Monday, 24 October 2016

Life Drawing (titter ye not)

Life drawing, you know ....where a model sits in front of everyone in the nude... the premise of so many hi-lar-ious sitcom scenes, sketches and tv adverts. A proper giggle, isn't it? Well, no actually, which is why an email I got several years ago shocked me so much.

To begin at the beginning, drawing from life, that is, drawing or painting anything that is actually there in front of you, is undoubtedly harder than drawing from a photo; your brain has to convert a 3D experience into two flat dimensions, the slightest change in viewpoint will drastically alter perspective, and sometimes your subject will wilt, wither or move in the wind.

Within this, drawing a portrait of a person is even harder. An obvious issue is that your subject probably won't stay still. A definite wriggle is not such a problem; the danger is the slow and subtle slump. I once attended a class where we were instructed to paint a portrait one feature at a time, with no drawing and, importantly, no initial mapping out of the body and face. Unfortunately we realised after two hours that our (expensive and supposedly professional) model had been slowly turning in her seat throughout the session, and as a result the entire class' output was an exercise in Cubism with every portrait depicting features and limbs painted from different angles.

On top of these practical problems are the additional psychological hurdles; we all know it is Rude to Stare. New students of portrait painting find it surprisingly hard to examine another person's face in calculating and objective detail. And if it is hard to study someone's face, consider then what taboos we come up against when dealing with Life Drawing: that all encompassing euphemism which means, essentially, drawing or painting a fellow human being with no clothes on. (NB for it to be Life Drawing it has to be the model who has no clothes on. If the artist is the one with no clothes on then that is just weird and doesn't, as far as I'm aware, have a specific name.)  We are all carrying around several thousand years of conditioning that, unless you work in a very limited and specific set of professions, you Do Not Look at Someone's Bits.

Pile all these issues together and a Life Drawing session can be as exhausting as a gym workout. The levels of concentration are tremendous and are multiplied by the brain trying to do mental back flips and normalise the idea of a complete stranger lying naked in a contorted pose in a brightly lit room full of clothed people who are (hopefully) not there for sexual titillation and without anyone admitting it's weird. I find it interesting to observe the behaviour of artists in a life class; people often become either exaggeratedly studious (I am a serious artist), excessively casual and jokey (I'm not uncomfortable AT ALL) or affect an other-worldly lack of awareness (model, what model?). On one occasion I saw an artist cross the room by stepping over the prone model as if she were an inanimate object. I can understand how his coping mechanisms led him to do it but it was still bloody rude. Yes you get better at coping and less unsettled the more sessions you attend, but the dichotomy is that you really cannot assume a level of clinical detachment without losing the emotional involvement that is necessary to produce art. In order to produce a portrait you can't stop responding to the model as a living, breathing.....naked... human being.

This is why I sigh heavily when I see yet another tv sketch set in a life class, but that irritation is tame compared to the email I mentioned. In it I was asked to act as the tutor for a new venture offering 'Leisure' life classes. On further enquiry these turned out to be hen parties where tipsy women would 'draw' a nude male model. Hysterical, no? When I expressed concerns that this cheapened art and was disrespectful of the models I was told that they were fully aware of what was involved, that no-one was making them do it and that they would be paid the going rate. Now where have I heard those arguments before? Needless to say I didn't accept the booking.

(Oh and by the way... if you have read this far and think I was overreacting and being prudish, please substitute 'stag parties', 'tipsy men' and 'nude female model' in the previous paragraph. Maybe then it doesn't sound such a jolly jape.)


To end then, if you are an artist, or indeed a model, who takes part in life sessions, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. (Would you have taken that booking?). If you are an artist who has never tried life drawing then DO IT - it's a fantastic challenge and will shake up your work. If you are an art lover, then I hope that having read this you will see nude studies in a different light and perhaps have a refreshed appreciation of what goes into them.

All illustrations are my own pencil and watercolour sketches made in short pose life sessions.





Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Offset printing - transferring a design to multiple blocks

When creating a relief print with two or more blocks, one of the first challenges is successfully transferring the design onto each block so that together they will create a image. Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this is to take a tracing of your design and then use carbon paper to copy it onto each block. There can be drawbacks with this method though. For one thing you need to be very precise; if you draw 1 mm outside the line on one block and 1 mm inside it on another, you end up with a difference of 2 mm which can be enough to make a real mess of your print.

