Creative Distraction

Quinn and Zinnie’s reenactment of American Gothic, an iconic painting from the 1930s.

My daughter Emily and her family are finding clever ways to endure the lockdown. They have had their spa days, their dinner parties with the neighbors over the fence (passing dishes back and forth with a basket rigged up on a pulley) and some photography fun. Still, the kids are getting a little tired of being so far away from their classmates. They start school next week, although it certainly won’t be the same as before. They will be required to stay inside their little prescribed space, marked out on the floor, all day long.

I don’t feel the limitations too keenly. I have my own creative activities to keep occupied and days go past so quickly that I rarely have a moment to wonder what to do with myself.

I start my day with a bowl of fresh fruit and orange juice, pretty as well as delicious. At the moment, blood oranges are in season, making the juice extra special. After some aerobics via YouTube, I head down to the atelier where various projects await my attention.

Seasonal fruit is a perfect way to start the day.

In the garden the bee balm is in bloom. I got out my eco-dyeing supplies the other day, which had been untouched all winter. But bee balm makes such a predictably nice blue image, so before they bloomed out, I printed up a few.

Eco-dyed image on paper of wild bergamot, also known as bee balm.

Meanwhile I am back working on some relief printing. Instead of the reduction printing technique I have been experimenting with recently, I decided to work on a woodblock print with separate plates for each color. The nice thing about reduction printing is that everything naturally registers because you only have the one plate. The problem I found with it, however, is that the ink gets so thick on the paper. I wanted to try the more traditional multi-plate technique, but find a reliable way to register all the colors. I discovered a nice system that utilizes wooden pegs. The paper is per-punched with holes which can be put in the wooden pegs on each plate to guarantee the same placement for each color on the paper. The key block plate is printed first on paper and then transferred to each additional plate so that the blocks are also registered with one another. Rick kindly made up a nice rig for me. He is also carving the blocks, which I appreciate very much!

Transferring the key block image from paper to plate to ensure accurate registration.

We got this first color printed this weekend. The registration is pretty good. We still have a lot to learn. Since I seem to be so promiscuous with my art techniques, I am always in the learning stage. But I suppose I must prefer that. Mastery seems out of reach. For this one, there are still three colors to go. It isn’t turning out as I had imagined and hoped, but we will keep working on it.

First color (after the key block).

I am quite spoiled by having Rick available so much of the time. I am taking advantage of his good nature and requesting all kinds of upgrades to the atelier. This week he built me a fabulous new easel contraption in about an hour and it is just marvelous to work on.

Easel with two shelves for watercolor as well as oil painting.

Twice a week I meet with the grandchildren on FaceTime to do art class. We have made a color wheel. some simple shading exercises, cartoon characters and various other drawing projects.

Some pages from the kid’s expanding sketchbooks.

Weather this week has been a little less warm but the flowers continue to burst into bloom both on the terrace and in the garden.

Two rose varieties blooming on the terrace.
Peony bouquet from the garden.

Finding Beauty in Confinement

We take our afternoon tea on the terrace.

For me, this week has passed much like the week before and no doubt similar to the week ahead. Still the natural world outside our gates is not standing still or waiting for us to rejoin it. The pace there has accelerated. I don’t think nature misses us much. It actually gives me great pleasure to hear about how the animals are returning to reclaim empty streets of cities, how the air and water are recovering, how it is noted that even bird songs are louder this year as the avian population is not so stressed by human activity. What have we done to our world that our absence is not only not regretted, but actually celebrated? Less than a hundred years ago the earth was 66% wilderness. Today it is barely 25% and shrinking yearly. Every environmentalist that I have heard speak about this pandemic points out that it is the natural consequence of the way we are using our world. These few weeks of human pause seem very precious to me. It is far from certain that we will abandon our unsustainable ways as a result of being temporarily stopped in our tracks, but some things will change. Nature has a point of view and is perhaps trying to send us a powerful message. It makes sense to try to hear it.

In the thirteen years we’ve lived here, we have never actually had our house to ourselves except during the darkest days of winter. What a pleasure it has been to have these wonderful warm days and spend our time as we choose, without having guests to accommodate. Rick has time in his schedule, which is rare. He decided he wanted to start doing some woodblock cutting, I was really thrilled. I am working on a new print of a clematis branch and I was certainly happy to allow him to do the carving for it. He is really a much better craftsman than I am, more patient and meticulous.

The weeds have gone wild both inside and outside our gate. But if you’re an attractive weed, we give you free rein.

At the big garden the bee balm and brunnera are in glorious bloom. These plants too are volunteers, but I welcome them both wholeheartedly.

A friend from California sent us California poppy seeds a few years ago. They seem quite happy in our garden, they come back each year and in ever greater numbers.

The last tulips are enjoying their final days in the garden, playing their part in the cycle of life.

