Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Curse of Facility

American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Cropped Version of Final Edition of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

I think I have discovered what distinguishes a painting that is simple and unpretentious from one that possesses lasting qualities. In short, I have often wondered why the extreme facility and boldness of touch in Ruben's work never disturbs me, but in paintings of men like Vanloo(and I include modern painters as well as his contemporaries) it merely seems an odious form of technique. Fundamentally, I am perfectly well aware that the facility in the work of a great master is not the chief quality, that it is only the means and not the end, and that the reverse is true of mediocre painters.
Eugene Delacroix in The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Phaidon Books, translated by Hubert Wellington. Entry for Tuesday, October 9, 1849.
I don't care if a drummer falls off a stool as long as he keeps the beat...There is something human about imperfection.. and we could use a lot more of it.
My paraphrase of record producer Rick Hall as recently seen and heard in the film Muscle Shoals. Magnolia Pictures, directed by Greg "Freddy" Camalier.

I've never had to worry about facility. The only time I've come close to it, or come close to it today, I think is when I do vigorous drawings in charcoal, both abstract and representational. I always feel like maybe I'm skating by problems when I work that way and may be making more superficial art. On the other hand there are times when it's nice to feel that I have a natural skill at some things. But I've had friends with seemingly inborn facility. It's often given them more immediate artistic success but from my perspective at least, at a cost. Their work can sometimes seem empty.

I mention this mainly because I like to acknowledge all the nuggets of wisdom in The Journal of Eugene Delacroix. But it also holds true for this print and most of my prints, especially the multi-block ones. The first block is printed in four colors in the reduction method. So I carve, print a color, carve some more and print another color onto the earlier prints and hope that the registration works, i.e. the new color goes where I expect it to on the earlier color, not 1/8 of an inch off in this direction or that. By the time I've gotten four colors down I've held my breath four times.

And then comes the other side of the block, where I've carved the final black color. Even if all the other colors have lined up pretty well the last block can still bring serious problems. In this print there were a few minor registration problems on a  print or two but basically things turned out the way I planned.

I mention this because I think it shows that it's a bit hard to get carried away by facility when working with reduction and multi-block prints. There is just too, too much that can go wrong.

I always know this from the start. I use this complex process not to exhibit some sort of facility or technical ability. And it's a good thing because I might get laughed out of town if I did. I do it because it allows me to get the expressive range that I'd like, a multiplicity of shimmering colors and shapes. In this sense a lack of registration can sometimes help, at least in places.

In that sense too I think it echoes Rick Hall in the final moments of the wonderful film Muscle Shoals. I mainly listen to classical music now followed by jazz, and rarely rock or blues or soul. But I did grow up with them and love them and this film reminds me of some of the best of it. What I like about that quote though is the emphasis on imperfection.

The world will always  be imperfect, though I think technology always offers the false lure of perfection. We should all be thankful for imperfection.

American Goldfinch Eating Thistle. Full Version of Final Edition of Two-block Woodcut by Ken Januski.

Above is another version of the print, this time showing the paper border. This print started off in an edition of 16 but now is down to either 12 or 13. It is printed with Daniel Smith water-soluble colors on Shin Torinoko paper. When the ink finally dries I'll scan it and if the photo is better replace these slightly off center ones with those. I'll also put some of them up for sale on my Etsy store, but only once the ink is dry enough to safely ship.

As I recall this year started for me with the print that is the header for my blog now, Mergansers and Grebes on the Schuylkill River, another multi-block reduction woodcut. More important than the medium though is the combination of realism and abstraction. I think I've finally reached a style I can be happy with for a while, though I'll also continue with much simpler woodcuts as in the Piping Plover, also from this year.

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