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Improvisation – a new set of prints

Usually when I’m making gel prints, I’m improvising, reacting to what is in front of me. This might be the remains on the plate from a previous session or a random mark made to get started. That isn’t an approach that works with other print media, some of which require a lot of pre-planning. The ability to improvise, to find an image in random marks, can be liberating, but sometimes I need a framework.

When I first started gel printing, I explored the process by making dozens of prints using a cross motif. The current images use the same idea of a simple graphic shape, probably recognisable to almost everyone.

woodblock print of Mt Fuji by Hokusai
Fine Wind, Clear Morning from 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai

I wasn’t expecting to achieve the elegance of Hokusai’s print, but I am quite pleased with the way they are working out. All the prints, whether 15 cm x 15 cm (the first batch) or 30 cm x 30 cm, were made the same way. I slowly build the image up from layer after layer of paint. Some layers use transparent colours, others opaque. The aim is always to let underlying layers show through. Sometimes I do this by partially removing colour from the plate before taking an impression. This is part of the improvisatory process, responding to the chance juxtaposition of colours as they emerge.

My favourite way to remove the colour is with crumpled tissue paper, which leaves a beautiful texture in the paint. A by-product of that is a wonderful pile of colourful paper to use in collage.

First Batch

Prints in the first batch are all 15 cm square. I don’t know why I’m so attracted to the square, but I seem to be making most of my recent prints in this format.

Second batch

In the studio last week, I moved up in size, to 30 cm square. These are still work in progress, so I haven’t scanned them yet. These are just phone photos, so not properly square. As you can see, I’m beginning to elaborate the setting and still have work to do on the skies. There is still a way to go before I can call them finished.

Even with a strong concept in mind, accidents happen. Images go their own way and other themes emerge. The quick phone photos below are a good example. Again, these are very much unfinished. I don’t like that blob of green in the middle of a couple of them, so that will have to go. The second of these also needs more tonal variation. Provisionally, this series is called ‘String Theory‘.

None of these are in the shop yet, but there are many examples of the same improvisatory approach in the printmaking section.

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Reflection and Symmetry

Most people will be aware of the mandala, but probably only as intricate, symmetrical patterns. They are unlikely to be conscious of their original religious meaning beyond a vague ‘new age’ association. Having said that, the symbolism often attached to the passion flower is perhaps similar. It was, in fact, the passion flower I had in mind, when I started exploring ideas of reflection and symmetry using software.

I soon became bored by the perfection of computer generated patterns and started exploring ways to break that absolute precision. I’m not going to describe my methods here, it would be too tedious. I will simply say it involves the use of the reflection effect in Paint Shop Pro, coupled with various other tools, plus multiple layers.

My long term aim is to turn some of these images into RISO prints. I think the intrinsic variability of RISO will add some ‘wabi sabi‘ feel to what could otherwise be a little cold. For now, though, I’m showing some of the digitally generated passion flower images. Close inspection will reveal that some of them are not as symmetrical as they at first appear.

The next images are what I think of as ‘fractured mandala’.

Some other digital imagery can be found here: https://ianbertramartist.uk/new-digital-prints-now-in-the-shop

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Latest monotype prints from my studio

I’m posting below the latest small monotype prints from my last studio session. Nos. 2 and 4 have a similar Hubble feel to the others, while 1 and 3 seem to have found their own way.

Are these finished, do you think? I’m not sure. I know from experience with these small works that it is very easy it is to go one step too far and lose it. Because they are so small, there isn’t much room to manoeuvre if marks end up in the wrong place. Of course, that also means there isn’t much lost if a print fails.

Even so, I don’t immediately throw away prints that look like failures. Instead, I add them to a ‘slush pile’ which I review from time to time. This includes anything from monotype prints like these to collagraphs, drypoints or digital prints. It is surprising how impressions can change once the process of making has been forgotten. After a while, you see the image as if for the first time. Sometimes reviewing two disparate images can give that spark you need to work out what to do next.

Monotype print in blue and yellow
Work in progress 1
Monotype gel print with blue background overlain with amorphous shapes in red and yellow
Work in Progress 2
Monotype gel print with a large block of orange yellow at the top and narrow irregular purple band at the bottom. The purple band has three delta shapes in different greens over the top
Work in progress 3
Monotype gel print, broken purple background, largely overlaid by an amorphous semi-transparent block of yellow.
Work in progress 4
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Gel printing – my approach

Multi-layered Gel print

I’ve tried to record the process of making one of my gel prints several times, but without success. This is because my working methods mean I am usually working on perhaps a dozen prints at once, jumping between them. I build up each image over time by adding layer after layer of colour and texture. The closest I have come is a series of photographs of different stages. This post tries to fill some of that gap.

Applying the paint

All gel prints start with paint on the plate. This is the first big variable. I apply the paint with a brush, a roller and even my fingers. Rollers give the most even effect. Even then as the roller loses paint to the plate in one place it can start picking it up elsewhere. The basic aim is to create variations in the thickness of the paint sitting on the plate. This helps to create variations in colour and visual texture in the eventual gel print.

