Transforming an Idea

Or Being Transformed By It?

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.

“Treehouse”, 2019, 21×15″, Monotype. In every monotype, there are things one might wish to change, or that one hadn’t changed.

Color’s transformative qualities are magnified in printmaking. Transparency can form newly surprising or intriguing colors, change mood overall or in parts of the picture, or unify disparate elements. Transparency is a measure of color’s willingness to engage with other elements in a print.

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. 

My next workshop for adults with at least some printmaking experience is Mad Science Monoprint, beginning July 23. Register this week. The thoughts from this post will be on my mind then, and you are welcome to join the conversation.

Walk Right In?

Textures and graphic effects are a way of bringing energy to a print composition. A highly detailed texture will attract the eye and demand attention, a subtle one will invite mental rest and contemplation. A heavier, darker texture or a very transparent one will tend to create depth by playing off what’s behind or underneath it. In this three staged monotype, I had some fairly unique coloring and a balanced, if plain image, and I put it aside with a vague feeling of disappointment as it really didn’t have a lot of intrigue. Intrigue can be defined in prints, probably in all art, as something, a bit of mystery or surprise that might keep the eye exploring the picture, possibly to extract meaning ( or determine if meaning is indeed there), or to solve the puzzle of its composition, or simply to bring the visual exploration to a fairly logical stopping point.

In this case, I didn’t want to give up on the print because I liked the sense of calm, or is it desolation? which I think comes from the pink light and the fairly empty expanse on the left side. So I wanted to heighten that distance and light, without cluttering the picture.

I did this print last year, and while I loved the strange colors and stylized interplay between positive and negative elements, it seemed too sparse to call finished.

The picture was also a bit sparse though, lacked a real focal point and featured mostly hard edges. I wanted to add a bit of visual richness and narrative movement while maintaining the graphic simplicity.

First I added in some more visual elements in the foreground which enhanced the designerly, modernist look of the first layer, and although these are also hard-edged shapes (created with mylar overlays), I think the addition of more complexity in the foreground makes the emptiness in the background more pronounced.

I added some foreground darks to create a focal point in opposition to the rather empty background.

Then I thickened the glade at the right avoiding too much clutter, by adding some trace monotype lines.

I rediscoverd trace monotype, a favorite from Paul Klee’s early work in my art history class days, and decided to experiment with it to see if it might add to these pictures I’d never finished. It has a fairly spontaneous and softer-edged feel to it as opposed to the hard edge of the mylar stencilling, which might, given the subject ( strangely lit glade) add some visual balance. The softer-edged elements were placed in front of the earlier graphic elements, not usually how you do it, but as in photography, the depth of field is being manipulated to sharpen and highlight middle ground elements, an example of what I mean by visual intrigue. When you highlight or sharpen the middle ground, you are, in effect, asking the viewer to “enter” past the foreground elements. Like pushing to the front of the crowd for a street busker, say, it asks for a bit of commitment.

It added a bit of “dirty” look to the print, which adds an edgy but also timeless feel to the modernist hard edges. Blacks ( not too heavy) always add depth by bringing out color and balancing tones, which here were sitting mostly in the middle-light to middle-dark range except the ghostly whites. I used the trace mainly for spindly forest brush (plant) images and ground debris which adds a bit of suggested perspective and realistic “bottom” to the pic, but also a kind of synaesthesia in that one can imagine the crackling of twigs, which draws one in to the place depicted. It’s also somewhat calligraphic and hints at a story in the scene. The second layer of leafy designs in mylar  plays off the twigs to create a sort of diversity of textures and heightens the original play of positive negative space in the pic. I like that the imagery is denser, but the two image sets are now in a bit of visual tension with each other in a sort of necker cube shift of dark and light. Is the white log stencil some sort of border treatment, or is it a log that has shifted to another dimension. A ghost log? I always enjoy signal-to-noise problems, and this one suggests information degradation or decay, since it exists at the edge of the picture plane, where an image might be expected to fade anyway.

Whether this all works is of course for the viewer to decide, but as the “first” viewer, it made me happier.  This was a print which seemingly had no chance of ever being seen by the public, until I decided that other textures might make it just intriguing enough to show ( Yes, I have to see intrigue, or at least stylistic interplay in something before I can bring myself to show it). It seemed to lack any sort of visual grace or interior dialog beyond the pink and brown coloring, which I always loved, and which probably kept it near the top of the stack of unfinished items, rather than buried in a flat file. It seems to have a fair amount of depth and “placeness” in it now. It’s a place I would like to go to and walk around in, so I went there.

