Category Archives: Artwork

Through The Haze Unnoticed

I’m now blogging on tumblr, where you can see stuff like this:

head over to Through The Haze Unnoticed

Water and Stone

The immaterial enters the impenetrable

This one was done as a monoprint on a zinc etching plate. It’s quite hard to capture the colour and texture on the paper but still it looks good to me.

~

What’s softest in the world

rushes and runs

over what’s hardest in the world.


The immaterial

enters

the impenetrable.


So I know the good in not doing.


The wordless teaching,

the profit in not doing –

not many people understand it.


from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, translation by Ursula K. Le Guin

Currently listening to: Scuba – Triangulation

Making natural ink / paint

I started thinking about making inks when I planned to apply to that Green and Away residence, because my project had to use materials from the fields and woods around the site. I planned to develop print making processes that were entirely based in the natural environment, so scratching into rocks or making woodcuts, that kinda thing, but also needed to work out how to make my own inks and paints in the same way.

Having done minimal amounts of research, I noticed that ink is basically just a pigment (coloured powder) mixed with oil. Ink can then be thickened using wax I believe. Making a pigment is fairly easy, so I started this with some soil from the garden.

Spreading the soil onto a tray, I grilled it for a while to try and remove as much moisture as I could.

I then ground some of this in a pestle and mortar, and heaped it onto a pane of glass to be mixed with a bit of vegetable oil.

Unfortunately this makes quite a gritty paste rather than a smooth ink, as you can see:

This means that the particles of soil are too big to mix properly with the oil, so that if painted on a page the oil stains the page while most of the soil separates into clumps:

the problem is not necessarily the method but the materials. The soil is much too sandy and granular, so that even after I’d put it through a seive, you could still see lots of tiny lumps of glass and rock within it if you looked very closely:

I tried mixing some spreadable butter into it, making a fairly smooth paste that could be rolled and used for simple monoprints:

Next I tried making some water based paint using some old onion skins. These were boiled in a small amount of water for 20 mins

After being boiled, they’d taken on a rich red colour, and the reduced water looked pretty awesome.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that on the page, but it still makes some nice yellow/sepia-ish washes like zis.

The darker patches on this picture also have some paprika and butter paint layered over the onion skin wash, tasty.

Next I tried grass, deciding to grind some fresh leaves with some vegetable oil.

The grass can then be clumped together and used to apply the grass oil onto the paper:

I was pretty pleased with this one

Some, like this one, had thick soil paint spread on the back and drawn into, which shows through the oily translucent paper:

Next I ordered a bottle of cold-pressed linseed oil, which is the best kind to mix oil paints.  I burned a few old envelopes to get a pile of ash, which was then ground in the pestle and mortar to form a fine, smooth grey pigment.

When mixed with the linseed oil it makes a really good syrupy paint

which can be painted on with ease. This one’s backlit by the way:

I’ve also used the ash paint for a bit of life painting with drawing over the top. The paint works really well, you can loosen it with more oil or turpentine and it dries with a really nice charcoal finish that works well with the added pencil patternation.

Currently listening to: Jah Wobble & The Chinese Dub Orchestra – Chinese Dub

Celebrating Mystery

It’s taken the magic combination of solitude, coffee and some incredible music to get me to write this blog post, which I fear will be epic. I also fear it may become some sort of manifesto. I’ll start with this:

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated,

it merges into oneness.

not bright above,

not dark below.

Never, oh! never

can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

to unbeing.

Call it form of the unformed,

the image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

we can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

we hold the thread of the Tao.

From Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, translation by Ursula K. Le Guin.

This and other words from the approximately 2600 year old Chinese text we know as the Tao Te Ching have been inspiring to me in many ways for a while now, but this body of work is the first that really responds to its ideas in a direct manner. I was originally developing this work with the view to applying to a residency at a conference centre called Green and Away. It’s a unique place, built entirely under canvas every year in some idyllic Worcestershire fields.

