Project 2.1 Formal Abstracts

Japanese landscape: Overview and assessment

For this Assignment I wanted to explore further the visual dynamics of  landscape composition – principles of abstracting shapes, colour and textures. I decided to develop this from original images that are widely recognised as ‘good composition’ rather than my own images, and to use this project to continue a longstanding interest in Japanese landscape and differences from Western traditions, to see what I could learn for my own practice going forward. The compositions of Hiroshige in particular are very bold in their use of foreground elements, differences in scale between figures and landscape and the way he leads the eye into the picture to create drama.

I found the process of abstraction very interesting. I used my iPad to explore different levels of image simplification, varying the features that I focused on, cropping and stretching to different formats, trying different orientations and flipping the image to assess levels of balance/tension. I find the extreme simplification of some of the landscape images very evocative even where they are still recognisable as landscape. But if the aim is completely unrecognisable abstraction, then features like mountains and landscapes need to be turned on their sides as the brain seems to seek out recognisable landscapes in any horizontal (horizons, lakes) and vertical (trees) lines and triangles (mountains). Turning the image around can break these associations – but we can then start to see figures in vertical lines and other elements as the brain inevitably tries to make sense of an image.

I experimented with different tonal and colour combinations. In earlier OCA courses my study of colour theory and digital colour on-line colour theme libraries in software like Adobe opened up a field of infinite innovation beyond traditional colour theory and colour wheels. In the process of abstraction on my iPad I started with the original colours chosen by Hiroshige. I then inverted and changed the tonal relationships, often separating or combining shape blocks to create balance or tension or to eliminate recognisable landscape features. In some variations I changed the base colours to explore different emotional impacts.

In the final prints my choice of base colours was somewhat random – I think I could have made almost any colour combinations to work in some way. If the shapes are clearly delineated through differences in tone and the different tones are made to balance – or to be in a strategic tension – and for different emotional effects. I did three series of experiments, cleaning the plate in-between:

  • I decided to start with Crimson, tonally contrasted with Vandyke Brown and white from the paper as a very unnatural palette to disguise the landscape features. Some of these turned into dramatic volcanic lake images or inside body parts.
  • The Cyan images returned more to recognisable landscape colours – sky blue and brown earth colours, retaining tinges of sunset/blood? at the  edges in the plate. On the rotated abstract images I varied texture and mixed colours to create to create more interest.
  • The final brown earth series retains tinges of both red and blue as muted greys. I like the mottled texturing with the subtle mix of sepia and Vandyke Brown here.

I very much enjoyed the textural variations I could achieve through different wiping marks and the subtle mixing of colours on the plate. I also found that impact varied significantly depending on the orientation of the image and tonal and textural structure. Having the darkest/most textured areas at the top left often increased impact. The embossing through different thickness of the shapes on the plate create further interesting texture, particularly as the emboss is different on either side of the line.

The technique could be adapted for a larger scale through adding more texture to the card, and also varying the ink viscosity – I did this in Assignment 2 Human Condition. Very detailed subjects need to be simplified. Faces and figures need to be abstracted with key features omitted. But if semi-abstraction is the aim or suggested form, then almost any subject can be simplified and portrayed in this way. As with Project 1.3 Urban Abstracts I could think more about the meanings underlying the aesthetics of line, shape and colour to give the prints more impact. In relation to this particular design – and others – I could usefully study in more detail the powerful paintings of Clyfford Still.

1) Design

For this project I wanted to look at composition in Japanese landscape to see parallels/differences with Western landscape from Part 1 of the course. I looked at Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige as one of the printmakers who has the most dynamic composition. I selected 5 images that had different subjects and different compositions that I found dynamic.

Abstract iPad experiments

All of the five woodblock compositions offered many interesting possibilities for abstraction. I find digital experimentation on my iPad is a much more in-depth way of exploring a bigger range of possibilities than thumbnail drawing because of the potential for very quickly swapping colours and tones, stretching, flipping and rotating images and working with progressive layers of abstraction in the same file.

Woodblock 1: Fuji from the Misaka Pass in Kai Province.

What attracted me to this image was is the dark swooping hill on the right that attracts the eye first, leading the eye to the path and figure that then leads up across the flat lake to Mount Fuji, then finally the rather precariously balanced tree top right. The image follows a rule of thirds grid  for horizon and the image itself is divided roughly into a 3 x 3 grid with placement of figures, tree and text blocks within this, linked by the flowing lines of the path and breaks of islands in the lake. There is a sense of tension between the solidity (menace?) of the mountain and lake with the impermanence of existence of the tree and the small figures on the path.

