WOODCUTS - A NEW PROCESS, AN ANCIENT METHOD
The woodcut is the oldest and yet one of the most contemporary methods in fine arts printmaking. Most people believe they know what a woodcut is and what characteristics distinguish it from other media. The woodcut method has a number of unique process-dating as far back as the 9th century China - which are unknown or misunderstood by many of us.
A few artists have been developing the woodcut, and have achieved unthought-of variety in the media's characteristic appearance. Gordon Mortensen is one of the contemporary artists who has broken from the traditional concept of the woodcut, and has developed a technical style, which is causing great interest - especially with regard to his process. Mortensen's prints have been pondered by a large number of artists and patrons who have been curious about his process. The following is information which should help those interested persons understand what has taken place.
Mortensen has taken the basic line-cut reduction method developed by Picasso, add a number of techniques used in other printing media, and has extended the woodcut process into realms quite unlike those employed by any other artist.
DEVELOPIG THE IMAGE
Image development can take many weeks. Gordon first spends his time on location doing sketches, watercolors, drawings and photographs. Later these are used as guides in numerous, studio done, watercolor variations of the prospectively interesting areas.
He chooses areas for their lack of scenic quality, and for their lack of signs of human influence. Many weeks re spent developing his subject, perfecting it into the image he wishes to portray in the print. Proportions, shapes, sizes, positions and colors - all change many times, as ideas for shape and content develop from the aesthetic qualities and concerns with which he is involved. Although his vehicle is the landscape, his work deals with the expression of landscape through line, form, color, and pattern - interconnected to produce textural shapes and statements - in intricate compositions.
PREPARING THE BLOCK
The woodblock used is ¾" basswood a soft easily cut wood with a barely noticeable grain. The dimensions are determined by their suitability to the particular image. The block is cut to size and sanded to a satiny smooth finish.
A watercolor sketch is chosen from the "work-ups" and is used as a guide for a drawing which is done on the block - using a 'quill' pen and india ink. Nest the block is sealed with shellac to protect it from absorbing oil during the printing process. When the block is dry, it is secured to the left hand, inside cover of a previously made registration unit. The unit is made of masonite and is hinged to the center. It will close like a book over the paper during the printing.
CUTTING THE BLOCK AND PREPARING STENCILS
Since this is a reduction method, the block is cut before each new color is added. Before the first color is applied, Gordon determines whether or not any lines or areas are to remain the color of the paper; cutting may begin before the first printing, but does no have to.
Throughout the printing process, the colors which were previously printed, and which are to be in the finished image, are cut away from the blocks surface - with a gouge or a number 9 x-acto blade - before the next printing an take place. If areas are to remain unprinted, but are later ro receive color, they are stenciled off.
The stencil is of 2-plu Bristol board and fits snuggly over the block. Shapes are cut into the stencil, which correspond to the areas that are to receive the printed color. In order to be usable for the entire edition - as many as 150 to 300 prints - the stencil is coated with shellac, which prevents it rom absorbing the ink and becoming weak. The stencil also acts as a shield, which allows for the printing of more than one color at a time; as well as allowing for the over lapping of colors, and alleviating the excessive ink build-up on the prints.
PREPARING THE PAPER
The paper is Japanese, handmade, acid neutral, and as free of variation as possible. All foreign materials are removed, and inconsistencies in the paper are corrected, before printing begins. Torinoko and Hosho ar most often used - chosen for their absorbency, strength ad fine quality. Since every print must be printed each day of printing, the number of prints to be in the edition, as well as the number of artists proofs, printers proofs and edition variable must be decided upon before the printing begins, so that, they can be cut and cleaned.
DECIDING ON THE COLOR AND TONE
The watercolor sketches are guides, but no determining factors in colors printed. The mood of the print, as it progresses, and the color composition chosen, both lead to color decisions. Color ideas are made before the print is started, but color choices are made each time a color is printed.
Colors print previously are going to affect the new colors in some unique way, which is not foreseeable. The new color or colors, are tested on a trial print known as an edition variable (e.v.).
Edition variables are printed, each day, before the edition is printed, in order to decide on tan exact color. When the proper color is determined, enough ink is mixed to print the entire edition.
The color in each print has to be controlled, so that it does not vary from first to last print. Color control has to do with the actual color printed, as well as with the thickness of the ink on the paper. The first colors printed are usually the most translucent and pastel. As the print advances, color builds on color, with each addition becoming more opaque. Darker and darker colors are used until the darkest desirable color is reached; then lighter opaque shades are added, bringing the color back to whichever light shades are wanted.
