Proofing Cthulandia

The sacrifice is ready.


Initial carving of the woodblock done, it’s time for the first printing. I print at Bite Studio, which has several excellent presses and plenty of space for working in various printmaking methods.

First up is setting the press height. That big shiny roller in the middle of the photo is what presses the paper onto my inked woodblock, and finding the right pressure is crucial. Too high and the print will be light and “snowy” instead of the solid black I favor. Too low and (if I can run it through at all) the block can be crushed and completely destroyed. Take my word for it, I’ve done it. I learned from my mistake and now keep a “Sacrificial Block” on hand to set and test the pressure with. That’s it in the photo. Once I’ve run it through and adjusted pressure to my satisfaction, the press is ready.

Phone books — still useful in print studios

Next up is my inking arrangement. I always give the glass counter a wipe-down before putting any ink on it. In a group studio you never know what may be on a surface even if it looks clean — and even in your own studio it may be dusty and the less dust in your ink, the better. Debris such as dust, hair, or even dried chunks of ink, can show up in relief prints if you’re not diligent about checking for it as you work. I consider such marks to be of varying levels of acceptability in hand-pulled prints. A little “birthmark” can speak of the handmade nature of printmaking, a whole bevy of such marks speaks of inexperienced printmaking. (Which is fine if you’re a beginner! Don’t be too harsh with yourself if you’re new to printmaking — it takes time to learn the tricks and gain a feel for the artform.)

First pass of the brayer.

The ink is rolled out over the glass, forming what is known as a slab. The slab functions like an ink pad does for a stamp, except instead of pressing the wood onto it, you pick up ink with the brayer, then roll it over the wood. The brayer is basically a rubber roller with a handle, they come in many sizes and levels of firmness. My brayer was made with a very firm rubber so it won’t sink into the carved portions of my block. If I were to use a very soft brayer, or too much ink on my brayer, it could potentially fill my carving with ink which would result in lost detail. Ink has to be applied to the block in thin layers to prevent loss of detail, so the first pass of the brayer doesn’t look like much. Wood absorbs some of the ink, and often has low spots that may not be hit by a roll in one particular direction, but will be covered when you roll from another direction.

Brayers also tend to suffer from some unevenness; good inking doesn’t require perfect surfaces, good inking requires patience and attention. Here’s a close-up of the block after a few more passes of the brayer. It took several more passes to fill in that light patch. Inking does become a bit easier after a few printings, both because the block will quit soaking up quite so much ink, and because you’ve learned the quirks of the block and how to best manage them.

On the press bed

Once the block is sufficiently inked, I inspect it to see if there are any dull patches (not enough ink) or debris lumps. If I find dull patches, I figure out how to get the roller into that space and properly ink it. If I find any lumps, I carefully remove them with a bit of matboard (I don’t want to gouge the wood with a hard tool), the smooth out the scrape mark with a few more rolls of the brayer. Once the block passes inspection, it is moved on to the press bed. When I’m editioning I add my own guide to the bed to help me line up the block and paper position, in this case, I’m just proofing, so I’m eyeballing my paper drop.

The moment of truth

Because the goal here is to find out what the carving looks like, and not to produce a finished print, I’m also using some scraps of paper for the printing. I learned early on that if you try to pull a proof on newsprint, you won’t get a very informative result, so my “scraps” are still pieces of good printmaking paper, just random size leftovers from other projects. If I’m working large and don’t have big enough scraps, I’ll usually buy some cheaper printmaking paper of a similar weight. It won’t yield exact results, but it will be close enough to tell me whether the press is set right and the block inked as well as I expected.

Here it is, the first “Cthulandia” print! It’s still a bit light in places, but I expect that from a first printing. In my experience, you don’t start getting good even prints until a few impressions in. At this point, I now have enough information to proceed with finish carving. I can tell immediately I’d like to lighten his belly a bit more, and refine/lighten the head as well. I think the texturing of the legs was quite successful, and I’m also very happy with the evenness and tone of the background.

White, off white, buff

If this proof were just for me, I’d clean up at this point, but because the first edition is for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival Kickstarter, I want to be able to show a few paper variations. I want the first edition Kickstarter backers receive to be unique from any later edition I may print. My personal policy with editioning is that editions should always be different in a noticeable way such as paper color and size, or ink color, or maybe some carved changes to the block. As work progresses I’d be interested to hear from backers on whether they’re hoping for my usual “black ink on buff” combo, or are open to something a bit different. I’m personally feeling tempted to see if I could can up with a good dark green/black ink color.

Ghosts of Cthulhu

The last step of proofing is clean-up. The ink needs to be cleaned off of the counter, brayer, anywhere else it may have strayed, and of course, off the block. I use vegetable oil to clean up most of the ink from the tools and counter, then a little glass cleaner on the counter. Wood will absorb any liquid put on it, so I don’t use any solvents or cleaners on it. Any such substance could potentially damage the block or if not damage it outright, be retained in the block and interact with future inkings. So instead of a vigorous wipe down, the block is printed on sheets of newsprint. Each time paper is pressed to the block, it removes a little more ink until finally the impressions are very light. (Fun fact: impressions pulled without re-inking the block are known as ghosts. I can say in all honesty that I generate ghosts on a regular basis.) Woodblocks will always retain a little ink, and that’s okay because next time it is inked, it won’t absorb as much and will yield good prints faster.