I progressively simplified the original image, based initially on the original colours and experimenting with tone to see what might make the landscape and Mount Fuji less recognisable – I found that this was actually impossible unless I inverted the image or stretched the image. Otherwise the triangular shape at the back always looks like Mount Fuji or a volcano no matter how I altered the colours. Reducing the tree to a curved line to the top sky I found quite interesting. The last two images turned on their side, and reformatted the image as a square.

Click on any image for annotated carousel

Woodblock 2 Pine Grove at Miho in Suruga Province

This second print has very similar subject matter to print 1, but the much softer composition and more saturated colours make it much more ‘picturesque’. Again Mt Fuji had to be removed to make the landscape abstracted.

Click on any image for annotated carousel

Woodblock 3 ‘The Paulownia Plantation at Akasaka’

This image has a cross composition with central placement of tree and horizon. This image proved very difficult to make com

Click on any image for annotated carousel

2) The final print series

Prepare the Collagraph Plate and printing process

The instructions for this embossed print were very specific – and somewhat new to me (See my post Collagraph techniques)

I prepared the plate by printing out two copies of the final image from the Woodblock 1 series and sticking these to 2 pieces of black card. I then cut the shapes out and made two alternate plates with different proportions of card on different parts of the image, sticking these onto the backplate paper with PVA glue. I used 3 coast of diamond hard varnish, and pressed the 3 plates for a couple of days.

I used Hawthorne oil-based inks, sometimes with transparent medium. And used toothbrush, small roller and poupee to get different effects. Some of the ink was quite stiff as it had been left for a while. Experimenting with different viscosities, overlaying smooth ink with thinker ink on a roller, and making brushmarks achieved some quite interesting effects. But it was sometimes difficult to predict exactly how they would print, depending also on the printing pressure and dampness of the paper.

I printed with my etching press. But I found it necessary to swap around the blankets on my etching press to put the soft blanket at the bottom to get the best emboss.

I experimented with different types of paper – Bockingford and Japanese thick hosho paper. I found that Japanese Hosho paper with a damp J-cloth on the back got a particularly good emboss.

I made three series of prints: red, cyan and brown, just wiping and re-inking the plate between each print. Between each series I wiped the plate down fully, but was worried about its fragility if I was too thorough. I really like the way the different ink colours and textures mix, and the coloured lines from left-over ink. I could have continued indefinitely with further cleaning and colours, but the plate started to need repair.

For all the series below please click on an image to get the annotated carousel explaining each image.

Red series

I decided to start with Crimson, tonally contrasted with Vandyke Brown and using the white of the paper as a very unnatural palette to disguise the landscape features. The rotated Untitled Red 4 is like an inside body part with its tinges of red – something I exploit further in Assignment 2.

Cyan series

The Cyan images returned more to recognisable landscape colours – sky blue and brown earth colours, retaining tinges of sunset/blood? at the  edges in the plate. On the rotated images I varied texture to increase the interest, particularly in larger areas.

Brown series

The final brown earth series retains tinges of both red and blue as muted greys. I like the mottled texturing with the mix of sepia and Vandyke Brown . In the rotated images 3 and 3a it was noticeable that placing the darkest and most textured shape top right in 3a increased the impact.

Final Reflections

I very much enjoyed the textural variations I could achieve through different wiping marks and the subtle mixing of colours on the plate. I also found that impact varied significantly depending on the orientation of the image and tonal and textural structure. Having the darkest/most textured areas at the top left often increased impact. The embossing through different thickness of the shapes on the plate create further interesting texture, particularly as the emboss is different on either side of the line.

The technique could be adapted for a larger scale through adding more texture to the card, and also varying the ink viscosity – I did this in Assignment 2 Human Condition. Very detailed subjects need to be simplified. Faces and figures need to be abstracted with key features omitted. But if semi-abstraction is the aim or suggested form, then almost any subject can be simplified and portrayed in this way.

As with Project 1.3 Urban Abstracts I could think more about the meanings underlying the aesthetics of line, shape and colour to give the prints more impact. In relation to this particular design – and others – I could usefully study in more detail the powerful paintings of Clyfford Still.

Bibliography

Anfam, D. (ed.) (2017) Abstract Expressionism, London: Royal Academy of the Arts.

Pollard, C. & Watanabe, M. I., (2014) Hiroshige: Landscape, cityscape, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.

Schroer, A. (ed.) (2005) Hiroshige, Berlin, Munich, London, New York: Prestel.

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