Lesson #21: Getting the block warmed up for printing
(contributed by Dave Bull)
To make 'just one' good woodblock print is almost an impossible task. There is a 'warm-up' process that must be gone through when starting any given print run, and the first few sheets off the blocks are always 'test' sheets. Just as an athlete cannot simply enter the stadium, crouch into the starting position, and then run the 100 metres, neither can the printmaker (nor his woodblocks) work without properly warming up.
When I was making my first experiments in woodblock printmaking, I used to prepare a half-dozen or so sheets of paper for each print run. I thought that I had no need to make larger numbers of prints, and of course also didn't want to 'waste' paper. I didn't realize it at the time, but that policy of making such a small number of prints made it inevitable that my efforts to make a decent print would fail.
The blocks were dry and thirsty, the brush was clean and almost 'empty' of pigment, and it was only by the time the last of the six sheets came across the block that things were starting to come into balance.
And I unintentionally made the situation much worse by taking a long time between sheets, inspecting each one to see 'how I was doing'. During those intervals, even though each was only a minute or so in length, the block dried out a bit and the next print suffered in consequence.
Pulling a group of woodblock prints is not something that can be stopped and started or dawdled over. You must get the materials all ready, then get them warmed up properly, and then ... go, go, go ... until they are all done.
This is a huge 'Catch 22' for the beginner. He has to constantly stop and inspect what he is doing, in order to make the necessary adjustments to the blocks and paper, but stopping like that guarantees that the next sheet will have a different block/paper moisture balance, thus rendering his adjustments meaningless.
There is only one solution for this: do your early printing experiments using a cheap and expendible paper, put at least a couple of dozen sheets in the stack, and promise yourself you will keep moving, keep moving, keep moving ... Make your adjustments and experiments as you move along - use more pigment, use less pigment, etc. etc., but don't stop printing! They're no good? Don't worry about it - these sheets will be thrown away!
Later, when you're a bit more confident and ready to run an edition, put a half-dozen of these cheap sheets at the beginning of the main stack of proper printing paper (or more if you think necessary). They will be your 'warm-up' group, and hopefully by the time you hit the 'real' paper, your block will be properly moist, your brush will be 'loaded', and you will be cruising ...
(Extra note: I didn't mention it in that lesson, but assumed that before you are ready to try such a test printing run, you have previously tried to print one or two sheets to verify such basic things as general registration alignment, whether or not additional carving is perhaps necessary, and what general sort of colours you are going to mix ... That kind of adjustment and testing always takes a lot of time, and you cannot hope to do such things properly during a print run.)