Tag: art

Polygons Process: Sketchbook to Sketchup to Substrate

The sketches I make when preparing a new Polygons painting look simple, but it takes quite a bit of time to draw each form. I draw, erase, redraw, making smaller and smaller movements as I get closer to what feels right. The way they lean, the balance of obtuse and sharp angles, the height to width ratios, are all gestures invested with emotional resonance. It is deliberately analogous to the way I think of people: I remember them less from their looks or names, and instead think of people in terms of how they feel – how they inhabit space, the emotional resonance of their interactions. Over time, people who feel similarly begin to blur together in my memory.

Once I’m satisfied with the shapes, I reconstruct them in Sketchup and move them around. This program gives me incredible latitude to play with them, establishing spacial relationships that evoke narrative.

When the drawing is resolved, I redraw the whole scene on a flat, bright piece of hot-pressed paper. The final part, which is often the most difficult, is the color. I probably spend more time mixing than anything else – there are very few out-of-the-tube hues in my work. I like gouache for its flatness and ability to be rewet after it dries on the palette.

I’m not yet sure what color these ones will be. The colors I drop in with Sketchup may establish an overall tone, but they rarely carry over to the actual painting.

Printmaking 101: How to Make an Etching Plate Carrier

Printmaking 101: How to Make an Etching Plate Carrier

Welcome to Printmaking 101 with Smidgeon Press! This demo will walk you through how to make plate carriers using a few readily available materials. Safety tips are bolded because they’re important!

You have prepared and grounded your etching plate. You worked hard to get it ready, so how do you take it home or out into the field to draw without damaging the plate or the waxy ground? You could just wrap it in newsprint or drawing paper and toss it in a bag, but if anything rubs too hard against or pokes the paper, you may wind up with unintended texture on your plate known as foul-biting. Some printmakers prefer the rough randomness of this approach, but not me – I spent time getting that plate to a pretty polish, and I want to maintain control over my final image.

When I took advanced etching and lithography at PNCA, Yoshihiro Kitai showed us a simple way to keep our plates in great shape while carrying them around. Over the years, I’ve modified somewhat what he initially showed me. For every plate, I make a carrying case specifically cut to fit it, and I label each case with the working title of whatever it holds. This is helpful when I’m shuffling through carriers looking for a specific plate to work on (I’ve accumulated plenty of these by now, all in process or waiting to be editioned).

Supplies for this demo:

  • copper plate
  • 3 pieces of scrap mat board, larger than your plate
  • 3/4″ artist tape
  • ruler
  • cutting surface (I suggest investing in a proper cutting board)
  • utility or X-Acto knife – be careful when using
  • pencil
  • optional: burnisher or bone folder

Step-by-step instructions:

    1. Measure your plate. You will want your mat board piecesto be larger. For small plates (6″ x 9″ or less), you can get away with ~1″ all around (so 8″ x 11″minimum for a 6″ x 9″ plate). For larger plates, I suggest at least 2″.

      Three mats, a ruler, utility knife, cutting surface, acid-free tape, and your plate.
      Supplies to make a plate carrier.
    2. Choose a mat to be your center piece and set the other two aside for now. Place your plate in the middle and trace around it with a pencil. Because plates aren’t always perfect, I will usually note “top” and “bottom”. Set your plate aside.

      Trace around your plate, marking where you will cut a hole.
      Trace around your plate, marking where you will cut a hole.
    3. Using the X-Acto knife and ruler, cut out the shape of the plate. Make sure you cut on a surface that is safe to cut into, and mind where your fingers are. I err on cutting to the outside of my pencil line. Cutting inside it can result in a hole that istoo snug. Pop out the center piece and set it aside.