I was drawn to the residency because it would involve living outside in a rural location for a couple of months, using natural materials to respond to the immediate environment, and would certainly have been an amazing experience. I didn’t apply in the end because I realised they wanted someone to create a permanent artwork on the site, whilst my  idea was largely centred around an extremely impermanent proposition, as you will see later on.  Of course when I realised this I felt quite the buffoon, but actually I don’t mind at all because it’s led me to do some interesting new art, the background to which I will try and explain below.

~

I think that one of the most important things to learn – especially while studying subjects in depth at university – is to always be aware that everything you learn is to be questioned, mistrusted, and compared with alternative perspectives. Being able to apply this approach is more difficult than it may seem, because its very easy to get wrapped up in what some academic or philosopher or journalist is telling you and suddenly feel like your mind is made up on a subject. While at uni I became interested in questioning histories and myths through learning about post-modern theory, mainly in relation to music and film, and most fully through studying the work of Peter Greenaway. Forgive me the indulgence of quoting from my own dissertation, but studying Greenaway’s multi-disciplined Tulse Luper project allowed me to present him as:

“an artist working with the medium of cinema, whilst simultaneously existing within the tradition of fine art. This conclusion is made possible through the understanding of postmodernism as a discourse that allows the acceptance of paradoxes as a satisfactory method of understanding; that the notion of simultaneity allows us reconcile seemingly inharmonious aspects of contemporary culture.”

This notion of simultaneity and the acceptance of paradox applies not only to art and culture, but to society, economics, philosophy and science. For example:

“twentieth century advances in quantum mechanics led scientists to accept that, although it seems contradictory, we can satisfactorily conceive of light as both a particle and a wave”.

Gene Youngblood, author of the wonderful, thought-provoking and influential 1970 book Expanded Cinema, theorised this change as as a move from the age of  “bistable logic” (yes/no, either/or) to one of “triadic logic” (yes/no/maybe, both/and), a significant shift in thinking that applies across all spheres of life.

Of course doubting everything could probably lead you into some spiral of despair, so the challenge is to develop a way to combine a questioning mind with a peaceful acceptance of uncertainty. This has been an important process for me because I have been uncertain about my own path for the last few years and when leaving university  that feeling is ever-presently pertinent.

The most important thing to realise when it comes to this kind of post-modern thinking is that accepting uncertainty does not mean everything is fragmentary and directionless; it is, I believe, the role of an artist to piece together discrete and distinct elements of thought into an harmonious whole. Art happens when sustained ideas meet practised processes, and this union may, to borrow terms from the Soviet Realists, be characterised as atomic; a meeting of collision, or rather, more melodius, a meeting of linkage. Whether conceptual or figurative, aesthetically pleasing or not, for art to work it must synthesize concept and process in a harmonious way, even if that means accepting the third way, the happy paradox. In film terms, the modernists had montage, and the post-modernists have what Youngblood describes as ‘synaesthetic collage’. When applied to film, this results in:

“no obvious moments of collision or linkage, since it cannot be read linearly, and is “conceived and edited as one continuous perceptual experience… [it] is, in effect, one image continually transforming into other images: metamorphosis”.

You should probably read his book, its got some great language in it, like this, where he describes Synaesthetic Cinema as:

“the only aesthetic language suited to the post-­industrial, post-­literate, man-­made environment with its multi­dimensional simulsensory network of information sources. It’s the only aesthetic tool that even approaches the reality continuum of conscious existence in the nonuniform, nonlinear, nonconnected electronic atmosphere of the Paleocybernetic age” (1970: 77).

I think that Synaesthetic Cinema and the work of Peter Greenaway represent one way in which an artist can respond to the contemporary mode of thought, that is to reflect the paradoxically fragmentary simultaneity of society in the art work’s  structural and formalistic approach. While these artists embody the zeitgeist in order to reveal its contradictions, I believe it is also possible to comment upon common modes of thought by embodying alternative realities that are shocking simply by the way in which they achieve a sense of complete peace and wholeness from the acceptance of uncertainty.

