Events H.P. Lovecraft Images Printmaking

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.

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Carving complete!

Nearly there
Carving the remainder of the torso and legs was quite rapid. Each little mark is about the same size as those on the head and belly, but they’re more widely spaced, with a few larger gaps to created a spotted effect. All that’s left to carve at this point is the final knee, and then the background.

The bottom of the piece will remain a solid black, and while I could revert to a solid white background as seen in the original Cthluhu woodcut, I’ve started using more textures in my backgrounds.

Time for some background

I’m partial to the roughness of “chipped” textures as such as the one seen here in the Bee from Arcanum Bestiarum, but I feel such a texture would adversely compete with the texturing within Cthulhu’s figure. The figure also contains many horizontally oriented textures, which I’d like to create contrast with, so long vertical lines are a natural choice. Here are the first few swipes, made with a shallow 1.5mm u gouge.

Probably the fastest carving portion of the entire piece.

The texture I’m creating here is relatively simple: repeated passes from a shallow 1.5mm u gouge. The trick is to not be too uniform in carving. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it is very easy to fall into a regular pattern while carving and I favor a bit of irregularity to keep things lively. I want the overall look of the background to be relatively even, but not every single mark. I avoid uniformity by varying line length, starting point, depth, and periodically angling them just slightly left or right.

Just a few more swipes of the knife

Althought just shy of complete in this photo, the initial carving is now complete! At this point I run a bit of 1200 grit sandpaper VERY GENTLY over the block to help remove little snags and splinters; then brush it gently to coax any dust or chips out of small carved areas. After that, it’s time for inking and the first printing!

Speaking of time, the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival Kickstarter ends in just 3 days, and though it has met its initial funding goal, there’s still an excellent stretch goal to be met. Plus, the Kickstarter is the only way to order a first edition of this woodcut print — just my way of saying thank you for supporting the Festival which has been such a large part of my life for so many years.

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“Cthulandia” Continued

Cthulhu is now armed
Apologies to the H.P. Lovecraft fans for the delay in Cthulhu process posting! I left off with the beginning of the claws on March 1st, and have progressed a great deal since then.

Carving can be a very rhythmic activity, and when I wish for parts of an image to maintain a certain level of consistency, I focus on completing those areas before moving into new sections. For this reason, after completing both claws, I moved up through the arms creating a bumpy irregular pattern with some sharpness.

A little off the top

With Cthulhu’s arms now fully realized, I moved on to his head and a lot of very tiny shallow cuts. By starting with my smallest tool, I’m lessening the chance of a “Whoops, there goes a chunk of face!” moment. For the initial carving I’m leaving a lot of surface wood — I can widen the marks to create a lighter surface later and fully expect I will. This sort of carving is repetitive, time consuming, and worthwhile because it yields a more interesting surface in the end than if I were to simply take a big tool and remove most of the wood.

Tiny tentacles don’t provide much space for carving

As I’m moving down the head I’m thinking about the shape I’d like to imply with the direction of my carving, and curving my cuts appropriately. Although much of my inspiration does come from renaissance woodcut style, particularly more primitive less-dimensional types, I find a mix of form and flatness satisfying. I’m also aiming for a mix of tonal value in this image and am not trying to avoid recognizable tool marks. Historically, wood engravers and carvers were not the creator of the image they cut. Their job was to reproduce as faithfully as possible, the drawing of the artist. As a modern printmaker, I am both artist and carver; as such, I don’t wish to deceive the audience into thinking the finished artwork is anything other than a woodcut.

Onwards to the belly of the beast

After finishing the tentacles I shifted down to the bottom of the belly to work upwards. I’m aiming for a lighter belly with sides and legs not as coarse as the arms, but still a bit spotty, so I’ve penciled in a rough belly line and spots. I used the same basic texture as the head and tentacles for the abdomen; however, I will be leaving a bit more space between marks on the sides.

More to come tomorrow! Cthulhu needs the rest of his torso fleshed out and some legs, then I’ll be wrapping up the initial carving with the background. If you’d like to sneak a peek ahead at the proofed block, the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival has a preview for you here. Only 3 days remain to order a first edition of this print via their Kickstarter backer rewards!

