Most of my major participation in MoPrint is now complete, and all of the events went pretty well.
Last weekend was the latest, Print Jam at the Denver Art Museum, produced by Month of Printmaking and featuring 14 artists giving demonstrations and drop in workshops, including me. The crowd was very steady all day (11-4), and the organizer, Emily Moyer did a great job.
I helped with the Monotype table featuring 3 artists, 2 of whom had taken their first monotype classes with me. That’s always a source of pride. I fancied that we had some of the largest gatherings at our station, but that may just be team spirit on my part.
There are still openings and ongoing shows featuring my work, as well as many many others, but the events that required planning and organization on my part are now finished, which means I’m now essentially a tourist. What a relief!
The party began early for me Saturday, as I was one of the first artists to complete my demo, and spent the day relaxing and enjoying the other artist demos as well as assisting my own team at the monotype station. I took a ton of photos and some video that I hope to turn into a MoPrint promo that I will donate to MoPrint.org, should they want it. With that project, I hope to again jumpstart production of my own videos for this site, and for my YouTube channel.
But the pace of that will be much more relaxed and leave time to produce some larger monotypes for a new show, whenever that may happen. My class schedule will also be somewhat reduced as I recharge my batteries. I’ll update soon, but the next post here will undoubtedly be about reading projects. Other than that, I’ll see you next weekend on the #studiotour and at #steamrollerprinting in April.
It’s been a busy, snowy run-up to #moprint2022. But the pandemic seems to be easing, at least in the vaccinated parts of the state, so we can keep our fingers crossed that this one will go off as planned, unlike 2020.
I committed to a lot of events, which has kept me running, but it’ll be fun if it all comes off. Note: I do not anticipate doing the Summer Art Market this year, to give myself a break, and to re-fill my inventory. So MoPrint may be the best opportunity to see work by me this year. Of course, you can always contact me (above) for a private showing. Here’s as complete a list as I can give right now:
February 26, 4 PM: Opening for Print Educators of Colorado show at Lincoln Center, Ft. Collins. I have 2 pieces in the show and anticipate being there for the opening. The show runs through April 9.
March 4, 5:30-8:30 PM: Opening for ASLD Print Fair Exhibition, Art Students League of Denver, 200 Grant St. I’ll have 1-2 pieces in the show. There are free demos by ASLD faculty and artists upstairs. I will be here most of the night.
March 4, 5-10 PM, Trve Brewing, Broadway and 2nd, Black Ink fundraiser for MoPrint. I will have an edition of 20 lino cuts available at a ridiculously low price of $10 apiece, along with 60 other artists. It all benefits Month of Printmaking. I will be here for part of the night.
March 5, 10-4 PM: ASLD Print Fair Pop Up Portfolio show and free artists demos at ASLD 200 Grant. I will have a portfolio of selected prints available for sale, and I’ll be here all day. Prints are an affordable way to start a collection!
March 11, 5-10 PM, Core New Art Space. A show of many techniques in printmaking, that I juried from a national call for entries. Show runs through March 27. I will be at the opening, at least for the later hours.
March 12, 1-4 PM, MoPrint Open Portfolio, Denver Botanic Gardens, Mitchell Hall. This is also a portfolio show, so no framed work, and mostly small pieces that I can display on a table. I predict prices will be very affordable.
March 19, 11-4 PM. I will be doing a demo this year at the MoPrint Print Jam at the Denver Art Museum, Martin Building Creative Hub. There will be 14 separate demos ( by various artists, in various techniques), and 3 workshops you can participate in. My demo will be at 11 AM.
March 24, 5-8 PM, imPressed, opening for juried sprint show, Art Gym. I will have one medium sized piece in the show, and I plan to attend the opening. Show runs through April 17.
All info is on the MoPrint.org website, along with all of the other Moprint-associated events. I will be seeing as many as I can; hope to see you there!
Regular studio work is necessary for any artist. The power of a disciplined schedule has been noted by writers, such as Hemingway; and some artists such as Picasso, seem to never leave the studio. For most of us it’s hard, especially as real wages have nose dived under corporate/conservative economics. One just works harder and longer to pay the basic expenses that the studio time can’t provide for, at least immediately.
So for me, one or two days a week is pretty normal, with two edging into luxury. I work in the print studio at the school where I teach, so for 6 months during the shut down, it was no days. Since the studio has reopened, I’ve been engaged as a monitor, to ensure covid protocols are being met, and in the 6 months since then there’ve been no cases recorded ( which would have necessitated re-closure), so I’ve been making up for lost time with a regular schedule.
