The last print run

Today I printed the pages that I’ll attach to book board for the covers of the artist book. Now all of my printing is complete! I celebrated by riding my bike to the Ribersborgs Kallbudhus for a sauna and a swim in the Baltic – naked!

I had intended to print both vertical and horizontal lines on the covers, but the offset litho press didn’t cooperate with that plan. There’s still something wrong that’s preventing the ink from distributing properly on the drum and the paper. So the covers have either a horizontal or a vertical line. There are two covers because the bound book will be a dos-a-dos – two books in one, each with its own front cover. They will share a back cover.

So which is the title of the book? Actually, neither. The cover text is part of the narrative, and, like the interior text, is an excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” The title of the book will be excerpted from the interior text: “Before the Beginning and After the End”.

Tomorrow I’ll be giving an artist talk at KKV, and on Friday I’ll pack everything up for the trip to Copenhagen and then back to St. Paul. The final steps for this artist book are to letterpress print a colophon, cut the book board and bind the books. I’ll start that process next week and post images. Although it’s exciting to see the final printed pages, there’s still suspense over whether or not the final piece will work as I’ve envisioned. I won’t know for sure until I’ve bound the first book of the edition.

It’s been an amazing experience to use the equipment in the well-equipped KKV Grafik workspace, share fika with colleagues, learn new printmaking techniques, get inspired by the work and processes of my colleagues, try to speak Swedish, navigate Malmö on foot and two wheels, swim in the Baltic. I’m filled with gratitude for the generosity of everyone at KKV Grafik and for my new friends.

Those green cookies are witches fingers, baked by Maggie Puckett, my fellow artist-in-residence. Maggie has completed her project of creating seed packets. She used the Vandercook 4 letterpress to print photopolymer plates of text and images she created in Chicago, prior to the residency. Here’s Maggie at the press:

I broke the press

As I was coming to the end of the last (sixth) run of the page that has multiple layers, the press made a clunking sound on the return of the roller to the start position. And now it’s not printing correctly. It’s picking up just a bit of the ink from the plate and hardly any ink is being deposited onto the paper. I’m counting my lucky stars that this happened toward the end of my project, and not in the middle.

A repairman is coming on Monday to look at the press. However, I have just a few more days to print before I leave Malmö for a weekend in Copenhagen and then a flight back to St. Paul the following Monday. What this means is that my edition size will be a bit smaller and the book covers won’t look as I intended. I can live with that.

The good news is that the sixth run was exactly what was needed to put the finishing touches on the page I’ve been wrestling with for weeks.

Since I hand-rolled a different color of ink on each shape, this print seems like a hybrid mono print and offset litho print. It was an interesting way to produce multiples. Here’s a detail view:

Originally I’d intended to use the offset litho press to print the text for this book. When the press broke, that was no longer an option. And it probably wasn’t truly an option because I’m pretty sure I would have experienced difficulty getting the ink to adhere to the plate. The ink likes to stick to just the darkest marks on the plate, and the outlined letters would likely have been too faint.

So what to do?

I decided to carve the text into plexiglass and print the plate using an intaglio process, where ink is pushed into the grooves and wiped off the surface before printing on an etching press. Today I printed the text that’s on the reverse side of the page that has the six layers.

With the text printed, this means the page went through a press seven times, for seven different impressions, and is finally completely finished! Whew.

I’m pleased with the organic, uneven qualities of the text. I used a stencil to guide the engraving tool, and it’s impossible to apply the same exact pressure when carving by hand, so some of the lines are deeper than others. The deeper lines hold more ink than the shallower lines. Here’s a detail view:

The text is from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Tomorrow I will print another excerpt from that poem, this time on the second page that I’ve been working on. Then, the last thing to print is the text for the book covers. The two pages will be folded into a spiral accordion and attached to book covers. But that won’t happen until I’m back in St. Paul. The pages need time to dry completely. They will be dry enough to roll up and carry on the plane in a tube – I hope! My last day of printing will be Wednesday. Then on Friday I will pack up and take the train to Copenhagen.

