Printmaking Is Less Scary Than It Seems

March 13, 2017

People often assume that, because I work for the Arts Center, I must be an artist. Then they look confused (and somewhat alarmed) when I laugh hysterically at their adorable misconception. The truth is that I often tell people with utter sincerity that it is impossible to differentiate between my drawings and those of my eight-year-old daughter.

I like art, obviously. My official title at the Arts Center is fancy and somewhat cumbersome but it could probably be shortened to “Cheerleader in Chief” and still capture the essence of my function. I tell stories about art. I raise money to support art. I encourage other people to make art. But I don’t always make a lot of art myself.

This year, however, my New Year’s resolution was to “Be Brave” and thus I decided to sign up for an art class.  I opted to try printmaking after I learned that you don’t have to draw in that class. Pause for a moment to let that sink in. You don’t have to draw!?!  This was a mind-blowing revelation to me and one which changed my entire outlook on the experience. It turns out that in Printmaking 101, you can create original artwork based on existing artwork – photographs, illustrations, etc. Eureka!!

Armed with this knowledge and a surge of confidence, I registered for the class and showed up on the first night with a charcoal illustration of a snowy forest as my inspiration. The process was straightforward and the class atmosphere was welcoming and laid back. Instructor Jonas Hurley approaches most of his classes more like workshops than seminars, encouraging his students to explore a variety of techniques and providing one-on-one guidance as needed. In my case, a lot of guidance was needed!  I’d never held a carving tool and I have profound difficulty in producing straight lines.

But it turns out that printmaking is a remarkably forgiving medium. Using carbon paper, I traced my image onto the back side of a piece of linoleum (as in, the stuff you might put on your kitchen floor), then carefully began carving the design. In basic relief printmaking, you’re creating in reverse. Anything white in the image has to be carved away, while black lines and shapes remain. I learned how to angle my tool to create the “puffy” edges of snow, how to use tiny lines to create shading, and how to add texture to the bark of my trees. And bit by bit, my block began to take shape.

For five weeks, we refined our blocks and then it was time for the real fun. The highlight of the class – the reason you really, really ought to sign up – is the visit to the instructor’s art studio. Jonas lives on a farm with many charming qualities to it, but principle for the purposes of art-making is his studio that houses two printing presses: a Conrad c24 combination press and a Chandler & Price clamshell letterpress made in 1906. If you don’t geek out on printmaking, let me translate for you: they’re very cool.

For our final session, class met at Jonas’ studio and the experience was fantastic. We stomped in through the door on a dark, chilly evening and were greeted by the comforting smell of wood smoke mixed with ink and the cheery warmth of a fire in the corner stove. We chatted and laughed and fumbled about learning to set type. (I now have vastly increased appreciation for the work required to produce early newspapers!)

We listened to music, put finishing touches on our blocks, ran proofs, laughed at the errors, made corrections, and munched on some divine chocolate cake thoughtfully produced by Jonas’ wife. I carefully typeset and then printed the final four lines of the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” beneath the print of my forest and I am quite frankly awed by the results. It’s beautiful. It’s ART!! And I made it myself.

Printmaking class taught me that I’m more capable than I realized, but also that art isn’t just about creation. It’s about companionship. Sure, you could sit at home and paint or draw or carve shapes into linoleum blocks, but it’s far more fun in a group. So don’t be afraid. Take the plunge. Register for a class. A new session starts March 15th.