Having to commit to a regular schedule actually helps with my own work. I can cover all the bases with a day to test concepts in smaller work, and then a day to expand my idea onto a larger sheet. Also, breaking news- the Summer Art Market will be back this year, but has been pushed back to late August. So I’ve been able to settle into a regular rhythm of working that isn’t as rushed by spring deadlines. I think it’s had a good effect. The ability to build up incrementally, in layers, or even set a monotype aside for a week to mull it over isn’t great for getting a lot of work finished, photographed, and framed in 3 months, but over the course of 6, it can lead to a lot of work in the flat file. That makes for a better show ultimately, as I can afford to pick and choose items for that show. It’s one small benefit of the quarantine.
I’ll pick one piece to illustrate the idea. In picking up the lost thread after shutdown, I had a fairly big stack of unfinished prints from last Spring and before to start with. This one is a ghost from my Fall ’20 return to the studio to complete work Left unfinished for all the various MoPrint 2020 shows I’d been invited to. So the original idea ( ladders, dreamy skyscapes) dates to 2019, although this one came in 2020. When on a deadline I use ghosts as insurance- if a print fails, I can use the other to pursue the idea. When not on a deadline, I use them to push the idea in different directions. By the time I was ready to finish it in January 2021, it had been a year since I worked on the concept, and my train of thought had changed a little.
Here is one of the 2019 works that inspired it. Also a ghost, it was displayed during MoPrint 2020 in the Colorado Print Educators show at Arvada Center before shutdown.
Here is the first impression of Wishful Thinking, inspired by a song on a past Wilco album, about the power of fantasy in love and life. I had been exploring ladders and nightscapes in previous images. The sky is a stenciled field of circles, the ladder is assembled of inked mylar scraps.
Another impression simply developed the ladder and skyscape.
The final state looks like this. I confess to forgetting whether there was an intervening addition to the sky and ladder before I added the organic leafy elements, and the box/nest in lower right. But it’s starting to get busy, and now I’m done. In my opinion, one can put too fine a point on a narrative or verbal concept, and lose some of the mystery. I like the contrast of the box/ nest figure to ground the ascending ladder and counterpoise the teeming sky. It gives a sense of place, which I like to think helps the viewer enter, but leaves the ultimate narrative open.
See it at the Summer Art Market, August 28-29, in the West Washington Park neighborhood , in front of the school!
Sundays tend to be quiet in the studio. The school is open for artists who want to use the presses with a monitor (me), and there has been steady traffic on other days, but I’ve had Sundays mostly to myself. Whatever the repercussions for school revenue, the quiet time is welcome. There has been 7 months without regular studio work, and the quiet has been helping as I dream myself back into a good rhythm for creativity.
Smaller works are over too quickly and there is not enough white space to stretch my mind, so I went with larger work. Full sheet (22×30) after a couple of half sheet warm ups. Blobby, cloud like shapes allowed me to open up space, while also carrying the assortment of yellow, pink and salmon that popped up immediately on my palette (oops- no pictures yet).
Clouds are compatible with my subject matter, ladders (Jacob’s Ladders: I’d been recently reading Emily Dickinson). But the placement and execution of these wasn’t apparent at first, so the next week, I switched to an older, incomplete print from before the shutdown which turned out to be almost screaming for a ladder as central figure. Then a couple of ghosts followed on from that. This is in a deep blue that was appealing to my more crepuscular subconscious visions.
That’s where I stand now. All potential and no resolution, wondering how it might all coalesce. The ladder image clearly needs more emphasis, but the open space behind it is probably going to need restraint, or it will get too busy. The theme, from a Wilco song on my earbuds: Wishful Thinking. I don’t really have anymore than that right now, but it feels like it’s building nicely.
I’ll be in studio a few more weeks, then I’m taking a break in mid December. I’m taking lots of process pics that I will post later. If I don’t post again before the holiday/solstice week, then here are my wishes for a safe happy season of light to you and yours!
The pre-virus activities were so exciting to me that it’s hard to let them go, though they may in some ways be gone forever. One thing I had planned here was a discussion of my contribution to the In Process show at the Metro State University of Denver Center for Visual Art.
I took some quick snapshots at the opening for social media purposes, intending to come back in a quieter time and spend some time with the display and take better pictures and more notes.