When the going gets tough the tough go swimming

green inks on slab

Yesterday I printed the fifth layer on one of the pages in the artist book I’m printing at KKV, and the results made my spirit soar. Today I switched from lithography to intaglio, to create the holes-in-the-screen look I wanted for the second page in the book. After working hard all day to get the impression I was looking for and pretty much failing, I wanted to cry. Instead, I rode my bike to the Baltic and went swimming. Water temp was 62 degrees, air temp was 65 degrees. Cool enough to remind me of what truly matters. Even if my artist book completely fails, I’ve gained much from this residency.

The experience of one day going smoothly and the next full of frustration is all too familiar. Tomorrow could be even worse. Or maybe the printing gods will show up in full force and bless my project for the day. I never know what to expect.

For now, I’ll celebrate what went well yesterday. Finally, with the fifth layer, I’m seeing some magic in the colors and shapes.

With the additional layer of different shades of green, the melon color is more subdued. As with the other layers, I’ve added transparent base to the colored ink, so the previous layers are visible even with this fifth layer.

On this piece of paper I’ve documented the colors used for each of the five shapes, for layer four (top row) and layer five (bottom row). Although I had in mind to make the fifth layer shades of blue-green, after sitting with the print for awhile and looking at colors in my Pantone swatch book, I decided shades of green would play off the melon color better and establish a more thoughtful mood. The blue-green would have been too saccharin.

Tomorrow I’ll print the sixth and, I hope, final layer. I’m leaning toward using colors that are combinations of red, brown and grey with a bit of yellow added. Tomorrow my challenge will be to do two different lithographic print runs. Up until now, I’ve done just one per day. Each run has been taking about three hours, and I’m usually worn out by the end. However, the second run will be for book covers, and I’ll be using just one color of ink, so I might be able to complete the run in just over two hours. We’ll see if the printing gods show up tomorrow…

Open studio

detailed view of lithographic print

Yesterday KKV opened its doors to the public during a city-wide open studio event, and I had offered earlier in the week to participate for a few hours. Last year’s event attracted a large number of visitors to KKV. Anticipating this year’s event to be as popular, I was hesitant to print during the event, since visitors asking questions would interrupt my concentration, so I’d planned to simply show my work and talk about process.

The event began at noon. But no visitors came through our door. It was too boring to just sit, watching the other artists work, so I decided to go ahead and print the fourth layer.

Unlike the previous layers, the fourth layer would be printed using multiple colors. Hand-rolling the ink onto the plate offers this advantage. I mixed the ink, rolled it out with a small brayer (one devoted to each other), and labeled the inks so I would remember which area of the plate to ink with each color.

The colors ranged from a light cool grey to a light beige – subtle differences that would make the final print more interesting.

In the image above, you can see the 5 images on the plate that are inked plus the ink that’s been pulled from the plate as the blue roller passed over it. You can also see a shadow of ink that the roller has pulled from the images I printed on the page the day prior. I’m using an oil-based lithographic ink that hasn’t quite dried. When I push the green button to return the roller to its original position, it will lay the ink on top of the page.

Sadly for KKV, only three visitors showed up during Open Studio from 12 until 4 p.m. However, it worked out well for me, as I was able to complete my print run without disruption. The layers are beginning to sing together, but not yet in harmony. Still a bit off key. It’s a bit disheartening, given all of the effort so far. We’ll see what happens with the next two layers. I’m taking a break from printing today to let the ink dry, explore the coastline north of Malmö via bicycle, and stop at one of the beaches to swim in the Baltic.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Today I printed the second of 5 layers on one side of one of the two long sheets of paper in the artist book I’m creating. This print run was another experiment in seeing how true the original image would print.

For the drawing, I brushed onto the prepared strip of mylar the dense black ink created by mixing water with the round block of black something or other that Cecilia gave to me. Then I drew lines through the ink using a Q-tip. In the image below, the original drawing is on the right.

