Wednesday, December 9, 2009

To carve or not to carve, that is the question...

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of engraving a piece of hard wood or Resingrave with sharp chisels... Sorry, Will, that was a little uncalled-for. So, what are my choices?
          I could engrave blocks of Resingrave or wood, plywood or lino, and use either oil or water-based inks, and print on a press or hand-burnish with a baren. So many choices, just the one life. All of these choices are going to be just as difficult for me, bearing in mind the previous injuries to my hands and elbows, so I have to find a way to make and print the blocks that is not going to damage my puny body. The best way I can think of, which will enable me to print on the press and cut down on the carving, is to have polymer plates made up that will replicate the 'key-block' in the coloured woodcut method, and then to cut some lino blocks for the areas of colours. Lino is softer to carve than the other types of blocks. It doesn't hold the detail as well, but that's OK because the detail will be on the polymer.  I may even be able to print some of the images by the reduction method. In my internet searches I haven't come across anyone using the polymer/lino combination, but there is a first time for everything. (Have you tried it? I'd love to hear.) The difficult bit will be getting the correct registration of the lino blocks with the polymer. Well, challenges are good. I'm still not sure about the inks but that will become clear when I start to experiment.
          I re-drew "Tormented..", scanned it in and resized it to the page size of the book, ready to send the digital file to Boxcar in Syracuse. I also decided to have a test plate made with Brioso Italic Light, to try out with the handmade Griffen Mill paper. That way I won't waste too much money if my Prince of Fonts turns out to be a toad after all. The photopolymer plate process 'etches' away the plate in the white areas of the drawing leaving the black areas raised and printable. One of the good things about polymer plates is that you can cut them apart like puzzle blocks and print the parts separately, for different colours. I would really have preferred to make this key-block in the traditional way, but I do want to finish this book before my ninetieth birthday. Here is the cleaned up and re-drawn version of "Tormented by visions of flight and falling"...I have used coloured pencils on the black and white image to

show how it might look. The actual size of this image will be 70 mm high, 55 mm wide, (about two and three quarter inches high by two and one eighth inches wide),  the same size as the book pages. The plates have been processed, I'm now waiting for the US Postal Service to do their bit.
          Here comes a shameless plug for the Fine Press Book Association, our only association of its kind in North America, and possibly in the English-speaking world. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, I'd love to hear of the existence of something similar in say Australia or New Zealand.) Like all great cultural things, it is in need of support in these times of economic hardship. I know, you can't eat it or put it in your tank, but...They say a nation is judged by its culture, so let's make sure we have something left to judge us by when the dust settles. New members and donations welcome.
          The President of FPBA, Bob McCamant, wrote an article for The Caxtonian which was published in June 2008, on interviews conducted with several BC Private Presses. De Walden press is pleased to be included. Fine Press is alive and well in North America. End of shameless plug, thanks for reading, and Many Happies for the coming holiday season.             


Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Tormented by visions of flight and falling..."

          I've been working on the first of the illustrations for 'Leonardo', and show below my initial sketch and the image I developed from it. The words that go with this are as the title above, 'Tormented by visions of flight and falling..'

          I haven't made a definite decision as to how these illustrations will be printed, and may in fact use a variety of methods, whichever is most suitable for each image. One thought is to make a 'key block' using a polymer plate for the black areas, which I can print on the press, and then cut some blocks in lino or shina plywood for the colours. As has happened on previous occasions, this illustration may not actually be used, everything stays loose until the final cut. That is also the reason I have delayed laying out the text, until I have all the elements and can decide how I want to place them. My handmade text paper is now matured so I can use it whenever I'm ready.
           One thing I have decided is that the full-page illustrations will go right to the edge of the paper, with no white margin surrounding them. This will give me a little more 'real estate' to work with. I did this with Qualicum Blue and was able to make the images more meaningful, but I've been giving it careful consideration, thinking about the way people handle miniature books as opposed to larger ones. These images will be interspersed with the text, rather than being in a separate gallery, as in QB. I'm also working on the idea of smaller page elements to go in with the text. Paper for these illustrations is still a big question mark, which will not be answered until I finally decide how they will be printed.
Alcuin Wayzgoose
          On a much firmer footing, the Alcuin Wayzgoose in Vancouver Public Library came and went, and a good time was had by all. There were some very nice new publications and it was great to see new talent and young people lovingly embracing old technology. The Friday evening presentation by Will Rueter of the Aliquando Press was one of the best ever, and our thanks go to all the hard-working Alcuin Society volunteers who made everything possible. Photos are up on Flickr here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Aero Linen