      I cut to the outside edge of my pencil line.
      I cut to the outside edge of my pencil line.
    4. Grab one of the other pieces of mat. Line it up with the one you just cut to see how they will fit together. Trim edges to line up snugly if needed. Make sure you can still see your “top” and “bottom” marks.
    5. Cut a piece of artist tape is roughly 1/2″ longer than any one side of your mat’s outer edge. Lay it down on that edge, so that its lengthis centered to the mat, and a little more than half of its width hangs off the bottom. Carefully and snugly wrap the tape around the two mats, pressing all three sides carefully with your fingers (or burnisher, or bone folder). Repeat for all sides.

      Tape all four edges like so, trimming extra tape from the sides.
      Tape all four edges like so, trimming extra tape from the sides.
    6. Now you need to seal the inside of the frame too. Otherwise, your plate can slip between the two pieces of mat, which can cause unwanted scratching and gouging. Cut lengths of tape that are narrower than the inside lip of your frame mat, then apply them to each inside edge. I try to avoid letting the tape overlap.

      Taping the inside edge will keep the plate from slipping between the mats when stored vertically. You could also just apply an even layer of glue around the edge of the frame mat, but then you'd have to wait for the glue to dry.
      Taping the inside edge will keep the plate from slipping between the mats when stored vertically. You could also just apply an even layer of glue between the mats, but then you’d have to wait for the glue to dry.
    7. Now to attach the cover mat! Line up your cover mat with the backed frame you’ve just made. Wrap a piece of tape around the top edge, just like you did to seal the outside edges of the frame mats. Now it’s a functional carrier.

      Wrap tape around the top edge of your mats, as they will sit when closed. You can stop here, or make a super-duper-awesome mat by continuing on to the next steps.
      Wrap tape around the top edge of your mats, as they will sit when closed. You can stop here, or make a super-duper-awesome mat by continuing on to the next steps.
    8. Optional: Lay the carrier open, and apply a piece of tape over the hinge, to cover the sticky side of the tape that shows between the two mats. I like to do this for mats I know I’ll be opening and closing a lot.

      Applying tape to the sticky inside of the tape hinge will prolong the life of the carrier and make it easier to open.
      Applying tape to the sticky inside of the tape hinge will prolong the life of the carrier and make it easier to open.
    9. Optional but strongly recommended: Wrap pieces of tape around the three edges, right in the middle. The carrier can come open very easily if stored vertically (as in tossing it into a backpack). I will stick pieces of tape to the front side, to give the tape “straps” somewhere to stick that is still easy to peel open again.
      My finicky, effective method of using tape closures on my etching plate carriers.
      My finicky, effective method of using tape closures on my etching plate carriers.

      Ta-da! All ready to go.
      Ta-da! All ready to go.

Now you are ready to take your plate with you wherever you go–perhaps for some plein air drawing directly on your plate? If you’re new to etching, I highly recommend giving some plein air etching a try. It can be intimidating, but it seems to really encourage students to broaden their mark-making and think differently about composition. Heather McLaughlin and I took our CE etching students on a field trip to the Lan Su Chinese Garden for exactly that purpose. It’s one of my favorite places in Portland. It feels magically isolated from the city around it, and the tea house is a real treat. Enjoy!



Art hoarder Gurlitt makes Swiss museum sole heir

Read the full story from the BBC

Matisse’s Femme Assise is the subject of an ownership claim

At least Gurlitt’s now-notorious collection will wind up in a museum, whether the Swiss accept it or the Germans declare the will invalid and keep it for themselves. The expense of restoring more than 1,200 poorly-stored works (estimates vary) – in the sense of archival restoration as well as returning an estimated 450 looted pieces – is not a minor consideration. 

I always advocate for the frequent and accessible public display of art, particularly when the works in question are generally held to be “great” works by highly lauded artists. (The politics of those designations notwithstanding.) One of the saddest realities of our generation is the sheer quantity of great works that are disappearing into private collections, because skyrocketing auction prices place them firmly beyond the reach of public institutions. So there is a sad edge, too, to returning looted artwork to family heirs. There is little point in wondering whether the original owners would have bequeathed the works to museums or institutions, and no one can contest the right of heirs to reclaim work that was extorted under duress or stolen outright – but I still hope that even those reclaimed pieces will someday grace the walls of public institutions, to be shared with the world at large.

