Woodcut: some thoughts on making very big prints
Endi Poskovic, Sunny Day Over the Bay in Orange, Red and Deep Blue 2002. Color woodblock print from 4 blocks on Kozo Okawara washi. Produced at the Kala Institute, Berkeley, CA.
As many print artists do, I too produce my prints on etching and lithographic presses utilizing a variety of established and new printmaking processes. For many years, it was my primary method of making prints. I rarely explored traditional relief and block printing and had only printed by hand in my early art school days. Then, in 1995, I moved to Muncie, Indiana, and taught at Ball State University for two years. While in Indiana, I had no access to a printmaking studio and found myself frustrated by my inability to step outside of established norms of printmaking and its reliance on printmaking shops and equipment. In all honesty, after eleven academic years of formal training in print media, I didn't know how to make prints without proper equipment. On the recommendation of an artist friend who suggested traditional hand-cut and hand-printed relief, I began to make woodblock prints. By the time I moved to Los Angeles in 1997, I was completely immersed in reinventing this populist print medium in the context of my graphic work. For someone who produced large, photo-based intaglio etchings for in-situ presentations and wall-size plate-lithography combines, this was a radical shift.
My two-inch by two-inch print of a three-legged chair, overprinted with red dots from a pencil-end eraser, was an awkward beginning at relief. My second woodcut was a somewhat larger, nine-inches by nine-inches, an image of a table placed against a field of green arrows, pulled in two separate editions in red and blue respectively. Subsequently, I produced many more medium-size color woodcuts, generally vertical images 24 inches wide by 37 inches high, all hand-printed from multiple plates on kozo washi (wa meaning Japanese and shi meaning paper).
Endi Poskovic, Red Table, color woodblock print from 3 blocks on Mulberry-washi.
It was not until 2002, on an artist-in-residence grant from the Kala Art Institute, that I was able to embark on my first venture into the complex process of cutting and printing large color prints from multiple plates. During that summer, I lived in San Francisco's Noe Valley and commuted to Berkeley every day. As a communal workshop, Kala's studios assigned no designated workspaces; each area was secured on a first-come, first-served basis. In order to avoid the morning traffic crossing the Bay Bridge, I left San Francisco early and made it to Kala before most artists arrived. This allowed me to set up a small but efficient printing area. Kala's excellent studios, with readily available state-of-the-art print equipment, were impressive, yet it was there that I realized I no longer needed print equipment to produce my work. The idea that large prints could be done without a press, or even a studio, was invigorating and the knowledge that block printing could be as "cutting edge" as any new, technology-supported print media was enormously stimulating. In many ways, my Kala experience was the catalyst for a series of large, panoramic prints, all produced without a press, an epiphany of unlimited possibilities as to where the medium of block printing, frequently dismissed as archaic and irrelevant in the contemporary context, could be taken. Once I realized I could make prints without a press, I decided to make them as big as the largest Okawara washi 39-inch by 72-inch sheets would allow.
During the residency at Kala, I worked on three new block prints, each 33-inches high by 48-inches wide, and proofed them on trimmed 39-inch by 56-inch sheets of Okawara machine-made washi. In the initial stage, each image started as a collection and analysis of dissimilar images with preparatory hand-drawings, photographic collage, and digital montage being integrated and altered through Photoshop and Illustrator software. In this respect, the notion of drawing as a perceptual device, both in hand-executed form on paper and digitally merged in electronic format, was a means to establish visual narrative and to form persuasive graphic imagery. While the digital collage was only an input for the image, with the final woodblock print as the output, the very processes of analog and digital, hand drawn, and graphic embodied my ideas in visual form.
The drawing montages were transferred onto ĺ inch cabinet grade birch plywood made of natural and untreated wood. This thickest mass-produced plywood comes in four-foot by eight-foot sheets, and I find it the most appropriate size for my work and the way I approach carving--typically with flat Josei Moku Hanga To, traditional Japanese carving knives. Untreated natural maple with minimal knot presence is solid yet easy to cut, has little or no tendency to warp, and can sustain intense rubbing, i.e. printing.
Endi Poskovic carving one of his large wood blocks.
Carving the blocks for the Sunny Day over the Bay print was completed in less than four weeks, and I began proofing. This print integrated four individual color blocks which printed as few as nine and as many as fourteen colors. The objective was to test several different washi and create unique color impressions, each with slight variations as to hand inking and choice of color. Every individual color impression took an average of 10 to 12 hours to complete. Most of the time was spent on the actual rubbing, manually transferring ink onto washi. Using small, handmade wooden barrens, I carefully applied pressure onto the paper from behind, evenly transferring the ink from the block. After each color block was printed, I blotted the impression using newsprint to remove excess ink. Blotting in between the printing blocks strips the overlapping inks, making the printed colors even more transparent, and allows for an even distribution of ink throughout the printed area. All through this process, the printing paper remained securely locked with the masking tape onto the registration block.