          Although we don't really know whether Leonardo actually tried out any of his flying machine ideas, he obviously thought about the practical details of constructing the wings. In his notebooks he says:
"I find that if this instrument made with a screw be well made that is to say, made of linen of which the pores are stopped up with starch..."
          These words reminded me of my brother's childhood models of aeroplanes made from balsa wood, covered with doped tissue paper (Biggles anyone?) and also of the aero linen I used to use for bookbinding. Aero linen was the fabric originally used to cover the 'skeleton' of early planes, and was also 'doped' or painted to 'stop up the pores' as Leonardo put it. I understand that the spars forming the skeleton of the plane were bound with strips of linen and the covering of the panels was then stitched to this, and then 'doped' with a solvent based type of varnish. When dry this gave a tough light-weight membrane. Linen is one of the strongest natural fabrics available, and is used in the conservation and repair of books. 
          After a bit of research I found a supplier of this linen fabric, and may well use it for part of the book, though at the moment I have no idea exactly how.

Aero linen
It is probably quite close to the sort of thing Leonardo was thinking of, a strong, finely woven unbleached linen cloth, to which the early aviators trusted their lives. Charles Anthony Silvestri says in his comments on Eric Whitacre's blog:
          "It ocurred to me that this was a poem, not historiography, and I was free to compose out of my imagination details of setting and character. It was OK to view this Leonardo as an amalgam of images from books, movies, daydreams-a fabricated, impressionistic Leonardo who exists in an imaginary place and time. This revelation was immensely freeing to me, and I have stayed connected to that freedom."
          Similarly, I am really interested in conveying the feelings and images of Leonardo's imaginary dream, I don't wish to reproduce authentic details of fifteenth century Italian life, except in so far as they may contribute to the general picture. Using the linen as a case in point, I would use it to reference the linen that Leonardo may have had in mind, not to reproduce or replicate his drawings in wing form. It would give an idea of just how flimsy the materials were, and how much trust and faith the first aviators had to have in order to put their lives at risk. No wonder Leonardo suggested trying his first flying machine out over water...
        And on a different note, I shall be showing some of my books at the  Alcuin Vancouver Wayzgoose - printing fair - which will take place on Saturday October 24 in the Vancouver Central Library on West Georgia. See their website for further details. There will also be a presentation by William Rueter on the previous evening in Labatt Hall, SFU on West Hastings, sponsored by the ever-generous Yosef Wosk. Both events are free. To my knowledge the Wayzgoose is the only event of this kind in Western Canada, and it takes place every two years, so be sure not to miss out if you are in the area. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Baren Hand, Woodblock Elbow.

          Yikes! What have I been doing? The injuries mentioned above are not listed as such in any medical text book, but will no doubt ring a bell with anyone who has ever tried carving a wood or lino block and printing it. I've been experimenting over the past few weeks with various forms of relief printing, using (on left) shina plywood, cherry wood top right, middle right lino, Resingrave bottom right. Along the way I found some wonderful web resources, particularly Baren Forum with informative articles and helpful comments from artists of all kinds, and notably a very open willingness to share their knowledge and experience.

