I've had a couple of questions lately about my process of making prints, and I always like the excuse to explain a little more about what I do. All of my prints start with a drawing or painting done on site from life. I'm currently working on an image of Shakertown in Kentucky, near my old alma mater Centre College. Above is the watercolor on a double page in my sketch pad that's sitting on my work table while I carve.
From the sketch I do a full sized drawing, which I then trace (above). I flip the tracing paper over (you can see "BACK" written on the drawing in large letters to remind me not to skip that step) and transfer it onto a sheet of linoleum with carbon paper.
I like linoleum instead of wood because it takes curves better instead of tearing, the way wood grain does, and I really like carving curves and spirals. It also prints a smooth, velvety, solid surface. I love some artists' woodblocks which really show the grain and use that pattern as an integral part of the finished piece. Edvard Munch was a master of that. My first series was done in wood, but I really prefer not having to fight the way the wood tears as I go around a corner with my gouges. And I like that I can slice linoleum to whatever size I need it just with a box cutter instead of having to get someone with a table saw to do it for me.
I use a series of gouges to carve the linoleum. They're Japanese tools, mostly u-gouges, along with one v-shaped ones for very fine lines. McClain's printmaking supplies sells some lovely sets, and I got the student grade one, which I've been very happy with. My least favorite part is keeping them sharp, but one kind friend of mine in North Carolina gives me occasional lessons and tunes them up for me, and I'm getting better at it. Slowly.
You can also see in the photo above that reading glasses are a necessary tool for me now that I'm over 40. And a rubber grip mat to hold the block steady while I carve is the other must-have equipment.
Here is my progress so far on the "key" block, the one that will be darkest (usually black in my work) and which holds all the surface pattern. This print will have much simpler red and green blocks that are carved separately and just have large solid sections of color. They print first, with the key block on top of everything else. I'll photograph them as I go along. I carve the pattern one first and make sure I like the direction I'm going in before I move on to the color parts. Stay tuned as I keep working on this one. It takes a few weeks for me to get one fully right (usually with other work interspersed).
Martha Kelly is an artist and illustrator who lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee.
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