in the upper left of the previous photo.

In the next experiment, I'll be replicating that layer order from the previous test, but varying the transparency. Each layer series starts with pure transparent tint base. I add a little pigment before each print until the ink is pretty opaque.

[Transparency test]

This test should only take 4 or 5 days depending on how quickly the inks with transparent base dry.

[Plate with two big gouges]

I learned a big lesson at the end of the day today. Pay attention to everything! I wipe my plates on newspaper before wiping them down with rags to clean them at the end of the day. Well, this newspaper had sat on a lower shelf and had apparently gotten a piece of gravel kicked into it. When I placed the plate face down and rubbed I heard a sickening crunch. This tiny piece of gravel ruined this plate. So, tonight after work I'll be carving a new one. It's too bad, too, because I am currently designing a new "spot test" plate and was about to retire this one. Ah, well! Live and learn.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Homemade Bench Hook

It's funny how a simple tool can make such a big difference. I've been leaning the blocks against the edge of the ink slab to roll them. The angle was awkward and the height of the glass meant that I kept getting ink on the edge and besmirching the color on the brayer.

The answer was simple! I glued a strip onto the bottom of a board to hold it against the table. Then I glued some scrap wood to the far edge to give the block something to rest against.

[Rolling toward the corner]

[The "hook" part]

I know that I don't want to make another one when I roll larger plates, so I made sure that the strips on the far edge are wide enough to support them.

Simple tools help a lot!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Ink Layering: Does Drying Help?

I think I'm starting to get my head wrapped around the difficulties that I have with making an ink opaque enough to cover the inks below it. This is kind of a prerequisite to controlling the transparency in order to create complex tones from just a few plates.

The key seems to be drying any ink on the paper slowly and thoroughly before printing a new ink.

[Lime green over black]

In the image above, the black was printed yesterday, baked for 15 minutes at 200 degrees to accelerate the drying, and then left on a rack with good airflow to the front and back of the paper for 24 hours. The dry black ink did not bleed into the lime green at all, really.

Since it's going to take me at least 8 days to do a thorough test, I've decided to make extra sure of my results by printing a dozen tests with the layers appearing in various orders. Along with ensuring that the result that I see in one print is reflected in others, I'll also be able to get a feel for the ink layer ordering that makes the most sense. Is it dark-to-light, light-to-dark, or something else? With twelve prints, I'm not exhausting all of the combinations, but it's still more data than I really need. I think the answer will be obvious.

[Two days' printing]

[Prints spend all day on the rack]

When this test is done, I'll know whether or not I can get acceptable opacity from the litho inks I've been using by creating a workflow that allows all of the ink layers to dry thoroughly before printing a new one. When I finally reach the production stage with my printmaking, this will be easy. I'll just spend all day printing the next layer of whatever set of prints is completely dry. If no current set is ready for another layer, I'll print the first layer of a new set.

For now, though, I just have to practice patience. I can't rush the experiments that will lead to deep learning and quality results. I pull, bake, and rack a few prints every morning, and then spend the rest of the day on weaving or bookkeeping. Slow and steady wins the race. Soon I'll be in enough control of these processes that I will be able to just focus on design and creation.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ink Layering: Further Explorations

I should name this post "the more I learn the more I need to learn". If you remember, last week I was trying to jump in feet first and try to produce some artwork using layered oil-based lithography inks (Hanco) to create new tones. In that experiment, I realized that I'm just winging it when it comes to predicting, and then controlling, the results of multiple layers of ink.

Luckily, my best friend came to visit. He has a degree in printing and has worked in commercial print shops so he has hands-on experience with all of this stuff.

For the next little while, instead of trying to produce art, I'm just doing diagnostic experiments. I created a single block that can be rotated and printed four times to demonstrate all of the permutations of inks that those four layers are capable of producing. (I use the word permutation instead of combination because the layers are laid down in a specific order. There are way more combinations possible if I could change the ink orders.)

[Experiment 1: one hour on a radiator between layers]

The first thing to notice is how the layers blend together over time. Look how bright the teal over black looks in the first image compared to the second. Same with the lime over teal in the second and third images. Over time, something is happening to blend the colors. A) The inks are soaking into the paper. B) The lower inks are bleeding and darkening the lighter-colored wet ink on top. C) The top ink is becoming more transparent as it dries, revealing the darker inks below.