Then the crisis hit, and like everything else, the show shut down, so it is certainly a quieter time. But now I’m glad I grabbed what photos I did. I also have the statement on process that I sent to the gallery, and which is posted with the work, in the now very quiet gallery. The ‘House’ passage in To the Lighthouse comes to mind.
So I’ll reconstruct the show in a mini-virtual form here, with expanded notes. This is as much for my benefit as anyone’s, but if you missed the show and are curious, well, here it is.
From the statement:
“My process, in general, involves working through a progression of prints ( usually , not always, smaller to larger) until I feel I have worked out my uncertainties about a given idea and “refined” it to its essentials.”
Monotype printmaking is a process that does not result in multiple prints. Part of the Mo’Print mission is to educate the public on what fine art printmaking is. At times, e.g. The Northern Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, printmaking has fulfilled the need for commercial reproduction. That is no longer the case, and now, unlike Giclees or other reproduced images, each print is considered an original. This is absolutely true of monotype. Here’s a shot of most of the display.
First things first: The largest piece, in the center in blue and black, has been displayed in the wrong orientation. The show was organized last minute, there was limited time to plan for installation, and somehow the fact that all the prelims are in vertical orientation was not noticed. C’est la vie. They should have asked, and I should have attached a note to make sure. Lesson learned.
“Some of these “studies” or “preliminary works” or whatever you may call them become frame-able pieces themselves, and others disappear into the flat files. But by the end of the process, I’m usually exploring various ways forward from the original idea, with a view toward coming up with a finished piece(s) of a given size, as it’s a one-of-a-kind process, so building a portfolio can be time consuming.”
“It’s important to note that “ghost prints” or secondary impressions made from the residue of ink left on the plate after the first impression is printed, are a integral part of my creative process. They can be modified by adding different colors or imagery, and thus, provide a way forward from simple binary judgements of whether a print is successful, or not. Variations on the original subject matter crop up quickly, and sometimes come to dominate my thinking over the first “idea”. It’s a very suggestive, and valuable way of working.”
“The sketchbook provides a place to mull ideas in raw form; most do not ever see a printing press.” The sketchbook, oh yes- the sketchbook, #OMG #LOL. It’s not actually a sketchbook. It’s a little, outdated Star Wars datebook that my part time job was giving away free, and which fit into my pocket. It was the first appearance of this imagery in summer ’19, so I sent it along. It wound up sitting there regally in a vitrine, where it resides still, until quarantine is over. My friends and I had a few snickers about this, back when snickering- and art shows- were still allowed. An artist friend once breathlessly informed me “You have to have to have a Moleskine sketchbook!” but I’ve always scribbled on anything handy. I guess I get it, now. The main question is: will I be allowed to put it back in my pocket after this?
“The small (typically 8×10”) studies are mostly about getting comfortable about how to execute the imagery in ink. They often lack real compositional tension, and most disappear from the public, but sometimes there is a simple elegance, so I show them.
“Medium sized prints (typically 11×15”) are where I work out relationships of color and compositional elements. It’s a great time to ad new elements to test meanings within compositions. I love visual non sequiturs for their expressive potential, so I might play with these and their ghost images for more than one session. Nothing is set in stone, but some half of these never see the light of day.
“Larger full sheet (22×30”) prints are intended to bring in balance and finish and be ready to frame. I do work yet larger, but this size is often where I stop, and over half of these get framed or sold. Interestingly ( to me anyway), I often take elements back out at this stage, to take advantage of the expansive white space. ” This one is unfinished and thus, unsigned, and so the confusion on orientation. Don’t know when I’ll get it back to finish it, and in what *viral* way the idea may change along the way. It’s displayed under the Plexiglas plate (with guide drawing) that I used to print it.
“It is the curse of the monotype artist that sometimes the newsprint slip sheets used to cover the layered-up print elements and protect the press blankets are more attractive-seeming than the actual fine art prints. They get used for multiple layers, and thus may accrue a very unique composition of their own. Many of us cut them up and collage them onto different prints. The process goes on…”
Well that’s my virtual tour, and I thank the Metro CVA and Emily Moyer for this great idea, and the chance to be involved in it. Normally IRL, this is the time when I invite you to walk across the street to the Aztlan Bar for some cheap beer and good live blues. Don’t know if it’s possible to create virtual dive bar experiences, but I’m missing it already.
