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!

Winter at the Maison

Monotype Landscape #1

Winter this year so far has been extremely mild. Global warming has come to Montmirail. In our front garden we currently have a rose in bloom, and our Daphne plant, (which usually blooms first, but closer to the beginning of March) is in full bloom. Unless something changes soon, I think we will see Spring long before expected. Of course since it was significantly warmer in Antarctica this week than in our village, it’s clear that we can’t count on much these days.

One thing, however, that hasn’t changed, is the Maison Conti is currently very quiet. We have our days mostly to ourselves. I do appreciate being able to begin the new year with lots of time to experiment and indulge myself in my atelier. It sustains me for the year. A little winter hibernation is not a bad thing.

I have returned to printmaking experimentation. I spent a lot of time several years ago exploring monotypes. The process basically involves painting an image on a plate and printing it as a one-off. 9 out of 10 times I wasn’t so happy with the results, but the ones that did turn out well were very pleasing to me indeed. It’s a process with a lot of surprises.

Monotype Landscape #2

I have done many fewer etchings over the last few years than I did when we first set up the atelier at Maison Conti. I hope to get back to more of that as the year goes on. I finished my first effort in early January.

Chez Nous”, a line etching

I have also begun working on some relief prints. The difference between intaglio, like an etching, and relief, like linoleum or wood block printing, is that in a relief the part that is not meant to print is cut away, leaving the surface to be inked and printed. In Intaglio, the lines are incised into metal, using acid. The plate is inked but then wiped clean, leaving the ink only in the lines which print under the pressure of the press and the dampness of the paper. I have done very little relief printing in my life. The results are less detailed and fine, but can be lovely in their own way.

“Black Bird,” relief print cut from wood blocks, one block for each color.

“Versailles”, one color wood block print

Our little village is calm at this time of the year, but there are lots of ideas in the air to improve and grow the town. We have a new restaurant being planned, perhaps a bike rental and brewery, we have some crafts people moving in to town to open up their studios for visits, we have a new gift shop and many cultural events in the coming seasons.

Eco-Dyeing on Silk

I had quite a lot of plant material left over from our holiday, including two generous bouquets of flowers; roses, mimosas, daffodils. I dried many of them, as I discovered last year to my surprise that one can still extract color from dry plants. Some of the fresh flowers and leaves, however, became subjects for silk eco-printed pieces I have been creating over the last two weeks. I was able to make so many prints of various sizes, that when sewn together (using some pieces done over the last year), I had a large quilt of about 3 X 5′.

Silk is wonderful to dye with, but a bit of a pain to sew with. It’s hard to make everything square, but Rick, who is very meticulous with such things, helped me make a good rectangle.

The way the eco-dyeing process works is that you soak the fabric in a basin of water which has a couple of tablespoons of both alum and washing soda. This is an effective mordant for the silk (or cotton and paper, for that matter). The plants are soaked in a bath of half vinegar and half water. Just a few minutes of soaking both for the fabric and plants is sufficient. Before arranging the plants onto the silk fabric, I take the plant pieces out of the vinegar water and dip them into a bath of iron water (made by soaking rusty nails in vinegar and water for a month or so). The fabric is then rolled tightly around a stick or a bottle and tied with string so that the plants and fabric have maximum contact. The bundle is placed in a pot of boiling water, not submerged, but suspended above the water, so that the whole thing can steam for an hour. It is that simple.

Here are a few details from the quilt. I love how the results can almost seem photographic.

The roses were white, but they printed a golden yellow with blue outlines.

This hobby is rather addictive because the results are always such a surprise. All variables, the weather, the time of year, the quality of the soil, the exact plant specimen, the fabric or paper used, all will change the results, and sometimes quite dramatically. In Australia eucalyptus leaves print red but in France they print yellow. In the late fall maple seeds print purple, while earlier in the season they print rusty red.

Silk is the best medium for eco-dyeing, in my experience. It takes the plant images in the most detail, but of course it is expensive, so I feel as if I have to use my results in some kind of project, rather than just adding them to the stacks of eco-dyed materials I have in drawers. In this case, I intend to make a large wall hanging, which will involve doing some quilting onto cotton batting with some beautiful silk embroidery thread I have ordered.

Earlier in the week, we had occasion to go to Vendôme, a forty minute drive southeast from us. It was a chilly day but rather pretty nonetheless. The Loir River (baby brother to the larger Loire River), which passes through the town was high and lively. I caught a photo of these fishermen on the banks, trying their luck. Vendôme is a very elegant town.

Starting This New Year

For the first time in my life, we did not celebrate Christmas this year. For our family in California, the price of flights to Paris for New Years was less than a quarter of what it would have been for Christmas. I thought I was sentimental about trees and ornaments, but it turns out I’m not. Christmas passed without much notice and with no regrets for Rick and me. Instead everyone arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the first week of 2020 with us at Maison Conti. New Year’s Day has always been my favorite moment of the year anyway, so I found it an especially nice time to come together.

Let’s begin by talking about the food. Most of the family loves to cook, and all of us like to eat. The main celebratory meal we had together was on the 1st. It included the essentials, such as oysters, foie gras and roast beef.

But there were a few surprises too. Emily, being a vegetarian and an excellent cook, always has something special to share for our meals together. This time it was a galette made with a crust of ground nuts, topped with avocado purée and mushrooms. I have added a link to the recipe as I highly recommend this dish. It was spectacular.

We bought some beautiful côtes de boeuf from our local shop. They directed us to cook them over an open fire, so we turned our downstairs fireplace into an indoor barbecue.

We had several organized activities planned for the holiday, but most free time was spent walking, sitting by the fire, reading, chatting and doing crossword puzzles.

The weather was mild but not bright and sunny.

In the past we have often done some crafts projects together during holidays. One year, inspired by Calder, we made lo-tech mechanical toys. (Calder had a fabulous collection of handmade puppets which he used to create magical circus performances for his friends.) We have often done sewing projects. This year we decided we would make a book together, and I was left to arrange it. I prepared all the pieces in advance, so that we could put the journal together in a reasonable time frame.

Since I have had so much fun with eco-dyeing, I decided to begin by having everyone make a title page using this technique. I collected leaves and asked James to bring me some eucalyptus from the U.S., which he kindly did. Eucalyptus is one of the best leaves for this process.

I chose to show them how to create a little book that binds the pages together with elastic so that pages are easily added and removed.

Everyone seemed pleased with the results. Each had a unique book well put together. Each cover and the decorative inner lining pages were different one from another.

Several people have told me since that they have put their little books into daily use.

Another project we did together was some canning. We made pear chutney, lime pickle and pickled vegetables.

One day we decided to show Daniel the first house we bought in France, which is about an hour northwest of Montmirail. We visited the old haunts on a very chilly day.

In those early days, we literally lived in the middle of a forest beside a little stream. The old house has fallen into some disrepair these days. It is really a little paradise in summer, but not so much in winter. It’s hard to picture now the life we lived there, especially at this time of year. We used to roam the woods looking for fallen branches since there was only a small fireplace and no central heating.

After everyone had gone back to their own homes, ours got very quiet. Still, it has given us some time to get a few things done around the house and to start projects of our own. I’ll share some in future posts.