The plate that I made from the drawing is on the left. And the print, using a melon colored ink on the press, is in the middle.

Usually at this stage, where I’ve printed just one or two of the multiple layers, I experience a sinking feeling that the print won’t work out. Maybe I’ve chosen the wrong colors. Maybe the images are all wrong. Maybe the whole concept stinks. I’ve been at this long enough to know that this is the ugly stage, with the magic yet to happen. It’s entirely possible the end result will stink. And it’s just as likely that the final image will be better than I imagined.

Before the beginning

mono print by Wendy Fernstrum

When I applied in 2019 to this residency at KKV Grafik, the project I proposed was to print an artist book about the continuum of beginnings and endings, using letterpress, intaglio, and lithographic printing techniques. Here’s an excerpt from my application:

When does a beginning begin and an ending end? At what point does an ending become a beginning? My work explores this in-between space where identity is constantly shifting and all that seemed certain loses form.

Where does each of us begin and end? Are the drops of water in the ocean distinct? In my work I explore individuality within a united oneness, and the continuum of beginnings and endings. Although my diptychs present two distinct images – presence and absence, beginning and end – they transcend “either/or” to convey “and/both.”

During my residency I will continue to work with the line that appears in much of my work, representing the thread that connects us all and the unique strand that we are or the distinct mark we make in the world.

I had planned to use imagery from the diptychs I’d been working on. Since the images were one-of-a-kind, I needed to find a way to produce them as multiples. The image with the hand drawn lines could be produced using an intaglio printmaking method, where lines are carved into copper or plastic, the ink pushed into the grooves and then carefully wiped from the surface. When the paper is placed on the plate and run through the press, the paper pulls the ink out of the grooves.

The mono print image would be trickier to produce as a multiple. I anticipated lithography as an option.

As proposed, the artist book would include text with the images. The text would be from T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, “Four Quartets.” For example: Or say that the end precedes the beginning, and the end and the beginning were always there, before the beginning, and after the end. And all is always now.

I was excited about this proposed project when I applied, and when I learned that the residency would be postponed due to the Coronavirus, I sadly put the project on hold for another year. Then the residency was postponed a second time. When I received word earlier this year that the residency would actually happen, I started thinking about the project again, considering whether or not it still held enough interest to engage me. I had the option of working on an entirely different project. In the end, I decided this artist book still needed to be created, and I forged ahead with planning.

There is one significant difference between the book I’d imagined and the one I’m printing. I’d envisioned a folio or possibly individual sheets contained within a box. But, given the paradoxical nature of the text, that structure felt too organized, too straightforward. Borrowing a process from Maya Lin, I started the project not by making anything, but rather stating my intention for how I wanted the book to be experienced: I want the reader to lose certainty, to feel the vastness of uncertainty and experience the bewilderment of an open mind. To embrace unknowing and paradox. To shed limited beliefs and enter into infinite possibility.

I wondered: could the book be in the form of a mobius strip? That would work for an installation. But I couldn’t figure out how to make it function as a book.

After some experimenting, I landed my solution: dos-a-dos (two books in one) with spiral accordions. The spiral accordion requires a long strip of paper, which meant I had to adjust my approach to the images.

What, you might be wondering, is the title of the artist book? Good question. The book is still in an embryonic form, too soon to know what it wants to be called.

The sound of a freight train

offset press controls

Shortly after I began my first print run this morning, a man named Sebastian came into the studio and spoke to me rapidly in Swedish. He works in a recording studio across the hall. When he switched to English, I learned that he’d been recording with highly sensitive microphones, and every time I ran the motorized press, the microphones picked up what sounded like a freight train. 

The press I’m using is indeed quite loud. To make matters worse, the press bed is long. Since all I do is push a button, there’s no way to work more quietly. 

The person he was recording was already in the recording studio. I was just partway through a printing run. It takes some time to build up the ink on the plate, and I really didn’t want to start over again. Eva, who serves as my main contact here at KKV, explained to Sebastian that I’m one of the resident artists. It seemed we were at an impasse. Then Sebastian said he and the client would go out for lunch while I finished my run. Since I was aiming for a print run of 30 pages, I figured I had just enough time to print all 30 pages before 1 pm. 