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Carving Cthulhu continued

Corrected center claw
At this point in the process, it makes sense to continue outlining with that 1mm u gouge. Outlines may be expanded later depending on the effect I want. Thin outline carving tends to simply make elements stand out from the background, while wider outlining can be used to create a halo effect. In the first photo you can see I’ve made a slight modification to the shape of the center wing claw.

All outlines now delineated in 1mm

Here’s a view of the block after all outlining was completed. You’ll note I haven’t done any outlining in the lower portion of the block since it will be solid black and I haven’t yet decided I want a black outline around the portions of the figure over the black. If, after I ink and proof print the block, I want a thin white line to make the figure pop out of the black, I can easily add it in. I can always remove more wood to create white, but I can’t always add it back in. Always err on the side of too little carving, because you can always carve more.

Is anyone else craving seafood now?

Now we get into the fun part! Although I am referencing the original Cthulhu woodcut and do want this rendition to relate to it, my carving style has developed since 2010. I may end up clearing some of these marks out after proofing, but I know I want the arms to be more textured than the original. I’m starting at the claw tips of the lower arm and moving on up. The spots I originally drew aren’t being tightly adhered too, I prefer to let them progress naturally as I work — with a few markings to remind me where I want a few larger black spots left because I don’t want a symmetrical pattern.

I’ll be moving on up that arm now, be sure to check in on the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival Kickstarter for updates on other rewards available to backers. The Kickstarter will be over in less than 2 weeks and the special event packages are rapidly being snapped up.

H.P. Lovecraft Images Printmaking

Carving Cthulhu

Tools of the trade
It’s time to start carving!

This is a fairly typical set-up for me. The woodblock is on a bench hook which prevents it from sliding away as I carve. It’s a very simple device but very important to safety because if you’re holding the block with one hand, you’re risking cutting that hand. Also present: the handful of carving tools I’m most likely to need given the size and design plus a honing block for keeping the blades sharp as I work. A super soft pencil for corrections and additions as I go. Coffee, because it is time for coffee. Last but not least, I typically reference older prints with elements I want to incorporate in my carving. In this case, this new Cthulhu is meant to relate to the original Cthulhu woodcut, but that edition is sold out so I’m using my tote bag as the reference art.

Most woodcut artists have a pattern to how they work. Some cut every outline first, or use large tools to remove the large white spaces. I’m a bit more organic about how I work, so I either start with something straightforward, or if there’s a technically difficult and essential element such as lettering, start with the hardest portion.

In this case, there’s no lettering, so I’m starting with the patterning in the wings to get a feel for the wood.

Guess who realized one of the wing eyes was placed too high?

As I worked my way through the wings I found a couple errors. I missed a line during the transfer stage, and I had positioned the wing eye too high on the more closed wing. This is why I keep a pencil handy — unlike Cthulhu, I am only human.

I also change my mind and refine designs as I carve, so in addition to moving that eye down, I slightly shrunk the claw lump above it and penciled it in dark to remind myself to not follow my original red lines.

Look at those darling little curls!

After cutting those initial wing markings, I began outlining with my favorite carving tool, seen to the right of the block, a 1mm Komasuki knife, also known as a u-gouge. The markings inside the wings were made with a 1.5mm u-gouge. Same shape of tool (the blade is shaped like a U, hence the name ), just a little wider. (For those who are wondering, all of my tools and wood come from McClain’s Printmaking Supplies. They’re wonderful people to work with and are a great resource for printmaking information.)

Next up will be more outlining and moving into other parts of Cthulhu’s eldritch physique. In the meanwhile, if you haven’t already, you can click on those photos to enlarge them and get a better look if you like. Also, did you hear the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival will be the west coast premiere of the Cabal Cut of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed? “A new edition of this infamously studio-slaughtered film, The Cabal Cut restores almost an hour of previously thought lost footage and returns the film to Clive Barker’s original vision. Not available on DVD, it has shown in a only handful of select US cities, and we are proud to bring you the film, presented and with Q&A by restoration director Russell Cherrington.”

The above is one of the many reasons I’m enthusiastically supporting the HPLFF Kickstarter with this woodcut print editions, I love getting to see rarities whether they’re short independent films, or restored cult classics.

H.P. Lovecraft Images Printmaking Three Hands Press

One last glance

One last look before blade touches wood
One last photo before carving begins! I need to spend today pulling prints for the “Starry Wisdom Library” anthology, so Cthulhu is going to have to wait until tomorrow to begin emerging from the wood. Meanwhile, the HPLFF Kickstarter has passed the 50% mark! Several of the unique higher level rewards have already been snatched up, but there are still many aweseome rewards available to backers!