What’s amazing about Taoist thought is that it kinda prefigured all this by a good couple of thousand years, and it even goes further: beyond acceptance of uncertainty, is celebration of it. This is where we go back to the poem at the beginning, which of course, is all about celebrating mystery.

Lao Tzu (Laozi by another name) had the pretty profound insight that the natural ‘way’ (Tao) of things was chaos, contradiction, uncertainty and mystery, and yet, in the natural world, everything kinda seems to work out, and has done for a really long time. This does not mean we should deny our human characteristics at all, but rather that we use them in a way that sits harmoniously with our surroundings. To do this, we must first accept uncertainty as the natural order and look with minds unclouded by any faith in supposedly established knowledge.

This all boils down to the fact that in order to find some sort of peace within all this chaos, you have to basically not worry about what anyone tells you and to look beyond any certainties you may have had about the way the world works and what you are expected to do in it, and do whatever compels you, as long as it is done with compassion, open-mindedness and integrity. For me, the meeting between ancient Chinese philosophy and Western post-modern thought as two discrete yet harmoniously related ways of thinking provides a space in which I can situate my work.

These pictures I have been doing recently are primarily about celebrating mystery, by describing very ambiguous landscapes that are deliberately left undefined. Their compositions emphasise the landscape as simply a planetary surface, and could be depicting such surfaces as existing on any other planetary object in the universe, reminding us that in their infinite variety, the planets of our universe are simultaneously related to one another. This is implied spatially by the presence of another object hanging in the sky in many of these pictures. Whether they represent suns, moons, or planets is again non-defined, yet they are there to remind us that nothing exists within a void; everything is related and inter-connected whilst remaining mysterious and infinitely beguiling.

These images needed a technique which was germane to the concept, and thus, with the Taoist notion of the uncarved block in mind, it was important for me to remove definite control from the process, at least in the formative stage of creating images. By stepping out of my comfort zone and using unpredictable but everyday substances such as soil, ash, onion skins, grass and spices to make my own paints, I was able to insert an element of mystery into the process whilst also providing an interesting link to the natural world in a direct way. It is important that these landscapes, whether Earthbound or not, have all, in a simple way, themselves been made from the dust of our world, the dust that we and everything in existence is made of.

The initial simple daubs of oily paint were then worked into with pencil, which is made of graphite, a form of carbon, an especially significant element in our relationship with our planet in human past and future. The idea was to work into the images, so that patterned mark-making celebrates the mystery of the accidental tones of paint and hints at volumes, textures, surfaces, strata, atmospheres, whilst refusing to absolutely define anything in solid terms. The framing of images is something I am conscious of, and I like to emphatically force a frame upon these images in order to draw attention to the fact that they continue outside of the frame, they are images arbitrarily chosen from the infinite possible number that exist at every moment, everywhere.

The plan was to create a series of prints, paintings and drawings made entirely from materials found in the natural environment and then present these by laying them flat on the ground in one of the fields on the Green and Away site, a method of exhibition which references Leo Steinberg’s notion of the ‘flatbed picture plane‘ whilst also allowing the works to be exposed to environmental effects that would further obscure their already-ambiguous content and gradually return the materials used to make the artworks back into the earth of their origin. Letting go of the work in this manner is an important part of the process, and relates to the act of letting go of belief in any notion of permanent truths.

“The things of this world

exist, they are;

you can’t refuse them.


To bear and not to own;

to act and not lay claim,

to do the work and let it go:

for just letting it go

is what makes it stay”

– Lao Tzu

~

I hope that this has served to explain the following images somewhat. It is really difficult to try and get all these thoughts down in a coherent manner, so perhaps I should stop using words and just put some pictures up.

There will be more images and lots of explanation of the paint-making process to follow shortly, but for now, that’s enough words.

Currently listening to: Bleeding Heart Narrative – Tongue Tangled Hair

Bleeding Heart Narrative – Colours Turn Colours from Tartaruga Records on Vimeo.

