Sunday, August 28, 2016


Letterpress 1: Andrew 0
Three words, 13 Letters, 2 spaces. What could possibly go wrong?
You can't imagine how many times I set up and then broke down the chase with my simple title.
Sure it  has to be upside down, and backwards and so I made it so. And yet somehow it was the wrong upside down, or the wrong backwards. I got the words backwards, but not the word order, or they were backwards but not upside down.....The chase will only go into the press one way, and I set the type wrong several times because I didn't take that into consideration. And in the final setup I missed the obvious (clearly visible if I hadn't already redone it 4-5 times....). I probably had it right a few of those times.....and then last night, when I was pretty sure I had it finally right:
I don't think that's a word.
Not even for scrabble.
But I'm not easily, or at least permanently, discouraged.
Today, with a fresh start, I sort of got it together......but not without a few hiccups.

But at last, I think I started using the tool closer to the way it's meant to be used.....

And so it begins.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

WoodLust: Part 2

Things happen sometimes seemingly by chance.

It was actually a fair amount of work to get the stumps to this point.

During a brief visit  to California about 4 years ago, I noticed, almost too late, that a neighbor was ripping out a boxwood hedge.  I drove by, then went around the block, parked the car and asked if I could have a few of the stumps...and as they were all destined for the landfill, they said, "less for us to haul away".  So I ran home, grabbed a wheelbarrow and threw 4-5 of the best-looking ones in the barrow and hurried home. As I was leaving for Italy the next day I just threw them under cover in the garage.

I knew boxwood was ideal for really fine detail in the Japanese woodblock prints I was making and I also knew that it was the traditional wood used in end-grain woodblock illustrations from about 1500 until the early 1900's.

And that's how I started engraving.
One of the first rounds off the stump, cut and polished by hand.

"Cardinal Climber", 2014. My very first wood engraving carved from the block above.
Encouraged by my first attempt and with the stumps still slowly seasoning,  I started reading about engraving, looking at the works of engravers and illustrators, and once back in Italy, I tried engraving small pieces of a few of the woods I had available locally; olive branches and the odd round of pear or apple from the pruning we do several times a year.   Jump ahead to this year,  and now after completing a few more engravings,  I decided that the wood was probably seasoned enough to try cutting.  Since my "test" blocks have always been hand-cut, the two surfaces were never perfectly parallel, and needed to be printed by hand with a baren or a spoon. But since I'm thinking of adding text and printing with a letterpress machine.....I needed to find someone with the right tools.

Fortunately I found a local furniture maker and craftsman who was able to cut down two of the better log/stumps into flat rounds. I had him cut them 240mm high, just a tad higher than French/German lead sanding and polishing should fix that.

So now I have a few years' worth of boxwood and it's time to get to work.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Puppet King

I  uncovered the pizza oven a few weeks ago and I noticed a strange log underneath that I didn't remember throwing under the tarp when I closed up the oven last summer. But it's been there, protected and drying for at least a year, and as I pulled it out I was struck by how heavy it felt....It clearly wasn't oak or madrone or a fruitwood, but it wasn't any of the exotics I cut down either--the tea tree or bottle brush or laurel that got heavily pruned last summer.
So I got a saw and cut off the stump end and then a round. And out of curiosity I started to sand it. 100-120-180-220-300-400-600-1200 and 1500 grits and about an hour or two later, I had a glass-smooth round of wood about 4" in diameter. The fact that it would polish to such a smooth finish suggested it might engrave well and so I went through a few sketchbooks and pulled out an idea I'd been thinking about since last year. I transferred the drawing to the block and started cutting.

This wood proved to be not suited to engraving after all and in my hands the end result is crude and rough.  The wood cut cleanly enough for simple lines but clearing or re-cutting tore and shredded the wood and real detail was impossible so I'm glad I purposely chose a simple, childlike image to engrave.

 My mask-like face turned into a puppet as I was carving and last-year's doodle became unexpectedly topical with the election circus going on in the news and the no-longer-hidden way that big business, oil and the pharmaceutical and agribusiness giants (and now the Russian government) seem to be controlling the people we elect to represent and protect the people.   I added the sets of eyes the background and the "King Puppet" became "The Puppet King".

