Ravens are plentiful where I live. I’d like to say I seek them out in the back country wilderness, but it’s not true. In this mountain town, they are rather like the squirrels in a city: often found near parks where people drop food, or even garbage bins.
Still, I have to admire their tenacity and survival skills. They are such smart birds! (Here is a link to another blog where I talk about some of their antics.)
So, it’s not surprising that I find myself drawn to creating “raven portraits”. My first raven print “Laughing Raven” was popular — it is now sold out — but even before that print was almost gone, I knew I would do more portraits of these wonderful birds.
My latest handmade print is called “Young Raven”. It’s a two-color print utilzing a strong under color of blue. The blue peeks through the black just enough to capture the lovely luminosity of the raven’s feathers caught in the sun. To create this portrait of a young raven, I started with a sketch from a photograph of a raven I took some years ago in a parking lot in Jasper National Park (they knew there would be food around!). I loved this raven’s tentative look: he seemed to know the other birds were experienced in getting food from humans, but he was still looking over his shoulder to be on guard.
Here is how I captured this lovely fellow through printmaking.
Starting with a sketch on tracing paper, I create the raven. Although the drawing is quite detailed, the first “underlayer” of blue will eventually be covered almost entirely with black ink, but this planning stage is incredibly important to work out where the white highlights on the print will be since this needs to be created from the very beginning.
Next, I carve away the background around the raven. I decide to leave a few carving marks that will appear blue in the background of the final print. Aside from the background, very little carving is done: I only need the highlights of the eye, around the beak and in a few spots in the feathers. Since this is mostly a black bird, less is more.
Here is the detailed look of the block right before inking it with the first layer of blue ink.
Next, the ink is custom-made from oil paints mixed with a printmaking medium that changes the quality of the oil paint to make it suitable for printing. I blend the exact color of blue using several colors of paint. It looks very bright, but not much blue will appear in the final print — it will only be hinted at. Once I get the color right, I add the medium to the oil paint mixture and work the ink — almost like kneading dough — with a palette knife until it is tacky enough to roll out into the perfect consistency for printmaking ink. By adding this medium to the oil paints, I can custom-create any color for printmaking.
Then, the block is slipped into a jig that I make from foam core on three sides and two pegs at the top. The foam core holds the block stable, and the paper is hole-punched so the pegs hold the paper in the same position every time I hand-pull a print. This jig is an important part of ensuring both color layers align.
Here, I pull the first test print to check the artwork and decide whether any changes are needed.
Below is the inked block and the resulting test print. Note that the artwork is always created backwards. The graphite still shows on the block, and a small amount transfers to the test print, so once I am happy with this first layer, I wipe the block clean (with a small amount of canola oil) and begin the rest of the edition. (The test print is never sold, but stays in my archive.)
For this piece of artwork, I plan to end up with about 30 prints, so that means I have to print about 40 of them to allow for spoilage during the handmade process — some may not be aligned or may have imperfections. I will also pull several prints out of the edition for my archives (these are marked as “artist proofs” and are not numbered as part of the edition) so that I still have a copy for my records once the edition sells out.
To create the black layer, I once again transfer a drawing back onto the block and decide how much more I am going to remove off the block. What gets taken away at this stage will reveal the blue layer underneath, so I have to be careful not to overdo it. I want to only add a little more detailing in the beak and the feathers.
I’m happy with the result — making only a few changes to the base art — then carry on with hand printing the rest of the edition. The lights are on in the studio photo below because I created this print late one night before heading out for our family holiday. I wanted to finish it so it could dry while we were away and be ready for packaging once I was home.
Here is the final print “Young Raven”. In the end, I got an edition of 31 prints for this piece of artwork. A happy result for a few week’s work!