The side of the shed, weathered by years of sun and rain, makes a beautiful natural abstract painting.

In our large garden irises came and went a couple of weeks ago, but in the terrace, they are just beginning.

In the fields around the village, horses and other farm creatures are romping about in the sunshine.

Our entry which has always served our clients has been made more cozy by removing one of the two couches we had there. We had a difficult time deciding where to put the extra one until we came up with the idea of having it just outside the atelier, in a little hallway that has served as a storage area.

It has turned out to be a very pleasant place to sit, as long as we remember to take off our inky smocks first.

Inside the atelier itself, I am always moving things around to find better arrangements. Birds and boxes feature prominently on one of the storage cupboards.

Last but not least, this week, I have a simple recipe to share with you. We have begun to make a Chinese style vegetable fritter which is quite delicious and super easy to make. You cut a leek, a zucchini, a carrot, an onion, some scallions, a hot pepper and a mushrooms to make 1/2 match stick sized pieces. Put 2 1/2 cups of the sliced vegetables in a bowl, add 3/4 cup flour, 1t salt and 3/4 water. Still together. Cook in a generous amount of oil until browned and loose on one side (a few minutes), flip and brown the second side. Serve with a dipping sauce of 1T soya sauce mixed with 2t rice wine vinegar. Float a few sesame seeds and red pepper flakes on top of the sauce.

The safflower fields are all bloomed out, but the view is still a pleasant alternative to television.

Flower Power

While I am making prints of late summer flowers in the studio, outside spring flowers are coming into glorious bloom. At our garden, a few minutes walk from home, the cherry blossoms are promising an abundance of fruit in a couple of months.

Although we both long for a car trip, or a visit to the sea, in the meantime it is not so bad to have such an expansive view from our living room windows, especially now. I look forward every year to the all too temporary safflower, electric yellow.

In our terrace garden, life has returned and with it, an embarrassment of flower glory. The wisteria is not only beautiful to behold, but it scents the air with a subtle sweetness.

At the same moment our clematis is carpeted with attractive pink blooms.

And as if that were not enough, the yellow rose, below the wisteria is popping into bloom as well. The weather has been exceptionally warm and the songbirds have returned to the village. The sparrows are busy making nests in our honeysuckle vines as the swallows swoop through the air. The blackbird, with his clever repertoire of songs, sits on the wall outside our window and entertains us from early to late. We continue in place until the middle of May, as required here, all the while enjoying these pleasant days together.

Small Pleasures

Sunset”, a reduction print in 4 colors.

After two weeks of “le confinement,” the French government just announced a two week extension. Regulations are stricter and the local police have been cruising the village checking papers and asking about any activity outside the home. We’re no longer supposed to ride our bikes or even spend the afternoon in our garden, since it is not attached to the house. One hour is the maximum allotted time per day to be out and about. For me, this continues to be fairly easy to accomplish. I am not getting bored or stir-crazy as others may be, but I am beginning to have disaster dreams.

As always, I have lots of art projects to focus on. I continue to experiment with the reduction printmaking technique. I am very fond of the work of painter Nicholas Wilton who has an active YouTube channel where he talks about his process. I have been tempted into trying some abstract painting following his well-articulated principles, but I’m finding that it’s a lot harder than it looks! I enjoy it anyway. I am also meeting Quinn and Zinnie twice a week on FaceTime to do art together. Not to mention all the friends I am enjoying virtual communications with.

The advantage of a big old maison, is that the house work is never done. We have started dragging furniture out, cleaning and waxing floors and rearranging the rooms. Something about that kind of work has always brought me a lot of joy. When the two week extension was announced I thought it presented the perfect opportunity to repaint! Unfortunately, the paint stores are not open, perhaps to Rick’s relief.

Last, but hardly least, is the pleasure of eating. Rick does the shopping once a week. I find some new recipes and write an organized grocery list. On this last week’s menu was a Moroccan Lamb Pie. Delicious! One was enough for both of us, so we froze the other for future consumption.

And then of course we have the spring weather to enjoy, at least from the window.

Despite it all, spring.

The equinox came and went this year without much ado. All our thoughts have been somewhere else. Our own biggest adventure in these days of confinement is the five minute walk to our garden. We are required to carry a signed and dated attestation of the reason for our straying from the shelter of home. We had some very sunny days early in the week, and it was a huge pleasure to observe the pregnant buds, the periwinkles, tulips and primroses popping out. The tiny violets and daisies are peeking through the grass which is in desperate need of mowing.

In “the shack” I found the table still covered with the art and science projects the grandchildren had left last fall.

I feel very grateful to have my studio where I continue to explore reduction printmaking. A day passes quickly for me.

I send you all very best wishes in these amazing times we are living in!

Sea Birds, Woodblock Reduction Print

I have been continuing my exploration of reduction printing. I have two other linoleum prints completed since my last posting. I also decided to try out the technique on wood, which is a little more luscious to work with than linoleum.

