One day last summer while stalking our kids on Facebook, and I see a beautiful photo posted by my friend Robert Shear, of sunset from his back yard in Utah. It’s a scrubby desert landscape, a lone tree, and distant mountains. The photo has little in common with my own photos that have led to block prints–no dappled sunlight, no lush greenery–except that it has a tree: “the broccoli tree,” as Robert calls it. We don’t have broccoli trees here in the Northeast. It’s wonderfully rounded, and reminiscent of the trees you see in California Impressionist landscape paintings, like this:
But the thing that really gets me is the light on those mountains. It’s a warm peachy light, with sort of violet shadows. I think I could make a beautiful print of this! Robert enthusiastically grants me the use of his photo.
There’s one other thing that makes this project special to me, and that’s the back story of Robert, and his extraordinary desert dwelling. We became friends when Robert was a student in one of my block printing workshops. During the workshop, he made a block print of his earthship, which spawned a conversation over the lunch break. Here’s the short version:
Originally from nearby Buffalo, NY, Robert found his way to the Roycroft Inn in the early 1970s, and there began his gradual absorption into the Arts & Crafts world. In the ’90s, he lived in Manlius, NY, where his wife bought him a Roycroft-designed Little Journeys table at the L & JG Stickley factory. From Manlius he moved to Pasadena, CA, visited the Gamble House, and soon began work on the unique earthship-style mountain cabin, furnished with period pieces and Stickley reproductions, that is now his home. His cabin “The Half Moon,” is built with special features that make it livable and sustainable at low cost in its very remote, off-the-grid location.
Of course I eat this up. A peaceful, minimalist dwelling, beautifully efficient, sustainable and integrated with its natural surroundings? Simple, green living, surrounded only by the useful and beautiful. Heaven! So William Morris, Thoreau, Frank Lloyd Wright… Read the fascinating story of The Half Moon here.
I crop the photo and create a sketch, taking some artistic license, with just five colors plus a fading blue sky. I’m anxious to start printing, but Business Manager Bob urges me to do a painting first, to work out any design bugs before committing them to linoleum. Yes sir, coach. I do a painting in gouache as a study for the print. Gouache isn’t like oils, where you can easily blend colors to create soft gradations, so the sky is bands of color.
Then, mounted linoleum block (solid, no carving yet) in tow, it’s off to the printing studio. Former pressman Bob locks the block in place on the press. He has already cut 200 sheets of paper to size. I mix up a great blue and a pale yellow, and lay them near the press, along with white, to print the sky.
With a little trial and error, we’ve got the colors blending so they hit the block at just the right spots. Make a few prints, add blobs of ink (just in the right spots, to keep the blending right), make a few more prints, add ink, until 200 sheets are printed.
Pulling prints…they look amazing! I love rainbow rolls!
There’s a subtle pale yellow about 2/3 of the way down that I hope will still be visible after the horizon mountains are printed. But with block printing, you’re never exactly sure how things will turn out. Now must break for a show this weekend (the weekend before Thanksgiving).
The following week, I take the same block used to print the sky, and carve away all the sky area (this can be done on a coffee table laden with goodies while visiting with relatives during Thanksgiving family reunion). Relatives approve of broccoli tree image.
Return home, get to printing center. Mix up a fleshy color for the mountains using opaque white, transparent white, yellow, and two reds. Pressman Bob sets the block on the press and stands by with whip and camera. “Print, Chicken, print!”