But back to the Gurlitt collection and its extremely questionable provenance: Many museums will display works that are suspected of being ill-gotten until a rightful heir can be located (though their efforts in that area tend to be pretty minimal). I’m sure the Gurlitt collection would be an impressive, though tenebrous, thing to see.

Practice, Nonsense

“I hate when they call it creative ‘practice’,” someone said to me other day. “We’re not attorneys and we’re not just monkeying around.”

I nodded. Sometimes I nod to indicate that I am, in fact, listening. That can be meaningful, if you know me well enough to have seen me tune-out mid-sentence, but it can also mislead people into thinking that I agree when I do not. I began to wonder about the word ‘practice’ and the phrase ‘creative practice’ in particular. I stopped nodding.

I am newly appointed ‘gallery manager’ at a contemporary art gallery.  I began in early September, on its fourth day of public operation, and it is the first full-time position I’ve held that involves a regular paycheck and tax forms. So the notion of ‘creative practice’ and what it might mean to me personally has grown like a tumor on my consciousness over the last six weeks.

‘Practice’ does not bear a negative connotation, as far as I know.

I haven’t been producing much or working in my studio (more accurately described as the corner of the desk where I can leave copper shavings without sullying my partner’s pristine inks and papers). I’ve been working, establishing a rhythm and setting up calendar reminders for my job. I’ve been living 40+ hours a week in a beautiful white box, surrounded by the manifested ideas of others. I love my job.

I haven’t been ‘practicing’ anything and my need for it is going to reach critical mass soon.

I did make a small, experimental edition for an annual print exchange hosted by Rainbow Ross. I listened to Raidolab and made relief ink from gouache and honey. It smelled odd and dried to the velvety matte finish I wanted.

Anyway. Creative practice: to me it seems appropriate, the phrase. The final work that winds up in a gallery (if one is lucky) or on a collector’s wall (if one is luckier still) is often the tangible result of much scratching around, working out, seeking, destroying, rebuilding, and thinking. Are all of those unshared, unseen moments and movements something as prosaic as ‘practice’? Well. Yes, I think so.

Putting down a mark is a banal gesture (or pushing into a daub of clay, chunking off a piece of granite, or manipulating a pixel, etc. etc.). An artist is made not by a single gesture but by a multitude; one must put in the time to practice, to doodle, to experiment, fail and learn. Most of that mark-making stuff can be learned by nearly anyone with the will to dedicate time and effort (that is an unpopular opinion, I know). The artist is one who dedicates, one who practices. Even if someone has an unusual degree of innate ability, it’s meaningless without practice.

I must redefine a work-life balance, to carve my practice into the structure of my days. It is, in some ways, the hardest part. My excuses are good: new job, looking for a new apartment, waiting to find out if I’ll have grant money to fund this project that’s simmering in my back of my brain. But they are not not good enough.

Even if my life feels distractingly full, I must practice in small ways, so that I am ready when I am finally willing to admit that life is made of distractions and the only thing standing in my way is myself.

Drawing in Silverpoint

Drawing in Silverpoint

I first tried my hand at silverpoint in 2007, as part of Paul Missal’s Techniques of the Old Masters class at PNCA; since then, it’s become a regular if not frequent tool in my creative lexicon. “Silverpoint” is a pretty literal descriptor of the medium, but for those of you who are unfamiliar, here’s an extended definition (courtesy of Wikipedia):

A silverpoint drawing is made by dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface, often prepared with gesso or primer. Silverpoint is one of several types of metalpoint used by scribes, craftsmen and artists since ancient times. Metalpoint styli were used for writing on soft surfaces (wax or bark), ruling and underdrawing on parchment, and drawing on prepared paper and panel supports. For drawing purposes, the essential metals used were lead, tin and silver. The softness of these metals made them effective drawing instruments. (Watrous, 1957)

Following old masters class, I began using silver to sketch my initial compositions for paintings. Its archival qualities coupled with its inert relationship to paint made it an ideal medium for sketching on primed painting supports. It eliminated the problems of smudged charcoal and graphite bleed-through.

