The woodcut series – ‘New York moment’
In Paul du Toit’s airy garden studio in Hout Bay stands a large wooden crate that has been air freighted from the US. The crate contains 35 woodcut prints, measuring 770 x 570mm (30 x 22 inches), the results of several weeks of work done by Paul in NYC during January 2013.
Paul was based in New York while undergoing treatment for a recurring melanoma. Always working on a new project or trying a new tool, Paul now has too little uninterrupted time to be able to work on a large-scale painting. But in his Brooklyn studio he comes across some small offcuts of Japanese plywood, remnants from woodcuts he made during 2011 for a one-off unique handmade book, which featured Paul’s woodcuts alongside quotations by Desmond Tutu. Looking at the remnants Paul considers the options …for doing a woodcut print.
The specialised Japanese plywood is made specifically for carving and woodblocks as it produces a clear, sharp line when printed – but Paul doesn’t have enough of it for a new woodcut. He looks for alternatives and settles on bendy plywood (or bendy ply), which is soft enough to cut into and carve. True to form, Paul chooses a material with unpredictable characteristics that he cannot control completely. ‘It doesn’t leave a sharp line; it’s grainy, so pieces break off and you get interesting accidents,’ he says. He says the unpredictability of the material makes the creative process more interesting. He uses a variety of tools to carve the woodblock, including an electric carving tool he finds in New York.
Paul explains some of the techniques of woodcut printing. The process of printmaking involves applying ink or colour to the woodblock, overlaying it with paper and then applying pressure or ‘burnishing’ the paper so that the ink from the woodblock is applied consistently to the paper. In traditional Japanese woodcuts, the tool used to burnish the paper is a baren – a hand-held disc, usually made from a coil of braided shredded bamboo skins. In the early stages of testing his woodcut, Paul rolls ink onto the woodcut, then uses the basic technique of rubbing the paper with the back of a large spoon and the pressure of his thumb. This process works very well, Paul says, but if you want to make an edition of prints, you need the printing press… He realises that it would in fact be perfect to get into this process, here, now, and that he will be able to make the prints in the month or so he has at hand, as and when time permits.
Printmaking is a complicated and intricate process, Paul notes. Once he decides to go ahead, he contacts a friend: artist and master printmaker Steve Orlando, who has worked on hand papermaking and/or printmaking projects with a number of internationally known artists including William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Lynda Benglis, Glenn Ligon or Piotr Uklanski and Kiki Smith. Paul and Steve had met and worked together when Paul made two series of handmade paper works with Steve’s guidance in 2005 and 2006 at Dieu Donné Papermill in New York City, when Orlando was the creative projects director there. Paul discusses his ideas with Orlando, and his idea of possibly adding colour to each printed image, after the prints were dry. Orlando therefore suggests a thick, oil-based Portland ink, and Paul experiments with a few inks before making a choice. They decide that the prints will be one colour only.
As Paul describes this process, it is clear that he has enjoyed every step of what is for him a relatively new technique – although not entirely new, given the time he spent with Ruth Lingen, master papermaker at PACE PAPER in 2011, overseeing the printing of the handmade book. Printmaking is a very different medium from Paul’s large canvases of textured paint and expressive lines, symbols and markings, or his monumental sculptures of the colourful, intriguing inhabitants of PlanetPaul. He notes that even choosing and buying paper for the prints was an experience. For this he visits specialist art shop New York Central Art Supply on the Lower East Side – one of New York’s oldest art shops. Spread over five floors, the store stocks roughly 6,000 types of paper, according to a 2010 New York Times article. Ever interested in the stories around places and people, Paul notes that Andy Warhol bought paper there. Then he describes how, since the paper cannot be folded, an assistant carefully and very quickly crafts a custom-made cardboard portfolio for Paul’s paper.
Next stop is the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, near Hell’s Kitchen. Paul had already met with Steve several times. At the workshop, the press takes a lot of setting up and adjusting, Paul notes, which he is able to assist with. During the test runs, the prints show some areas with too much light and dark variation, caused by slight unevenness in the woodcut under the additional pressure of the metal rollers of the press. Paul makes some fine adjustments to his woodblock, cutting away some small extraneous raised areas which were printing. After the adjustment, the woodcut produces an even, smooth print and Paul is satisfied – ‘Even the test runs were good,’ he says.
Printed by Steve Orlando in Portland Cool Black Ink on Rives BFK.
Handmade paper editions by Ruth Lingen
Handmade paper editions Dimensions : 610x470mm-unframed
To create these handmade paper editions, we worked carefully from the original 'pulp paintings' to translate each stroke of colour and shape into a plastic stencil.
Each edition needed 4 stencils, which had between 1 and 4 colours on each stencil. Each stencil is carefully registered onto a freshly pulled sheet of cotton handmade paper and filled with highly pigmented linen pulp, in a watery mixture that is applied through the stencil holes using squeeze bottles. After all the colour has been applied, the sheet gets pressed to extract the water and dried. The final step is to add the pencil and pastel elements for the finishing touch. Ruth Lingen
Ruth Lingen is a director of Pace Paper, a hand printing and papermaking studio in Brooklyn, New York, which produces limited edition prints and multiples for Pace Prints. Since the studio opened, Ruth has become somewhat of a legend, as she has printed with and for nearly 50 of the world’s greatest artists (some for Pace Editions, some on her own) and some very special limited edition artist’s books. Artists include Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Claes Oldenberg, Jim Dine, John Chamberlain, Donald Traever and Shepard Fairey to name a few. Lingen’s work can be found in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty and Brooklyn Museum, as well as 20 libraries, from the New York Public to Harvard University’s.
What an honour it was when Ruth offered to make handmade prints of these special works Paul created in New York in 2005. An affirmation of the quality of the work Paul produced.
Video of Paul and his time spent at Dieu Donne in New York during 2005:
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