Posted tagged ‘Block Printing’

The Third & Elm Press

November 4, 2012

Click to view larger

Business and good fortune had us visiting Newport, Rhode Island a couple of weeks prior to Hurricane Sandy. The weather was extraordinarily beautiful and temperate, literally a calm before a storm. When I travel with Holly, I try not to schedule too much press activity, which can easily usurp a timetable. But destiny took a hand. While visiting a photography gallery called Blink, we learned that the owner’s mother ran a letterpress in the heart of Newport. On our last day there, Holly and I made sure to visit The Third and Elm Press, named (as you probably surmised) for the corner on which Ilse Burchert Nesbitt’s shop is located.

The home of the Third and Elm Press, located at Third and Elm in Newport, Rhode Island.

Ilse came to America from Germany in 1960, and set up the press with her husband, a calligrapher and book designer, in 1965. There are details and sample of her work on her website at She is now 80 years old and not showing much sign of slowing down.

Isle has a very nicely organized studio. It is not large, but it holds an early 19th century “acorn” iron press, a good sized floor standing platin press, a cutter and several banks of type. While she has printed several books over the years, her primary focus these days is in making wood cut prints. In the long-established German tradition, she cuts her blocks using knives, as opposed to gouges and gravers.

A relief wood cut carved with knives on the plank.

The style of knives that Ilse uses for cutting her blocks.

Close-up of the plaque on the ‘acorn’ iron press.

A close-up of Ilse’s work-horse platin press, with a rainbow hue of inks on the underside of the inking disk.

I admired Ilse’s cutting desk, which folds down elegantly when not in use. Most print studios need space-saving solutions like this. (Mine certainly does!)

All the type drawers have beautiful calligraphy labels. Since I live with a calligrapher of some note, I have put Holly on notice that I would like this treatment for my type cabinets as well.

I make a habit of carrying samples of my books and prints with me where ever I go, so I was able to show them to Ilse and recieve a critique. She was refreshingly frank, or perhaps I should say refreshingly Teutonic. She thought my lines might “open up” and become more naturalistic if I abandoned gouges and gravers and adopted the knife as my principal tool, something I will certainly try when I turn my hand to cutting on the plank. She felt that my lines were too clean, that they followed each other too closely, that I needed to “loosen up.” All good advise, and in a sense, that’s the direction my linos had been going prior to my jump into wood engraving.

We spent a very enjoyable afternoon visiting with Ilse, hearing her thoughts on the ‘business’ and dropped some money in her gallery upstairs on a book and two prints. Most of all, it was simply inspiring to meet a fellow printer and print-maker who is steadily pursuing her passion and not letting anything, least of all aging, get in the way.

Announcing Tintern Abbey

May 7, 2012

Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern
Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks
of the Wye during a
Tour, 13 July,


~ ~ ~

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a sweet inland murmur. —Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

Which on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

~ ~ ~

A letterpress limited edition of 80 copies, 40 pages, hand set with cold type in Goudy’s Italian Oldstyle, with calligraphy rendered digitally to magnesium plates by designer Holly Dean. Illustrated with seven engravings by Larry Thompson. Printed on a Vandercook 219 onto St. Armand Canal paper. Dimensions: 9.5 inches tall x 5.5 inches wide.

REGULAR EDITION: Half bound in cloth with painted papers created by Holly Dean. $160.

DELUXE EDITION: Copies numbered one through fifteen quarter bound by Christine McNair in leather with painted papers created by Holly Dean, in slip cover. Complete with set of engravings printed on St. Armand Old Master paper. $260. SOLD OUT

Shipping and handling additional. Discounts to the trade.

Orders welcome at

~ ~ ~

More than five years have passed since Greyweathers Press published its first book, Coleridge’s popular poem Kubla Khan. Once again, we return to the Romantics to celebrate our first half decade and to commemorate a visit we made to the Wye Valley in the fall of 2008.

William Wordsworth wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ to be the thoughtful and serious end-note for the poems assembled in Lyrical Ballads (1798), which included the work of his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. We are pleased to present ‘Tintern Abbey’ on its own, featuring an introduction by Professor Mark Jones of Queen’s University, Canada.


Tools of the Engraving Trade

March 5, 2012

About five years ago, I went out on assignment to cover the Tools of the Trade show, near Toronto. About 30 or 40 dealers had tables covered, selling everything from your grandfather’s screwdrivers right up to plough planes worth thousands. I’d covered the show before, but that year I went with a mission of my own, to find wood engraving tools. I didn’t have much hope, but asked each dealer until I found one who handed me a plastic bag filled with the familiar “chopped” mushroom handle. It was literally a mixed bag, to say the least. The tools were very old. The handles showed either considerable airburn from the passage of time, or a lot of handling – probably both. I bought them.

