Thursday, February 4, 2021

Craftsmanship and Art


Whimbrel at 2-Mile Landing. Original Moku Hanga by Ken Januski. Copyright 2021.

I've spent a lot of time over at least the last five years listening to, reading about, and listening to audiobooks about music, particularly classical music. One of  the things that I've particularly noticed is that, at least in the past and I'd guess today as well, musicians learn some basics, for example harmony, sonata form and other forms, etc. The vocabulary for musical notation is astounding. I say all this as a non-musician so I realize that I'd have a slightly different take on this  if  I were a musician. But on the whole I think I'm correct.

Still it stands in stark contrast to my artistic  education and I'd guess the artistic education of  many. I have a lot of art education. 80% I'd guess is  in studio  art, two years at a community college, a year plus as an undergraduate at a very good school on west coast, and graduate studies at the same west coast school and at an Ivy League school on the east coast.  And two graduate degrees in  art. Big Deal! No, not at all. All that education doesn't  necessarily translate  into good art. I only mention it because there was a common theme to those many years of art education as a studio artist: be enthusiastic about what you do and  have at it! That was it, though  it wasn't put in such blunt  terms.

Was I unhappy with this?  No. It's just what I wanted. Particularly I wanted to PAINT, and paint I did, mostly on my own, but also with a few regular studio mates, especially on the west coast.  I don't think either we the students or our teachers expected we'd get a much out of the formal classes. We'd  learn and improve  through  studio practice.

It's only in retrospect, realizing how much theory that there is in music and musical education, that I  wonder about art education. Is there something similar in art? Is it just taught at schools other than the ones I went to? Would I have wanted a different education, one more structured and with a distinct syllabus, if I actually had the opportunity? My guess  is  that no I would not.

There of course is  the old nostrum about reinventing the wheel. Generally it is a very good nostrum. I'm just not sure how well it works  in art. Since I live in Philadelphia I do have to  wonder  about the Pennsylvania Academy of Art. I never took any courses there though I have known people who studied there. But I never talked to them about their training. But  I do have the impression  that at least the painters get a fairly classical education. And at least one  of my old  friends who shared a studio  above mine  and who studied there went on to fame and fortune as a  more or  less contemporary classical  painter. I could tell that we looked at painting quite differently, though I don't think he ever looked down on my own work. And I admired  the technique and ambition of his own work. But we did  seem to come from different worlds.

In any case it just reminds me that people do get different training in the arts and often that training stays with them.

Before I started classes at the west coast school I arrived on campus a few months  early and took  some printmaking courses in the student union.  They were pretty much one on one  and I loved them. I learned enough to do some lithography, etching and a bit of  aquatint, just enough  for me to start experimenting on my own. I loved it. But in a  few months my classes started, I had almost 24 hour access to a painting studio  and I jumped back into painting. The person who  taught  me printmaking at the student union was also a student in printmaking. So I was introduced to both the faculty and her fellow students in printmaking. But there was just something that put me off about taking a course in it. There seemed to be some odor of technique, of tradition, of something or other that just seemed  foreign to the freewheeling  attitude  I had toward art. I never had any subsequent training in printmaking.

So here we are today, where I have been doing more  printmaking  than painting over the last 10 years or more. I started with linoleum block printing, then added some shina wood blocks  in conjunction with lino, then did just western style printing with one or more  shina wood blocks. And now I'm finishing  my fourth year of moku  hanga. My most recent print, about 6x8  inches  is at the top of this post.

This very lengthy introduction  to my newest print stems from the fact that it could look to many like  I have neither general printmaking technique, nor more  specific moku hanga technique. Additionally I realize that almost all of  my moku hanga prints probably seem quite foreign to the spirit of traditional  moku hanga. I have to say I can't  really deny that.

And this I think gets to the title of this post:  Craftsmanship  and Art. When I was getting my education in art crafts, at least as far as I could tell, were starting to be considered by many  in the art world if not as exactly equals then at least on the same fluid, sliding scale. But that's not what I'm talking about. I have no argument with the idea  of  traditional crafts as art. (I don't know enough about non-traditional crafts to have an opinion on them). But some art media I believe have more of a craftsmanship tradition than others, at least today. Printmaking seems to value craft more  than painting.

