Often, when I describe the process I used to create the prints for Back and Forth people ask, “why did you do that?”. Admittedly, in the age of hi-res scanning and photography, adobe illustrator, corel draw and MS paint (still a personal favourite), I could have made this book in a variety of ways that would have taken less time and labour.
Well, here is the secret that pushed me to take on this process: I really love to do it. There is a building tension when working on a (block) print, a mystery about so many aspects of the process, how it will develop and differ from what you expected, how you negotiate with what comes. There is something good about things that need time to develop. Over the months, the narrative evolved as well as my style and carving capabilities.
Some words on the process:
It all began with a freaking huge piece of linoleum.
Actually, it began with 100 tiny boxes drawn on five sheets of paper, with stick figure pencil depictions of the story. (It started before that, with an inkling, inspiration, desire and then support from my professor and peers, but these are more amorphous parts of the process.)
I tried to get feedback on the story, but the tiny scribbles were only understandable to my own eyes and I had to forge on believing that I wasn’t chasing down a lost cause. I ordered 5 feet of linoleum from a wonderful flooring store at College and Ossington Ave. I picked it up a few days later and carried the heaviest roll of anything home (I took the streetcar most of the way).
At home I unrolled the gray linoleum on my living room floor. It barely fit between the couches. With a ruler, knife and carpenter’s square, I cut the lino into long strips and then cut the strips into smaller pieces, a bit bigger than 8×10 inches.
I went to a hardware store and bought the most gorgeous piece of high-grade birch plywood you’ve ever seen. I had it cut down to 30 8x10ish pieces on their super cool automated saw.
I glued the linoleum to the wood, clamping each block in a book press until it dried. With the assistance of the lovely George Walker and the wonderful Justin Labine, the pieces were cut down on a table saw to roughly 4×5.
At this point, I had about 120 pieces of mounted lino. A few blocks were cut too small or crooked and I put them aside for future projects.
I started working on the blocks in sections of ten. First I would sand the linoleum with 3 grits of sand paper to get rid of its bumpy texture which would have shown up in the print. Then I would translate the stick-scribbles into drawings directly onto the linoleum.
Block printing is a backwards process. You carve away the parts of the print that will be white, whatever you don’t cut will be black. The print will also be in reverse of what you have carved on the block, like a mirror, meaning everything you draw is done backwards. Because of this, a lot of people work out their images first, then transfer them in reverse onto the lino block. I like to live on the experimental side of things. I thought that the images would have more life if they were immediate rather than reworked, mastered. Personally, the emotive, expressionistic aspect of art objects has always appealed to me more than the ability to replicate reality through realistic representation.
Once I drew out ten blocks, I would then carve them, at the same time starting the sanding and drawings of the next ten blocks. The carved blocks would be test-printed. With a test print, I could evaluate what needed to be emphasized or changed. Almost every block required additional carving before it was finished.
Finally, when all the blocks were carved and tested and edited, I printed the whole book in three glorious days on a Vandercook Press. First, you clamp the block into the press bed using metal shapes called furniture to keep it in place. Then, you put ink on the rollers, and feed the paper into the press and make a print. Seems simple, but with 90 blocks at 20 prints per block, it quickly adds up to 1800 prints! Wild! All in less thank a week, thanks to the wonderful help of my shop assistants: Sara Titanic, Emily Doyle-Yamaguchi and Sarah Feldbloom. You guys were the best and saved me in my time of need!
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Tags: art, block cutting, block printing, book, books, graphic novel, lino cut, printmaking, process, toronto, vancouver