The artists I studied with had limited knowledge of relief printmaking and did not conduct demos on successive color printing from multiple plates. Having never registered multiple plates or printed large prints by hand, I had to figure out every aspect of the process one step at a time. As I proceeded each day, proofs were examined in order to better understand what adjustments to make on the next impression. The registration of four separate color plates and the modification of inks to form a range of opaque to transparent layers for color printing by hand were some of the key issues. Unrolling large sheets of rather flimsy Okawara washi onto blocks and successively lifting for blotting and re-inking posed the greatest challenge. I recall the afternoon when, after spending four weeks carving the Sunny Day over the Bay woodcut and inking up the blocks for the first time, I realized I had no idea how to register four individual blocks and print them onto a 39-inch by 56-inch sheet of Okawara kozo paper. The registration margin I could afford was about a sixteenth of an inch, and laying out a large sheet of very delicate Okawara onto the wet surface of the inked blocks was considerably more complicated than expected. I initially panicked, but quickly realized that adding a separate support block of the same height as the printing block would remedy the difficulties of registration. By taping the printing paper with masking tape or artist tape onto the support registration block of the same size, I could easily and without fear, unroll the paper onto the inked printing block. The printing paper was unrolled with a long plastic or cardboard tube. In essence, this substituted for an extra hand, which would have normally been used to assist.
With each new impression, I was able to learn something new and achieve better impressions. For example, by modifying inks with Miracle Gel by Daniel Smith, Transparent Base inks, and burnt plate oil 00, the effects of transparent and opaque inks layered on top of each other improved considerably and allowed for successive printing from dark and opaque colors to light and transparent, and vice versa.
At the time of proofing Sunny Day over the Bay, I printed on 39-inch by 72-inch Okawara machine-made washi, and I have since printed on some other papers. Okawara machine-made is extremely durable and can hold multiple layers of ink without getting torn or saturated. The long kozo fibers offer flexibility while sustaining intense rubbing activity and absorbing a range of delicate details. It is one of the most forgiving papers I have used, and the amount of pre/post-printing maintenance is relatively small. Okawara stores, rolls, travels, ships, and of course prints well, and small handling creases seem not to affect the look. This paper is deckled along the two longer edges. One side of the paper is grainier and considerably coarser than many other washi, and on this textured side I choose to print my multiple color blocks. The other side is smoother and allows for continuous wooden-barren rubbing activity without tears to the paper. Kozo Okawara machine-made is a giant--one of the largest sheets available on the market. Given its strength, flexibility, and large size, it is a remarkably affordable washi. This washi, however, is not pure. It is generally made of 60% Japanese kozo and the remainder from the imported kozo, which is harvested in Thailand, Korea, or China to satisfy the demand.
Most recently, I have been using Seichosen Yotsuban for medium-size prints and Haini, which comes in a roll, for large prints. Seichosen is 100% Japanese kozo. This extraordinary washi is unsized and cooked in lime, whereupon it is sun-dried on boards. With age, this washi only gets better. The paper is exceptionally absorbent and beautiful with color printing. It is great for sumi-e and woodblock printing. I have also tested the paper in stone lithography and etching and it produces equally high quality results. Haini, which is also 100% Japanese kozo, comes on a roll that is 39 inches high and 61 meters long (about 200 feet), so it can be trimmed to just about any size. This evenly made heavy paper is very strong and slightly off-white. It is especially good for block printing.
Endi Poskovic Western Tale in Green Color woodblock print from 4 blocks on Kozo Okawara washi
About the artist
Endi Poskovic was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in what was then the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. He studied art and music from an early age and performed folkloric music of the Balkans at art and music festivals throughout Europe and the Middle East. A Minnefindet scholarship from the Norwegian Government enabled him to live in Norway for one year and study art and the Nynorsk language and culture. From Norway, Poskovic moved to the United States to study with Harvey Breverman and Adele Henderson at the State University of New York at Buffalo (M.F.A.) two years before the break up of Yugoslavia.
Reflecting on the strategies of early cinema, Eastern European propaganda posters, and classic ukiyo-e block prints, Poskovic's graphic works merge visual representation with text, often shifting the reading of the imagery through continuous representation and re-contextualization. The visual narratives in his prints contain personal stories as well as social histories, and reference the twin themes of migration and alienation, which appear magnificent and dystopian at the same time.
Poskovic currently teaches at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design as an Associate Professor and CREES and CES-EUC Faculty Associate in the University of Michiganís Center for Russian and East European Studies and Center for European Studies. He has lectured as a visiting artist at universities throughout the United States and abroad, and previously served on faculty at Daemen College (1994-95), Ball State University (1995-97), California State University-Long Beach (2002), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (2004), and Columbia College Chicago (2005), and Whittier College (1997-2008).
For more information visit the artist's website at http://endiposkovic.com/home.html