In 2010, when I was doing preparatory work for my undergraduate thesis, I began treating silverpoint as a medium in its own right. I love the way its lines build, delicate mark after delicate mark, and feel the process is akin to drawing through hard ground with a needle.

My most successful artwork from that exploratory period is a diptych, consisting of a portrait of my grandmother and a block of text, letterpress-printed with silver rubber-based ink. This work appeared in the 11th Annual PNCA BFA Juried Exhibition, and is now part of a private collection:

Rhea may have fed her children to their father, but no one blames her for her obedience. She still sits on her throne, an honored woman, the Magna Mater. How many times would she have watched her husband devour her children if he realized that the last he swallowed was really a rock in swaddling instead of his newborn son?
silver ink on paper, mounted to panel
Silverpoint portrait of an old woman with a warm smile and kind eyes.
silverpoint on gessoed panel

It was part of a body of work that (without getting too specific) pondered the nature of family narratives, which walk a hazy line between fiction and truth, and the process of realizing that the adults we love unconditionally when we are children are, in fact, flawed humans – not benevolent deities. Ultimately I decided that body of work was too personal to move forward with in the context of the very public thesis process, a decision that eventually led me to produce Stories From the Stone House.

Recently I recreated this drawing of my grandmother in a smaller format, on a low-tooth panel. The toothiness of the panel made it impossible to recreate the subtlety in her expression, but I occasionally like to redraw old work (mine and old masters) as an exercise. I’ve been drawing more than printmaking lately, spending time that I would normally spend in the print lab developing the Geometries project and the grant that I hope will fund its creation.

When I draw in silverpoint, I use a piece of silver wire roughly the diameter of drafting lead (around 12 gauge, if I remember correctly) and secure it in a lead holder for comfort. My partner gave me this piece of silver, but it’s easy and inexpensive to purchase. Most people purchase silver wire from jewelers’ supply stores; in the past, I’ve purchased pieces from Cline Glass here in Portland, Oregon.

To prepare the wire for drawing, I file the tip so that it has two flat edges and looks like a “V” from the side. The V point can be used for making fine lines; the flat areas are great for soft tones and shading.

Silver is pretty soft, so I have to periodically reshape the drawing tip, particularly if I’m working with it a lot. I actually enjoy the reshaping process; it’s similar to but much less rigorous than sharpening engraving tools.

To sharpen my stylus, I just wrap a wood block in medium-to-fine grit sandpaper and rub the flat sides against the sandpaper until it looks right. Some people will sand one side only, leaving an oval-shaped flat instead of the half-circle. Either way works.


Silverpoint drawing fell out of common use following the invention of graphite drawing sticks, which makes sense. Graphite writes on more surfaces, is erasable, and comes in a wide range of hardnesses and softnesses. (Fun fact: pure graphite is the softest and darkest; harder and lighter grades are created by mixing clay with the graphite.) Still, silverpoint is lovely, and doesn’t mix into my pigments when I paint over or into drawings.

If you’re interested in silverpoint, Anita Chowdry wrote a more thorough blog post last year, “Getting Started with Silverpoint”, which you can find here. She describes silverpoint drawings as “exquisite, intimate things,” which is why I like them. You might also want to check out silverpointweb.com. It hasn’t been updated since 2011, but there’s plenty of good information.

A lot of information sources really geek out on the details and complexities of silverpoint drawing, which is nice, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. All you need is a piece of silver and a gessoed support – and any good gesso with a reasonable quantity of titanium dioxide will do. While a smoothly sanded support is best for finely detailed work, a rougher surface is fun to scratch away at too. Most importantly, just have fun with it. Personally, I find the slow drawing process relaxing.