On Friday, I’d experienced quite a few issues. I began to worry that the printing technique I’d chosen was too difficult and that I wouldn’t be able to complete my project during the residency. Today I was encouraged by the ease of printing the 30 pages, as well as the results.

offset printing press with a plate and paper on the bed

The press I’m using is actually an offset press, not a litho press. The plate sits at the end of the second press bed, the paper at the end of the first bed. After the plate is fully inked, I press a green button, and the motor carries the blue roller to the end of press bed, where it picks up ink from the plate. I press another green button and the motor carries the roller back and lowers the roller against the paper on the first bed.

Unlike with traditional lithographic printing, where the image that is printed is opposite of the image on the litho stone or plate, with offset printing, I’m working with a positive image. This means that the marks I make on the mylar look the same on the plate and on the printed page, not backwards. 

lithographic plate on the press bed
The inked plate on the press bed

To ink the plate, I wet it first with a combination of water and gum arabic. The marks on the plate resist the water, so when I roll ink onto the plate, the ink sticks only to the marks. If the plate is not wet enough, ink sticks to the negative areas of the plate, and if the plate is too wet, the ink won’t stick to the marks. As with any printmaking technique, it’s imperative to pay attention. I need to keep track of the number of times I’ve rolled the ink on each section of the plate, look closely to see if any areas need more ink, and avoid adding too much ink. My goal, since I’m printing an edition, is for all pages in the run to have the same ink coverage.

printed page on the press bed
The printed page

I’ve mixed a good amount of transparent base into the ink because I’ll be printing several layers. With transparent layers, the colors interact to create additional colors and the layers are more obvious than if I used opaque ink. I’ll be printing 4 layers on top of this one, all different colors and shapes.

printed pages drying in a rack

I worked quickly and completed my print run of 30 pages by 1 pm. It’s deeply satisfying at the end of a run to see the pages stacked in a drying rack. 

Later this afternoon Sebastian came to my workspace to tell me that his client is available only from 10 to 3 on Wednesday and Friday for the recording, and he asked if I could adjust my schedule. If I were a different person, I could insist on printing during the day since I’m here as an Artist in Residence. However, the recording is scheduled only for this week, and I can use that time to make more drawings and plates, so I readily agreed. I have 20 days (not including weekends) to print 11 more runs. If all continues to go well, I may have time to not only finish this project, but also work on individual prints, experimenting with techniques I’ve learned from the other printmakers at KKV. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience here.

I hope I haven’t jinxed myself by expressing such optimism. We’ll see what tomorrow brings…

Kaborundum för slipning

grinding texture into film with stone and carborundum

Today, after consulting with my lithography friend Cecilia, I felt confident to begin working on the images for the artist book I’ll be printing at KKV Grafik in Malmö, Sweden. The first step was to prepare the mylar (a flexible plastic film), giving it a texture to hold the mark.

The mylar, cut to the right size for my project, lays on top of a stone. I then add water and carborundum (silicon carbide) and then push a smaller stone over the top, making a figure eight, for approximately 5 minutes.

The grinding makes a gorgeous sound and I felt myself swaying along with the figure eight. It’s a mesmerizing process I really enjoy, which is good because I have many pieces of plastic to prepare for this project. After the grinding is complete, I rinse the plastic, wash away the carborundum, and, because my strip is wider than the stone, start the process over again on the side not yet ground. Fortunately I don’t have to worry about grinding too much. 

When the plastic is fully prepared, I rinse and hang to dry. In this image, the prepared plastic is to the left and an unprepared piece is hanging to the right. 

Cecilia confirmed the litho plate picks up only dark marks when exposed. The marks I made that did not show up on the experimental plate were too light. Cecilia brought me something that looks like a hockey puck and that, when mixed with water and a brush, creates a dark black mark suitable for this lithographic method, where the artwork is exposed onto a metal plate.