If it was A or B, letting the inks dry more thoroughly might help the situation. In the next experiment, bearing in mind that I'm trying to learn this stuff quickly, I baked the prints in a toaster oven at about 200 degrees for 15 minutes to cure the first 2 layers and 30 minutes once I saw the ink building up.

[Experiment 2: 15-30 minutes in a toaster oven between layers]

I noticed that the biggest difference in results happened in the spots where the last layer (yellow) was printed over the first layers (black and teal). Those layers had the most amount of baking, making them the driest. This tells me that I may be onto something - thoroughly drying ink layers before overprinting might lead to more predictable layering.

I also noticed that the yellow-over-black section did not cover as well as the sections with a higher ink load. I think this means that paper absorbency is a factor, too. After a paper has absorbed as much as it can, the inks start layering on each other. Until then, they seem to soak into the paper and blend together more in the process.

[Gloss from ink buildup]

Here are a couple shots that show how thick the ink is getting by the third and fourth layers. It's not absorbing into the paper much at all by layer 3.

Carl had another idea that could improve the results of layering - more opaque ink. The inks I'm using are litho process inks, and therefore quite transparent. To get the coverage that I do, I'm inking pretty heavily. I need to learn more about the types of ink that exist and find some that are more opaque to get the type of results that I want and do it with thinner layers that would allow greater detail in my designs. And thinner layers would likely lead to more behavior like the yellow-over-black in the second example, which means less less coverage. So the mythical new ink would probably need to have a LOT more opacity in order to work the way that I want it to.

See? The more I learn, the more there is to learn.

If you know anything about sourcing or mixing oil-based inks with a higher opacity and getting better multi-layer blends, please leave a comment. I'll give you lots of credit when I write up a whole blog post explaining what I did after I finally get it figured out. Thanks!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

More transparent ink exercises

In my last post I finished with a recognition that I was "skipping steps" by trying to control ink additives before learning the characteristics of the pure inks. This last exercise was a quick attempt to learn one thing - the coverage characteristics of pure pigmented inks with the addition of only opaque white.

[Two "pure pigment" inks, one with white]

[Opaque white in all inks. Coverage still "not there".]

The coverage still isn't there. I swear that the later inks covered better when I saw them fresh off the press, but the colors blended together on the paper as they dried, allowing the darker underlayer to overwhelm the lighter layer above it. Maybe the opaque white becomes more transparent as it dries and maybe layering wet inks allows the layers to blend together before the ink hardens.

At the end of this exercise, I can see the next thing to try. It will take time, but the next test will involve drying each layer before printing the next.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Dahlia Print: Transparent Inks

Yesterday was a big day of learning as I tried to grasp the controlled use of semi-transparent inks to create a greater range of tones in a printed image.

[Best print of the day]

The day began with a mistake that I didn't realize until I was way into it. I started by mixing the pigmented inks to get my hue, and then started adding tint base and opaque white to get the right coverage. This is exactly the opposite of how we were taught to mix paint in school, and now I remember why. It leads to waste.

[Purple with tint base and plate oil]

Here you can see it starting to go wrong. Notice the wax paper in the background where I've started collecting extra ink? Even at this point I still didn't remember the lesson from oil 101.

[Adding more tint base]

Despite my giant mistake, I was able to make some decent progress and achieve a little color mixing. See the spots in the deep shadows where the medium pink was laid over the deep purple? The layering is starting to show.

[Better coverage in the second ink]

Unfortunately, the day's work was also plagued with registration issues, which distracted me from focusing completely on the ink study.

[Better layering with a little registration problem]

By the end of the day I had wasted so much ink that I scooped it off into a jar. One day I'll have a use for a very transparent pastel purple.

[Jar of waste ink]

[Slab shot]

I did take some time out to replace the blade on my radial arm saw and build a new jig for cutting blocks. Each one is now perfectly square and exactly the same size. This should fix the little registration problems and let me focus completely on whatever my next lesson is supposed to be teaching me.

[Perfectly square and measured blocks]

I also has one happy accident where I inked and printed the wrong block, leading to an accidental "pop art" print. I like it! I may use this type of style intentionally in the future.

[Pop art dahlia]

At the end of the day I realized that I am in such a hurry to achieve good results that I've skipped a foundational lesson. I'm experimenting with additives as if I've already grasped the transparency of my base inks without plate oil, tint base, or opaque white. I have not done this. My next lesson will focus on the pigmented inks with white. I'll experiment with ink thickness and press settings to see what effects I get. Then I'll experiment with letting layers dry before adding the next ink. There are so many variables! A million chances to learn, right?