The holiday break was brief, as #MoPrint2020is upon us and I’m up to my neck in the sort of events that that 3-month fiesta of the pressure arts brings us. Call it over commitment, call it opportunism, call it giving in to ‘pressure’. I’m calling it a great source of material for a blog that is supposed to be about my so-called printmaking career.
The official Month of Printmaking 2020 will be, as always, March of this even-numbered, biennial year. But MoPrint has always had a way of spreading through the first four months, and the first shows kick off this month, with a juried show at D’art last week and the two signature shows at Arvada Center beginning this Thursday, January 16, 6-9 PM.
I’m in the Arvada Center’s “Imprint: Print Educators” invitational show which is concurrent with the “528.0” juried show. IFine art prints are becoming more popular as affordable collection starters. If that interests you, it’d be hard to top this night as a place to jump in.
You can pick up a schedule-flyer for all MoPrint events there, or any of the events I’m about to list. If you make it to every #MoPrint2020 event, I’m thinking there ought to be some sort of cultural “Ironman” medal waiting for you. I’m exhausted just thinking about only the events I’m involved with.
“Rhythm in Balance: Five Contemporary Printmakers” is a show assembled by Patricia Branstead a fellow Art Students League instructor. I’m in it with Judith Bennett, Austin Buckingham, and Charles Woolridge. It’s at Niza Knoll gallery on Santa Fe. Opening night is February 21, and there will be a First Friday event as well.
That same night there will also be work of mine, along with student work at the nearby Very Special Arts Colorado’s Access Gallery. This is a celebration of a class I co-taught with Javier Flores from VSA with special needs young adults. Two shows in one place! They are also planning a First Friday event.
I’ll again be a part of the Artma Benefit Auction for Childhood Cancer, February 8. They do put on a good party, and they treat donating artists well , something I emphasize is an important consideration when I’m donating. My piece has sold each time, so get there early.
Teen Mad Science Monoprint workshop, March 14. The idea is to offer MoPrint2020 events for kids, too.Go to ASLD.org to register online. If this doesn’t fill, you’ll see me at:
The Open Potrfolio event at Redline March 14 is a very casual affair with artists simply showing prints on a table. I generally show things that are too old for my other shows, which means I can offer some bargain prices. If I can’t do this ( because of teen class, above) you can still see my bargain portfolio at:
Pop-up Print Sale and Show at ASLD March 28. Yes, same thing as the Redline event, but with Art Students League printmakers. There will also be framed work for sale, and the Monotype-A-Thon will be going on during the same time. A can’t -miss event.
That’s it so far, I suppose there may be more, and I’ll be posting about my DPL workshops soon, which are always open to the curious public. I’ll post my regular Adult classes at ASLD, also. Stay warm and hope to see you at one of these events.
Yes! A somewhat vulgar pop cultural reference to describe the dregs of my high art musings and literary pretensions. I think I’ll make it a regular feature. This, after I was just thinking to myself while walking to the grocery, ‘I should try posting some long form pieces’. And maybe I will ( when I have time to write one), but don’t worry- I’ll skip the suggestive titles.
I posted the rest of my Fall Denver Public Library workshop schedule on the ‘Workshops’ page, find it on the top menu bar. It’s really only two additional dates; October 17 at Green Valley Ranch, and November 7 at Ross-Barnum. They’re free and open to the public, and one of the nice things about them is you can come and try out the Akua water-based inks, and/or explore the concept of hand-rolling monotypes, which I know from questions in classes that many of you are curious about.
Yes, there are kids there. Sometimes, many kids. But look, if I can survive working with kids kidding about for over 5 years now, you can make it for an hour and a half. Click on the contact page or message me on social media if you have questions about this, I’m sure you’d enjoy it.
I also posted some new images in the ‘Portfolio’ section and will soon post more. These are larger monotypes I’ve been doing to fulfill upcoming show and jury deadlines, and I’ll be back in studio to do more soon. I’m going to try to start posting brief blurbs about older pieces to explicate concepts I’ve been discussing in the longer posts, too. In most cases, these will be much older, say from before this blog existed (2009).
I think I alluded to working on a web store ( for the millionth time) in a recent post. I had to put that aside when the software wouldn’t work, and I needed to concentrate on deadlines and classes. It’s freeware, and glitches, along with piss-poor documentation comes with the territory. They are trying to sell their product to developers and are probably required to offer a free version and helping some poor shrub with a WordPress.org site is far down the list of priorities.
I’ll take it back up when things settle down a little- maybe as early as this weekend. In the interval, I discovered an upgrade I can make to the actual WordPress software that might help the freeware work better. WordPress.org usually has much better documentation, too. I’m optimistic I can still have it ready by Xmas/Black Monday sales opportunity season, fa la, and will certainly offer discounts and premiums to get it rolling, probably right through Spring, so if you’ve been wanting to creatively fill a blank space in your walls, hang on, help is coming. I should be able to offer gift certificates, too. I apologize for maundering on about this since who tied the pup*, but hey- internetsing is hard.
I’ll put up a new reading list soon too. Mostly, I’ve been wrapping up odds and ends from Summer, but I feel a new long project coming on. I did buy a used copy of Tristram Shandy a few months ago, because since I read Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, I’ve wanted to read it. To which sentiment one friend asked pointedly: Why?
Well, now how can I answer that, until I’ve read it, hmm? And with that, a blog that thought SEO stands for ‘Still Expressing Oddstuff’ barrels into its 11th year.
*Strange expression my late mother used often. I don’t have any idea what it means either, and she always refused to explain it. But I’ve been thinking of her lately, so- Hi Mom!
Ideas are far from static entities. I mentioned in another post that like the particles in Maxwell’s Demon, they will usually gain energy or significance only by colliding with other ideas, and thus are born of a process of synthesis or transformation anyway. But even an idea born whole -assuming that really exists- will benefit from different approaches to it. Transforming an idea puts you in the driver’s seat, even when you are not sure where you are going- especially when you are not sure. Taking ownership of an idea sometimes means taking it apart and putting it back together again. If you find you have parts left over, perhaps they didn’t belong there in the first place.
There are different strategies for transformation, and some are additive, and some are subtractive. It’s become a convention to speak of Picasso, for example, as a ‘creator/destroyer’ as Arrian Huffington once put it, and apart from the implications in an artist’s personal life, the famous time-lapse film of Picasso painting onto a clear panel, erasing whole areas and putting new elements in their place is an extreme (and possibly self-dramatized) example of the way process can be far from linear. A good book on Picasso’s creative process that I’ve enjoyed recently is The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica, by Rudolf Arnheim.
It is a bit of a self-drama, for me, anyway. I’m sure other artists might agree. One gets one’s favorite studio soundtrack going- let’s see, Pixies, or Phillip Glass? A stimulant can be added; now, it’s usually coffee, though I admit that wine or beer was more common in the early days. There is a certain choreography that pertains: anything from organizing the studio, to a restless pacing back and forth from close-ups to long view, a sort of rhythmic dance might even break out.
And then the adding and subtracting. This has a real metaphoric weight- it’s not just a surface arrangement. Questions of positive and negative space, visual weight and color messaging impact the meaning of an idea, the way it blossoms from pure visual immanence to a more objective literal object. No artwork can escape this fluid dynamic.
So what can be added? Especially in printmaking, which is subject to the technical limitations on effects and processes that can be changed after they are once applied, and a general bias toward simplified graphic forms? The short answer is: distance and movement. There are many ways to add depth to a print, which by nature and design, can sometimes be flat. These range from the traditional, such as perspective, to other more abstract strategies.
Visual and metaphoric distancing strategies affect our reactions to a picture emotionally and analytically. This often takes place in terms of creating eye movement, which is the physical manifestation of ‘interest’ in looking at an artwork. Something detailed, heavily textured or just very hard-edged often gets our most immediate attention because of how the eye works. Something fuzzier, and less distinct feels ‘farther away’, less of an immediate question or challenge. Distance is the essence of ‘depth’ in an artwork. It also creates musicality when we consider that distance=rate x time. Similar objects, varied in size, and placed at regular intervals, create a rhythm and depth that becomes harmonizing. We follow the ‘beat’, moving into the space and time of a picture.
Textures can add energy and attract the eye, things such as “noise”, a word I use to refer to ‘accidental’ by-products of ink manipulation- debris, extruded strokes, distressed color forms, and scratched-in forms, such as in clouds or dark areas. Textures impart important cues into an artist’s attitudes toward the basic shapes in a composition, and are not to be ignored. Texture sounds like a decorative detail, but two shapes, treated in a soft, fuzzy, mystery suggesting way; or in a hard-edged, definite, foregrounding way, can say different things about meaning. Literally and figuratively, texture provides definition.