Spitsticker showing the "shaved mushroom" handle.

Once home, I realized I had spitstickers and tint tools, perhaps a lining tool or two, but no burins. Clearly some had been better cared for than others: the angle of the points on some were absurd, and others had bowed faces, meaning they would need to be ground to the proper angle again. I ordered two burins from McClain’s, along with a Crocker sharpening jig, because I had no idea how to sharpen the tools, and they must be very sharp to work properly.

So here is my wood engraving kit so far:

Engraving tools.

At the top left, coarse and fine grain ceramic blocks for sharpening the blades. I use the Crocker sharpener prior to beginning work on another block to get the shape back on the top of the blades. While working on the block, I return fairly frequently to the stones to give the blades a touch-up. The Crocker jig works, but it’s not terribly well manufactured, so I’m keeping my eye open for something similar that has been better milled, perhaps in brass. I’m still having some trouble sharpening, and that’s causing some problems in my engravings.

Through the middle are the tools themselves. From left to right; a flat graver (with a full mushroom handle), a rather hefty scorper (or round graver), two spitstickers, a square head and a diamond head burins (from McClain’s), three tint tools (the second and third have points in need of reshaping), and finally two very odd looking tools that might be for stippling. At the bottom are some carving chisels that were in the bag, and one mushroom headed flat graver that needs some work,

The books say that gravers must be cut to fit the hand, and based on the early work I have done with these tools, this is most assuredly true. I’ll have to contact McClain’s or Lyons to see if they can cut the tools to my hand size.

Scorper or round graver


Square burin and diamond burin


Tint tool

Tint tools with badly shaped points.

Stippling tools (I think....)


Back Lane Cafe

February 17, 2012

Some while back a restauranteur asked me to cut a block for his new place, The Back Lane Cafe. I struggled for a while, gave up and sent him one of the experimental proofs, not really like anything we had discussed, framed up as a gift, or more an apology, for failing to deliver. Well, “Back Lane – Study” proved to be exactly what he wanted, and I was delighted to see the business cards his designer produced.

Back Lane Cafe business card, 2-sided.

Lovely font  combination, nice tension between the roman and italic, and the size of the reversed text at bottom more or less begs for sans serif. And a very fine choice of green. I particularly like the square configuration – a great design. The designer could have cropped the image down to the standard business card profile, but the square shape makes the card immediately stand out from the rest.

And if you are in Ottawa, definitely check out this restaurant. The food is fabulous and reasonably priced (yes, I can afford to eat there!) But do the reservation thing; it’s not a huge place, and it has become an instant hit, so busy busy.

My friends Laura and Jaimie at Rusty Nail Reclamation Design did the turn-of-the-20th century urban-meets-country interior design, and they’ve been getting a lot of acclaim for it.

Wood Engraving Part 2 – A Subtle Knife

January 12, 2012

Continuing on with the wood engraving (not on actual wood, but rather Resingrave, a synthetic plastic that emulates the nature of English boxwood), I worked up the background and puttered about with the middle foreground, more or less composing on the block. Reminding myself that this was supposed to be “play,” and that it was a first effort, I kind of let loose.

Next I tackled the ruined arch on the right. Initially I intended to just cut masonry blocks, but oh no! had to go for a carved multiple column with a mid break leading into a carved riser, and I experimented with marks that would define these features. This is the finished block:

It looked OK on the block, but would it print? Here is a decent proof, done on the same paper (St. Armand’s Canal paper) that will be used for the Wordsworth book.

Still more work to be done, clearing some of the white areas and lightening up here and there. It ain’t Bewick, but I like it. And I am totally and completely hooked on wood engraving, and gearing up to try out some engrain maple.

Here are a few things I learned, in no particular order:

  1. While working on the block, the stress level increased the further I got into it. Wesley Bates once told me that he starts with the toughest parts of the block first, and finishes off with easy areas. Makes sense.
  2. Handling the tools is tricky. It takes a while to get in the zone: not holding the graver too high or too low.
  3. Sharpening is essential. I’d return to the sharpening stones after about 15 minutes of cutting. And there’s a knack to learn about that too. The angle of sharping has to be pretty much dab on, or the blade and cutting point can be damaged.
  4. White marks define dark areas. That’s it. Bend your brain around that and you’ve got it made. Do enough of this kind of work and suddenly your brain will go “Click!” and it all falls into place. I’ve been there. I’ve done a lot of this type of work on lino, but I’ve still got a lot to learn about defining light and dark with engraving tools.
  5. “This little cut makes a tree. This little cut makes a stone.” Hard metal tool, hard flat surface, but a master can make it seem as though a semi-substantial ghost is emerging from a design. The whole idea of different marks for soft things as opposed to hard things in the illustration introduces a sea of technique possibilities. Very exciting!
  6. As you may have deigned, I am in a little bit of awe of wood engraving. It is a very subtle art. In many respects, I was over-heavy with the graver, doubting that some marks would even show. But even the tiniest prick on the surface shows up in the printing. That is a lot of potential. And I only really used three tools: graver, spitsticker and a small chisel for clear the white areas.