One of the first things I realized once I started using more  than one block in any type of relief print was that registration was a big consideration. If you use more than one block it generally is with the purpose of  using a different color and you want the second color to register(match up)  with what you've already printed on your printmaking paper from printing the first block. As I didn't have a printing press I used various handmade jigs and devices to help with registration. They helped but there were still problems.

The thing is I didn't really consider them serious problems. For myself I didn't care all that much if things lined up properly. My guess is that if  I went through all of my multiple block prints of any type I'd find that areas of color rarely match up perfectly. It's not a goal of  mine.

Now I have to say, as I'm sure most printmakers will say,  that sounds a lot like sour grapes or something similar. You choose to be happy with less than perfect registration in printing because you're technically incapable  of getting perfect registration! I'd have to agree that I'm technically incapable of  getting perfect registration. But  I also don't believe it's worth the time and effort, at least for me. Just what is gained  and what is lost by perfect registration? For me not much is gained, but a lot might be lost, including the ability for the print to breathe.

But it's very easy to see where at least in printmaking  good registration is just considered part of the craft of printmaking. Since I  didn't have an education in printmaking I'm only guessing that this  is the case. But I'm pretty sure that I'm right.

This is only one element of  what I consider, from an outsider's perspective, to be the craft of printmaking. Another element is consistency in prints in an edition. Especially with  a complicated print involving many colors, many blocks, perhaps intricate carving there are more and more areas where the smallest little slip or lack of concentration will make one print slightly different than another. Printmakers have to decide whether or not  to include small anomalies in an edition,  My guess is that much of the final decision depends on how you've  been trained.

For me this  is  particularly difficult where I've spent a lot of time and effort in the printing, mainly due to it being a complicated print. After all that effort do I really want to toss out more  than 50% of  what I've printed? Of course not and yet expectations are that there be at least some basic similarity between prints in an edition. My guess is that I'm more lenient than many but still I cull a lot from editions.

It's easy to understand this desire to have a consistent edition. And yet here too I find  that the craftsmanship of  printing is perhaps getting in the way a bit of the art of printing.

Moku hanga has a much better method of registration than western hand-printed prints. And yet I suspect that because of this there is a greater expectation of excellent registration in moku  hanga prints. By those standards I fail pretty badly. I suspect moku hanga also has particularly high standards of paint application, even surface, etc., etc. mainly due to the incredible craftsmanship  of  traditional moku hanga. Though I strive for these and don't usually have deliberately uneven surfaces it's not something  I care about all that much. It undoubtedly is part of traditional moku hanga. It's just not something I can bring myself to consider the most important part of the print. I usually won't cull a print because the color application isn't the best.

For me it is the overall experience of the print that is most important. What is it like visually, not technically? For me that means that I'm often quite happy with my prints, especially my moku hanga, even though I'm also disappointed that the registration isn't a bit better, the paint coverage a bit better, etc., etc. For many I imagine  it looks as though I've failed at the craft of printing and it's hard to see beyond that. I can only guess but I expect that this is true. I can understand it. But I'm still quite happy with my prints.

It may be pushing this to suggest something similar in painting and drawing but I'm going to anyway. I love drawing, and painting as well. But I don't at all like drawings that enclose shapes in non-stop, continuous, undifferentiated lines. That may be a technique that was taught in classical academies hundreds of years ago but it is largely lifeless. The varying and incomplete lines of someone like  Rembrandt are far more impressive. They go beyond technique into art, into something that is moving. The art of Rembrandt breathes.

I've gone on at such great length that I'm reluctant to say much more. In some ways I'm just thinking out loud. In the end I guess  I'd use Winslow Homer as an example. He did quality wood engravings in his younger years. He was a master of line. But as he matured he didn't let himself be constrained by line. Instead it became an often invisible structure in his wonderfully free watercolors. Technique has its uses but it can also be the kiss of death for  an artist. My guess is that many artists would be better off knowing when to forget about technique. On the other hand I can't help but think of Odubel Herrera, Pat Burrell and Hunter Pence, all players at one time or another for the local Philadelphia Phillies. I used to scream every time I saw one of them at the plate with their idiosyncratic wild swings. But they still got hits. I hope my prints don't remind anyone of them, especially Pence or Herrera!


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