Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Holding it Together

Following the death of my mother after a short but intense illness in August 2016, my life irrevocably changed. I became the counsellor’s phrase: “an adult orphan”.

In order to channel my grief creatively, I threw myself into making work; this was my coping response. In answer to an open call from Temple Bar Gallery & Studios for a curated section of artist books in the Dublin Art Book Fair, I had the idea that I could combine my relatively new re-interest in printmaking with my skills in bookbinding. Through a course I had been taking, I found myself giving woodblock demonstrations at the Irish Museum of Modern Art the previous February. I hadn’t done much printmaking work for years, and I had so enjoyed the woodblock printing that I knew that I was going to love a further re-exploration of print media.

Complete immersion in my art was the context needed to help me to deal with the new order of things: I no longer had a mother; an integral part of my family life was now gone. I needed to create something to counteract this immense loss, which I was reminded of in every daily act. I felt the need to have some purpose, a specific project, to prevent me from otherwise being overwhelmed by despair. I needed to create in order to feel buoyant. I had a husband and child who were also grieving and I refused to let myself sink.

Until this illness, my vibrant mother had been in exceptional good health for the entirety of her ninety-something years. She celebrated joy. My mother was active in local social clubs, she loved singing and dancing, and had close friends of all ages. The fatal diagnosis in June 2016 was a shock alternating between disbelief and despair by her ten children, yet my Mum received the news with outrageous good humour. In her last months she repeatedly sang “I’m heading for the last roundup”, the refrain to a song by her hero Gene Autry. Her great age had no bearing on the unfairness of my mother’s diagnosis; she was not ready to depart this earth and the many who loved her were not yet ready to let her go.

After a number of sketches and design plans, my work began with a series of lino prints. I would bind these prints into several book editions, a different language for each edition. I chose three languages – English, Irish and Spanish – as a starting point, with the possibility that I might create future editions in other languages. This was the first time I used my bookbinding skills in an art book context. I have been hand-binding books for over twenty five years to use as sketchbooks, notebooks, photo albums and scrapbooks, but to bind books as part of an art work is a new development for me. Literally, it was a way for me to hold things together.

Each book contains five small lino prints. My prints are straightforward: a mundane greeting to start the day (good morning / maidín mhaigh / buenos dias) and its follow up query (how are you? / conas atá tú? / ¿cómo estás?) enclosing three simple images (an egg in egg cup, two mugs, a teapot). The images are printed in black ink. Clarity. Simplicity. These are images of sustenance, companionship and comfort. This is what I need. What I hope for. These are existential books that allow me to negotiate the circumstances of overwhelming loss: coming to terms with the banality of living while facing the abyss. Since August 25th 2016 my mother is only fully alive in my memory of her.

In November 2016, five copies of each of my books were included on the curated table of the Dublin Art Book Fair. To me, this opportunity provided a quiet memorial to my mother.

I am not religious yet I am not atheist. I believe in humanity as an entity of good, despite so much evidence to the contrary. There is much suffering both on a global and a personal level. But I have encountered kindness in strangers, selflessness in friends, willingness to share and care in unexpected places. These experiences allow me to fly. I keep faith with the unknown. Although I mourn, the best way for me to honour my mother’s spirit is to celebrate it through my artmaking. This helps me to remain unwaveringly hopeful.

I am still coping with the loss of my mother. I am still creating artwork. I am currently working on another group of books and whether they will be accepted for inclusion in the Dublin Art Book Fair 2017 remains to be seen. Whether they are accepted or not doesn’t matter. Fundamentally they are serving a greater purpose: they are holding me together.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Lithography workshop

It is probably becoming fairly obvious that my interest in printmaking techniques has become very pronounced over the past two years. When I heard about a weekend lithography workshop at Blackchurch Print Studio in Dublin, about two months ago, I was quick to sign up for it. Lo and behold, the time flew and the workshop, led by Alison Pilkington, took place last weekend. 

There were only four of us taking the workshop, so it was quite intense. I had brought some sketches of things I had been working on, and spent Saturday morning developing these sketches on a larger scale.

I had another look at my branches images, but decided on beachstones for the litho stone.

Saturday afternoon was spent drawing on the litho stone with a variety of litho crayons and then painting on tucshe in specific areas. For the small stones, I applied the tusche by flicking so that their texture would be totally different from the surrounding linework. Unfortunately I was too busy working, and did not have a camera with me anyhow, to take pictures of the stone in progress. On Sunday morning there were a few applications of nitric acid in gum arabic on the tusche areas and in the afternoon I printed up an edition of four on beautiful Fabriano paper. It was an exhausting but invigorating day!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Blind embossing

 I had an idea for a handmade book, "Ghost", where the images would be blind emossed prints. These would be small prints, facilitated by my pasta machine press. The plates are 800 micron acetate, each plate being a tiny 9 cm square. The printed pages are a whopping 12.5 x 15 cm, and they will be affixed to an accordion book 16.5 cm vertically; the covers are 17 cm square. All these figures are important and should be worked out in advance, when creating a book, so that finally putting it all together goes smoothly.