The ink used is oil based printers ink. Printing begins with ink preparation. Color and consistency are carefully determined. Ink modifiers are used to change the 'tact' and opaqueness. During the first five or six printings, a compound know as sur-set is added - changing the consistency of the ink and increasing its spreadability. During the final printings a product called dullit is added to thicken, and give a flat matt finish to the ink. Changes in the inks consistency also add to the control of the ink and changes drying time.
The ink is mixed with a palette knife, near the top of a large (28 x 37") glass palette. When the color and consistency needed is achieved, the ink is carefully spread upon the palette - with a palette knife and brayer - into an even film of color and width of the brayer. This film of color is renewed from the reserve as it is needed, it is kept of a constant thickness to help control the amount of ink carried on the brayer to the block.
Before inking the block, a sheet of paper is laid into the registration unit. It is carefully placed against a registration tab on the right inside cover so as to be perfectly registered each time it is printed.
The registration unit, containing the block and the paper, is on an inking table, adjacent to the palette. The block has been made ready by cutting and/or stenciling, and the ink is now applied with a brayer. The brayer is of a soft, pliable, gelatin material, which picks up the ink when passed over the film of color on the palette, and, when passed over the surface of the block, lays down an even coat of ink to be printed on the paper. The block picks up the ink anyplace where it has not been cut away, and anywhere where there is no stencil. Several brayer passes are made, back and forth, across the block to evenly spread the ink. The same number of passes are made for the same color, and in the same way and direction on each print, in order to further control the quantity of ink received by the paper.
After the block is inked, and any stencil is removed, the paper is rechecked for position and the registration unit is closed, The unit is then carried to the press where it is run through under the even pressure of the 8" steel roller. The press used is a 1500 pound electric etching press, with solid steel bed. The registration unit is placed on the press, at the same angle each time, in order to catch the proper position on the unit to avoid dislodging the paper.
After having been run through the press, the unit is returned to the inking table, opened, and the print is pulled from the block. After checking the print for quality control purposes - noting color and amount of ink - it is set aside, covered with a sheet of acid free paper known as inner leaf, and the next sheet is placed into the registration unit; inking of the block once again takes place and all steps are followed as before. Each sheet of paper (each print) is printed with the color or colors of that day. When all sheets have been printed, a clean-up begins with paper towels and mineral spirits. All ink is removed from the tools, the block, and the palette. The cleaned brayers are coated with Vaseline to protect them from drying out. The block registration unit is left open for the block to dry.
Each morning the surface of the block is cut away from any area which is to remain the color printed the previous day. Stencils are made, and the printing process again takes place. This continues until the print is completed, at which time nearly the entire surface of the block will have been cut away.
The prints have no visable woodgrain, and are often mistaken for paintings. As many as 20 to 40 colors and printings may have been involved in the completed image; yet, only one block has been used. The nuances of color, created by stenciling, have created texture and interest, but are innumerable. The technical complexity of the work, makes it hard to identify, in any traditional way, as a woodblock print. Mortensen's sophistication of this ancient process, has added to the interest in his work, a special interest is his technique. The adaptations he has made, have added a new dimension to the woodblock print media.
Gordon Mortensen's intricate woodcuts bring us to the marshes, woodlands, canyons, and prairies. He leads us beside sparkling ponds, thick trees, and tall spears of grass and reeds. The detail is so precise it is hard to believed these beautiful pictures are actually formed from blocks of wood. Mortensen himself says, The common assumption is that they are watercolors printed on Japanese paper.
While famous for his work in this medium, Mortensen was not always interested in woodcuts. Originally, the North Dakota native attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to further his portrait painting ability. He later financed his way through graduate school at the University of Minnesota from 1969-1972 by painting portraits. It was here, after a disagreement with the faculty concerning abstract expressionism, that he began concentrating on the reduction woodcut process he had learned while studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
His only interest since then has been the woodcut. The process itself is a slow one. Working carefully and painstakingly on sugar pine wood with an Exacto knife and gouge, Mortensen carves the basic design for the first color separation or "state" of the print. The surface is then inked with a color desired and a set of impressions is pulled (usually 145 sheets for an edition of 125) before cutting begins for the second printing. For succeeding stages, more and more of the block is removed and new colors superimposed until only the final details remain standing on the block.
Mortensen's woodcuts are on display around the world from Lloyd's of London, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, to the Xerox Corporation, IBM, Dayton Hudson, Cargill and General Mills. Awards include many national and regional competition such as the New American Graphic invitational; the 5th Biennial International Matmedia Exhibition and the Mid-Western Artist Exhibition.