Over the weekend, I returned to The Experiment. With sharpened tools, I tackled the carving on the remaining part of the plate. Even with sharper tools, it is a tedious process; and, it's difficult to tell if you have carved away enough of the material to get a clean result.
The unpredictable process of making a relief print lends a rustic, roughened look to the work. Well, unless you are really skilled and patient and anal, all of which, I am not. I've seen some amazing relief prints that look more like fine etchings—none of them mine.
However, I like the crudeness that it brings to the drawing. It makes the piece wildly free and surprising; a happy accident that adds a new dimension to the subject.
Once the plate is prepared, the real work begins as you search for the magical balance of ink and moisture. It's extremely rare that the first print works, since the process requires a little warm up as you balance the variables.
How do I actually make the prints? First, the paper is dampened and left to dry a bit. Meanwhile, the plate is inked with a brayer. I like to mix a bit of red into my black ink. It becomes a rich, wet-earth, sepia-like color. It was tricky inking just the raised surface and not the background.
Next, I lay the plate on my press, cover the plate with the sheet of paper, and run 'er through. One must be careful to not get whacked by the spinning handles of the press as the rollers pass over the plate. The print is carefully pulled away from the plate and set aside to dry.
Here you can see a several prints on different papers with varying degrees of moisture. I tried a coarse paper that looks like rolled oatmeal, another that has pieces of straw in it, one that is akin to papyrus, and a fine printmaking paper that I pre-painted with acrylic.
The water-based inks run terribly if the paper is too wet. I ended up with prints that looked like Tammy Faye Baker's face, mascara running down her cheeks with little tentacles branching off into the folds and wrinkles of her skin. Not attractive. I backed off on the water and found that if I let the sheet dry more, I got the best results.
I also tried some dry sheets with varying degrees of success. The ink didn't run, but in some cases, the image is not as solid.
After a few practice runs, I tried the pre-painted sheets—one of which came out pretty well. I like the way the softened paper was embossed by the plate. I may take some of the "duds" and add some other materials—paint, pastel, or pencil—to see if I can turn them into winners.
So now that you've seen how I make relief prints, you'll know when you see three or four prints of the same subject at my show, it's not a production-line process. Each one is unique and there are far more that end up in the trash than are framed. But that's what makes it fun.