Friday, January 29, 2010

Now for Something Completely Different

During the latter part of January, our studio was transformed into a set-making shop. Our daughter Emily is developing a new show with her theater troupe and we were been hired on as prop and set construction workers. This was all a bit new for us, but we learned fast. Emily (American), Nathalie (French) and Jofre (Spanish) comprise Théâtre de la Paupière. They have been performing a show called Decay Unlimited together for several years with quite a lot of success. You can watch an excerpt on YouTube. This year they received a grant to develop a new and more ambitious piece. They are writing a comic adaptation of Verdi's Aïda. The scenery has an Egyptian flavor. As luck would have it, Emily lives right next door to a professional set-designer who was able to give us the instructions needed to produce the set pieces. It's quite an elaborate process. You begin with pieces of thick styrene which are lightweight, yet substantial. The images which will mount on the styrene, are printed on large pieces of flame-retardant thick paper. The styrene is cut to match the images. You must embed pieces of plywood (called contreplaqué) into the front of each flat to provide a surface to attach wooden supports, handles and feet from the back. The flats are then covered both back and front with tarlatan, exactly the same material we use in the studio to wipe etching plates. This provides a matrix for plaster, which is then applied to both sides of the flat. You now have a lovely surface for applying the image, which is put on with glue. For days we were surrounded by attractive pyramids, columns and sphinxes of various sizes. Also required was the sewing of a life-sized dummy. I am not an expert seamstress and was not provided with a pattern, so I went on-line to see what directions I might be able to find. I was very fortunate to discover a fabulous doll pattern. I was able to simplify it and enlarge the pattern for my own uses. The instructions had been translated from the Chinese and were not only amusing, but completely unintelligible. Luckily the photos were plentiful and very helpful. I muddled my way through it. Emily helped with the hand sewing, which was extensive. The finished guy will have his role in the performance. The play, Improbable Aïda is due to open next weekend.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Printmaking with Mariann and Janine

I have just finished a wonderful week of printmaking in the Atelier Conti with two charming and talented printmakers, Mariann and Janine. Mariann and I got to know one another through Etsy and Printsy. She is a very talented painter and printmaker with an avid following. She has a great blog which includes very helpful printmaking how-to videos. I had already learned a lot from her before she ever arrived. She proposed spending a week in our studio since she had not before explored aquatint as a way of creating tone for her intricate and delicate prints and she also liked our space. Mariann splits her time between Singapore and Spain, although she is Danish and grew up in Sweden. She proposed bringing along a printmaking friend from Singapore. Janine is a publisher but also a very talented artist and printmaker. She originates from South Africa. The week began with snowfall. Janine, who has mostly lived in rather warm climates, was overjoyed to have a bit of inclement weather. She took lots of gorgeous photos of the snow. We immediately established a pleasant routine in the studio. Of course I learned as much from Mariann and Janine, as they learned from me. One trick they showed me was that to de-grease a copper etching plate, the best product of all is soya sauce! It works like a charm. They also use regular vegetable oil as final clean-up of plates and surfaces. It cuts down on the use of solvents. We were hard at it from morning until dark each day, exploring techniques and creating images. I think Mariann and Janine each made at least 6 or 8 outstanding plates during the time they were here. I was able to come up with two, one relatively successful, and one a failure. Mariann's images contain mysterious stories. She told me that she always has a story of her own in mind, but that she never reveals it to the viewer, allowing them to come to their own conclusions. Her titles can give a clue. The print on the right is called Waiting for Visitors. Much of Janine's work is based on sketches from life she has done previously. She is a very faithful draftsman. While the rest of us went to bed, she often stayed awake drawing. She took some images of nudes and treated them in various ways to create different printed results. During my correspondence with Mariann last fall, we discovered that we approached inking of plates with completely different methods. I have always inked up using a hotplate, which keeps the ink warm and supple until you print it. Mariann on the other hand uses cold wiping which involves mixing the inks with linseed oil until they are very soft but not too greasy. Her method requires no heat. Janine, who had never tried warm wiping was game to give it a try. Mariann and I did a sample of each kind of inking on one of her little test plates. On the left is the warm wipe, on the right is the cold wipe. Mariann leaves more ink on the plate, which suits her imagery. It gives a very velvety quality. I tend to wipe off as much surface ink as possible, to get the greatest contrast possible. Neither of us convinced the other to change methods, but I'm quite happy to know about hers, as it does give me another tool to pull out from time to time when an image demands it. I like the feeling of the warm copper in my hand while wiping. For her part, Mariann says she'll probably buy a hotplate at least for the application of varnishes on the plates, it makes their application more even. The week went very quickly, with comradeship in and out of the studio. The weather continued to be cold and frosty, to snow from time to time, but at the same time to offer crystal clear moments, and fabulous light. On the last day she was here, Mariann inked up some plates a la poupée, which is a technique she specializes in and which I learned from her video. I was very interested to watch her in person. She was not at all sure it would work well with the aquatint. In the past her shading has been done with crosshatching, which works brilliantly for adding color a la poupée She wasn't positive the color would be easily applied or stay clean with the the continuous tone that aquatint provides. It's such a marvelous technique, since any number of colors can be added to a single plate. Colors are applied with Q-tips or little poupées (dolls) made of tarlatan. You're limited only by your patience! This is one good reason to use cold wiping, as the inks won't dry out, no matter how long the inking process takes. This rather complex image took Mariann less than 5 minutes to ink! the results were really fabulous and the aquatint inked up very well indeed! Mariann will be building an aquatint box in her own studio! Janine had some wonderfully creative ideas too. She took several of her snow photo images and turned them into photogravures. She intends to print them as very light back grounds behind her hand-drawn images. She has promised to send me the results. I can't wait to see how they turn out! I created an image I call Happy Hounds, inspired by a group of hunting dogs we saw at the Château de Cheverny. I loved the way they draped over one another to take a standing rest on their neighbor's back! The week went past way too quickly. The cold weather never affected the warmth in the studio. It's always such a pleasure to work with other printmakers. Montmirail is a quiet and inspirational location, albeit far from Singapore!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

There is no limit to improvement. --Moshe Feldenkrais
At Maison Conti we celebrated réveillon (New Year's eve) with a full house of clients from Paris. We served a large meal, killed an amazing number of bottles and rang in the jour de l'an with champagne flutes held high and American-style noise-makers and poppers.
Menu: amuse bouche raita & cheddar bread sticks entrée choice of foie gras with spice bread & fig jam or coquilles saint jacques & prawns soup: vichyssoise dinner rolls de la maison main course: herb-encrusted roast leg of lamb melange of roasted winter vegetables baked apples choice of 4 cheeses with a salad of baby greens dessert: chocolate torte layered with rum-flavored cream
This is the point in the evening when both the camera and the camera-operator stopped functioning in picture-taking mode, so there is no more documentation of the meal! I found it lovely to have a house full of guests, especially such pleasant ones. The new year begins energetically! On Monday we have an etching course beginning in the atelier. I will be working with two fabulous artists from Singapore who will spend the week experimenting with aquatint. I expect I will learn as much from them as they will from me. I am familiar with their work and greatly admire them both. I'll report back after the course is complete next weekend. In the meantime, I wish for a wave of unreasoned hope and joy to wash over you and send you sailing into this new decade with promise and fearless delight.
Hope is the dream of a soul awake. --French proverb