Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Character Traits begins

After a few years of reading and a year of intermittent drawing, I have settled into full time work on my next book, Character Traits. The book consists of three parts: a bound essay with a section of notes on the plates; a portfolio of unbound plates; and, accompanying the deluxe copies, a small volume of color studies cut in linoleum. The plates are short texts by various authors, set in alphabets that are either impossible to produce in metal type, or so impractical that they would never have been produced in metal. The purpose of these limitations is to explore digitally native letterforms free from the limitations of typographic technology. (I discuss the basic technological ideas behind Character Traits in an earlier post.)

In keeping with the non-typographic aspect of the project, I am printing the texts from intaglio rather than relief plates. The intaglio process allows for highly intense colors but, unlike my recent relief color printing, it does not work well with color overlay. The recesses of the intaglio plates are inked in a single color, and, if I want a second color, it is top-rolled onto the relief surface of the plate.* This produces two color prints in which the colors are adjacent to, rather than on top of, one another. After years of thinking of color as developing in vertical layers, the change to a horizontal coexistence of no more than two colors seemed as foreign as speaking an unknown language.

To begin to deal with this new two-color reality, I spent five weeks looking at colors in combination around the tiny town of Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland this past summer, while on residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation. When asked, most people would say that County Mayo Ireland only has two colors: green and brown. Those in a generous mood might add gray to the list or, if particularly open minded, blue. Long views of the landscape generally back up this prejudice: green pastureland and brown bogs, ending at gray rocks that sawtooth into the alternately gray or blue sea, under an alternately gray or blue sky.

On closer inspection, the landscape that at a distance appears a patchwork of monochromes is actually composed of a great variety of color, with purples predominating, flanked by reds, oranges, yellows, and an unchartable gradation of greens, grays, browns, etc. Charlotte Brontë described the general impression of this type of landscape beautifully in Jane Eyre, "I felt the consecration of its loneliness: my eye feasted on the outline of swell and sweep—on the wild colouring communicated to ridge and dell by moss, by heath-bell, by flower-sprinkled turf, by brilliant bracken, and mellow granite crag." As one zooms in, the landscape gets progressively more colorful

During my time in Ballycastle, I spent my days walking through the landscape looking for unexpected, unusual, or pleasing examples of two colors adjacent to one another. I then noted my observations in small, two-color gouache paintings that are the basis for the volume of color studies that will accompany the deluxe copies of Character Traits.

Since all of the paintings are bordered by four straight sides, transferring them to linoleum is a fairly simple process. I first draw the outline of the shape's outer border on the block. Then I trace the interior color separations onto tracing vellum and transfer the tracing to the block. Once transferred, Nancy Loeber cuts the blocks (she can hold a better line than I can).

Once cut, the height of the block is measured with a micrometer in order to bring it to type height for printing. We then mark the blocks with a T (for top of image), the block number to insure proper imposition, and the amount of extra under-sheeting the block requires to bring it to 0.918 inches (the block below requires 4 sheets of cover stock plus a 0.005" sheet of mylar to make it type high). To register the second color block we print an impression from the key block onto the cylinder tympan sheet, and then offset it onto a fresh block.

When the blocks are ready, I spend a day proofing to match the ink colors to my original paint colors. This is a process that requires a certain amount of compromise as the inks have a different pigment content and surface texture/finish than the paints: the inks reflect light differently than the gouache, so even the closest color match will always look and feel somewhat off. But then the gouache paintings are also significantly different than the natural colors they were meant to record; and those natural colors look different at different times of day and in different qualities of light. So, we do what we can. When a color is deemed right, I package it up in a sheet of oiled tympan paper until we're ready to edition.

The linoleum cuts are printed on sheets of Kelmscott Crown & Sceptre paper made in 1923. It is an extraordinary paper in that it is quite thin but, regardless of impression or ink level, it does not show the slightest cockle or stretch when printed. This was also a concern when considering the paper I would use for the intaglio plates that make up the bulk of the book. The two-color plates in particular combine enormous pressure with a great deal of ink, both factors that can render a beautiful sheet of paper unsightly. After a few conversations with Travis Becker at Twinrocker Handmade Paper, Travis devised a paper that prints beautifully and presses to perfect flatness after printing. We will begin editioning the intaglio plates in February, but below are a couple of details of prints in progress.

* There are, of course, ways to add additional colors to intaglio plates—a la poupeé, stencils, etc. I may end up employing one or more of these methods as I progress through Character Traits, but at the moment I am enjoying the limitation of one or two colors.