          However, nothing replaces the 'hands on' experience of actually cutting the block, inking it and printing. I've learned so much, spoiled lots of blocks and came to the conclusion that I need a parallel existence for this activity alone. Not having that option, the battle goes on. Some of the tools I bought are too big for miniature work, and I'm now waiting for two 1mm and 1.5mm u-shaped chisels to fly from Japan into my mailbox. Ditto some new blocks from McClains. Sometimes there are too many choices, too much information. I am gradually narrowing it down, but it takes a while to decide how you want your images to look, and how they will fit in with the text. One method that I may decide to use goes by the alarming nick-name of 'suicide block'.
          The reduction print process, aka 'suicide' method, is a process by which the block is first carved so that the first printing reveals the paper colour in the areas you carved away, then re-carved and inked and printed, this last stage being repeated as required, till at the end there is very little wood left. It's called a suicide block because you have to print at least as many prints as you need for the edition (allowing for 'duds') because once you have recarved the block there is no going back. Mistakes at any stage are not recoverable, you would have to start over and carve a new block. There are certain advantages to this method, it can save carving several blocks and can also help with registration. But it does need careful planning and is not suitable for every type of print. Some people use a combination of reduction and multiple blocks to extend the range of colours that can be used.
          I made a very simple print with one shina plywood block to try out this process, using Akua water-based colours, a brayer (ink roller), dry paper and a baren. A baren is a disc-shaped Japanese tool covered with a bamboo leaf wrapper. It is used in a circular motion for rubbing the back of the prints to transfer ink from block to paper. You can also use the back of a spoon, but the structure of the baren is designed to give an even pressure over the whole print, imparting a more uniform appearance. I hasten to stress that this print is not for use in the book, just a practice block to try out the method and materials. I didn't have a small plywood block so used a large one, with a 'ditch' cut around the size I needed. 
          Lots more carving practice is required and thought as to how to work out the colour schemes and printing sequences, as well as the actual images. Registration on these tiny blocks is a challenge. Shown below are the tools I used to carve the block, a knife, a u-shaped chisel and a v-shaped chisel. Also shown are the disc-shaped baren, and the home-made registration jig I use to make sure the block hits the paper in the same position each time. I learned a lot from my experiments. If I intend to use this method, I'll have to print lots of extras to allow for 'uglies' at each stage.

          Tools, blocks, inks and papers come mainly from McClains and Baren Mall (found on the BarenForum site). Both these suppliers are good to deal with in my experience.

          I haven't yet decided on the paper, as it will depend a bit on the images I come up with, and on whether I stay with water-based inks or go for oil-based. I've been trying various Japanese print-making papers, being lighter in weight that their western counterparts. Some papers and inks give a more solid area of colour, others have a more grainy texture. I'm waiting for some more paper samples from another supplier, Graphic Chemical, new to me. As my experiments progess, ideas change so nothing is set in stone at this stage. I may revert to just one or two colours, and I have yet to try printing on my press. I just like to try everything before I decide. (Hint: never go shopping with me.)
          Finally, I read an interview with the author David Mitchell, (Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green), where he describes his creative process in this way: "My books coagulate, very slowly indeed, in a gloppy primordial idea-soup"...
While in no way equating my work with his, the creative process for me is equally slow and amorphous, and inches forward a little at a time. I'm hoping by the time my new chisels and blocks arrive that my arm and hand will have repaired, and in the meantime I'll be working on sketches for the images in the book.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Paper Trail III - Paper for Relief Printing; two new online exhibitions

Creating a handmade book of any kind is rather like baking a cake: you choose and measure your ingredients, put them together according to a recipe, and voil√†! You have a cake. Or a book. Sounds simple. But of course, behind the scenes, there is someone making butter, someone growing and milling the wheat, caning the sugar… thousands of ingredients, millions of recipes, and infinite variations of cakes, and books. 
I’m still at the ‘ingredients gathering’ stage with this book, and how the cake, er, book turns out  depends on those ingredients, so I am considering very carefully what to use. I’m going to use a relief printing method to illustrate this book (to me the illustrations are the plums in the cake), and will use a different paper for them. The properties  required for printing the text are different from those needed for the prints. These will be hand-pulled prints from carved blocks. It’s a method I haven’t used before so it’s a steep learning curve. You have been warned.

I’m looking for a thin translucent paper, probably Japanese and handmade, and have a few options in mind, but I’m still doing trials and until I have a firmer idea in my mind of what I want these images to look like, I will leave my options open. This type of paper can be pretty expensive, so I don’t want to make a mistake. Comments on this and suggestions positively encouraged.