Rick got me some very nice woodblock plates for Christmas and I have some Japanese gouges that I have been using for years.

I decided to try something a little more simple this time, two colors only; light teal and dark purple. The image was also quite simple, some waves and a couple of sea birds. I printed it on some beautiful handmade Korean paper. It is wonderful to use and is almost transparent, but stands up well to the burnishing.

This one went pretty quickly and most of the run turned out well.

Available in my Etsy Shop

Reduction Print

I have known for years about the relief technique known as Reduction Printing, but I had never tried it before. Over the past several weeks I have had my first go. In normal relief printmaking one color is printed from one plate. To produce a multi-colored image multiple plates are required, but in this technique several colors can be printed from a single plate. After one color is printed parts of the plate are reduced, by carving them away before the next color is printed.

Of course this requires that everything be very well registered. Easier said than done. As usual, I chose a rather complicated design to begin with. I seem to do that to myself time and again. I designed an image that would require five colors, plus white. The first step, before beginning the printing process, was to carve out the areas what were to remain white, in this case, the poppy flowers. The plate was then entirely inked and printed in yellow, leaving only the white areas.

Next, all the areas that were to remain yellow were carved out before printing with the second color, a light blue. Each color is printed on top of the previous one with more and more areas carved out each time. Generally one prints from light to dark. As the colors mix on the plate they influence one another.

It is a fun process, although you definitely have to concentrate at each step as it is somewhat thinking backwards. We made a registration jig for both the cutting and the printing. It worked fairly well, but definitely not perfectly. With so many passes, there is a lot of scope for error at every turn.

We printed 40 sheets but in the end only 16 are really worthy to put into my Etsy Shop for sale.

Rick is always happy to help me in the process of making prints. I do the image making and he does the printing. Usually we use our press, but in this case we printed each one by hand with a baren.

As the print progresses, the image gradually reveals itself. It’s quite exciting, but the process is long and laborious. Each color took a couple of hours to print and several days to dry. Carving the plate each time took hours and hours as well.

At the end what you have is a plate that is almost all cut away. My last color was a deep purple that made the background and some outlines. Once the print is finished there is no going back.

I’m working on a companion piece in order to take advantage of the learning that took place through the long process.

St. Malo

We’ve had the grandchildren with us over the past week for their winter vacation. We had several adventures, but our most ambitious was a visit to St. Malo on the Brittany coast, about a 2.5 hour drive from our place. Even if it isn’t exactly beach weather, the kids were eager for the sea.

I found us a very nice little apartment a block away from an inviting wide beach, and a few minutes drive from the old town of St. Malo. It was perfect.

There is a wide promenade where, in less inclement weather one could walk all the way to the ancient walled center of St. Malo, seen above in the distance. At low tide the beach is exceptional.

At high tide, however, the beach disappears altogether. St. Malo, due to it’s location and sea floor topography, has one of the strongest tides in the world! The waves routinely crash over the walls. In a storm, they look like tidal waves. Still, St. Malo seems to cope without blinking.

The children and I were enjoying the drama one morning, staying well away from the edge. In fact I wasn’t even on the walkway, but rather in a little set back alley. An exceptionally large wave crashed on to the shore and managed to knock me right over. I was completely soaked from head to toe and a bit bruised.

We stayed for two nights. The middle day was gloriously sunny and even a bit warm. It made our day especially wonderful.

St Malo is almost an island, surrounded on four sides by water. A narrow causeway leads into the city. It has ramparts that encircle the town, where one can stroll along with views of the buildings below on one side and the sea beyond on the other.

St. Malo was founded by the Gauls in the first century and has had a long and fabled past. It became a very wealthy town when it took advantage of it’s location to waylay English ships sailing in the channel and extorted large fees for safe passage.

In the second world war it was occupied by the Germans and heavily damaged by an allied bombing campaign. It was one of the last Nazi strongholds after the D-day landing beaches had been recaptured. It was completely rebuilt after the war, and today it is hard to see any traces of that recent devastation.

While driving to and from St. Malo, we listened to the audio book, All the Light We Can Not See, by Anthony Doerr, which largely takes place in St. Malo during the end of the war. We were able to identify some locations from the story.

More than anything, however, the kids wanted to play on the beach, and there was ample opportunity. We explored several. It’s easy to descend the walls at low tide to explore.

All around the city are little fortresses which played an important role in protecting the city in times past.

While the birds collected their dinner in the tide pools, Quinn and Zinnie amassed an impressive collection of beautiful rocks and shells.

We were happy to sit and watch them frolic, as the sun often came out and bathed us in it’s golden light.

One other thing about St. Malo that we really love, is the Maison du Beurre, where you can buy the most delicious butter imaginable. Our favorite is smokey flavored!