If you can’t stand going a day without more process talk, have you seen the Three Hands Press interview about the Arcanum Bestiarum art? Not mentioned within the interview, Arcanum Bestiarum standard editions begin shipping this week! I am deeply excited to say the least; the gestation period on the book has been much longer than originally anticipated, but based on the previews I’ve seen, it is well worth the wait.

H.P. Lovecraft Images Printmaking

Transferring the sketch

Sandpaper, red carbon paper, pencil, wood, and Cthulhu

Here are my tools of choice for the design transfer stage. The shina plywood blocks are pretty much ready to use, but they tend to have a little fuzz on the surface so I use a bit of fine grit sandpaper to gently remove it. The red sheet at the top is double-sided red carbon paper. I use it in lieu of standard graphite paper because it gives a good clean transfer and is highly resistant to smearing and fading. I personally like not needing to shellac the block in order to retain my drawing.

Last but not least, a 2H pencil. In my experience if you use a soft pencil for transfer you end up pressing into the block harder and denting the wood; those dents may end up being visible in your final print. Your mileage may vary, but this pencil has served me well in this capacity for a few years now.

The flag of Cthulandia

After sanding the block I position the design on it, and tape it into place with removable blue tape. This stage is sometimes tricky because woodblocks aren’t always 100% true to size and proportion due to the kerf of the sawblade. Edges are also prone to denting and splintering which may shave a little off the side. I try to keep enough blocks on hand so I can cherry pick the right block for the project, and in this case I had several 8×6″ blocks to chose from. I picked a block with clean edges which was slightly larger than the sketch. Smaller than the sketch could have spelled trouble on this piece since Cthulhu is positioned very close to the border. The border can only be so thin without risking it chipping off, so flexibility in altering the edge on this image is low.

Peekaboo Cthulhu sees you!

Once the design is in place and the red carbon paper is between the paper and the block, it’s time to start tracing! I usually start at a corner and take a peek after a few lines to make sure I’m using the right amount of pressure. This is particularly important if I’m using an older piece of carbon paper since it does start fading after multiple uses. (It doesn’t fade fast though, I only used up 2 pieces of it while working on the 50+ woodcuts for Arcanum Bestiarum.)

Double check before fully removing the paper

Once I’m done tracing, I remove enough tape to be able to flip the paper up and check my work. I almost inevitably miss something, and it’s easiest to fix while the design is still mostly aligned with the block. You might notice I’ve not traced the border, this is a deliberate omission; I prefer to use a ruler and pencil so I can account for block size deviation. I’ll add those lines on before the next step: carving!

Please note, this woodcut print is being created in support of the Portland, Oregon H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival — the first edition will only be available as part of their Kickstarter.

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Mirroring Cthulhu

Just a brief progress update since I spent a good chunk of the day delivering Arcanum Bestiarum prints to Splendorporium for the Myths, Marvels, & Magic show. If you’re in the Portland, Oregon area,come see the show! Opening reception will be Friday, March 1st from 7-9pm.


This is the part of the woodcut process where modern technology comes in handy. In order to have the final print edition match the sketch, I have to carve the block backwards. I could trace the design on tracing paper, flip it over, and transfer the tracing to the block. Or, I could print out a mirror image using either a photocopier, or in this case, my scanner/printer. I may be using the oldest form of printmaking to make art, and referencing 15th-18th century artistic conventions, but I’m not a complete luddite.

Here you see the printout I’ll be using to transfer the design alongside the woodblock I’ll be using, and the original pencil sketch for good measure. Tomorrow, image transfer!

The HPLFF Kickstarter is coming along nicely, keep an eye on it for updates on the rewards and contributors.

H.P. Lovecraft Images Printmaking

“Cthulandia” sketch 2

Cthulhu has been forced within the confines of 8 x 6″
Here is the revised sketch for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival special edition with some inking. Though I could have potentially re-sized the first sketch to fit it within the woodblock, the proportions simply weren’t right for the space. This is the re-draw, partially inked to give a better sense of line thickness and texture.

At this point, I consider this sketch done although as you can see there are many elements still unresolved. I typically leave most detail work to the carving portion of the process. The next step will be transferring this sketch to the wood.