But sometimes you just won't have a  master drawing which is definite enough for you to use it to make each block. Perhaps you have drawn your original design straight onto your block, or perhaps you started with a traced design but have adapted and changed it as you carved that first block. This is where the offset printing technique of transferring a design comes into its own. Here's a quick guide to how it works with a woodcut print.

After carving the first block, it is inked up quite thickly (probably more than you would do for an actual print). You don't need to worry too much about stray bits of ink on the cleared away parts.


This is then printed onto thin paper (eg newsprint). This can be done quickly and easily by hand with a baren when using such thin paper.


Immediately, while the ink is still wet, this thick gungy print is laid face down on your second block. (Make sure it is lined up exactly the same way as your first one). The back is rubbed hard with the baren to transfer the ink onto the second block.


And now you have an exact replica of your first block reproduced on the second one.


From here you can start marking where you want to cut the second block.


In this example, which will be a two block print, I have carved the lighter coloured block first. This provides the structure of the image and the second darker block will be the added details. Sometimes it will be more appropriate to carve the dark second block first, when this is the one with the main features of the image while the lighter colour is looser background stuff like water or foliage. In 'Black Swan and Cygnets' (below) I carved the black block first and then used that to tell me where the lighter parts should be on the second block. When making the actual print, the second lighter block becomes the first block, and the dark block carved first becomes the second block. (Confused? Welcome to the world of printmaking!)


Now that you've got all your blocks carved - there might be more than two - you can tweak and refine them as you make proof prints. As with all carving of printmaking blocks, it's good to start off with simplified shapes and then develop the details; you can always carve away more but you can't put bits back.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Four Seasons: a collagraph series (Part Two - how they were made)

In an earlier post I wrote about how this series of collagraphs came about and I promised to write in more depth about how they were actually made, so here it is.

As with most of my prints, this one started off sketched out on the back of an A4 piece of paper from the scrap paper drawer. (This disorganised scruffiness is why people who ask to see my sketch books are often disappointed.) Actually I suppose it really started in my head, appearing there unbidden as these things often do, and the trick was to keep it there until I had a chance to draw it. I can't be sure but I have a lingering fear that a lot of my best ideas have vanished like mist burning off in the sun. I will never know.

Once drawn out I then transferred the image onto a piece of mountboard which I would use as my plate. I flipped the image so that the print would come out the same I way I had originally created it. You might think that for a scene like this that doesn't really matter, but it does to me....

From sketch to plate

Now it was time for the fun part, sticking and cutting and messing about with collage. Well maybe not so much of the messing about. It is fun, but there is rather more to it than making a simple collage. As well as the shapes and texture I also have to consider the way different surfaces will take up the ink. I have to think ahead to the practicalities of inking up the plate and also remember that those parts most prominent on the plate will recede on the print. As with all printmaking, everything has to be done in reverse, like living in Alice's Looking Glass world.

Once complete the plate needs to be varnished on both sides

Inking up was a slow job, carefully applying the ink to different areas and then wiping away to get the right amount of coverage for each section. Some parts needed to be left with a good coverage, some needed to be cleaned and polished almost to whiteness. Each season in this series of four prints required not only different colours but also its own inking and wiping order. I made swatches at the end of each initial printing session so I could replicate the colours for subsequent ones and I also made notes in my print 'recipe book'.

Applying ink and then wiping and burnishing it
And then it was time to print. A registration sheet laid on the printing press is always useful to centre the plate on your paper, but for this print it was absolutely vital. The plate is in two parts and these had to be placed in exactly the same relation to each other on every print.

The registration sheet (left) and 'Winter' ready to print (right)

Damp prints are taped to boards so that they dry flat - seen here 'Autumn' and 'Summer'

Collagraph plates are fragile and I knew I was asking a lot of this one to survive printing editions of four different prints. Sure enough, some over enthusiastic cleaning at the end of one printing session ended up with the tree trunk tearing. Aaagh! You might think I could simply tape a cocktail stick on the back to hold it together, but this would make enough of a ridge to make the plate unusable. Any repair has to be as flat as possible. I glued the torn edges together and then carefully applied a single piece of paper to the back before varnishing the area again. The join will show on prints but as the tree trunk was textured anyway I think I got away with it.