Edges and contours work the same way. A hard edge will physically ‘foreground’ an element, owing to the way the eye works; and in combination with a darker color can also create a sort of silhouette, a neat trick of adding both proximity and mystery to an object, a very basic and challenging question to the viewer’s eye: Do I stay here, or move around this, into what has by implication become a distance. Thus movement is created.
Contours bring softer, more reticent shapes forward. Contours can be textured to add intrigue or expressive notes, or faded to add mystery and metaphoric movement. Contours can be found in shapes that already exist in the image, or imposed on top of textures or patterns beneath. They can be somewhat arbitrary or even contrary, or harmonious and integral.
Textures can be stylized (semi-abstract), or realistic and sort of gritty or tonal. In monoprints, texture can also include different printmaking techniques such as relief, dry point, and collograph, among others; each offering a new ‘window’ into a separate reality, upping the way meta narrative can be incorporated. Whatever one’s opinion of Andy Warhol, his genius was to prove finally, conclusively, that art can never be wholly a matter of physical gesture. Ideas are born, live, and die in the mind. While his art is obviously about much more than printmaking, the surrealist juxtapositions of process color and deliberate mis-registrations inject the ultimate distancing effect of all- irony. Viewed in these lights, texture and color, especially in printmaking, is anything but decorative.
Bright, warm colors bring the underlying elements forward; dark, subdued colors can make the overlapped elements recede. In printmaking, where color schemes are often simplified, accents can attract the eye to important areas, add irony or balance, or a visual counterpoint. When complementary colors are used, they can demonstrate visually the adage that “opposites attract”.
Positive/negative elements can foreground detail, or create visual reversals, which are energizing and add intrigue. As in famous optical illusions such as Necker Cubes, positive/negative elements in art can be both additive and subtractive, foregrounding and backgrounding, at the same time. A splash of textures or small shapes can lead from positive (dark) areas, in color on light areas and segue immediately into negative (light) shapes in a dark area. This is a cubist trick that leads the eye and breaks visual planes. Again, eye movement trumps surface illusion.
As for the subtractive side of the creative process, As an idea becomes more developed it often becomes more complex. Other ideas and nuances accrete, leading to a signal to noise disjunct that can obscure a simple first idea. It can be liberating and freeing, in a creative sense, to simply take something out. Let the idea suggest itself, rather than spelling it out. If an idea isn’t strong enough to survive this at least you know that now.
And white space is well known, in printmaking’s cousin, advertising, to create places for the eye to enter a picture, or to rest briefly while considering a next move. Monotypes or prints without sufficient white space can sometimes feel heavy, or busy. With an often limited color palette, and no way to reclaim the resplendent whites once they’ve been printed over, this is not surprising. But balance in darks and lights doesn’t necessarily mean a 50/50 mix. A small, very bright white area of the original sheet showing through a mass of black ink can be very compelling.
When do the transformations end? It’s a question I get a lot in classes- when is it finished? Do I keep going and risk irreversible change, or stop and risk Superficiality and incompleteness? Transformations have consequences. Do I dare to eat a peach? is T.S. Eliot’s sublime, elegant and wholly understated version of this existential dilemma.
And it is very much existential. Change will happen anyway. Embracing change places you in the very engine room of the creative process. What to do there? I wish I had a simple answer for that in my own studio work. Be present. Open yourself to the movement and the music.
Into an emptiness comes a lone rider. Whether dark, intimidating nightscape, or infinite and featureless white mist, the landscape of ideas exists just over the border from conscious intent, and many see it as just an obstacle to be gotten through to get to the final destination. But artists, like explorers, often linger. Sometimes, too much. Other times, not enough at all.
This shrouded interaction of actor/spirit/blue spark and fallow ground/environment/lightning field will determine what happens in one’s studio for the foreseeable future. But ideas answer to no one, and understanding what they are and where they come from is not only hard, it can be inimical to the process of actually having them. I sometimes suspect that my ideas are laughing at me.
Where DO ideas come from? Douglas Hostetler believes ideas stem from analogous thinking- something is like something else. If this is true, then there is a lot of mystery hidden in that adverb ‘like’. Rudolf Arnheim in The Genesis of a Painting, about the creation of Picasso’s Guernica, notes the difficulty in scrutinizing an “impulse issuing from beyond the realm of awareness.”
For me, there are often three components- A mental image, let’s go with a landscape, in the spirit of our opening metaphor; a word or phrase that can often start the metaphor rolling, literalizing it just enough to invite mental manipulation; and some supporting imagery or sketch material, often preexisting, but not necessarily.
