© 2020 by Alison Darrow.

Serendipity takes wing

March 16, 2016

I became dissatisfied with the last small block I cut – the edges of the image are rougher than I'd like, but I wasn’t sure why. Could it have something to do with the fact that the block was more than 10 years old? Or is this material intrinsically grainy and crumbly, and therefore unlikely to hold a sharply defined edge? I got a new block of the same material, identified a simple image to copy as a test, and created this new block.



You may have seen this charming swallow motif; it’s often used as a tattoo. It’s simple enough that I could carve it in a couple of hours and test the results. While I was carving, the material still seemed awfully soft, friable almost, but it holds even the finer lines well, and they’re pretty clean. So my guess is that the blocks don’t age gracefully. I pulled several test prints; while doing so, I decided to experiment with putting multiple images on the same piece of paper and using the same inking to pull more than one print.


If you’re unfamiliar with block printing, here’s how it works: you squirt a blob of ink onto a smooth plate, roll the ink out to a uniform thickness with a tool called a brayer [link], and then position the paper on top of the plate, taking care not to drag it as you put it down (which smears the ink). Some artists use a press or a special tool to pressure-transfer the ink to the paper; I just rub the paper with the back of a spoon. When the paper is lifted off the plate, the ink has transferred to the paper, ideally without blob of ink (which means your plate has too much ink on it) or incompletely inked spots (which mean either that the plate doesn’t have enough ink on it or that the pressure of spoon or press was insufficient to transfer the ink adequately).If you use the same inking to pull more than one print, the resulting image becomes fainter, a ghost of itself, and you can achieve interesting shadow and motion-blur effects with this technique. While I was pulling prints, I realized that the block material is so soft that it might well function as a “rubber stamp.” So for the last couple of prints, I skipped the brayer and just pressed the block directly on the ink plate an then on the paper as if using an ink pad and rubber stamp. Sure enough, the block picked up enough ink to make a (faint) image on the paper.


Experiments complete, I began to clean up. I had used a transparent piece of plexiglass as an inking plate. When I picked it up, I noticed that it looked like a lithographic plate: the details of the block, including some of the areas I had carved away, were present on the plate as if drawn there by hand.


Years ago, I studied with an artist who specialized in monoprints. Monoprints are paintings created on a smooth surface for the express purpose of being transferred to paper. The artist may be able to pull one or two prints from a given painting, maybe more, but each will be different, and the “original” is destroyed in the process of making the print(s). So I wondered, could I print what I saw on this plate? The answer turned out to be yes.


This print is on rice paper (which I’ve found takes block printing ink nicely). It’s slightly translucent, which is giving me ideas about adding color to this piece. Because it’s an unintended composition, printed crooked and off-center, I will make this a proof-of concept piece. But I’m really thrilled to discover this possibility – it’s giving me all kinds of ideas! I LOVE it when serendipity steers me in a new and unexpected direction!! I can only hope that I live long enough to pursue all of the gifts that serendipity so generously hands me.

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