How much variation you want is a matter of choice. For me, early layers tend to have more or less complete coverage using a limited palette. For later layers I may only cover part of the plate, perhaps using a mask or stencil. On any layer, I can create textural variation by applying anything with texture to the paint as it sits on the plate. I use pill packets, bits of card, pieces of scrap plastic with interesting textures or just crumpled paper. I often remove paint completely with cotton buds.

How this will print depends on a range of factors – what colour is it going over, on the use of opaque or transparent paints and on how much is left in the thinnest areas. Using more than one colour at a time on the brush or roller also creates variations and colour blends. Adding acrylic medium also alters things.

Layering

I don’t clean down the plate between every layer. Because the transfer from plate to paper is not always 100% this can leave patches of paint behind. Rolling fresh colour over these patches often picks them up and transfers them to the print, adding texture.

Using transparent paints in a layer will shift the colour underneath depending on the two colours used. If the upper layer is partial this will leave the underlying colour untouched in some areas. Removing part of a layer also allows the underlying colour to come through. The effect will vary between transparent and opaque colours.

I also restrict the area to which I’m applying the paint using masks or stencils. I usually cut or tear these from newsprint. Opaque paint will obscure what is underneath. I do this to simplify messy areas or perhaps to combine separate blocks of colour. Using transparent or semi-transparent paint can subdue contrast between adjacent areas or shift colours by mixing through layering. Acrylic medium can create translucent effects if you mix it with opaque colours.

Eventually the build up of paint on a plate makes the transfer of paint to the print too unpredictable. This is my cue it needs cleaning. The paint left on the plate won’t be wasted however, even if it has dried completely. Start by rolling out an even coat of colour over everything. Then start to take the print as normal, but leave the paper on the plate longer than usual before you lift it. If everything goes well the last layer has bonded with the residue on the plate and most of it will transfer to the paper. You are unlikely to get a print this way that stand in its own right. The idea is just to use it as the first layer for a subsequent gel print.

As the layers of paint build up I look for the happy accidents and try to reinforce them. It is the way that successive layers show through that creates the subtle colours and textures which I think are the defining characteristic of gel prints. Some paints are opaque, other transparent. It is very rare for me to plan out an image. Even when I do that plan is often quickly abandoned when I see something unanticipated but which works! Eventually I get to a point where, as I look at an image it says Stop! That is something I can’t define. IT seems to be a combination of visual balance in terms of shapes and colours and overall cohesion/balance of the image as a whole.

Composition

Building up the image in layer after layer makes adhering to a specific composition difficult. I rarely have a fully planned composition in mind. Even when I do, that can be derailed when something unexpected happens which I like. The closest I usually come is the use of very simple structures like this crib sheet of mine. The artist Bob Burridge produces a rather more refined version you can buy.

Compositional diagrams
Set of compositional diagrams

A final thought on colour

As you add layers to your gel prints, you need to consider not just the area to be printed but the colour you will use. Careful thought here will give you more control over the final image. The first thing to do is to get a colour wheel. If your first layer is pretty much all cadmium yellows, look on the wheel at the colours either side of yellow. Using these colours for subsequent layers will give you a final image which is harmonious and balanced.

Alternatively look on the wheel at the colour opposite yellow – the complementary colours. Don’t just look at the direct complementary, look at the colours on either side of it which form the so-called split complementary. Some wheels also include markings for colour triads and for four colours. Try them. Using these colours will add drama and intensity to your work.

Don’t make the assumption that you need equal areas of complementary colours. Sometimes a large area of a relatively low-key colour can be balanced by a small intense area of its complementary. Think also about the effects of using transparent layers of one colour over its complementary. Think about how the effect differs from using opaques colours side by side. This can have an impact on your composition too.

Examples of my gel prints

There are lots of examples in the shop in the Lockdown Series 2020 and many more in my Instagram feed.

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New developments

Moon goddess and the sun mixwd media made with cut out preprinted shapes over a yellow wash

I’m slowly starting to add items to the shop. I’m doing this slowly to make sure I have everything set up correctly. I’m aiming to make it possible to browse by medium, price, subject and size. I’ve added the last because I know sometimes thought how a little corner of a room would benefit from just the right piece of art and I can’t be alone.

I’m also working on setting up Virtual Exhibitions from time to time. My next real time show is not until May 2021 and who knows what will happen between now and then? For the moment this will just be a custom selection on the Shop Page but I’ve seen some wonderful examples since lock down using Virtual Reality so I’m looking into that too.

The featured image is called The Moon Goddess and the Sun. It is a collage made several years ago with prepared papers over a colour wash on watercolour paper. I had it framed for myself, but it will soon be added to the shop. The frame is very heavy solid wood so it will probably be added to the shop minus the frame.

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Some recent work

I’ve added another page to my Portfolio Pages here with examples of some Gel Prints. I’ve also been using the prints made this way as elements for collage. I’ve always liked collage, ever since I came across the work of Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters in my teens, too many years ago.

