Hibernation!

It’s January, the snow is thick on the ground and the studio is rather chilly but it has been so good to have a month where I don’t have masses of commitments and can take stock a bit.

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I started to run an evening class at Number Six in Pateley Bridge but, with only four students coming to the first session, we decided (with NYCC Adult Learning Services permission) to run the remainder of the course as three fortnightly 6 hour workshops. The course looks like it will soon be full and I have my Monday nights back without the prospect of having to drive over the moors in snow and ice every week so we’re all winners there! I taught a monotype workshop to the Northallerton Art Club last weekend and that was very enjoyable with seven creative people making some beautiful prints using direct drawn,  reductive & collage methods. Now I have the rest of the month and much of February free to make some new prints for my exhibitions in March, to work on my bookmaking for Joan Newall’s course and to slowly develop some of my ideas started in Sweden.

I was lucky enough to run into Heather and David Cook, both painter/printmakers, in Malham the other day and they kindly showed me some of their latest work and David discussed his brilliant exposure unit that he has made to make his Imagon plates. I’m hoping to make something similar so that I can continue my photopolymer experiments. So there are lots of plans afoot. The only problem is that it is winter! I actually quite like this time of year especially when we have sharp frosts or snow. As a fellrunner, I like nothing more than running through virgin snow and marvelling at the purity of the landscape but the downside is that during the rest of the time, I seem to slow right down!

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I always look forward to January and February and the chance to work on some new projects and I imagine how much I’ll get achieved and how I’ll spend everyday making lots of exciting new things but the reality is that during the darkness hours, I’m sleepy and just feel like curling up with a book, some poetry or a good film. I’ve got a lovely stack of books to work through including two from Robert MacFarlane (The Old Ways & Mountains of the Mind), ‘Man with a Blue Scarf’ which is Martin Gayford’s diary of sitting for Lucien Freud, Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr, The Snow Tourist by Charlie English and I’m just part way through ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’. Added to that is regular dipping into the poetry of Kathleen Jamie and Norman MacCaig and random admiration of the prints in Carry Ackroyd’s ‘Nature Powers and Spells’ and you can see that I have plenty to keep me occupied!

Despite slowing down, I am still working on a new collagraph, taking a fox, the snow and the birch forests as inspiration, which will be for my exhibition ‘Telling Tales’ with Jane Littlefield at Rural Arts in March. I’ll be making a couple new bird prints too. I’m so used to working every hour available that it feels a bit lazy not to! I read in a fellow artist’s blog that she felt that when she made the shift to being a full-time artist, she was suddenly doing something that she had crammed into her spare time all of the time and she found it hard to know what to do with her leisure time. I feel like that. Art is what I do and I rarely switch off from it because I love it and everything around me is part of it. I am also totally self-supported so I have a strong drive to use all my available time to create the work that will keep me clothed, housed and fed!

However, I have decided to stop worrying about not burning the candle at both ends and enjoy this chance to recharge and take stock before the frenetic activity that will no doubt ensue in the coming months. I’m dividing my weeks into days for working on my prints from Sweden and researching what I need to get started with my photopolymer printing and make my exposure unit, days to make some new collagraphs for my exhibitions in March and the rest of the time to get somewhere with my bookmaking and do my admin. Joan taught us how to make lined boxes with lids in our last class and it has given me an idea for this year’s final project. The photo shows my box covered in my handmade paper. Our theme this year is ‘worn surfaces’ and I’m using ‘A Tale’ by Edward Thomas as my starting point. More on that in another post.

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January also brings the dreaded tax return! Self-assessment online makes it a bit easier but the whole process is one that I don’t relish. I try and make it slightly more interesting by totting up which galleries have sold the most prints over the year and which prints have sold the best for me. This has the added benefit of reminding me which galleries I need to keep a special eye on. The ones that sell the best obviously need to have their stocks replenished regularly and sometimes if the managers are too busy to send out requests, the onus is on me to offer to deliver more work. The ones that aren’t selling need a phone call to find out if the prints are still on display and if anything needs returning or swapped.

In 2011/12, Cambridge Contemporary Art was my top selling gallery, hotly followed by The Gallery in Masham (Josie has been selling my prints consistently for 19 years and is invariably one of my best selling galleries!), then ArtsBank at Saltburn. All three galleries have a few things in common that I think make them not only successful, but a pleasure to work with. Firstly, I always know I will be paid for the prints that I’ve sold on or around a certain date of the following month, the paperwork is always thorough and I trust the people that I am dealing with. The gallery owners have very proactive publicity campaigns and are constantly updating their websites, sending out newsletters and using social media to promote exhibitions and their artists. I also get regular emails or phone calls to let me know if customers are interested in prints that are not currently in the galleries, to order more work from me and to offer me exhibiting opportunities. In return, I try really hard to promote the galleries when they put on exhibitions of my prints, always send detailed and clear paperwork with my deliveries and try and deliver any orders as soon as I can. The relationship is like any successful partnership, it requires trust and plenty of attention on both sides.

My list of gallery sales also shows me where some of the outlets aren’t performing very well and then I can decide what to do about it. This could be for all sorts of good reasons but ultimately, every print that sits unsold is a potential sale elsewhere and at one gallery, five of the unsold prints were the last in the editions so I was pretty keen to get them back and into one of my more successful outlets. It is quite hard when you sell your work across the UK because keeping an eye on it can be tricky and when I’m busy, I’m not always very good at keeping on top of this kind of thing so now is the time for doing any chasing up that needs doing. Some of the galleries only sell a handful of prints each year but so long as there are a few sales and I have a good relationship with the owner, I am happy to have my prints there. You never know who might see them and it is better to have them on a gallery wall than sat at home in my studio.

My top selling prints for 2011/12 were The Return (only one left):

The Return

A Flight of Swallows (still available):

a flight of swallows

and in joint third, Rookery (which has sold out):

Rookery

and The Woodcat (still some available):

The Woodcat

So its a quiet time for me but a good one. I’m running most days to keep SAD at bay, keep me inspired and to enliven me for the time spent in my studio and I’m going to make the most of getting plenty of sleep and time to think before I’m back to busy times of eating on the move and midnight printing!

Adventures in Photopolymer!

Well, I promised that I’d write about my latest foray into photopolymer printmaking and so here goes!

To start with, perhaps I’d better explain what photopolymer is. As the name suggests, photopolymer is a light sensitive polymer. The material has been used in the commercial printing industry for years but in the last couple decades printmakers have adopted it and used it in a variety of ways to create original prints. I have used it myself and refer to it as solarplate because I use the sun to develop my plates. I first came across it when a good friend and fellow artist, Jon McLeod, was doing a residency at Highland Printmakers. I had just come back from travelling extensively overseas and was ready to create a body of work based on my travels. I wanted to include text and maps combined with my collagraphs but didn’t know how to. Jon suggested ImageOn film or photopolymer plate. He gave me a bit of a demonstration and I went off and bought a book on the subject. I basically taught myself everything I know (not a lot!) and have been able to make basic relief and intaglio plates using my photos and text which I then convert to pure black and white on photoshop and print out onto a transparency. This is then placed on top of a steel plate which is coated on one side with a light sensitive polymer (you can buy them from printmaking suppliers). The black part of the design blocks out the UV light and the clear parts let it through. Where the light hits the plate, the polymer hardens and where the black parts mask it, it stays water soluble. The great thing about it is that you can then wash out the black parts using warm water (no chemicals needed). The final stage is to expose the washed plate in the sun for a good hour or so to cure it and then it is ready for printing.

You have to do test strips to determine how much time the plate should be left in the sun and of course, the sun’s strength can vary due to the time of day and the season and you do actually have to have some sunshine in the first place! Many a day has been spent scrutinising the sky for a gap in the clouds so that I can develop my plates. I’ve actually got some good results with relief plates but my intaglio plates tend to have large areas of ‘open bite’ due to the fact that I can’t get mid-tones.

Anyway, I’ve been aware for a while that you can make really interesting photopolymer plates which will retain all the tones and fine detail of drawings and photos and will replicate the look of lithographs, etchings, drawings etc. Fortunately for me, Björn Bredstrom and Christina Lindeberg are experts in this field. Christina spent some of her valuable time teaching me to make the initial test strips today.

But…let’s not get ahead of ourselves! First you have to create the image that you intend to make into a printing plate and before you do that you need to prepare the transparency. This entailed using acetate intended for lithography. You need to roughen the surface of it to be able to draw onto it. This is a very satisfying process which involves wetting a large lithographic stone and squeegeeing your acetate onto the surface so that it doesn’t move about. You then add carborundum grit and water to the topside and take a smaller lithographic stone and grind it over the whole surface in a figure of eight for about four minutes. This gives you a surface with an even bite to it. You can then work on this with acrylic paint, graphite, tusche or any other light fast material. I used 6B and 4B pencils to create the transparency below.

The next step is to determine how long you need to expose your ‘raster’ for. I don’t know what the English name is but a raster is the Swedish word for an acetate with a random dot pattern on that replicates aquatint. You use it to pre-expose your plate before you expose it with your design. The tiny dots mean that you can get fine detail, mid tones and large areas of black without having ‘open bite’ (when you can’t avoid wiping out the ink from large areas of dark tone on your plate because it is completely washed away). I can’t explain it better than that so please google for further details if you haven’t already fallen asleep!

Christina helped me to make the initial test strip and Ida photographed the whole process (she is going to let me have copies) and made notes because she wanted to learn too. We had to cut a piece of the photopolymer plate and then mark a sheet of paper with sections and the timings written underneath. The numbers look odd because they are units not actual minutes and seconds.

I forgot to mention that we are not using the sun. We are using a rinky dink all singing all dancing light box!

You also have to make sure that you don’t expose the plate to light whilst you are in the process of preparing it. It is not so sensitive that it has to be done in a dark room but you do need to keep it undercover when you are in between stages and it is best to cut it in a very dim room. Once we had cut a strip of plate, we then put it in the light box and lowered the glass down onto it, set the vacuum pump to make a good seal and then exposed the whole plate for 1000 units of light….what about the ‘raster’ I hear you ask? Yes, well, we forgot all about that and only remembered when we went to cover part of the plate to start the tests. Whoops! We cut another strip (it’s expensive stuff so you learn a hard lesson when you make mistakes) and this time we laid the ‘raster’ over the top of the plate and then lowered the glass and set the vacuum. After the initial exposal to 1000 units of light, we then covered the marked sections at 100 unit intervals so that one end of the strip had been exposed to 1000 units and the other end had had 1900 units. This took quite a long time!

Next we had to develop the strip so we took it to the wash room and under a yellow light we sat it in a tray of warm water (room temperature) for a minute and then a further minute was spent gently brushing the surface of the plate under the water to remove the unexposed particles of polymer (the black dots of the ‘raster’).

We then had to dry the plate. You can use a hair dryer but here we have a great little drying box. After 5 minutes in there, the plate needs to be cured with a full dose of UV light so back it went into the light box for 15 minutes. Phew!! What a process and it was only a test strip.

After lunch my job was to ink, wipe and print the strip to see which part gave us the best black. The part that was blackest would indicate the amount of units of light needed to expose the plate. Unfortunately the test strip was inconclusive because we realised that the ‘raster’ must have moved each time we lifted the glass screen. Blast! Björn also suggested that we clean the sensor in the lightbox before we made another test strip. This time he told us to divide a strip of polymer into three segments and expose it at 750, 1200 & 1500 units. From that we should determine the range that we would need to make a further test strip. We should stick the raster down with tape so that it didn’t move when we opened the glass each time. The numbers seem a bit random and this would also mean going through the process described above twice and it was now 4pm but Ida and I decided to do as we were told in order to be ‘professional’ 🙂

Thankfully, the three segments showed us that 1200 units gave a lovely velvety black tone.

Björn told me that I needn’t make a further test but I should expose my plate to the raster for 1200 units and remove it and expose my design onto my plate for the same amount of units.

So…I went back and cut a piece of photopolymer plate to the right size and put it in the lightbox with the ‘raster’ on top of it, the glass down, vacuum on and exposed it for 1200 units. I then took away the raster and replaced it with the transparency with my drawing on and exposed that for 1200 units. I went through the developing process, drying process and curing process and after about an hour, the plate was ready to ink, wipe and print. I could see that there was a delicate design on it and I was really excited.

I printed the plate and it is just amazing…you get a perfect copy of your drawing! The only slight downside is that I don’t seem to be able to get a ‘white’. There is an overall grey tone to the print. This could be to do with the process but I suspect that the timing on the exposure of the design needs tweeking. I’ll ask Björn and Christina when they come in tomorrow. I’m now really excited about the possibilities. I am wondering if I could do a reduction monotype on acetate and instead of printing it, I could allow it to dry to make a transparency that I could expose to the photopolymer and then get a plate with all the beautiful marks that you get from monotype but that you can print repeatedly…the possibilities could be endless.

The other thing I need to do is to work out how I can transfer this process to my studio at home. I have a book that tells you how to make a lightbox and Björn says that he has had good results just using an overhead bulb or an anglepoise lamp (the light has to be uv or ‘cold’ light) but you have to make sure that the light stays at a fixed point above the plate and the distance from the plate has to be the same as the diagonal length of the plate in order for there to be an even coverage of light. There is also the small matter of the litho stones and preparing the transparencies but I am sure that improvisation might be possible. Tomorrow I am going to make a transparency using monotype techniques and ink.

Monotypes

Well, I was going to talk about photopolymer tonight but I’ve just had a busy evening in the studio and I’m not sure talking about technical processes is such a good idea at 23.00. Bear with me, I will go into some detail in my next post 🙂

I forgot to mention that I now have a housemate. Ute is from Kiel in Germany and, having enjoyed her visit last year, she has come back to Ålgården for two weeks of printmaking. She has a project that she would like to complete and has already been busy making drypoints in the studio. She’s good company and we went on a little trip to Alingsås with Lennart this morning. The idea was to visit Lennart’s favourite organic food store, the red cross second hand shop and then to have pizza in what they both promised me would be the best pizzeria ever! I’ll admit that it was pretty good and it has to be the cosiest and most colourful restaurant I’ve been to in a while. The organic food store was wonderful and I came back laden with apples, a squash and some chilli chocolate (for emergencies).

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The drive was lovely too. The autumn colour is really beautiful at the moment. The forests are a patchwork of green, yellow, golds, reds and oranges. I’ll take some photos if the rain ever lets up!

Yesterday Lennart brought in one of his cast bronze sculptures to show me. He knows I’m  a big fan of crows and I love this one, it is so full of character and has a real presence when sat on the table next to you.

The rest of the day has been a good one. I had a sleepless night last night (possibly caffeine related!) and found myself mulling over what to do and where to go with my printmaking in order to make best use of the next few days. I knew I’d be making a photopolymer transparency but I couldn’t decide what to do for that either. So when I got back to the studio today I was really strict with myself and promised myself that I wouldn’t leave it until the transparency was drawn out. I made several starts before settling on a birch wood. I figure that it will be nice to have a few different kinds of prints of the birch forest to compare techniques. I’ll expand more on the process in my next post but once I’d finished the drawing, I felt in a really good mood and ready to make something else so I decided not to go running today in case I broke the spell and instead I holed up in the studio all evening. 🙂

I’m still frustrated about not being able to depict the pine forests and so I went back to basics and decided to do a reduction monotype. I figured that if I did it in two stages, I’d get around the problem of how to depict the dark trunks but still have a darkish background and the light coming through the trees. It took me about three hours to complete and I was using water soluble ink so I was a bit concerned about re-soaking the paper after the first plate was printed. The result was that when I printed the second stage on top of the first, the ink didn’t transfer so well because it was drying out and the paper was drying out. However, I am happily surprised by the result.

It still isn’t how I’d envisaged it but strangely enough, the ethereal pines against the very watery looking background captures more of the atmosphere that I experience on my rainy runs than I would ever have imagined that I could achieve!

I had printed the ‘ghost’ print (the traces left on the plate after the first printing) and ironically the paper was too wet so I got a really abstract result but when I printed the ghost trees over the top, because there was still a lot of ink left on the plate, I got an interesting second print.

I had a happy evening working tonight and Ute and I seem to work really well together. We are both quiet and keep ourselves to ourselves but when we hear the press going, we both tentatively wander over for a peek at each other’s work and it is a nice combination of having privacy to work but encouragement and an opinion if we want one.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can get Christina or Björn to help me expose my photopolymer plate tomorrow. I will report back with my progress.

Björk

Well, I’m really pleased that I wrote about my up and down weekend. The response here and on my facebook page has shown that so many artists (and also non-artists) empathised and it has created some worthwhile discussion. Thanks for all the support too. I think it is really important to share the difficult times as well as the good. I also think that it can sometimes be the times when everything seems to be going wrong or hard that actually end up being the most useful and are often turning points.

Anyway, yesterday I stayed all day in the studio and carefully constructed a simple collagraph plate that I hoped would capture more of the atmosphere of the birch forests here.

I worked on it until lunchtime and then had a break to eat with Björn and Kristina before helping take down the Artists in Residency Exhibition from the gallery. Afterwards, Björn made carrot and apple juice for us. Apparently carrots have been unbelievably expensive all year due to the weather making it difficult to grow them. Now they are really cheap so he bought a huge bag for juicing. It was delicious and, after all the coffee that I’ve been drinking, it felt very refreshing and healthy! After he, Christina and Kristina went home I went back to the studio and worked until midnight! The studio was buzzing with activity from the women’s Monday night printmaking group but because I don’t understand any Swedish, I was in a world of my own and the chatter was like background music. I sealed the plate with shellac before I went to bed.

This morning I got up early to go for a run and I put a final coat of shellac on my plate before I went. The forest was misty and very atmospheric and I met a group of woodsmen who stopped to talk to me (in perfect English of course!). I got back to the studio and set to proofing the collagraph.

The sepia is a bit heavy for the subject and I’d always envisaged it in colour so I carefully printed a further three prints using the ‘a la poupee’ method. This print has lost a little of its subtlety in the photographing but I’m quite happy with it in ‘the flesh’.

I’ve got a lot of other ideas and I still have a plate to print that I made over the weekend so things are definitely feeling better.

Two more nice things happened today. The first was that Lennart bought me a box of organic vegetables and bread for my lunch and I was able to make us a winter stew from carrots, leeks, parsnips & swedes with potato patties on the side. The second was that Tim and Diane Wayne from The Alverton Gallery http://www.thealvertongallery.co.uk/ in Penzance called in to see me! My mum lives in Penzance and, as a result, Tim and Diane kindly agreed to stock my prints (it is so hard to get into galleries in Cornwall because there are so many Cornish artists and many galleries only stock work by local artists). I only see Tim and Diane maybe once a year but they just happened to be on holiday in Sweden and they are both printmakers themselves so they couldn’t resist a visit to Ålgården. It was lovely to see them and I was pleased to be able to show them around and introduce them to the Swedish artists here.

Oh yes, and as for the title of today’s post, it is Swedish for silver birch! I also found out that Björn is Swedish for bear. 🙂