Project 2.1 Formal Abstracts: Japanese landscape

Develop an abstract collagraph print from a subject of your own choice. This rational abstract print will be made from geometric shapes and a clear, well balanced palette of colours. It will be made from a constructed relief method using different levels of shaped card, cut with precision and sealed with a varnish to allow a coloured embossed print to be taken. The printed ink surface will play an important part in the final print. You need to achieve
suitable coverage and evenness of surface as well as presenting an interesting, expressive textured surface. This can be repeated in different colours to print a series. At the end of this project you should have at least two strong relief prints where the ink plays a descriptive and expressive part alongside the embossed relief. Notice how the light plays in the embossed surface to create interest as well as the variation in colour you have applied.

Overview and assessment

I found this process very interesting – both the initial design stage and also the possibilities for varying the colours, tonal balance and effect through differences in inking and also turning the image around.

The technique could be adapted for a larger scale through adding more texture to the card, and also varying the ink viscosity.

The colours I tried varied in their tonal contrast. I think most colour combinations could work, if the shapes are clearly delineated through differences in tone and the different tones are made to balance. But there are also many possible variations here in the ways in which shapes can be joined with one another. Sometimes retaining balance requires the plate to be rotated.

Very detailed subjects need to be simplified. If the aim is completely unrecognisable abstraction then things like mountains and landscapes need to be turned on their sides. 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.

1) Design

Choose your subject can be chosen from any figurative source, a sketch, painting or photograph but it must have a good underlying compositional structure. Look at your subject. In your learning log write down why you chose it and what attracts you to it. This is important information to establish as it may help you when you come to abstract your design from your subject. You may have been drawn to the colours, or the shapes or the formal arrangement of elements.

Simplify the formal geometry of the image you have chosen so that the proportions and way the shapes interlock are based on the original image. work through a formal process gradually simplifying a theme until you reach a balance of geometric shapes and proportions. You will have to make several studies until you are happy with the final arrangement.

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.

Having experimented with different levels of abstraction and different colours on my iPad with each of these images I chose Fuji from the Misaka Pass in Kai Province (see end). What I really like is the dark swooping hill on the left and the image of Mount Fuji. Abstracting this image to make it look less like a landscape was a bit difficult – the triangular shape at the back always looks like a volcano no matter how I altered the colours. The last two images turned on their side, and reformatted the image as a square.

2) Prepare the Plate

Once the geometric shapes have been organised and put together they can be transferred to the card used for the relief collotype block. Each shape should be cut out with as much accuracy as possible so that they will perfectly fit together.
When you have cut out enough pieces begin to construct your block. Starting with the base glue your shapes down using a thin, even layer of glue such as PVA wood glue. Continue to build up your block keeping each shape at a different level. Don’t use more than four layers as the block will be too deep and there is the risk of the paper tearing when you print from it.
When you have finished, sandwich the block between two sheets of blotting paper and some newspaper, place a heavy weight on top and leave it on a hard surface overnight or until dry. It is important the block dries as evenly and flat as possible so don’t be tempted to take it out of the paper until it is totally dry.
Once it is dry, coat the bottom and edges with shellac varnish (or similar waterproof varnish). Leave to dry and then varnish the top surface. If the card absorbs the varnish repeat the process until all the surfaces are fully coated with a hard layer of varnish.

I printed out the final image on A4 paper and stuck it to 3 pieces of back card. And cut out 3 versions on different thicknesses of card. From these pieces I then made 3 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.

3) Preparing your paper

The effect of a relief collotype or collagraph print is to combine colour with an embossed image. To achieve this successfully you need a strong, rag based watercolour paper (200gms). Your supplier will be able to help you with more information. Cut your paper to size and immerse it completely in warm water. It will need to soak for at least ten minutes so it is soaked right through and its fibres are softened and pliable. When ready place your paper between two sheets of blotting paper which will absorb the excess surface water without drying out the paper. You need the paper to be evenly damp all the
way through but not soaking wet on the outside. Several sheets of paper can be prepared at once and sandwiched between blotting paper in readiness for your printing. If they dry out you will need to repeat the soaking process.

I used Bockingford following the above instructions. But actually found that Japanese Hosho paper with a damp J-cloth on the back also got a good emboss.

4) Inking your block

Once your relief collotype block is dry you are ready to ink it up. You can use water or oil based block printing ink. The oil based ink will give you a longer working time as it will dry much slower than water-based ink. Water-based ink, on the other hand doesn’t need solvents to clean it up, but will dry fairly fast.
Using an old toothbrush apply the printing ink in small smooth strokes to cover your block. Alternatively you might like to add the ink with a dabber.
When the block is covered in ink you can wipe away some of the colour to vary its intensity in places and reveal some of the varnished areas. Wiping the ink away will allow the block surface to emboss the paper without printing any colour.

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.

5) Printing the block
You can take your print in one impression as all your colours have been applied to the block. As you are aiming to get the colours of your design printed with an embossed impression of the block as well you will need to apply a strong, firm pressure from a soft roller. If you have a small, flat bed press you can use that.  Place your inked relief collotype block ink side up on a sheet of blotting paper and lay your dampened printing paper over the top. On this, place another sheet of blotting paper. Secure the corners of the blotting paper to your table top with masking tape to reduce the risk of the papers slipping. Using a firm pressure by putting your weight behind the covered rolling pin roll it across the paper. You will need to achieve this in one go. Alternatively you may hand emboss the print through a clean towel to avoid tearing the paper.
The damp paper is forced onto your relief block and will pick up the ink as well as be pushed into the relief of your block. Once rolled, remove the tape from the blotting paper and lift your print.

On an etching press I did not need tape. 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.

It should be stored flat between two sheets of blotting paper but not weighted as this will flatten your relief.

6) Cleaning up for the next print

Clean your relief block and carefully dry it. You may repeat your printing process in the same colours or try a new colour scheme. In each case make the printed surface as perfect as you can taking into account the texture of the paper you are using, the quality of the ink and the effect of the relief collage block.

I made several prints just re-inking the plate. I really like the way the different ink colours and textures mix, and the coloured lines from left-over ink.

Red series

Blue series

Brown series

Other possible images and experiments

Woodblock 1 ‘Onmaya River Bank’

Woodblock 2 ‘The Paulownia Plantation at Akasaka’

Woodblock 3 Sudden Shower at Ohashi Bridge

Woodblock 4 Pine Grove at Miho in Suruga Province

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