Notable  Online Exhibitions
There is a long and delightful association between fine press books and wood engravings, and they are still very popular. I feasted my eyes this weekend on the Society of Wood Engravers new online gallery of  artists’ prints selected for their forthcoming exhibition.  One of my favourites is 'Dinner is Served' on page 10. I have been following the creative process on Sue the artist’s blog, it’s fascinating to ‘watch’ other people at work. The sea gull is a real character.  Wood engravings are made from hand carved endgrain blocks of wood or synthetic materials, and printed by or under the direction of the artist, often in small limited editions.

Another new online exhibition is called Artists' Books: Bound in Art, launched recently by the Library and Archives Canada. This was originally conceived to show the work of Canadian small presses and book artists who had contributed their works to LAC under the “Legal Deposit” requirement. My ‘Sonnet XVIII’  makes an appearance under ‘Illustrated books’ . Sadly MIA are the brilliant works of many BC presses and artists, as well as those from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba … How can they leave out "Circus" from Shanty Bay Press? Beats me. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Finding My Prince of Fonts

Craftsman Table-top Printing Press

Now to decide on a font for 'Leonardo". Firstly, I should say that my comments are made in the context of this book and with the experience of my past mistakes and observation of what has worked well for others.

The font, or typeface used to print a work depends on a number of factors, including the method of printing, type of paper, and purpose of the piece, and is just as important as any other aspect of the book. Like the paper, the font carries a subliminal message, which can help to set the tone and add to the character of the book. It needs to be subtle, so that it doesn’t draw attention to itself and away from the meaning of the words it frames. It is part of the supporting cast for the message the text brings to the reader.

I’ll diverge here for a moment and talk about the method of printing I intend to use. I set the text on the computer, and send the digital files to a platemaker, who then makes photopolymer plates which I mount on a base. The base is then secured into the chase of the press. In my studio this is a Craftsman hand-operated iron press with a clamshell action, where pulling the handle brings the inked plate into contact with the paper. Above is a picture of the press. The words on the plate are raised, and press into the paper. Here is one of the plates I used for “The House that Jack Built” and here is an image of what the printed page looks like. (Hand coloured with watercolours.)

I chose to use this method for several reasons, one of them being that I only have the one life, as far as I know, and don’t have time to become an expert printer especially as I have probably already used up more than half of that life. Other considerations are that I tend to use a different font for each book (using that which I consider most suitable) and if I used movable metal type I would have to spend a great deal more on buying that type: with the small editions I make, the books would be prohibitively expensive. Photopolymer plates are for me, the next best thing to movable type.

There are some things to consider when using PPP. On a computer, the font is designed to be shown on a monitor, and is made to be visible in that medium. It is usually heavier in weight than the same font designed for letterpress. In addition, the physical action of printing on a press with ink, and the impression of the letters on the paper, add to the appearance of weight. This means that when choosing a computer font to use for PPP, it is better to choose one that is on the ‘anaemic’ side rather that something bold and beefy.

I wanted to find a suitable italic font, but most seemed to be either too compressed, or the letter-fit was too close, or they were too upright, or too sloping, or too formal...Having exhausted the selection on my computer, I turned to the internet to see what else I could find. On the Adobe site, I eventually found what I had been looking for. A font that is scaled (optimized for use in different sizes), and available in a ‘light’ weight, and one that is a lively italic, with movement, not too formal, not handwriting, well spaced and has quite open counters (spaces inside letters such as e) - just right in fact. The font is called Brioso, designed by Robert Slimbach of Minion fame, and I have high hopes for it. So that is what I bought. Well, of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and as I haven’t yet had the plates made up, I won’t rejoice too soon, but it is very promising. After kissing a lot of frogs, I was finally able to find a Prince of Fonts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Paper Trail II

After a wonderful three day workshop, (of which more later), I'm back on the paper trail. The image left (courtesy of Griffen Mill), shows hand papermaking. So, handmade, mouldmade or machine made? It's 'make your mind up' time.

This book involves three outstanding men, the legendary Leonardo Da Vinci, the brilliant composer Eric Whitacre, and the multi-talented poet and artist Charles Anthony Silvestri. To me, there is no better paper for this purpose than a handmade paper, because it not only looks and feels beautiful, it has no grain, it is strong and durable, and is archivally sound. It takes letterpress well (they were, after all, made for each other), and will contribute towards the character of the book, without taking centre stage.