"The Puppet King", wood engraving. 
I'm happy with how this came out. It's been almost a year since my last engraving and I needed the practice. Plus after meeting with a local engraver and making a few new acquisitions that I'll reveal shortly,  I'm really excited about my next one-- and this time on REAL wood and proper tools.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Summer Smile

Summer Smile, moku hanga-watercolor woodblock print. 5"x7" 2016.
It's here already.
There is so much that I meant to do before it got hot. And so much to do before I leave again.
I can't even begin to make a list.
But it's already too hot.
I sit in front of a table fan and wait for the sweat to evaporate and my head to clear.
Maybe some ice tea.
Or a slice of melon.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Day Late. A shell pea saga and metaphor for life.

A day late.....
As they used to say in New England. "old peas are bad business".
The harvest window for fresh shell peas is very short. Too soon and they're really tiny (but very sweet). Later, as the peas start to fill the pod, the pod is still shiny and green and the peas are tender and sugary. Too old and they get hard and starchy. There's a brief period (1-2 days) when they're perfect. Plump but not crowded and still round(ish) and tender and sweet and full of the flavor that is totally "Spring". But if you procrastinate even 1 day to pick them you can taste the difference. More than that and there's the internal debate as to whether you should pick them at all.  It's a dilemma for the farmer as the yield when they're small is really, really low, but if you wait just a couple more days, they're big and fat and (when you sell by the pound) almost profitable (but much less tasty).  But here they sell for 6-7€/kg (about $3.50/lb.) and if they're picked when they're small, you need a really long row have enough to harvest. Add to that the fact that peas needed to be sold the day they are picked or the sugars in the pea turn to starch--in the same way that the old-time corn varieties need to be cooked and eaten right away and it's the rare farmer than makes a profit selling shell peas.     These are Progress No. 9 Dwarf Shell peas. Planted in early Spring (rather than the Fall as is the usual custom here) AND Picked a few days AFTER that fleeting, perfect moment.

Many market growers now grow only Sugar Snap or similar Snap Peas.
They stay sweet longer and as the whole pea is edible it's a much better deal for the farmer and the consumer. (easier to pick, much longer harvest window and better value to both). 
The really hard ones, already a pale yellow and corrugated I left in the field.

Since I grew these we eat them. Cooked with some fresh garlic, some salt, and a pinch of sugar (to make up for what isn't in the peas any longer) they were still pretty decent.  Or braised with the last baby artichokes, a little wild fennel frond, some lettuce leaves and a few stray asparagus spears and they still vanish from the table in a flash, even if they're not so pretty.

P.S.S. This is why frozen, baby peas are probably a good value.  They're picked all at once by a combine and immediately blanched and frozen and at the scale they're grown commercially, much less costly to buy for a product that is usually of high quality (baby peas) and better than you can find  in the market unless you have a farmer that's better organized and attentive than I am.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


It's fast becoming Summer and the grass is growing faster than I can even think about cutting it.
In the fields are witchgrass, rye, wheat, and many others but the showiest in mid-May are the individual plants or stands or fields of oats (avena sativa).

 I've enjoyed listening to the birds and watching the young immature flowers/seeds swing and dangle in the breeze--akin to watching the flickering of a fire or the lapping of the waves. Rhythmic and predictable; so barely but infinitely variable.

I've been cutting them and bringing them in and I have carafes and jam jars, water glasses and vases full of stems and stalks.
Green dangling jewels like earrings or bangles or dry, spiny, bearded, spring-loaded seed heads or the flags they leave behind--"we're off, we're off" for the wind to rustle.
 Here are a few oat-inspired etagami.
The Japanese reads, "they invented dance"--my way of acknowledging the seeming joyful swaying and and almost synchronous ballet of fields of little green ballerinas.
Above, instead is a drypoint print--the sprig of green, immature oats drawn and then incised with a sharp point onto a flattened, recycled, Tetrapak container, and printed with a small press.

Friday, May 20, 2016

More naked (caution--drawings of naked women by REAL artists)

I cut a third block and printed a few copies for a color version of my nude woodblock print.
This is on a thin, home-sized kozo washi 40g/m2 and now mounted onto thicker paper so it lies flat.
I'll probably print a few more to have a small edition (e.v.) on good washi in this color version.

It's no longer abstract so harder to read as or mistake for a flower or tree.
I like to think I'm channeling Schiele more than Courbet but either way I'm 100-150 years too late and both did a better job with the subject.
Schiele's female nude with red stockings (1914)

Courbet's "origin of the universe" 1866