Emergency repairs

And finally the four seasons were complete. A framed set will be exhibited at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming from 15th - 30th October 2016 and unframed prints are now available in my shop.




Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Four Seasons: a collagraph series (Part One - the idea)

Since Easter I have been one of a small group drawn from York Printmakers who have jointly been acting as Artist in Residence at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. This wonderful place, just a mile or so from my studio, is home to (as you would expect) an extensive collection of farming machinery and equipment through the ages, but also livestock (from bees and ducks to sheep and pigs), the magical Danelaw Viking Village (regularly inhabited by re-enactors or thronging with groups of school children), a small Roman Fort, a Tudor house, a couple of prehistoric round houses and, to round it all off, the Derwent Light Railway.

The Danelaw Viking Village

It is also, conveniently, in the same village as the splendid Hawthorn Printmakers who made my press and who very generously loaned us a smaller version to use during our time at the Museum.

Our base has been a small pod in the middle of the huge barn which houses the Four Seasons Gallery over two floors. With glass walls on either side we have become one of the exhibits as we work at our printmaking. Visitors sometimes venture in to speak to us and ask questions; more peer in curiously from the outside at the strange captive artists. (None have yet banged on the glass but it wouldn't have surprised me if someone did).

The pod has been equipped to recreate the
 natural habitat of the shy and elusive printmaker...

The exhibits in the gallery take the visitor through the farming year, with audio commentary that is triggered by movement sensors as people walk around from season to season. Working in the pod we hear this commentary over and over again. You might think this would drive us mad.... and I must confess I have heard all I want to hear about the development of the plough... but after a while it became reassuringly consistent and the repetition echoed the theme of the gallery: the unchanging and reliable cycle of the farming year, a pattern which has remained largely unaltered down the centuries.

I initially planned a collagraph print of a countryside scene in the colours of autumn and harvest. As I began making the plate, however, I wondered if I could use the same plate to produce an image for each season. The fixed shape and texture of the plate would represent the enduring landscape, while changes to colours would reflect the passage of time through the year.

Creating the collagraph plate
This was an ambitious idea; collagraph plates are fragile and this was asking a lot of one assemblage of card and glue (and indeed I did have a torn tree trunk disaster which needed surgery with pva glue, backing paper and varnish) but I think I pulled it off. (That's a printmaking pun there. I promise if you're a printmaker it's hilarious.)

details of 'Autumn' and 'Spring'
The finished prints will debut at our end-of-residency exhibition at the Museum starting on 15th October 2016. More information here.

Update: there is now a further blog post explaining and demonstrating in greater depth how these collagraph prints were created. You can find it here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Here today, gone tomorrow - the liberating impermanence of Instagram Stories

I have to admit I had fallen out of love with Instagram since the recent change to a non-chronological timeline and had pretty much stopped looking at it. All that has changed in the last few days with the arrival of 'Stories'. I have been completely won over and now visit Instagram several times a day.

If you haven't yet discovered this new feature, launched last week, Stories are made up of photos and (very) short video clips, uploaded to Instagram without the usual panoply of captions and hashtags. There are no filters or cropping; the aim is for honesty and spontaneity. You can cheat a little by uploading an existing photo or video from your phone but only if it is less than a day old. Viewers can't comment or like; the images are simply there to be briefly enjoyed because (and this is the important bit) after 24 hours they vanish, like a mayfly. New images are added to the end of the story reel while the older ones at the beginning disappear.

I was highly sceptical when I first heard about this but within hours I was converted. Not only do I enjoy the tiny glimpses of others' non-styled, non-filtered and non-curated days but I quickly realised how perfectly this suits documenting the daily life in an artist's studio.

A still from a 7 second clip of cutting out a collagraph plate.

I am happy to make demonstration videos showing my methods, but they are a lot of work and they have to be (or at least appear) perfect. I don't mind people seeing the less perfect bits - I am told my workshop students get a lot of help from seeing me make mistakes (or perhaps they are just being kind) - but I would hate the scruffy part of my work to be permanently archived on the internet. These ephemeral collections of little clips which come with no commentary or narrative offer a wonderful licence to share without fear.

