One of my passions as an artist is capturing the beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
I love the mountain landscape, but to capture it with the printmaking process, I have to work to create depth and texture because I don’t have a full palette of colors — like a painter may have — to express that subject.
For the subjects of my art, I am drawn to strong lines and contrasting colors. For my most recent print, I have chosen to portray the iconic Canmore mountains, The Three Sisters, at a time of year when the snow makes great patterns on the peaks. Such a day occurred this spring. The photo above shows my inspiration. This blog explains the six-week journey it took me to create and complete the final print.
Drawing and preparation
The very first step of the creative process begin in my head. For this “reduction” print, I needed to figure out a way to create a multi-colored print using only one piece of base art. For a reduction print, you carve your artwork into the block (in reverse), taking away the parts you don’t want to print. For the next color layer, you return to the same carved artwork and remove more of the piece, then print it again.
This occurs several times until your block is “reduced” to the last color printed. If I am losing you, don’t worry. It took me a long time to figure this out, too! I hope posting these photos will help explain the process with visuals and make it more understandable.
The process begins with a sketch. I create my reference drawing on tissue paper with a very soft lead pencil to get dark lines. The tracing paper is laid over the block — in this case, I am using a printmaker’s rubber designed specifically for printmaking without a press. Once the rough outline is on the block, I can begin the carving process.
Carving the artwork begins
I first carve the border around the artwork using a ruler (to keep my border straight) and my V-tool (the carving knife is shaped like a “V” and gives me good clean edges). I carve away enough of the block so I won’t get ink around the outside of the print once I roll the ink on the block.
I build a special frame — custom-made for each different print — to hold the block in the same place every time I print. When I place the block in this flat frame and attach the paper using my wooden pins, my paper and the inked block should line up throughout each color application.
Since this is a hand-printed process, it’s not as exact as a mechanical printing press. Every print I sell is checked for registration, but there are almost imperceptible variations between the prints if you look really closely. That’s how you can tell my art prints are printed by hand and are not just a mechanical reproduction.
My first task is to take away (carve into the block) any areas that I want to show white in the final print. For this print, I have chosen a printmaking paper that is bright white, so the paper that shows through becomes the white areas of the art. It’s like drawing in the negative. This first layer will be printed with blue ink for the sky; the first of three different colors.
Here is the block, all carved and ready to receive the first layer of blue ink. I ink the entire block as the foreground will be covered by the subsequent layers of ink (grey of the mountains, and black outline of the trees). The darker inks cover over the lighter inks.
The first printed layer
I custom mix ink for the print using several different colors to achieve the pastel blue I want for the sky. Once I am happy with the color, the ink is rolled on a glass plate in a very thin application, and then I transfer this ink to the block using the roller. The paper is laid on top of the inked block and gently rubbed to transfer the ink to the paper. This ink, roll, paper, press process is repeated over and over for every print.
Here, the “sky” prints hang to dry. The drying process can take up to a week to ensure the print is fully dry before I add the next ink layer. Humidity and heat can all affect the drying time…it’s an inexact science!
This is a copy of the first layer once it is dry. Can you see where the Three Sisters will go? At this point, it looks a bit abstract, even to me! The blue on the lower half of the print will eventually be covered by the new colors of ink.
Creating the print’s second layer: the mountains
For the second layer of the mountains, I go back to my original tracing paper drawing, and fill in a little more detail on the mountains. I mark where I want the outline of the peaks to be, and I also note where I want to carve into the mountain to let the blue of the first layer “show through” on the print…mostly around where the snow on the mountains creates those cold shadows.
I press the design into the block using a bone folder, and once the block has the image transferred onto it, I can start carving.
Here is the artwork of the second layer: the portrait of the mountains. You will see, I have removed the sky because that is already printed on my paper. The grey mountains will overprint the blue, and in the areas where there is snow on the mountains, a lovely texture of blue and white will occur.
The grey ink is custom-mixed, and applied in a think layer to the block. Now I can see what kind of detail I have created. Note, in the tradition of the “reduction print” the same block is reduced a little more for this next layer.
Here I am part way through the hand-printing process. You can see over my right shoulder the print with the two colors (blue + grey) and over my left shoulder the blue-only layer waiting to be printed. In this series of prints, I start with about 25 prints, and if any are “mis-printed” (not registered, or the ink smudged) I will throw those prints out. In the end, I ended up with only 18 prints in this series because several prints didn’t measure up to my quality standards.
The Three Sisters looking good. Now the print really starts to take shape. These prints are again hung up to dry for another week or two, until they are dry, or until I can get time to get back to carving and printing the next layer. At this stage in the process, I had our Canmore Studio and Gallery Tour taking place, so these prints had to wait a bit.
After all the two-color prints are done, I make one final impression of just the grey ink. I do this for my archives and to show the process on the blog.
The progress so far: I love the two colors together and how the blue in the snow shows the shadows on the mountains.
Creating the third layer: the trees
My sketch of the tree layer is applied onto the block. I didn’t color all the way down to the bottom because I only need a guide of the tops of the trees … that is the only part that will be carved. Next: reducing the block by removing the mountains.
The Three Sisters mountains are taken off the block since the next “black” layer will only show the tree outline. The detailed branches around the trees are refined by carving them with my smallest carving tool.
I clean the pencil marks off the block and double-check the detail of the trees. Once I am happy with it, I’m ready to print the black ink.
Here is the test printing of the black only, so I can check what I have carved prior to committing it to the final print.
The black-only layer of the trees. Looking good, so I proceed with laying the final ink color onto the previously printed grey-blue print.
Here it is! The print after about five weeks has elapsed. This print still needs to dry on the line before I can trim it, sign it and frame it for sale. I’m very pleased with how it turned out!
Now it is clean up time. I will remove the last remnants of the oil-based black ink with a household product: a non-toxic canola oil.
After being cleaned, this is all that is left of my reduction block. Although you can see the faint outline of the Three Sisters mountains, this piece of artwork can never be recreated because the sky and the mountains have been removed. The block itself becomes an intriguing piece of art…part of a long process.
This is my final print: “Three Sisters Spring, Canmore”. In the end, I created 18 prints using this intensive reduction process, and already a number of prints have sold.
This limited edition art print process is still magical to me, even after years of creating with printmaking. It’s a medium that continues to teach and inspire me — and will for years to come, I am sure.