In “Bramble, above, my first conscious awareness of the idea came from the phrase “in the bracken” in a Robyn Hitchcock song “I Don’t Remember Guildford”, a fairly surreal little ditty about blocking out painful memories- or so I suppose. In my mind the phrase merged with the idea of tangled wilderness, a place of power and danger I’d explored in the previous decade, in a series of pictures about ravines inspired by mountain hikes during and after a residency in Wyoming.
A verbal or visual component, once teased into more literal form, can be ‘flipped’ to add tension or surprise, as in a palindrome, or anagram type of treatment. Recall that printmaking is, in itself, an actual visual flipping of any idea. This becomes habit, a creative gymnastics that kicks in when cliche or a rote visual syntax threatens to starve or disorient the mysterious, laughing rider. Ideas, I believe, may start with analogy, but thrive on paradox. They are jokes that consciousness plays on itself.
In this case, I’d made acetate stencils of natural forms that I’ve used in past work. When I get sick of them, or feel they’ve been repeated too much, I simply take out the scissors and modify them or cut them into smaller fragments. During printing they can be literally flipped, too, revealing crystalline formations of residual ink formed by the pressure in printmaking. This mimics the mental activity of paradox; it provides the “disruption” or syntactic flipping, though there are of course many other ways of doing this. The cutting and decaying of image also physically mimics the natural breakdown processes that happen in a ravine or wilderness.
Ideas are “functions that prefer the shadow to the light,” Paul Valery said.
Ideas come in colors, though ill defined. When the blue spark hits, a simple color scheme (such as black and white) and a limber, intuitive hand can help clarify ideas, without scaring them away. Enter the sketchbook.
In the Jungian, pre-concious soup, elements collide, creating more energy. Though as Arnheim points out, these are not in themselves significant, or even ideas. An interpretive, conscious creative mind must bring them into the light. The sketchbook, with its fluid watercolor wash, or open-ended pencil lines, is the stage where this drama plays out. Write your phrases, working titles or half baked poetry in the margins. There’s no sense entering this wilderness without a verbal lifeline. Date your entries, yes, if only so you can later marvel how long you’ve wandered the void. It takes years, sometimes.
No matter what baggage you’ve brought into the void, it is only your senses that can get you back out.
Loosen the reins and follow your pencil. Paths coalesce, contours emerge. One is receptive at this point. Most of us are not geniuses; it’s good to listen to the words, feel the contours. Ideas favor the receptive mind. It’s okay to laugh back.
Receptivity comes in different forms. When working in black and white, a schematic, a transparent ideograph is the thing I see. When shadows are added, movement of light is implied, which is a simple narrative. Then colors are added. Colors are in themselves receptive, and speak to other colors. On an existential level, colors are just as baffling as ideas, and may also be having fun at our expense. If you set yourself a balanced, simple palette, it’s quite possible that a given color will find drama in its tonal neighbors and vice-versa. Complementary colors are all about paradox. And black and white are dynamic, so a single added color can tease out a lot of nuance.
The color chosen above, a sort of dark sea-green, refers to nature, but also somewhat to the watery depths of subconscious. This is actually the ‘sketch’- the first appearance of this idea, direct to the printing plate. There is no ‘preliminary’ sketch, although I explored the idea further in my little note book later. The etching I did to learn the non-toxic polymer process in a workshop last month, which I posted here, is also a later sketch. The image is compelling to me, but far from a ‘finished’ idea. I like working this way, with smaller versions ( here, 11×15″) leading up to larger, more refined work.
Above is a further image relating to this idea. I found a crude, simplified clarinet shape that was stick-like, so I added it to “Bramble”. It makes no sense, but I enjoyed the joke.
In information theory, there exists the phenomenon of signal to noise. Ideally, when the noise is filtered out, meaning coalesces. I had a conversation with a friend, Noah about how writers write. His observation: writers for larger audiences- his example, screenwriters- always seem to have more definitive ideas about their process than writers for smaller audiences (eg: poets). We decided that poets often don’t even know what they are writing as they write it. It brought up the question of creative process. This resonated, and brought me the sudden flash that “Bramble”, heretofore a compelling but simplistic dreamscape, might be considered a metaphor for the creative process itself. If you were expecting me to talk about a light bulb moment in my discussion of ideas- there it is, though, of course, it came relatively late in the game. If all this sounds a bit self-reflexive, I can’t argue, but viewers bring their own stories to works they see as well. I’ve seen it happen, at street fair shows, and I don’t begrudge their creative input. The conversation, both before and after execution, informs the idea.
