Canmore’s iconic Three Sisters mountain is a trio of peaks that overlooks our town. Their distinctive presence makes them a favorite subject for artists and photographers.
I have captured the Three Sisters with printmaking before, focusing on the mountains in Spring. This year, I wanted to capture the mountains in glorious summer. I took the reference photos just across the street from my art studio. I wanted the print to focus on the lush colors of summer, while the mountain still had some snow but the foreground was dotted with flowers.
This required a colorful mix of blues and greens, and the complicated multi-layer process of reduction printmaking, where one block was used to create three stacking layers of color.
Creating a multi-color reduction linocut print is a fun — and sometimes frustrating — printmaking technique. This print took two months to create, and over 30 hours of hands-on time. Reduction printmaking requires patience and lots of planning. Here is how I tackled it.
Early June 2014
After transferring my design to the block using a drawing a I made of the Three Sisters, I create the simple jig that holds the block in the same place for each layer so each color I print by hand lines up (registers). My paper has corresponding holes and the two pegs will hold it firm.
To begin the first layer, I carve away around the print to create the border. Next, I take away the areas I want to be white, allowing the white paper to show through: the clouds and a little bit of early summer snow on the mountains.
Not much carving on the first layer. Here is the block, ready to receive the ink for the first layer of color.
For the first layer, I will lay down two colors at one time: the blue of the sky and the yellow for the flowers. Although the yellow will cover the entire foreground, in the final print, most of the yellow will be covered, with only a handful of flowers peeking through the foreground green. With reduction printing, I need to have the final print in mind before I begin.
I custom blend my inks to create the colors I want, then roll the ink on the block with two different brayers because I don’t want the colors to mingle much in this print. Note that I also don’t need them to exactly touch since the area between sky and foreground will be covered in the next layer with the grey ink.
Pulling the first test print, I look for any imperfections I want to correct, the tone of the color, the thickness of the ink.
I sit back from the print to evaluate it. Even though there is not much here yet, I want to make sure it’s moving in the right direction before I commit to my 30+ print run.
In this test print, my sky is a little light against the reference photo, so I decide to lay the ink on a little heavier to get a really bright blue representative of a brilliant summer day.
Happy with my progress, I print between 30 and 40 prints, which takes about three straight hours of printmaking. Not all will make it through the process, as some will inevitably be smudged during the tricky handmade process, or will get pulled out of the edition to show as samples. I always over-estimate the number of prints because reduction printmaking is so complex and I can “lose” up to 30% of the prints before I am done.
Almost a month has gone by before tackling the next layer of the print. I need one to two weeks for the first layer to dry because I use a oil-based printmaking ink that has to be really dry before the addition of the next layer of ink on top. Plus, it’s summer and I have my pre-teen boys out of school, so I have less opportunity to get in the studio to work.
To create the second layer, I remove the sky from the block, as I want the blue of the print to show in the final print. Anything I leave on the block will overprint the first colors of the blue-yellow print, so I have to plan carefully.
I also want the foreground yellow flowers to show, so this is the layer where I remove those from the block, and some highlights in the foreground. Anything carved will be yellow.
Here is the second layer of the block, inked with the custom-mixed grey I have chosen for the mountains. Again, knowing that the final color (green) will cover the foreground, I lay the ink top to bottom.
Once inked, I gently push the block into the jig to create the prints.
The test print (grey only) hangs next to the first layer. The grey will go over top of the first layer, as shown in the next photo.
Here, I hold the print with the grey next to the first layer to show the progression.
After about 4 hours of printing, the second layer is done, and hanging on my clothesline to dry. This layer has a fair bit of ink on it, and stubbornly takes about 3 weeks to dry. Humidity can affect drying time, and this layer takes the longest I have seen for one of my prints to dry. But, I have to be patient; adding the next layer of ink on the print before it dries could ruin all my work to date.
Early August 2014
When I am ready to apply the next layer, I go back to the same block and remove the mountains down to where I want the foreground color to be on the print.
Although I am going for a bright color green for the grass, I custom-mix the green even brighter than I want it to appear in the final print because I am laying the green over a grey, and the grey ink will affect the color of the green by darkening it. It’s a delicate process between chosing a color and allowing for the translucency of the ink.
I roll the color on the block and pull some test prints to check registration and color.
This photo breaks the process down in one photo. Hand-printing the last color takes about 6 hours. Registration is tough at this point, as is the laying the right amount of ink. I ink every print by hand, and go really slow to get it right.
Once I begin the step of printing the last color on the print, I don’t stop, so I need to find a whole day I can spend in the studio to make sure the run is completed in one go. I actually want the green a little bit patchy to create additional texture in the foreground by letting the grey show through here and there. These will be left up to dry for several weeks.
Relieved to have the whole process completed, I pose by my prints drying on the line. Reduction linocuts are challenging to create, but I love solving the puzzle and creating a colorful multi-layer print. Next up: something simple and one-color!