So now I am regularly adding snapshots or a few seconds of video of what I am doing. There is no need for me to record an explanation, think up tags or even worry if the finished piece will be up to scratch. My story includes glimpses of the stages of printmaking, views of my surroundings, things that catch my eye, sources of inspiration (and, I will admit, the odd cat photo - well it is Instagram after all).  I'm hoping that as people see my story unfold they will begin to recognise the processes and routines of my working life. Perhaps they will want to visit my website or this blog to find out more. Maybe fellow artists will find some of what I do reassuringly familiar. It could be that a viewer will decide to come to a workshop. Or perhaps they will simply understand a bit more about what artists do all day.

Instagram wouldn't be the same without cat photos.

If you would like to find me on Instagram I am @stoneflowerjane. To see someone's story, visit their profile and if they have a new story that you haven't seen yet then their profile photo will be circled in colour. Simply click to view. Meanwhile on your usual Instagram feed, people you follow with stories to see will appear across the top in a banner. At the time of writing stories can be seen only on mobile devices. To find out more about Instagram Stories and how to make your own, there is a short guide here.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Anatomy of a scam

I wonder if anyone has researched how much time lapsed between the invention of email and the first use of it to attempt a scam. I would like to think it was longer than half an hour.

The arrival of email made life easier for all of us but unfortunately that included petty criminals and con artists who no longer had to go to the trouble of knocking on doors, picking up a phone or paying for a stamp. Now they could target hundreds of potential victims with a single click from the comfort of their own homes. Many of these scams are ridiculously easy to spot (you didn't really think an uncle you had never heard of had died in Brazil and left you $10,000,000 did you?) but a worrying number are apparently sufficiently plausible that people are still being taken in and robbed. In this post I am going to explain how scams on artists work (both what the crooks hope to achieve and why people fall for them) and how to spot a typical one.


Who are the victims? Why are they singled out?

The less experienced you are in doing business, the easier you are likely to be to con. This is why private individuals using sites like eBay and Gumtree are often targeted. Unfortunately, the scammers have realised that this lack of business acumen often applies to artists and craftspeople too; when someone whose total previous experience of commerce has been the local village fete decides to open a worldwide online shopfront on Etsy or their own site, then they are seen as ripe for picking.

Who are the crooks?

They can be anyone, but a high proportion originate in Africa and the emails often come either from there or, increasingly frequently, from temporary residents in Europe. This is not the product of horribly racist and bigoted prejudice, but a pragmatic description, and in fact the commonly used term '419 scam' derives from a section of Nigeria's criminal code which deals with fraud. Sadly Nigeria was indeed the birthplace of a lot of this activity, due to a perfect storm of political, economic and societal factors which it would take longer than one blog post to unpick.

What are they trying to steal?

They want your money. That's it. It's as simple as that. This is where, I'm sorry to say, artists are particularly vulnerable. There is a natural instinct, born of a little vanity, some insecurity and a lack of experience in the art market, that encourages people to believe that their artwork is so valuable someone would go to elaborate lengths to try stealing it. They focus on protecting that, often responding to warnings from others with things like "I'm not stupid; I won't send my painting until the cheque has cleared", and completely miss where the danger really lies. Think of it like someone making a grab for your phone in the pub. You thwart them and sit down feeling pleased and triumphant, only to hear your car revving up in the car park. While you were concentrating on your phone the thief had been going for your car key.

How does it work?

The most common scam is an overpayment. Having gained your trust (by the simple expedient of complimenting your artwork, so desperate are many artists for validation) they either 'accidentally' or with forewarning send you too much money. If it's an 'accident' you might be asked to send the excess back or forward it on to a third party, perhaps even keeping a little for your trouble. Or if forewarned you might be told the crook owes some money to a friend in your country or needs to send some funds to a relative, and with exchange rates and money transfer charges it would be really helpful if they could send it to you and you send it on. Because THEY trust YOU (ha ha ha). Most commonly of all, the extra is to pay the shipping company that the buyer has arranged (see how to spot scams below) and you might be asked to send payment to them. In the most audacious examples, the 'shipping company' (ie associates of the scammer, or even the scammers themselves) will actually turn up to collect the artwork or other item and take payment there and then. (So then yes you lose the artwork AND the money  - and guess what, the crooks don't care about the artwork and will most likely dump it. Seriously - phone/car key).
But how can you lose money? If you just wait for their cheque to clear then you're safe, right? WRONG. A cheque will be deposited into your account with only the most basic authorisation. Banks do not have time to scrutinise and authenticate every piece of paper that passes through their system and a faked cheque or money order might not be spotted for weeks, even months. And then you lose your money. You can't get back the money you sent on. You have no recourse.