You can see it and judge for yourself at the Art Students League Summer Art Market, June 10-11, Booth #96, where I’ll be showing it along with work by my booth mate, Taiko Chandler.

The finished piece has quite a bit more texture, including rub marks from the trace monotype.

Color in Monotypes

Most printmakers use a somewhat limited color palette. Editions of hand-pulled prints often require a separate plate for each color- which can lead to a fair amount of time and expense. This has lead to a tradition of very strategic and inventive color use in printing, and its growth as an advertising medium since the Industrial Revolution has reinforced this. Advertising’s need for bold, simple visual form and messaging dovetails with this, too, and it’s no accident that printmaking is very often- not always- on the leading edge of modernist visual style.

Monotype prints- not technically printmaking, we are reminded by an educational poster in the Art Students League Denver print room, since there is no repeatable matrix from which to make identical prints- is not technically bound by the problem of multiple plates, but there are other reasons why the impetus towards simple color schemes pertains. The tradition of bold, clean-edged design is only one of them.

Artists encounter special challenges in using color inks, which are formulated to withstand the roller of a press, bond with different kinds of paper, and create vibrant results when dry whether applied with brayer or brush. Different ink formulations are used with screen printing, wiping etching plates or rolling onto litho plates and wood blocks (though most of these are fine for monotypes). And while oils, for example, are fairly consistent in texture (subject to modification) and are usually intended to be applied with brush or knife to canvas, inks tend to vary a lot in stiffness and viscosity, transparency and covering power. This makes predicting how they will interact with the more and less delicate types of paper used a learning process.

In monotype, ink can be mixed right on the plate, but delicate final effects can be hard predict after a ride through the 5K psi pressure a typical press generates. Textures, brush strokes and glazing are wiped out, so planning often becomes essential, even when trying for expressionistic or “spontaneous” effects. But these strategies work well with graphic, hard-edged modernist imagery too.

Layering is a good strategy for putting down a spontaneous effect in one color that will retain its integrity when another color is laid down next. Transparency in inks or modifying mediums allow different textures and hues to shine through while creating new tonalities and blends. A good understating of positive and negative space and how the (often) white paper will interact with these allows for light to shine from within, like glazing in oil, or watercolor. And printmakers will often pick a limited selection of colors and make a given color perform multiple roles, as in “process” color (CMYK).

A fairly simple image that actually stretches every rule of color usage in composition to create a compelling, dramatic visual message.

The example I’ve included here, which I’ve often used in classes, uses not a “somewhat” limited palette, but an extremely limited one. Its visual elements also are simple and separate themselves very straightforwardly into five elements; two in the foreground, two in the middle ground and a background. It’s in the colors assigned to these elements that we get a sense of creative transgression, and a feel for why the image is so arresting to the eye.

The first foreground element is the press, done in near silhouette, which provides a deep black field to highlight the second  element, the printer’s address. Clever way to deliver crucial advertising info, yes, but for this discussion the important fact is that we are used to seeing black as a background, as in the prints of Rembrandt, or Castiglione (monotype’s inventor), who use it to convey transcendent mystery, or to highlight bright foregrounds. Here it’s used as a visual tease of sorts, with the darkened foreground obstacle challenging us to peek at what’s going on behind.

The middle ground also has two elements- The printer, done in a simplified chiaroscuro to impart the drama of what he’s doing, ala Rembrandt; and the print he’s inspecting.  This is the most important info in the poster, the printer’s solitary quest for perfection, his attention to detail; and it is substantively done all in white, or to be precise, no color at all, since it is the white of the paper that is generally used by printmakers to get the brightest highlights. There is black, of course, to outline the intensity of the expression on his face, and to set his business-like suit off from the background. We are given to understand, both literally and figuratively, that this print shop owner stands out.

The background is the background, naturally. They often suggest distance, a void, an infinity; restful to the wandering eye, open to contemplation on what has been seen in the fore- and middle ground, but not often a hot, in-your-face foreground-type color like red. It is so insistent that it pushes the middle ground out toward us, adding to the intensity of the message.

