The clock on the wall is showing quarter past twelve: that's midnight, not noon. When I next look up it will probably say 3:30 or 4am but that's the kind of time it usually is when I'm up there in my mansarde. I cannot shake off the habit of working late. There must be something about mornings which puts me off but I haven't got time to analyse why and does it matter anyway? Getting the work done is the main thing, never mind what time of day or night.
Since I'm blogging so infrequently I thought I would show you some of what I'm doing which, as I've mentioned before, is illustrating the long poem by Blaise Cendrars Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France translated by Dick Jones which will be published by The Old Stile Press . I'm creating about 48 images, and cutting as many blocks, to be eventually hand-printed by Nicolas McDowall. The photo above shows the sink for damping paper etc. and the table where I work out ideas. Before cutting the final blocks out of vynil tiles, I work out the design and colours for each image by cutting trial blocks out of cardboard and proofing them on my etching press.
I've had this press a very long time and it has served me well - I printed most of the images for my artist's books on it. For those who are not familiar with this simple machine, an etching press resembles a mangle: the old-fashioned kind that was used for wringing clothes. Except that the baby photographed above consists of heavy solid steel rollers, between which a steel bed is driven back and forth by a geared wheel. Pressure is adjusted by turning the top screws on either side of the frame. Special blankets are laid between the top roller and the paper and plate to be printed. The difference between an etching press and a litho press or a relief press is that it's designed primarily to print intaglio: a design that is engraved or etched below the flat surface of a plate - traditionally metal, but can also be any material which will fit under the etching press roller. Printing intaglio consists of pushing ink into the lines, grooves and textures that have deeply scarred the surface of the plate and then wiping the surface clean. Damp paper is laid over the plate and when it's passed under the roller, heavy pressure pushes the paper into the grooves of the plate, lifting out the ink, creating the intaglio image (always embossed on the back of the paper).
More recent presses are adaptable to both intaglio and relief because the top roller can be lifted off the bed, allowing blocks of any thickness to be printed. Unfortunately my old press doesn't have this flexibility and, since the blocks I'm cutting for this book will be printed in relief (off the flat surface of the block) they must be a lot thicker than a normal intaglio plate. Therefore any proofing I do doesn't show the same detail or texture as it will eventually have on Nicolas' excellent relief press.
My working process goes like this: the text is of primary importance, it gives me the rhythm and content of each page. I've made a full-size (30cms x 28cms/ 12" x 11") dummy in which I do rough drawings and/or collages in black only. From these, I cut the first trial blocks out of thin cardboard, proof them, then start cutting the final vynil blocks, perhaps two or three blocks for each design since they will be printed in colour: each colour requires a separate block. Below is the working dummy open at pages 8-9.
Below is one of the finished vynil blocks for page 9: its strongly textured (with gesso) surface doesn't show in the photo. The green and red areas inside the main figure are actually holes through which you're seeing the table behind. The holes are so that the relief press rollers won't deposit ink in those areas.
Below: roughs for pages 14-15
Printmaking demands equal and extreme amounts of messiness and cleanliness in constant alternation. Above, my inking table and rollers are about to be cleaned. This procedure has to be repeated many times during the day because ink (I use only oil-based) mustn't be allowed to dry on slabs or rollers. The smell of white spirit (turps) is pervasive so ventilation is essential. That shark-like shape on the top right in the picture below is the edge of an open Velux skylight window - my studio is a converted loft.
A colour proof of page 7, using three blocks. The text is only pasted on and not printed as it will be in the final book.
Voilà, that's it for tonight. The time is now five past 2 am.