Bleeding Heart Narrative soundtracking Maya Deren’s ‘The Very Eye of Night’ from Tartaruga Records on Vimeo.

Winter Draws Long – reduction lino cut

Here’s another wintry lino cut:

and one of the final prints in the edition of 9 (click to see bigger):

as you’ve probably guessed the title has a double meaning.

This print is available to buy on my website here.

Currently listening to: Deepchord presents ECHOSPACE: The Coldest Season

Lino Richie – How to do a reduction lino print

Ok, so you’ve got your tools, you’ve got some lino, you’ve got some spare time, all you need is an image. I chose a photograph I took during the recent snowfalls.

On the first night it started snowing there was a bizarre light in the sky – I couldn’t work it out at first andwhen I stepped outside it freaked me out, the sky was glowing with an otherworldly orange hue and it was so bright that I could easily see my way around the garden, like the sun at dusk.Here’s a photo from the garden:

This was obviously quite a long exposure (1 second), but it did not actually look much different to this by eye.  Here’s an image taken at the same time using flash, just to prove it was actually at night:

The flash makes it look really dark, like a normal night, but it really wasn’t.

The sky glow came back every night for the next few days, prompting Polly to suggest that something weird had happened in space, something apocalyptic. Luckily it turns out that it happens because the snow hanging in the air becomes illuminated by all the street and house lights in the city. Even knowing this, it was pretty amazing, and it’s insane to be able to see just how much light our cities throw up into the air. Check out this comparison view of the stars from a rural spot (top)  and a metropolitan area (bottom):

I seem to remember that Northumberland apparently has the darkest night sky in England if you were wondering. I also seem to remember that different countries adopt different technologies for their street lighting, so if you look at Britain from above, you’ll see an old fashioned orange sodium glow, whereas the Japanese will see the cool blue-white glow of metal-halide and LED lamps.

Anyway, I digress as always. Once you have your image/design, you’ll have to work out a way of transferring it onto the lino.You need to bear in mind when you do this that your image will be printed backwards horizontally, so if you want it the right way round or you’re printing text, you need to draw it backwards on the lino.

There are various methods to do this:

-photocopy transfer: print your image out, photocopy it, then, as soon as possible, place it face down onto the lino and rub the back with cotton wool soaked in nail polish remover or paint thinner (the crucial ingredient is Acetone, which loosens the toner from the paper). I tried this but I think the photocopy was too old because it didn’t work at all. I have done it successfully in the past though, it just depends whether you have access to a photocopier really.

-draw it on freehand: pretty obvious really, just watch out because if you do it with certain pens (especially Sharpies) the ink may transfer onto the paper while printing.

-graphite paper: this is just a sheet of paper covered in graphite, which you place under your image, then draw over the top, which transfers the graphite from the paper to the lino.

I used a mixture of the second and third methods, except I’m too cheap to buy graphite paper, especially considering that you can make your own in about 30 seconds.

Take your printed image, and scribble all over the back of the paper with a graphite stick or soft pencil:

Place it face up into the lino and draw firmly over your image (its a good idea to blu-tack it down), and just like magic there it is:

I finished drawing in the details freehand, and then went over some of it with a biro because I kept smudging it all over the damn place.

Now the cutting/printing process… there are two basic different methods to multi-colour relief printing. The traditional woodblock method is to carve a key block (black outlines of the image), then use that template to carve a different block for every separate colour. This process is, in many ways, a massive pain in the arse, but does give complete flexibility over each colour and enables loads of sophisticated blending effects and blah blah blah etc. Far more common in lino circles is the reduction process, in which you use one block and gradually cut away more and more with each colour printed. It’s kinda hard to explain so I’ll just go through what I did.

First of all, you want to cut away the parts of the image that you want to be white, or rather, the colour of the paper you’re printing on. If the lino is hard to cut, stick it on a hotplate/top of the boiler/toaster or whatever for a minute just to warm it up a bit, which makes it a lot softer. Remember to always cut away from your hands otherwise in no time you’ll be haemorrhaging like a haemophiliac in a Brazilian police shoot-out.