Having decided on a handmade paper, I then went back and leafed through the samples from Griffen Mill again, feeling them between my fingers and trying to decide which to choose. Like Goldilocks, I found them "too this" or "too that", not enough of the other, or just plain ho hum. My paper had to have star quality. In the file I found an envelope containing a few pieces of a very nice paper, warm toned, and quite opaque for its lighter weight. Looking at the post-mark, I remembered receiving them a few years previously, and the colour didn't suit the project I was then working on. Now, I thought, it looked just right. I conditioned (dampened) a few pieces of it for a printing trial, and tried it out the next day. It printed beautifully. Now to see if it was available, as it was not one of the stock papers.

After a couple of emails, I found that no, this had been a Special Making and there was not enough left over to make my book edition. But if I wasn't in a hurry, I could commission a Special Making and they could perhaps improve on the opacity by adjusting the fibre content. The minimum quantity for Special Making is around the amount I need for this book, 25-30 sheets, and the price about the same as the average of their papers of this weight. What did Chris mean, 'if I wasn't in a hurry'? It transpired that the paper has to mature or condition over a period of twelve weeks after being made, and "during this time the stresses and strains dissipate and the surface closes up" to quote Chris. Well, having some months work ahead on illustrations and the rest of the book, waiting twelve weeks was no problem. Game on.

One slight hitch: they were not sure exactly which paper I was talking about, as they had made two or three similar papers around that time. Could I send them a sample of the paper I wanted? So that went off in the post. After posting the sample (of course), I discovered that I had sent it to the previous address. Luckily the postman knew them, and it was delivered a few days later. That done, it was plain sailing, for me at any rate. Mike collected some fibres from the U.K. and a few weeks later, the paper was made, and on its way across the Atlantic. Yesterday it arrived. Wow, what a beautiful paper, even better than I hoped, it is a creamy colour, with a soft smooth surface, like a hen's egg. It is now under the bed, between boards, relaxing and maturing. I can hardly wait to try it.

I asked Chris to write a few words about Special Makings and handmade paper, here is what she wrote:

"Paper is a one of the major elements in book construction and as such its character, or lack of, can have a major affect on the way a book functions. For example, a well constructed book should be able to open easily and its pages turn and lie flat. With miniature books in particular, many problems are more apparent and so the correct choice of paper is vital. The appearance of the paper in a miniature book is also more striking simply because the visual elements are stronger.

The way that a paper functions is also critical when it comes to book restoration and con-servation. Here the aim is to match the character of the original paper in a sympathetic and ethical manner.

Despite thousands of different papers being available today sometimes the only way to obtain a paper that works in the context of a particular project is to have one made. If one wants a small amount of sheets only then the sole recourse is to approach a handmade paper mill where paper can be made in relatively small quantities.

"Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine" will be made using just such a paper, commissioned from Griffen Mill in Ireland. The wove paper is made from a mixture of jute, cotton and hemp fibres and has a subtle “antique” tone that harks back to the colours of the handmade paper used by Michael Angelo. The paper is of archival quality and is unique to this edition."

So the Paper Trail for a text paper ends here. Chris Laver-Gibbs will be making a presentation to the Conference attendees at the Society of Bookbinders Conference at the University of Warwick, UK. If you get the chance, I recommend that you go, you don't often get the opportunity to listen to a handmade paper expert.

I'm happy to have found the right paper for this edition. It is such an important element and once decided upon, sets the tone for the whole book. The next element that has to be decided, also very important, is the font which I will use to lay out the text. This also makes a vital contribution to the feel and character of the book, and will take some research. The photo below shows my paper. I'm sorry that computers haven't yet managed 'feelies', so you will just have to content yourself with looking. See how nicely it drapes?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

News Flash

Two miniature book-related items that may be of interest:

Miniature Book Society annual Conclave (3 day meeting of members) takes place in Princeton, NJ, at the end of August. The Book Fair is open to the public on the Sunday afternoon, when miniature book artists and dealers will be selling their books. All welcome.