How to spot a typical approach

There are many small clues (and some massive ones) to look out for; each on their own might not be conclusive evidence, but put together they tell a story. Here's an email I received last week. Have a look at it and then see how many of the clues listed below are there.
Sender: john page
Email: REMOVED
Sender IP: 86.187.164.200
--------------------------------------------------

Hi,
Am John Page, I would like to place an order from your store for my daughter wedding gift,but i would be glad if you can list some of the items you have for sale with the prices,also my only method of payment is by Bank Check.
So, I will be happy to hear back from you if you can email me on my private email (REMOVED) for more details like the names and the prices you  have for sale.
       Waiting for your reply.
         Thank
          John.Page

Poor English/grammar/punctuation

We all make mistakes, and plenty of educated and highly qualified people can't spell (*stares at husband*), but use of American spelling in an email purporting to come from someone British is a small red flag. Bad grammar and strange syntax are stronger indicators that someone is not typing in their first language, and when an email claims to be coming from a doctor or lawyer (as they often do) you would definitely expect a more professional finish, or at least a passing acquaintance with spellcheck. Of course the fact that someone is not typing in their own language does not make them a crook, but if they are presenting themselves as a London based professional with an English name then it might cast doubt on their honesty. On the subject of names, these scammers often take inspiration from literature and history assuming that they must be credible English names. I have had emails from Lorna Doone, Robert Peel and Winston Smith. I'm sure there are real people out there with these names (what were their parents thinking?) but as I said earlier, all the little clues add up.

Odd use of language

You can save a lot of time by immediately deleting any email that starts 'My dear' or 'Dearest'. No need to read any further. Trust me.


Lack of specific detail

'I would like to buy some items, I wish to order artwork, I want to buy a painting.....'
Really? Just anything? You would think someone who has fallen in love with a pricey bit of artwork would be a bit more specific. Actually the more cunning scammers will name a particular piece, but 9 times out of 10 it will be the first one shown on your gallery page. The REALLY clever ones name the second one, because you'd never rumble that...
(Most hilarious are the ones which name an artwork but have failed to remove the [brackets] from the template they got from the cons4u scammers forum).

Asking for information readily available on your site

'Please send me a list of items and prices'. It's right there on the site, dude. Why are you wasting my time? Oh that's right, because you're trying to engage me in conversation and find out how gullible I am.

Mentioning shipping

Any mention of shipping is an IMMEDIATE KLAXON. (See 'How does it work?' above). Delete, delete.

Commonly used scenarios/back stories

You will start to recognise recurring themes such as the wedding gift for a daughter in this example. There was a time when a lot of people were moving into new apartments and wanted to 'beautify their homes' (see 'Odd use of language' above). A very common scenario is someone having erratic internet connection which apparently explains why they need to pay by money order, and the most widespread cause of this unreliable connectivity is being an oceanographer. It seems like every oceanographer in the world is bobbing around on the sea looking for artwork in the precious minutes they can get an internet signal.

Dictating payment method

'Yes I know your site allows quick, easy and completely secure international payment by credit or debit card but here I am in London in 2016 and the only way I can pay you is by cheque or money order, but that's OK because you will be so delighted to make such a big sale it won't occur to you to question why.'

Their visit to your site


It can be very useful to check your web traffic to see how this person reached you and behaved on your site. In this instance 'John Page' went straight from the home page to the contact page and had fired off an enquiry in minutes. GENUINE BUYERS DO NOT DO THIS. Real customers take their time. They have a good look at several items, they probably wander further off into the site and look at your 'about' page or cv to get a feel for who they are buying from. They might click on the terms and conditions and delivery information, or have a look at your events to see if you're exhibiting near them. They are very likely to go away and have a think and then make a second or third visit. Think about your own activity on shopping sites - believe me you are normal.
Incidentally, I have obscured the website from which this scammer arrived as it is an innocent third party, but I can tell you it is an old link on a French site which lists me incorrectly as an English watercolourist. Another huge red flag (if I needed any more) is that this visitor clearly has no knowledge of or interest in what I actually do.

So now you can spot a scam, what should you do?

That's easy. DELETE DELETE DELETE.
Yes it is tempting to contact the writer and give them a piece of your mind. It is even more tempting to tell them you have blown their cover and deride their pitiful attempts to trick you. FOR ALL OUR SAKES YOU MUST NOT DO THIS. In the short term, any communication at all makes you vulnerable. The tiniest snippet of information you reveal can and will be used against you in the future - that includes your IP address which you have given to the scammer simply by replying. At the very least you have shown your email address is live and active and you will thus get added to a dozen scammers' mailing lists. Most importantly though, every email that tells them how they went wrong and what mistakes they made educates them and makes their next attempt on some other poor soul more likely to succeed. Why the heck would you want to help them and give them tips on writing plausible emails? This is why I have removed the email address above because someone reading this blog (no not you obviously, you're smarter than that) will not be able to resist contacting the scammer and telling them about this post.

So there you have it. I hope some of those reading this will find it useful. At least one person (again not you) will believe they know better and that I am being unduly suspicious and thinking the worst of people. You can find people like that on online forums every day. Sadly the scammers can find them too. Don't be that person.


Friday, 10 June 2016

Everyone's a winner

A few weeks ago I wrote about the growing problem of filling workshops: an issue which appeared very suddenly a couple of years ago and which has got steadily worse since. It seems I really struck a chord as that post has had more views than the rest of my blog (mostly much more cheerful posts) put together and a lot of fellow artists and tutors got in touch, both on social media and privately, to tell me they have been having exactly the same problem.

I promised that if I came up with a solution I would post it, so here it is. Actually it's a bit early to tell if it's a solution, but it's an idea anyway, and one I am happy to share with workshop organisers.

I, like most workshop providers, used to publish a list of workshop dates ready to receive bookings. The dates would go in my diary and I would keep those days free, often for months, all the while not knowing if those dates would suit anyone else but me. Meanwhile prospective students would visit my site, find that the only dates I offered clashed with their holiday, or a friend's wedding, or a cup final, or the date was fine but not the workshop theme, and go away again without ever contacting me and letting me know they were interested.


So here's the new plan:


My site now suggests a list of dates and invites students to pick one and register their interest via a form* on the page. Once I know that at least one person wants a workshop that day I will add it to the shop as a bookable class and fix it in the diary. The list of available dates will then be adjusted (for instance if someone wants a one-day workshop on a Saturday then that weekend will no longer be an option for a two-day workshop), but I will also add new dates as a calendar begins to take shape.

*Crucially only one date can be picked from a drop down list. The idea is to reach a decision, not be back where we started with nothing being settled. 


Choice

Students now have much more choice and will find it easier to fit a workshop into their other commitments. New dates will be added frequently instead of a schedule being announced a couple of times a year.
Result: happy students
Meanwhile I don't have to keep a date free and turn down other opportunities and invitations. If something comes up for a date which has not yet been fixed as a workshop then I can simply remove it from the list of possibilities.*
Result: happy me

*As if to demonstrate, this actually happened while I was writing this. An invitation to an event popped into my Twitter inbox and I nipped off to amend the dates on my website. 


Flexibility

Now I can respond to people's wishes instead of having to try to guess what they might be. If someone is interested in woodcut they can pick any weekend on offer; nothing will be already earmarked for linocut. If they want a linoprint class on a Sunday instead of the usual Saturday then it's no problem. They just need to let me know, and now they can without having to feel awkward.
Result: everyone wins

Transparency

It has always been the case that a workshop would run only if enough bookings were received, but this system perhaps makes that a bit clearer and more understandable. Site visitors are encouraged to choose an already fixed workshop if at all possible and will know that if they suggest a new date they are, so far, the only person on that date. The ball is in their court and they are an active participant in arranging the workshop.
Result: (hopefully) less surprise and frustration for students and less guilt for me.


So what do you think? How about you workshop organisers out there - is this helpful?

And for those of you who might like to come to a printmaking workshop, you can check out the dates now available by clicking here.