Inked Iris

For the last few weeks, I've been sharing with you some sketches I've been making of the blooming iris I've been observing this spring. Today, I'll show you the prints I've been making.

I've been meaning to try my hand at white-line block printing, also known as Provincetown prints. As I'd mentioned in a previous post, BJO Nordfeldt invented this technique as a way to make multi-color block prints without carving several different blocks. Basically, instead of carving out the negative spaces surrounding your outlines, you just carve out the line itself. The outline remains uninked, hence the distinctive white lines.

Since I hadn't tried this before, I decided to start small and use a wooden spoon instead of a press for printing. I commenced by taking one of my iris sketches and turning it into a simplified drawing on my linoleum block. I apologize in advance for the shadows you'll be seeing in these shots. I was working in my apartment in the evening, and was too absorbed in the process to move my work to more appropriate lighting for photos.

Next, I carved my outlines:

Once I scrubbed off the extra black lines, I was ready to print. In white-line printing, inks are typically painted on with a brush rather than rolled on, allowing for a lot of painterly subtlety:

Rather than try to paint in the whole flower at once, I printed each color separately, lest the ink dry too quickly. It's a long process, but then again, so is printing with multiple blocks, so in the end it evens out. Here's the development of the iris, step-by-step:

I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this process, because I wasn't sure how I would feel about the tedium. Since it was a small print though (the block was 5" x 7"), it took me about 40 minutes start to finish to print the whole thing. I like the liberty I had in applying colors with a brush in terms of mixing colors and adding variety to the actual application through different strokes and textures. When I print with a roller, uniformity is what I strive for, but in this instance, each print becomes a unique image. Luckily for me, I've never been concerned with producing large editions.

Out of curiosity, I also printed on to some marbled paper I had lying around:

Overall this was an enjoyable experiment for me. The prints reminded me somewhat of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic, which I've always liked. Indeed, I've been thinking about using this technique to print designs on napkins and other textiles to spruce up my place a bit. If nothing else, I now know that I can use white-line printing for my relief images when I want a more painterly look, and when I simply don't feel like carving that many blocks.