I had an idea of the images I would use, a hand as a metonym for the whole body. I had not done blind embossing on my pasta press before, so I began by testing some materials. Below is an image cut from oilcloth, using the smooth side up.

 I also tried the heaviest grade of sandpaper I could find.

This is the same sandpaper grade as above, but is the environment around the image.

 I did some tests on Fabriano paper. The heaviest grade sandpaper was very difficult to work with.

Although I liked the embossed imprint of the heavy grade sandpaper, I had to fight with my press to get the print! When embossing a thin tissue is placed over the plate so that the paper stays clean, yet I was finding that the tissue was becoming embedded in the print, and could not even be removed when dry.

I tried using completely dry paper, and even though I had some good results, I still had to fight with my press to get a print. So I abandoned the idea of using the heaviest sandpaper grade for my plates.

I also started using oilcloth in lieu of felts with my prints, as it is thin, yet has more weight to it than the thin felt I was using.

Here is a another sample of a plate with heavy grade sandpaper. Though not as heavy as the black sandpaper, there were still some difficulties with the prints.

I had decided I would probably use two hands in each image, the final image (of five) being two hands together emulating a bird in flight. The plate below shows the reverse side of oilcloth, which has a textured pattern.

Still using thin Fabriano for tests, I wanted to see how the oilcloth faired under the press. I was surprised that the pasta machine was sensitive enough to pick up the area where the two hands met. For the oilcloth tests I used two layers of oilcloth in lieu of felts. One must remember to have the smooth side of the oilcloth lying next to the paper, so as not to have any additional unplanned embossing.

My final tests were on the Khadi Indian rag handmade paper. The prints are subtle, but this is in keeping with the point of my book "Ghost".

 My final decision was to use the same grade of sandpaper for all five images, representing the environment rather than the hands.

The last step was printing out each plate. The book will be in an edition of ten, so I needed ten prints for each plate. I finished all the printing last week, and now I am working on putting the books together.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


 In the early 1980s, I was doing some experiments with wax in both painting and drawing. I was not doing anything methodical, so I can't exactly say I was working with encaustic painting, but my own experiments led me to some knowledge of the technique and curiosity about it that has stayed with me over the years. This piece from 1983 is paint, collage and paraffin on paper.

This piece, also from 1983 I think, is collage and wax paper on board. The image of the hand, as a metonym for a person, is relevant to the embossed prints I am doing now for my book "Ghost".

So when I read about an introduction to encaustic painting workshop being facilitated by Joanna Kidney at Outpost Studios here in Bray I jumped at the chance to attend. Lucky for me I secured the last place on the intimate workshop, and had a nice stroll across the park last Sunday morning to Outpost Studios. After an introduction to the technique, Joanna offered the participants a choice of wooden blocks to use as mounts for our workpieces that would allow us to learn a variety of techniques. 

As a starter, I chose a fairly small piece of wood and thinking of The Skipping Project, used the form of two jumping feet with which to experiment. After a quick sanding of the sides, we applied a clear layer of beeswax mix, and then two layers of whitened beeswax mix. After any layer of beeswax (coloured or clear), the block must be heated to fuse the wax to the layer below. For the first block we used a variety of tools to scrape, incise, carve, etc. the block in between applying colours (in heated wax). There was also a good supply of fat oilsticks, oil pastels, and a hot wax drawing tool to use in conjunction with the pre-mixed paints (with various sizes of brushes) warming on the hot surface of a flat type of "griddle". Joanna pointed out that an important tool to have is a specialty flat thermometer on the griddle to ensure that the wax paint does not overheat and fume, as this can be quite toxic.

In the afternoon, with another block, we learned about collage techniques for embedding objects and images (in my piece below there is a pictue of two rocks, wool, thread, and cous cous). We also learned how to transfer an image from a photocopy or print out directly onto the wax; in my case below I transferred the image of some pebbles from a colour photocopy of a photograph I took, as reference for the Stones book of prints that I am making.

In the afternoon of the workshop, Joanna also gave a demonstration of monoprinting in encaustic. A space was cleared on the griddle and one could brush on paint or draw with oil pastels or oil sticks (the drawing/painting melting on the warm griddle) and there were a variety of papers to choose from to experiment with how the different grounds interacted with the wax, also depending on which wax medium was used!

This is Fabriano paper as a ground for a mix of brush work and oil pastel drawing.

Again, a mix of brushwork and oil pastel for my "Dreamboat" image, but pulling the card away from the griddle leaves a pattern.

I only added a bit more wax colour to this rice paper Dreamboat.

I was thinking of Fort Carré when I brushed out this simple image of light and dark on Fabriano paper. The turquoise was drawn with oil pastel.

What a fabulous day for creative play with an interesting medium and a wonderful facilitator!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Pasta Machine Press - flatbed printer!

I had been using my pasta machine press successfully with monoprints in 2016, but after taking a print workshop in the spring of this year at the National Print Museum Dublin, my husband suggested it might be easier if I did some further adjustments on the pasta machine to turn it into a flatbed printer. This is the happy result, and below I will give some steps to converting a pasta machine into a small press!

My pasta machine had a base that was just screwed on, so it was easily removed.

 I planned to do some long prints, with the pasta machine on the kitchen table, so this was taken into account when creating a box structure that the machine could sit in. A box structure is required also to facilitate additional clamping to the table the press will rest on. This is a view of the finished flatbed printer including the 800 micron acetate which serves as a flatbed. Please note that the acetate is not affixed.

A bespoke groove is made into the top side of the box in order to facilitate the pasta machine.

This is the view from the right side of the machine, resting in the box structure. The hole on the side is where the crank fits in, so this side must be on the edge of the table.

This view primarily shows how the left side of the pasta machine is clamped to the wooden structure.

This is the press and structure turned on its side so that the under structure can be seen. The press is clamped to the structure.

This is a view from directly underneath the pasta machine.

A view from underneath; at either end there is a small plank of wood affixed to the structure to accommodate further clamps needed for affixing the structure to the table. At first I did not attach the structure to the table, but doing so saved me from having to press down on the machine while printing.

This picture is a side view that shows how the structure is attached to the table by a clamp.

This is a further detail view of the clamp attaching the slat on the structure to the table.

 This is a side view that shows how the 800 micron acetate serves as a flatbed.

I have found that oilcloth makes a good substitute for felt. It is cheap, has a heavier weight for its thin-ness than felt, and is more useful for me, in that I have been doing long prints and needed an unavailable size felt (two pieces of felt left a seam mark in my print!). Be sure to print smooth side up when using oilcloth to avoid any texture inadvertently appearing on your print.

I have tried to make these instructions as simple as possible, but please comment or message me if something is unclear. I have been doing intaglio prints and embossed prints using this machine, so it is working!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

New notebooks - pouch binding - part 2

As I mentioned in last week's blog, I had decided to make some notebooks/sketchbooks from my Mum's handbags. I also mentioned that I had taken the Future Learn online course "Japanese Culture Through Rare Books" offered by Keio University and was inspired to make several pouch bound books, which utilised recycled paper. Last week's instructions were about preparing the pouches (i.e., creasing and folding paper such that the pre-used side was inside and the outer, clean layers would form the pages). This week is mostly about creating the covers, in this case a hard(ish) cover. The final binding is originally a Japanese technique - "stab binding" - which I have blogged about previously.

When I removed the lining from the purple handbag, I found that the underside of the vinyl had a fuzzy, kind of sticky, coating. My decision to use this for a hardcover was clear as I definitely didn't want this part of the handbag visible in my final book. I cut two pieces of vinyl to a size slightly larger than the cardboard base covers and clipped the corners. The pictures are mostly of the back cover, which does not have any bumpy surfaces.

I used an old plastic membership card to spread PVA glue over the entire surface of the vinyl underside.

The cardboard base was placed on the vinyl.

The vinyl was folded over the cardboard.

It was necessary to use lion clips to hold the folded vinyl down while the glue was drying.

A sheet of paper was cut to the size of the two covers plus the book spine (hold the pouches together tightly and measure the spine; in the case of pouch binding, it is the "open" side of the pouch, opposite the fold, which will be bound). Glue is first spread on the back cover. Again, an old plastic membership or bank card is ideal for spreading the glue.

The right side of the paper is gently pressed onto the cover.

The procedure is repeated for the front cover, making sure to let the far right side of the paper meet up with the far right side of the cover. The spine space between the two covers is apparent. Note that the front cover of my book is quite bumpy. I had to be careful not to rip the paper when adhering it because

 there were pleated and wired details on the original handbag that I wanted to keep on the bookcover.

I spread out the bookcover concoction and placed it between several clean pages, before weighing down with some heavy books until the glue dried completely (overnight at least).

Once the cover was dry I prepared everything for binding. I used some marbled origami paper for end papers. The lion clip is holding everything in place while I get ready.

Putting holes through the covers and folios is very important. I cannot stress this enough. For a book of this size (A5) five holes will do nicely. The lion clips are necessary to hold everything in place while the holes are being made and while the book is being sewn.

The sewing technique is Japanese stab binding. Make sure to make the holes large enough all the way through the layers (front cover, endpapers, folio-pouches, back cover) in order that you may sew through the same hole several times with your binding thread. Here I am using 3-strand cotton embroidery thread, folded so the first sew is 6 strands and the second sew is 12.

I cannot stress enough the importance of making the holes wide enough -- I ran into a problem with not being able to go beyond the initial 6 strands in the middle hole of my book. I didn't mind working with the idea of bypassing the hole since this is a personal book (not for a gift) and my first attempt at pouch binding as well as my first attempt at a hardcover book. However, for stability and security as well as for design, I think it is a better idea to ensure the hole is a good size to begin with!

The final book is sturdy and quirky. I like it!