Here’s mine with the white bits removed (just some of the sky):

Now you need to make some sort of registration method to ensure that all your colours line up perfectly. If you’re using a press you can generally just lay the lino face down onto the paper and line it up by sight, but when hand pulling (referring to printing – not bashing waist, wrestling with the bald champ, hand-to-gland combat, battling the purple headed yoghurt slinger, combing the hair of your bald pig sally, going Hans Solo on Darth Vader’s head, or whatever you sick filth-peddlers had in mind) it can be tricky.

Here’s my rock-solid method:

Put your lino on a table top and secure it in place with some bits of wood or cardboard taped down at the corners.

Place the paper on top of the lino, making sure it’s centrally placed (measure that shit) and then make little corner things for the corners of the paper and tape them down. This will basically be enough to get them in the right place, but I went a step further and put some pins through the corners of the lino and put the paper on top so it gets punctured, this way I know the paper will be lined up perfectly every time just by fitting it back onto the pins. Of course this means that you end up with four holes in your finished prints, but its a small price to pay for stress-free registration.

It’s crucial you get the registration right because if you mess up with one of the later colours you’ve just ruined the whole thing and you can never redo it because you’ve cut away all the previous cuts you did on the lino (this begins to explain why a reduction lino print is also known as a Suicide print). This is why you should do more prints than you want to end up with because as a rule you’ll always mess up at least one or two.

Now we can go ahead and mix the first colour. The most important thing to remember with the reduction process is that the order in which you have to print the colours has to be from light to dark; you print the light colours first, and the dark ones over the top. Obviously if you try and print light yellow over the top of dark blue, you ain’t goin anywhere.

Mix up the ink and roll out a small amount of it onto a sheet of glass using the brayer. You can tell when its ready to roll onto the lino from the texture of the rolled ink, which should be smooth and not too sticky, using too much ink will give an unpleasant texture on the paper and can fill in some of the smaller cuts you’ve made – bad.

Roll the ink onto the lino. Generally you want to cover the whole lino with ink, but if only a certain portion of the print is going to be that colour in the end, you can save ink and just roll that part of the lino:

Now place your paper on top, grab a spoon or baren, and rub a dub. You have to press pretty hard, and with a spoon it will likely take ages (especially if you’re doing an A3 sized print like I was), but no-one said it was gonna be easy, so just man up and work up a sweat.

Here’s the first colour printed, you can see the bits I cut away have remained papery white:

You can also seen where the sharpie has come through and left black outlines, luckily it doesn’t  matter in this case because these bits will be black anyway.

Now you just have to clean up your lino with a damp cloth and tissue (don’t get the backing too wet because it could buckle or bend) and then cut the next layer. This time you will be printing another colour over the top of the yellow (or whatever cracker-ass colour you’ve chosen), so you want to carve away all the parts of the image you want to remain yellow. Here’s the second cut/print:

Third:

Fourth:

Fifth:

Sixth: forgot to take photos…

seventh:   notice the gradiated ink on the right hand side, from dark blue to green

Eighth – Again forgot to take photos.

Here’s what the final thing looks like, it’s not a great photo of it but you get the idea:

all this probably took a week, maybe a bit less, maybe 5 days, I’m not sure, a while anyway. It’s a really satisfying process though; I prefer it to screen printing because you don’t have to mess with emulsions and chemicals and exposure shizzocks; lino printing is a bit more tangible, and actually far more creative due to the markmarking process of cutting.

I’ll put this edition up on my website so you’ll be able to buy one at mjfchance.co.uk or my Etsy shop. It’s a limited edition of 8 prints, and it’s an A3 sized print on an A2 sized bit of cartridge paper.