Almost every color decision is the opposite of how our instincts tell us color should behave in a realistic image. The foreground is an obstacle to entry into the picture. The most important information is done in no color at all. White is the color most often used to denote negative space, but here used to denote the most positive elements in the composition, printer, press and print.The background is a hot, insistent, almost bludgeoning primary. But these visual transgressions grab us and lock us in instantly to a simple, powerful message (presumably, about printmaking’s power to deliver simple, powerful messages).

Again, bold, graphic, advertising is not necessarily fine art printmaking, which often needs to convey complex messages. But the two have developed hand in hand since the dawn of the printing press, and there is much to learn from it. Thoughtful, unique color use can really make your monotypes stand out.

My next workshop is Monotypes for Advanced Beginners, a studio class for people with some past printmaking experience who want a dialogue about developing their ideas in unique ways. Register by February 21 here:https://asld.modvantage.com/Instructor/Bio/1053/joe-higgins

Source of the picture is The Poster in History, Max Gallo, NAL, 1975. I’ve left the photo credit on the scan, at the top. I could find no further info on the artist, Ming.

 

 

How and Why to Do Black and White in Monotypes

“Say, it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea”

-A Paper Moon, Billy Rose/ E.Y.Harburg/Harold Arlen

This image relates to memory and the way we move through it.
“Man With Torch”, Monotype, 30×42″, 2004. In this large monotype, black and white each define both positive and negative elements. White forms the infinite misty negative space behind the smoke and the water, for example, but also defines highlights on the water, and billows in the smoke. Charred trees foregrounded in black are silhouetted against distant grays and brown blacks. Similar values used in multiple compositional structures can make for dynamic graphics.

Color is an integral component of all art. We regularly talk of “color” when describing sounds in music, for example.

But in talking color in art, we often forget the two colors that are not considered colors at all: black and white. Managing black and white in ink on paper composition is at the very core of composing good prints.

For one thing, there is the subtractive nature of light in printmaking. As with any sort of color involving pigment, the addition of the pigment subtracts various wavelengths of light from those being reflected back to the eye. Unlike additive color such as projected light, where addition of more color eventually results in bright white, in subtractive color, you tend toward black. And in the thin applications of ink under pressure inherent in printmaking, it’s not possible to completely cover most inks. The most white space, and thus light, you will ever see in a print is in the blank piece of paper you tear before printing anything. Everything thing you do from then on only reduces the amount of light in your composition.

It’s also true to a certain extent, of watercolor, though many water colorists can cover with Chinese white ink, or gouache in their paintings to bring back the white areas. There is a very nice show of  Charles Burchfield pictures at the Denver Art Museum now where you can find wonderful examples of that. Print makers can certainly add opaque water media such as acrylic paint or even pastel to a print, making it a hand colored print, but in its essence as something run through a press and thus presented as something graphic and in some way repeatable (monotypes are not strictly repeatable, though a ghost can be made, which has very unique advantages in itself, explained here). So white is a valuable visual resource in the print room. And in managing the sorts of positive/negative relationships that bold graphics and dynamic compositions often depend on, it is indispensable.

Its material opposite and spiritual twin is black. While both can evoke a void or an infinity, and each bring definition to shape, as in chiaroscuro, only black can be physically applied in a pure state in printing. And it cannot be taken away. White is just the opposite, and thus becomes almost sculptural. It is fun to work with white inks, but even “opaque” white does not cover nearly as well as black. The best example of this is in scratchboard-style composing such as seen in the monotypes of Castiglione, their inventor, who recently had a show at the DAM.

It thus becomes very important in monotype printmaking to be “present”. One must have a good sense of where the light in a given composition is “coming from” and where it is going. Transitions from white to black and from positive to negative space create compositional movement and intrigue. This is true in any medium, of course, but in print media it cannot be corrected, and must be planned for. A monotype can be layered with great subtlety, tones shifting almost miraculously into hues as complex as many oil paintings, but the white slips away with each run as relentlessly as melting snow. It’s true whether the composition is abstract or realistic, hard-edged or gestural, baroque or minimal.