I intended to ride a bicycle to the sea each day, but the timing hasn’t worked out. Finally, today, after a full day in the studio, I hopped on the bike and headed toward the Baltic Sea. I rode on bike paths the entire way, past a large, wooded park I plan to visit tomorrow, through neighborhoods, ending up on a path along the coastline. It took less than 30 minutes.

Many Swedes were swimming. But not me. My swimsuit is in Minnesota.

However, I’ve heard of a sauna here in Malmö where people jump into the Baltic, naked, to cool off from the sauna. Tempting…

Lots of questions

Today I experimented.

Using a variety of materials (ink, tusche, crayon) I made marks on a piece of mylar that had been prepared for lithographic printing. My goal was to determine how dark the marks needed to be to show up on the litho plate. Those smudges from the lines drawn with a lithographic crayon and then rubbed – would they show up? How about the faint lines painted with a thin brush? The thick lines painted with a brush? The text outlined with a micro tip pen?

It’s fun to play. Rarely do I have the time and space to explore new methods and let go of pre-conceived notions. That’s one of the luxuries of a residency. There’s little to distract me, and I can devote hours to experimenting without interruption. (Although I did take a break to do laundry this afternoon. The apartment I’m staying in requires residents to reserve the laundry room, and the only open slot for several days was today from 3 to 5.)

Making the plate is easy here at KKV. They have a humungous exposure unit that tightly seals the film against the plate. You place the film on the glass and the plate on top, then pull down the lid and clasp shut. Then twist a knob, turn a dial to engage the vacuum, flip the unit upside down so the light coming from above will expose the plate, enter the exposure time and push “start.”

After exposing the plate, I took it to a sink and poured developer over the plate and rubbed with a sponge until the images appeared. As you can see, only the darker marks showed up on the plate. 

I’m very pleased with the thick line and how the smudging showed up. The lettering worked well, too. As for the rest, well, back to the drawing board. Hard to know what went wrong. Was the exposure time not correct? Did I not leave developer on long enough? Does this process require dark marks? Tomorrow my lithographic printing friend Cecilia will return to KKV to answer my questions.

Printmaking mecca

I’ve waited three years to experience the wonders at Konstnärernas Kollektiva Grafikverkstad (KKV) in Malmö, Sweden. Although I was awarded an artist residency via Women’s Studio Workshop in 2019, the coronavirus interfered with me traveling to Malmö until, finally, this year. Now. For an entire month I’ll be printing an artist book at KKV.

Yesterday a KKV member named Sofie picked up my fellow resident artist Maggie Puckett and me at the train station and delivered us to this amazing facility that has printmaking equipment I’d never dared to dream of. We met several members, all kind, generous, knowledgeable and friendly. They all speak impeccable English. I know 8 Swedish words.

Maggie and I each have personal workspaces and full access to all of the printmaking equipment and supplies. Here’s my workspace on day 1. Note how clean and uncluttered it is.

Today – day 2 – a KKV member named Cecilia kindly introduced me to the lithographic equipment, supplies and printing process. We prepared a piece of mylar (clear plastic film) for drawing and painting images that will be exposed onto an aluminum plate. To prepare the mylar, we applied water and carborundum, a steel-colored grit. 

When I learned lithographic printing decades ago at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, I drew and painted directly on the aluminum plate. This process that Cecilia demonstrated has some unexpected advantages, and I discovered I am lacking some needed supplies. Tomorrow I will use a bike provided by KKV to ride to an art supply store for brushes, gouache and perhaps India ink. Cecilia returns to KKV on Thursday to see my progress, which means I have a lot of work to do tomorrow. Today I worked on sketches, searching for the right images to print. I’m not satisfied yet, but getting closer. 

Here is Cecilia, talking with another KKV member. Note! (OBS! in Swedish) the tray with a coffee pot and sugar in the middle of the large table. Yesterday we experienced “fika,” a delightful coffee break with a small group of artists. Strong coffee, tasty biscuits, sweet new friends.