Since finishing this edition of prints I’ve been designing some flyers and posters for some upcoming Fat Out shows, and the second issue of FATZINE, which you should definitely check out at fatout.co.uk. I’ll post some flyer designs up soon, but here’s a preview of one of them in progress:

Currently listening to: COIL – Winter Solstice: North

Lino Richie – Introduction

As usual, Lionel Richie leads us forward with a tantalising glimpse of the future: he leans back, grooms his audacious moustache with a lingering, faltering sweep of his tongue, pauses, lets his eyelids close tenderly downward and, with a gradual gathering of the self, exhales smoothly through doughy lips which lovingly intone:  ”  .   .  . … lino… .  .   .  “.

Though his message is barely audible, his grubby ink stained fingers truly tell a tale of their own. Each one, besmirched with crimson like a battle weary steed, stagger onwards to raise the standard of their noble art. Steel glints atop the printer’s pike, this hand-held halberd, this formidable blade, this … weapon of inestimable glory. It’s trough is deep, it’s edge keen; forever hungry for the taste of rubbery carnage. The brayer’s roller spins slowly still, as if to will on it’s flagging master, spitting hematic flecks onto folds of white poly-cotton: these are the slacks of a history-maker, patterned with innumerable ink stars, red on white; the trouser-flag of a nation we all may come to find one day, within ourselves.

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been doing a lino cut, and will now proceed to explain how it’s done.

First of all, and rather obviously, you need to get hold of the right tools. This is basically what you need to get started:

The bare essentials are: lino cutting tool (handle), at least one blade (reasonably sharp v-shaped ones are the handiest all-rounders), a brayer (ink roller), a piece of lino, and some block printing ink. You can get a kit like this for about 20 quid or less, but it’s certainly worth shelling out a bit more wonga if you plan to do more than just experiment/play around. Luckily I managed to nab some tools and ink from the Bedford School supplies when I went in over christmas with my dad.

The other thing in the picture is called a baren, and is used to burnish (rub) the back of the paper in order to print the image.

In the European tradition, printmakers have usually worked with a press of some kind in order to ensure speed and consistency of prints, but many printmakers today do not have access to a press, which are usually very large and incredibly heavy (some albion presses for instance, which were designed for printing trays of block letters to form newspapers or books) and always expensive. Eastern printmaking tradition has instead favoured a more sensitive and labour-instensive hand printing process, allowing the master printmakers to achieve unbelievably beautiful gradations  of colour and tone by subtly altering the pressure applied to the back of the paper (as well using a variety of techniques to ink the block itself.

View of Mount Fuji from Harajuku by Hiroshige, published in 1850

While we were on our way from Nagano to a village in the Japan Alps called Hakuba a couple of years ago, we stopped off for a bit in Obuse, where Hokusai spent some of his final years. Because of this, you can find there the Hokusai-kan, a tiny museum with an impressive collection of prints. I was already familiar with his work, but was blown away by just how incredible these prints are when you can see them up close; such fine detail and sophisticated use of colour. The quality of draughtsmanship and fine, flowing linework is astonishing even before you factor in the fact that these images were carved into a big hard block of wood.

Anyway, the Japanese invented the baren in order to hand pull (print) their images. The traditional baren is made of a disk (itself made from many layers of paper painstakingly glued together), with a coiled rope of bamboo glued on the bottom (to create a strong textured surface) covered with a bamboo sheath (which reduces friction), tied in a loop at the top.

More modern designs either look like the plastic red one in that picture way up there^^ (which is not very good), or this:

which has a teflon-coated rubbing surface and I imagine would be pretty good, but I’m not sure because I can’t afford one right now. For now I use the trusty old spoon instead. I used a normal tablespoon but in the future I’ll probably use a big wooden spoon for extra coverage.

By the way, if you want to know more about the woodblock printing process, check out this site, it shows step by step woodblock printing in all its difficult and lengthy glory.

Luckily, thanks to the enterprising Frederick Walton, we have Linoleum, which brings block printing to the masses and is a piece of piss to carve compared to wood. In the next couple of posts I’ll go through the reduction method of lino printing, but I feel I have rambled for long enough now, so I’ll leave this post simply as an introduction.

Currently listening to: Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program – Brotha From Anotha Planet