The graver is indeed a subtle knife!


Note: I’ll print a limited edition hopefully in March, when the book is complete, and will offer it for sale at that time.

Farewell to the Big Big Sea

December 15, 2011

Later this afternoon, a young teacher will come by the studio and take away the last print (in my possession) of Big Big Sea. It has been without doubt one of my best selling prints, much to my astonishment. I based the composition loosely on a photograph I took during a dead calm at Peggy’s Cove in the summer of 1993. My sister Marie and my daughter Meg, probably about 8 years old, stood looking out onto to a sea that seemed to merge with the sky. The photo stood on my desk for years. I liked it for its own merit, seeing the small figures again the enormity of the sea, calm though it might be. It put all my petty problems in perspective.

Time passed, as it does, and by 2008 Meg was a desperate young mother courageously struggling with a near lethal case of depression. Holly and I dealt as best we could pondering the horror of losing our daughter in the face of indifferent health care and fragmented support structures. When I came to plan that year’s series, I pulled the photo off my desk, cut a proportional block of lino and just drew five or six rough lines to mark the rocky shore line and the figures. No tracing paper, no careful details, no precise acetone transfers.

The rocks and the figures were simple lines. But I no longer saw calm in the undulations of the treacherous and tragic waters off of Peggy’s Cove; rather I attacked the block with a variety of cutters, with no real thought to the composition but rather pouring out my own fear and frustration through my hand to the tools to the block. I worked fast on this one. People often ask how long it takes me to do the work, and this one might have consumed half an hour, if that. I proofed the result and was not impressed. Who would buy such a choppy shriek of a print – two figures poised on a fatal abyss? At first, I wasn’t going to edition it all, but fortunately Holly, whose instincts are honed better then mine, convinced me to do so, and I compromised by printing just 35 (normally I do 50 or 100) along with the Artist’s Proof above.

In the three years since I pulled the edition, Meg’s life has turned around. She still struggles, but like we all do with life’s challenges and opportunities. Depression remains a specter, but one that has receded. As for the print, I still look at it with some emotional ambiguity, but I now acknowledge its beauty and honesty – that latter quality I feel must be key to its success. Several artists have bought this one. When we’re at shows, other exhibitors sometimes come into the booth, appreciating the work generally, but tapping the glass on Big, Big Sea, nodding, as thought to say, “Yes, you nailed it here.”

The very last numbered copy of Big Big Sea is available only from Studio 22 Gallery in Kingston, Ontario.

Talented or what!

May 27, 2011

I had the privilege last fall of teaching one half of a course on printmaking at St. Lawrence College in Brockville, Ontario. I taught the first seven classes on block printing, and eminent artist Robin Baker taught monoprint making in the second half. This past spring, the students mounted an exhibition at the Marion van Silfout Gallery at the college. Here are some images from that exhibit. Click on the images for full size.

The van Silfhout Gallery - one of the finest in the region.

The nine second year students collaborated on a self portrait collage.

Angie's wall hanging/book was one result from my part of the course. It tells the story of a water rat.

Melanie created a kind of demented Warhol graphic piece making a cross out of a demon -head linocut.

Zoë cut this lovely linocut based on one of her own photographs.

It was hard to choose one piece by Kerryn, but in the end this pottery creation was my favourite.

Megan hs the makings of a comic book illustrator. I liked her graphic manga-like characters.

Jeremy's detailed drawing of elephants took the Dean's Prize.

This shows the influence that Robin Baker had over the 2nd years with her life drawing course. I believe this is Melanie's work.

Possibly a monoprint, and by either Melanie or Kerryn; I'm not certain who. But definitely influenced by Robin!

A monoprint by Kerryn, from Robin Baker's half of the printmaking course.

Zany! Letters by Melanie, tableau below by Kerryn. I'm not sure who did the shoes!

I'm not sure what Zoë is saying about Apple. Maybe just making an icon from another icon. I liked it.

The students are (as I remember them):

Melanie Alguire, Serena Deir, Kerryn Graham, Jeremy Mboma, Amber McBratney, Megan Cassavoy, Zoë Reoch and Angie Van Peppen.

Apologies to Amber and Serena. Some of my shots didn’t work out as well as their artwork!

%d bloggers like this: