Monday, January 30, 2012

Block Printing: The Process

Have you been wanting to learn how to block print? I wrote an article for the blog Oh So Beautiful Paper on the process of block printing, and it was published last week. I thought I would put it up here too, for those of you who have been wondering how it is done!

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson1 550x401 The Printing Process: Block Printing

What is Block Printing?
Block Printing is one of the oldest types of printmaking, and has been around for thousands of years.  There is evidence that it existed as early as the fifth century BC, with actual fragments found from as early as the fifteenth century.  It has been done around the world, with roots in India, China and Japan.
Since there is such a long history of block printing, there are many different techniques, but it is essentially using a carved material covered in ink to transfer an image on to paper or fabric.  Block printing can be done with wood, linoleum, rubber, or many other materials, but I use linoleum for my work.
Images that are printed with this technique are typically much bolder than other types of printmaking: since the blocks are carved by hand, there is often less detail and more texture to the prints.  It is possible however, when using a very small knife, to carve blocks with a huge amount of detail.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson2 550x413 The Printing Process: Block Printing

Block printing is also known as “relief printing” because the ink leaves a raised texture on the paper.  This is different than letterpress where the image is applied with enough pressure to leave an indent on the paper; typically block printing is done by hand, so the ink sits on the surface adding a raised texture to the paper.
The Printing Process
The first step is to sketch the design.  It is important to reverse the image if you are using text, as the printed image will be the reverse of what is on the block.  Once I have the image ready, I then transfer the design on to the linoleum to give me an outline of where to carve.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson3 550x412 The Printing Process: Block Printing

The next step is to carve the design.  I carve away the parts that I don’t want to print, as the ink will be applied to the raised surfaces to print the design.  Whatever surface is untouched will be what prints onto the paper.  Carving a block can take anywhere from an hour for a small piece, to several weeks or even months depending on the size and detail of the image.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson4 550x376 The Printing Process: Block Printing

I use a range of knives, with very small-tipped knives for carving outlines and details, and much larger ones for cutting away the background.  Carving the blocks takes a lot of patience, because if your hand slips it can ruin the whole piece.  With practice, you can learn the amount of pressure it takes to carve the material, and the best techniques to use for certain designs.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson5 550x412 The Printing Process: Block Printing
Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson6 550x412 The Printing Process: Block Printing

Once the block is carved, I trim the excess off with scissors to give it a straight edge, and then it is ready for printing.  There are many different types of ink on the market, and it’s important to test them out to find the best one.  I use oil-based inks because they give the best even coverage and print well on both fabric and paper, but there are lots of options out there.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson7 550x368 The Printing Process: Block Printing

 To print, I squeeze a small amount of ink onto a piece of glass or plexiglass, and roll it out with a roller (also called a brayer).  I do this to get a thin, even layer, because it’s important to apply the ink evenly to the block.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson8 550x368 The Printing Process: Block Printing

I then roll the ink on to the block, making sure there is a thin but even layer on the whole design. Then I take the block and press it down onto the paper or fabric. You can do this with your hands, a printing barren (a specific tool to apply pressure to a block), a rolling pin, by walking on it, or with a printing press – whatever it takes to apply even pressure.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson9 The Printing Process: Block Printing

The most important part is applying the pressure evenly, since the color will be stronger in some areas of the print than others if uneven pressure is applied.  This is also a step that takes some practice and perfecting.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson10 550x368 The Printing Process: Block Printing

The ink then takes several days to dry, so unlike other printing processes, there is a long wait time before the prints are ready to use.  The oil based inks can take from two days to a week to fully dry, whereas water-based inks will dry slightly faster.  The inks are made to dry slowly so that you are able to print without having the ink dry on the block; if you print with a fast-drying ink or paint, it will sometimes start to dry before you have even finished the print, giving a very uneven coverage.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson11 550x462 The Printing Process: Block Printing

Tips and Advice
I love block printing because of the bold and simple designs that can be created, but that simplicity takes a lot of steps to achieve.  The technique is excellent for images with just a few colors and fewer details, but can be difficult to use for images with lots of small text, or very fine details that tend to break off the block with too many uses.
One of the advantages of block printing is that it can be done on a surface of almost any size and texture.  I print on fabric, paper, canvas, wood and other materials, and you don’t have to worry about fitting it through a printer or a press.

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson12 550x368 The Printing Process: Block Printing

Block printing is also an excellent way to produce a something that is truly handmade, but can be very easily replicated.  Carving the block is time consuming and requires a lot of patience, but once you have the block you can use it hundreds or thousands of times.
Block printing is also one of the easiest printing methods to get started with, since the materials needed to start are relatively inexpensive, and you don’t need a lot of equipment for printing.  It’s a great way to get into printmaking!

Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson13 550x368 The Printing Process: Block Printing
Printing Methods Block Printing Katharine Watson14 550x367 The Printing Process: Block Printing

All text and photographs by me, but this article was originally published on Oh So Beautiful Paper.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Khmer Traditional Textiles

While in Siem Reap I did my second textile visit of the trip, to the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, or IKTT. The center was started in 1996 by Kikuo Morimoto, a Japanese man who had studied Cambodian weaving and wanted to preserve the dying tradition. Since so many weavers were killed during the Khmer Rouge, Morimoto found a handful of people who could still remember the tradition to pass it on to others. Today, they have over 500 workers growing silk and weaving traditional Khmer ikat patterns.

The silks were incredible, with more color and detail than I have ever seen. They use all natural dyes and are beginning to grow silk in Cambodia again, rather than importing it from Vietnam. The weaving center is so highly regarded, and such an excellent place to work, that they have over 100 weavers on a waiting list wanting to join.

If I could have, I would have loaded up a suitcase with these beautiful silks, but the prices definitely reflect the ethos behind the company, which has started schools and medical centers for the weavers. Large scarves were around $800 USD, with single-color small scarves starting around $120 USD. The prices were definitely meant for high-end collectors, and not for the tourist market. The work they are doing at IKTT is incredible, with a focus on quality and innovation rather than mass-production, which we have seen in so many other places. I hope that there continues to be a market for these high-end pieces, but that some day Khmer ikat can be revived to a point to make the prices competitive, and replace the "Made in China" pieces that are being sold in markets today.

On a side note: if you would like to learn more about the Khmer Rouge, and what it was like growing up during that horrific time, I highly recommend reading First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It's a page-turner, written from a child's perspective about what it was like to go from living in an upper-middle class urban family to four years of torture, slavery and starvation. If you didn't study the Khmer Rouge in school (which most people don't, despite it being one of the deadliest genocides in history), give this book a read.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Riding the Norry

In Battambang, Cambodia, we did a day trip in the countryside on the backs of motorcycles, ending our trip at the norry, a makeshift bamboo train that runs on the Cambodia Railway tracks. Cambodia has no good train system, but has a series of leftover tracks from when the trains used to run. So, people in villages started building makeshift trains to run on the tracks that could be quickly disassembled when a real train came (very slowly) in the opposite direction. They aren't used as much today now that motorbikes are everywhere in the countryside, but you can still pay to hitch a ride at break-neck speed on one of the trains.

It was a cross between a toy train and a rollercoaster, and we sped along for half an hour, then turned around and sped back. We didn't meet another train, but clattering and bouncing down the old tracks was so much fun.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Vine

After our disastrous stay in Kampot, we decided to ignore our budget for a few days and stay at The Vine Retreat in Kep (not that much over budget at just $35 a night), which came highly recommended. The hotel is set on an organic farm and serves up local food (not unusual for Cambodia, since it's much easier to get something grown nearby than from a big store or company). They have a solar-filtered pool, an outdoor bar where we have spent hours on end lounging and reading, and views of the acres of farmland around. It has been amazing to spend a few days out in the countryside: we went for a bike ride through a local village, and then explored the bigger roads by tuk-tuk. If you should ever find yourself on the south coast of Cambodia, do not miss The Vine. It's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed at, and for a fraction of the cost of a Motel 6 in the US.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bad Travel Days

This picture of the ceiling was the only one I took during our two days in Kampot

For those of you reading this from your office cubicle and wishing you could be traveling, I thought I would include this post about when things don't work out so well on the road.

On Saturday, after visiting Push Pull, we took a taxi down to Kampot on the coast. I had been so excited to visit this little French Colonial town, and had high expectations for what an amazing time we would have, especially after how much fun we had in Phnom Penh. We had booked a bungalow on the river for two nights which looked gorgeous and peaceful from pictures, and I couldn't wait. When we got there, it looked nothing like it did in pictures. There were no bathrooms in the bungalows, so you had to climb down a ladder in the night to get to the one bathroom, and the whole place was shabby and gave off a weird vibe. During our walk through the picturesque town, where we hoped to find a different hotel that was less creepy, there was a torrential downpour and we were soaked after being turned away from hotel after hotel. After stopping by five hotels that were all full, we found a spot for lunch.

BUT that night, this delicious lunch caused Joe to get violently ill, to the point where he could barely move. Not wanting to leave him alone in this condition, I spent the entire day sitting in a chair at the guesthouse, feeling creeped out by the obvious sex tourism and the weird management. 

All in all, it was a miserable two days, where we both just wanted to go home. We booked it out of there on Monday morning, as soon as Joe was strong enough to eat again, and were so happy that that part was over.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Push Pull

Last week was the first textile-related stop on this textile-related trip. My cousin's friend Meg works for Push Pull, a Cambodia-based textile cooperative that uses traditional ikat weaving methods to make contemporary fabrics. It was started when the founder was traveling in Cambodia and became friends with his tuk-tuk driver. The driver took him back to his village for a meal, where the founder noticed that everyone in the village in Takeo Province had looms in their houses. People were all weaving independently, creating textiles in their spare time and selling them where they could. He decided to create an organization that these weavers could all work for together, and so Push Pull was born. Today, that tuk-tuk driver, Kea, still works for the organization and he was able to show us around the weaving center.

Traditional Cambodian ikats are woven with silk, but Push Pull decided to introduce cotton in order to make the products more marketable. The fabrics they create are high-quality cottons with updated, modern designs, but done in the same traditional method that the villagers were using in their homes.

Ikat is an extremely complicated weaving process, and the threads are stretched out and dyed before they are woven. That is why it has the zig-zaggy edges on the patterns; because the pattern is dyed on to the thread, they don't line up perfectly and it creates the soft edge on the pattern.

Here you can see the dyed threads being laid out to dry. The black is the dyed cotton, and the bright red, green and yellow is the plastic string they use to tie off the sections they want to remain white, so this will produce a black and white pattern. To add more colors, they then wrap the black section to protect it and leave the white exposed, then it is dipped in another color.

Since the weaving center is in the weavers' hometown, they are able to bike to work and go home for lunches, and to have a steady income in the village. To see the finished product, check out Push Pull's website right here, and see the products that this beautiful fabric is turned into! When we visited, they were busy weaving the Fall 2012 collection, which comes out in August. They are introducing five new patterns as well as a line of scarves, which I will be eagerly waiting for.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Russian Market

My favorite part of our two days in Phnom Penh was definitely the Russian Market. We started there on our first morning, and had so much fun that we went back for lunch the next day. The market is a huge maze selling everything from auto parts, t-shirts, and live fish to tourist souvenirs and pirated DVDs. In the middle are the food stalls, serving up noodles and other quick, cheap meals on plastic tables and chairs. On day one, we had a pho-like dish with noodles and chicken, with some carrots and potatoes mixed in. I had it with a healthy serving of chili sauce so my mouth was on fire, and I washed it down with a Coke.

The meal we had on day two will go down as one of the most delicious meals I have ever had: a very simple cold noodle salad with a sweet yet vinegary broth, with fried vegetarian spring rolls mixed in. The flavors worked so well together, and our seats, perched at the edge of the busy stall in the middle of an aisle, made it even more enjoyable. The icing on the cake though, was getting the bill and seeing the total for lunch: $1.

For less than $10, I got a lunch of delicious noodles, two Cambodia t-shirts, a half kilo of rambutans, a pair of scissors to replace mine that wouldn't make it through security, and my new favorite accessory: a fluorescent pink Casio watch, an exact replica (except for the amazing neon color) of the one I wore circa 1994. We will definitely be going back to the Russian Market when we stop back in Phnom Penh next week.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We've been in Phnom Penh for 36 hours now, and this city is beautiful. We've bargained at markets, walked along the river, eaten Khmer food, had beers on an outdoor patio, and taken a tuk-tuk tour of the city.

The city is a lot more organized and developed than I was expecting. Despite the tragedies that have occurred here, you can still feel a lot of culture, and a lot of French influence, especially in the architecture (and the carrots and potatoes in our Chinese noodles). The one exception is the traffic: there are traffic lights, but people seem to use them just as a suggestion. Cars don't stop for pedestrians, so you just have to launch yourself into the street and hope that the hundreds of motorcycles swerve around you, which they seem to be very good at doing.

We came to Phnom Penh with no real plan; we didn't have a hotel (they had canceled our reservation at the last minute) and apart from a few things we wanted to see, nothing was scheduled. It has turned out to be such a fun way to travel, because there is no pressure to see everything, and we've had space to make spontaneous plans and change the itinerary around a little. So today we are going to set out into the city and see what we find!

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