Drexel University, Philadelphia. Archives and Special Collections has just launched an exhibition of miniature books from their collections, called "Many Littles Make a Much". There is also an online exhibit to whet your appetite.
(Miniature Book Society members will recall that this is also the title of a book by Caroline Lindemann, published by MBS)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Paper Trail 1

So many types of paper, where to start? Usually with the sample books. Of course, the nature of the proposed book and the method of printing immediately narrow the field. This will be a handmade book, printed on an old hand-operated Craftsman iron press, and will be illustrated with hand-pulled prints, hand sewn and hand bound. During the years I worked on repairing and conserving books I learned a lot about which materials and book structures last. My aim is to make books that will endure the test of time. (I'm not saying I always achieve this, just that I aim to.)

Back to the paper, which has an important part to play here. These are the qualities I consider when choosing a text paper, in no special order:
  • Weight: for a miniature book, no more than 100 gsm. Ideally, for a codex style book I like the page to turn over and lie flat. This is almost impossible to achieve with a miniature, because of the page size. Compromises have to be made. With a larger heavier book, people often read them open on a table. With a miniature, they tend to be read with a hand each side of the book, the thumbs holding the pages each side, a more intimate reading experience.
  • Opacity: if you're printing on both sides of the paper, this is very important. Show-through, unless intentional, is usually ugly.
  • Colour: there is an infinite number of shades of white. The very bright white type of paper belongs with the computer printer. I tend to go for a soft white, sometimes called book white, unless I want to convey a particular character. For Qualicum Blue I used a pale blue paper.
  • Sizing: Size in this context means the dressing put into paper or onto the surface of paper to give it specific properties, e.g. strength, a smoother surface, less absorbency. A lightly sized paper suits my purpose.
  • Pressing treatment. A hard-rolled hot pressed paper is not suitable for letterpress, as it will not compress, and the ink lies on the surface of the paper. Paper that contains more air will compress during printing and give a more attractive appearance. Part of the charm of letterpress printing is that the letters are very slightly sunken into the paper, giving the page a 'sparkle' that you don't find with other printing methods.
  • Surface quality: it is important that the surface of the paper isn't too soft and woolly or it will pick up oil and sweat from readers' hands and become dirty quicker. Textured surfaces and inclusions (bits) interfere with small print and are best reserved for those books where the paper is the message, rather than the carrier of it.
  • Composition of the paper: some papers are made to archival quality standards, neutral pH, buffered, made to last and this is something I look for.
  • Papermaking method: handmade, mouldmade, machine made? Each has its strengths and weaknesses, to be explored in my next post.
Papers I've used for past books include Magnani book wove mould made (they make it in three different weights), Zerkall Ingres, Zerkall printmaking paper, Griffen Mill handmade papers, and for earlier books paper made from esparto grass (too soft), a Canson Ingres and a recycled paper called Retreeve, which was a mistake as it was too hard-rolled. I also used some real sheepskin parchment for one book - not strictly speaking paper, but its predecessor.

The photo shows some of my paper sample books. I test-print before I buy these days. In my next post I'll talk about what I eventually chose and why, and hope to have a guest on the blog.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine

Starting a new book is always fun, there's an excitement, the feeling of beginning a journey, the opportunity to try new things and to use ideas that have been fizzing around in your brain waiting for the chance to erupt. I will be documenting my journey with this new book, there will be ups and downs, thrills and spills, and eventually, there will be...a book:-)

I am embarking on a book entitled "Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine", based on a choral work by the American composer Eric Whitacre, with libretto by Charles Anthony Silvestri. These very talented men collaborated to produce an unusual and stunning work, full of action, exploring the concept of Leonardo da Vinci dreaming of his flying machine. I first heard this piece sung by the National Youth Choir of Canada in 2006, a magical performance which inspired me. From this beginning, I began to research Leonardo's notebooks (and along the way filled a few of my own).

Check out Eric's website and scroll down to the 'BYU Sings' entry for March 29 2009 for a sample of Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine. (No, I'm not getting a cut.) BYU = Brigham Young University Singers.

In my next post I'll be talking about choosing the paper for this book. So many types of paper.....where do you start? And why does it matter?