So having a sense of balance and proportion is vital, even if balance is accomplished with one shining burst of light in the darkness. In the most poetic sense, the two need each other, as the Bible, and artists from Rembrandt to Escher to Motherwell remind us. Because that bit of light may be where your viewer’s eyes enter your picture.  And the finest pin prick may be where they move after that, and how they are led through your composition, searching and constellating as with stars on a dark night. Eyes bring light to the synapses, and their movement is analogous to interest and engagement in the viewer. Grays and blacks can be compelling and dynamic, and a dark composition can create real mystery but there is a danger of busy-ness or a visual claustrophobia when there is too much of a grayness in a print, and if there is real depth or motion in your monotype, a bright graphic electricity, the chances are that the white is shining through somewhere like a big paper moon.

Studio Doings

Joe Higgins Monotypes "Superheroine With Burning Boat" Stage 1
Joe Higgins Monotypes “Superheroine With Burning Boat” Stage 1

I’ve been layering Mylar stencils for transparencies, spatial density and complex colors. I hope for rich interactions of negative and positive space, with new visual textures. But a real danger can be overworked, cramped images. Planning becomes an issue.

Good, rich color often involves planning, with transparency and color designs interacting in fresh ways when planning works but becoming muddy or overbearing when it doesn’t. Spontaneity for me, is in the soul of a monotype. Hit it just right, and you get a richness combined with graphic power that people understand as its own unique medium. Overwork it in trying to correct for texture, registration or tonality, and you only make them wonder why you didn’t use paints or colored pencils, anything more controllable.

This image highlights that delicate ballancing act. The first image above, “Superheroine with Burning Boat “ had real potential after one drop, but was fragmentary and lacked real depth. That, along with a tighter, more integrated (meaning less random) blue/orange tonality.

The second, below, I tried to add a unifying, transparent dark blue over the oranges in the waves but succeeded only in confusing the issue with a heavy blue /black. The trees of the ship are better but still lack any real depth or unity. It still has potential, but needs another layer, though it is dangerously close to being overworked. I’ll keep you posted on this one.

However, this is a time for experimentation for me and the overall idea seems good. Perhaps a more open, less claustrophobic composition, and a lighter touch on the colors might be a good thing. Thoughts?

I have another series of “stage” progressions I’ll post later in the week or next week. It’s one that seems to be coming together more successfully.

Joe Higgins Monotypes "Superheroine With Burning Boat" Stage 2
Joe Higgins Monotypes “Superheroine With Burning Boat” Stage 2

One Last Gray Day


I ‘ve done a larger, vertical version of the Ridgetop theme. While the photo isn’t that good, I’m going to move on to some other ideas, so I decided to wrap up the gray-on-gray/negative space thread for now. The best of these can be found here, in a portfolio with commentary. Be sure to click ” Become a Fan”, too. I’ll post newer work soon.

BTW, in case you out-of-towners are wondering, yes, it HAS been an unusually gray winter here.

Gray Days

“Ridgetops”, Monotype, 15×21″

I’ll do a larger version Monday. I’ll lighten the far ridge, and adjust the scale and distance. I promised myself some more interiors, so I think that’ll be next. Nor have I done a “fun” Weekend-type post lately, so I’ll work up something of that nature.

Sketchy Business

The year seems to be getting off to a good start. I wanted to do more sketching as a way of adding focus and unity of purpose, and I wanted to keep the images minimal and make greater use of negative space. Those things seem to be happening here, in the print I did Monday. It’s not in its final state; I’ll need to touch up a couple of areas.

It’s two drops, gray and dark gray, and it was trickier than it looks; I took my time. I had gotten a late start because we went over to help lift a press into a car bound for its new home up in the mountains. It’s a Squishtoid occupational hazard- every time someone buys a press, we wind up doing the grunt work. It’s not something my back especially looks forward to after 25 years of lifting 50 pound bales of potatoes, but it’s nice to see a printmaker living the dream, and she did buy us breakfast and bake us cookies!

I have a ghost of this which I’ll post tomorrow. For now, I’ll post the sketch to prove I’m not just talking the talk.

A Good Start

If there is such a thing as omens, then Monday’s printing would be a good one. I went slow and examined each part of the routine for changes I might like to make ( for example, I made a slight adjustment in paper size during tearing, because it might make the smaller pictures more compatible with ready-made frames now available).

When I finally started composing, I kept it simple and tried to be conscious of negative space. When you are working with a limited color palette ( in this case black, and mid-value gray), It implies that white ( the paper) will be one of your colors, so use of negative space in the printmaking is essential.