The Pixies once wrote a song called “Space”, about the conga player they hired to make that same song seem more ‘spacious’. “d=r times t” they sang, the first time I’d ever understood that synesthetic concept in relation to creativity. Thus, an idea is never really finished.
The creative mind is a creature of habit, too. A raw idea in its soupy jumble is often affixed to an image matrix the artist has used before, in order to establish order. It’s worked for him before, it can work again. I chose the landscape metaphor very deliberately. It’s been a powerful and generative notion in my mind since that month long residency in the mountains of Wyoming in the Oughts, and indeed, since I came west as a teen. Paradox and reversal, palindromic thinking can un-moor us from pre-conceptions and add freshness and surprise to an idea, like a punchline to a joke, or logic leap in speech, or dissonance in music. The surrealists used this sort of thing often, and a small bit of disorientation in a visual conception can paradoxically, add to a sense of presence or heightened reality in a picture, as the senses are awakened, and curiousity engaged. Max Ernst made a career of these disorienting juxtapositions.
Ideas are messy. I think that they are less like lightbulbs and more like radio static.
I often don’t know what an idea is until well after I’ve had it, because I’m unable to separate the signal from the noise. The subtle calculation of what belongs in a given composition and what does not often involves a complex interplay between “story” and image. Something as simple as an unrelated conversation can provide the story that focuses the image. Separating the signal from the noise often involves keeping these syntactic “negotiations” open for a while. It’s not a hierarchy, but an interplay. The street fair interactions with viewers sometimes add to meaning in a specific work as well.
Ideas have their own logic and rhythm which can be quite circular or even hermetic, and which lends them power. In a formless void, they very much march to the beat of a different drummer- their own.
Somewhere between “paradox stated” -the joke or pun, and “paradox resolved”-the scientific discovery, Arthur Koestler says, lies creative fusion. “The ‘ah’ of aesthetic insight” is placed in the middle between “the aha! of scientific discovery” and “the Haha of …the punch line.” puns James Geary, in an article adapted from his book Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, And Why We Need It.
Analogy, metaphor, puns. Palindromes, anagrams and literal non-sense. The wit of the scientist, inventor, or improviser seems to be no different from that of the artist, the sage, or the jester. I’m not sure I know where ideas come from, but there seems to be much laughter tumbling in the void.
I took, at the invitation of the school, a couple of workshops taught by Henrik Boegh, a Danish Master Printer in non-toxic intaglio. Intaglio is a traditional word for etching- it means, roughly, ‘cutting into’. It’s a different medium than monotype, a very simple process of making an ink picture on a smooth plane and then transferring it to paper. For one thing it’s repeatable, as indicated by larger edition numbers, such as 1,2 or 3/10, etc. (Monotypes, unique one-of-a-kind prints, often are designated 1/1).
There were two 3-day workshops on different aspects of etching. Photo-polymer etching was the first. One uses a light source (including the sun) to expose an image onto a polymer film, then hardens it, and prints it like a traditional etching plate (that is to say: put ink on, wipe off the excess until only the etched lines have ink, and run through a hand press.) I’ve done this often with prepared plates, such as Solar Plates, invented by Dan Welden. Here one actually prepares the plate.
The second was the more traditional, centuries-old process of etching lines and tones into a metal plate. Here a whole range of non-toxic, or perhaps more accurately, relatively less toxic, materials were used instead of the highly toxic acids and oil-based grounds that we learned about in school. These are acrylic grounds of various types, some specialized, others using common materials (such as Johnson Floor Wax!)
The whole idea of the League offering this workshop to me and a couple of other instructors is that we would eventually teach it, expanding the school’s offerings into safer processes. So in October, we three will be meeting to process the large amount of new techniques and get on the same page before new classes and workshops start in Spring. Eventually, though traditional methods will continue to be taught at the school, toxic etching materials will be replaced.
Here is an image I made of one process during the workshop. More rough sketch than finished art, this test proof was made to see how well I’d used various ink drawing, washes and scratchings on a photo plate. But it relates to some themes I’ve been exploring about (mental) brambles and undeveloped wilderness, so I may try to clean it up as a finished piece soon, while working on my technique. I’ll post more as I go along.