Here’s a couple of slightly larger collage pieces (about 12″ x 9″ or 300 x 225 mm)

Finally here’s another one from some time ago, using prepared papers again, but this time by monoprinting on paper smaller than the plate, so taking the colour to the edges. I originally intended this to be overprinted with a drypoint, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet…

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A new print series

I’ve been unable to do any printing for quite a while. I have been plagued with problems with my foot, putting me on crutches since mid-November. I used my down time looking at a lot of pictures, but also thinking about subjects and themes. I’ve been interested in neolithic rock art for some time now and living near Avebury and Stonehenge it’s impossible to avoid standing stones. Scattered also across the landscape of Wessex are hundreds, if not thousands of barrows and burial mounds and of course the White Horses like Pewsey, Cherhill, Westbury etc in Wiltshire or Uffington in Oxfordshire. In addition we have the famous Cerne Abbas Giant, the Long Man of Wilmington and assorted other hill figures, many now lost completely.

It isn’t just Britain with these features. The stone alignments of Carnac in Brittany are well known, but there are a multitude of standing stone circles, alignments and dolmens across France and Ireland and much further afield.

Putting all this together made me wonder about the sort of landscape we might see if more had survived. Out of that has evolved the print series I’m putting together. This will take landscapes, more or less stylised and incorporate into them other figures. I will draw on a range of sources. I’m researching Celtic and Saxon myths, cave paintings as well as the sort of abstract shapes found in rock art.

Technically, these prints will incorporate collagraph and dry point plus perhaps solar etching and ultimately hand embellishments. I also expect to use monoprinting or hand painting as the ground on which the prints will be made. I’m also going to try and incorporate some of the techniques used by Australian artist, Kim Westcott. (http://www.kimwestcott.com, although the site did not load properly for me.) She reuses old plates in combination with new, mixing in shadow prints and rotation of the plates to create her drypoints.

I have no prints as yet, but here are some rough sketches and photos of some plates in preparation.

With luck, I’ll have more over the next few weeks.

***

I’m not the only one finding inspiration in these themes. See the web pages for Irish artist Tommy Barr.

http://tbarrart.homestead.com/index.html

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Ocean Park series by Richard Diebenkorn

I’ve been looking at the Ocean Park series of paintings and prints by Richard Diebenkorn (via this book.) There is something about them that keeps drawing me back. They are deceptively simple with subdued colours, apparently just variations on geometric subdivisions of a rectangle. This makes them seem akin to Mondrian, but for me, they have much more depth. They also owe much to Klee, and perhaps also to de Kooning, at least in terms of colour values. In the end, though, they are themselves and stand on their own merits.

When I was at school, studying maths, we were always told to ‘show your workings’. In many ways, that’s what is going on with the Ocean Park paintings. Variations, second thoughts have been painted over, but their ghosts remain.

I think this is part of their appeal to me. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of palimpsest, even before I became an artist. Both the urban and rural landscapes of Britain can be viewed as archaeological palimpsests. Take the time to look around any British town or city, and you will find signs of previous activities. The street pattern in many Northern industrial towns can often be mapped against ancient field boundaries. Alignments going back into pre-history may still be seen.

Beneath the streets archaeological investigations and civil engineering projects alike reveal layer after layer of activity. (for example Crossrail). The same applies in the wider landscape. Anyone familiar with Britain, will read into these paintings the pattern of fields, woods and lakes which almost define the English landscape. That landscape is almost entirely man made, even in the supposed wild areas like Dartmoor or the Scottish Highlands. It is not ‘natural’ but has developed out of complex and cumulative processes of human intervention.

So just as imperfections and variations disturb the surface of the modern world, revealing its past to those who look, so the Ocean Park paintings reflect the process of their creation, revealing the changes made, and to my mind, humanising their geometrical abstraction.

I’ll come back to this another time with images from prints inspired to a degree by Klee and Diebenkorn. I’m also planning some new work which will attempt to marry the geometry of this work to another interest of mine, the rock carvings and standing stones of the Neolithic era. Here are a taster with a collagraph monoprint I called ‘Frome Westport to Ocean Park’.

From Westport to Ocean Park a collagraph print
From Westport to Ocean Park
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Work in Progress

I haven’t been very good at posting here have I? That’s partly down to my lack of anything to show, but mostly just inertia…

These two are however work in progress. Strange Fruit (on left) is inspired by the song of that name, sung here by the incomparable Billie Holiday.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

https://youtu.be/h4ZyuULy9zs

This is the best pull so far, but I’m not satisfied. Because it is a drypoint on acrylic, I won’t get many more, so the edition when I make it will be no more than 5-10.

The second image, as yet untitled, is pretty close to my visualisation of it. The greys are a bit dark, and some unsightly blotches of white have appeared at the bottom, but otherwise close enough to be considered as the AP (Artist’s Proof). The brown tone at the top, outside the image is just a colour cast in the phone photo, The paper for both of these is Fabriano and is white.