Page 21 - June 2017
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david & Julie williams, the printmaking pair
detail, imago alas imago alas, full
by stephanie stinski
so, what is printmaking? To the informed art aficionado who is familiar with the medium and its many forms, bravo! But for those who are not acquainted with this kind of art be- yond the fact that some sort of ink is applied to some kind of block and then paper is pressed onto it to make some set of prints, this time-intensive craft is so beautiful in its own right that understanding it changes the way one views these pieces in their entirety.
A moment’s glance at the artwork of Julie and David Williams informs the viewer that printmaking is a complex and varied medium, producing an array of different styles. Mrs. Williams’ prints are layers upon layers of carefully placed colors, building on and around each other to create captivating landscapes. Mr. Williams’ intricately drawn lithographs take an illustrator’s precision and blend it with organic abstraction in moody pieces full of character.
The end result is a captivating pair of artists whose individual works dovetail one another with wonderful precision.
Let’s start with Mrs. Williams’ reduction woodcuts. They’re colorful and are often mistaken for paintings, but they start with a block of plywood called shina. Mrs. Williams begins by working from pictures she’s taken in her personal travels, drawing out the general image onto wood. She then chooses how many prints she wants in an edition (the set of prints all made from the same block – generally between 10 and 30 prints), and tears that many pieces of Rives BFK, a thick, fibery paper which feels like a page of an archival book. Then she makes the first set of cuts into the wood. Anything she wants white is cut away.
Next she chooses her first color. “If a piece is going to have yellow, I always start with that,”she says. “You can never get yellow again once you go over it, the color will just turn green or brown or gray.” She chooses the ink color she wants (or mixes inks together to make a new color), rolls it onto the woodblock using a tool called a brayer, and runs the paper and woodblock through the press. Each sheet in the edition is printed and then dries on a rack for about a day.
While they dry, Mrs. Williams returns to the woodblock and using small, sharp tools, carves the details she wants printed with the next color. The lightest colors go down first, because any colors printed on top will interact with the ones below. Being an experienced print- maker who often mixes ink to achieve a specific palette, she can predict how colors will blend with each other, but the surprise of what colors are created by printing on top of previous layers is part of the joy for her.
When asked if she plans how she is going to cut each layer before she starts a woodcut, Mrs. Williams laughs. “Oh no! I will have a general idea of what I’m going to do, sure. But as I work on a piece, it changes. That’s part of the fun of printmaking. You get to see a piece evolve.” She picks up a finished reduction woodcut block. It is a piece of art in its own right, slightly stained in the recesses by ink.
Running a finger across it, the eyes of an aspen tree and shoots of grass in the foreground are actually felt; the block is surprisingly smooth, though brimming with little details. “I like how much control you have in reduction woodcutting. I started out as a watercolor artist, but a watercolor class wasn’t being offered at the time, so I wound up in David’s printmak- ing class. That’s how I met him.” She laughs again and she shares a smile with her husband. “With watercolors you put the paint on the paper, and it’s done. With printmaking, you can adjust it and shape it every step of the way with your carving, or the way you mix the ink. It’s more tactile, and there’s something special about that.”
Mrs. Williams has a knack for choosing quintessentially comfortable scenes for her wood- cuts. A longtime resident of the Southwest, and originally from a Northwestern logging community, she has an innate appreciation for nature. A piece called Looking Back shows a quiet path disappearing into a hillside shrouded by fog, the trees just soft silhouettes whis- pering the presence of a forest in the distance. Another piece, Winter Calls, features a thicket with dry, yellow grass sticking up through patchy snow. Her subjects are not often magnifi- cent views, but instead are calming, serene places which evoke the comfort of a nostalgic memory. Even when she does choose an impressive vista as a subject for her pieces, such as in Wonder (cover art), her work still manages to tug at the heartstrings of familiarity. While looking out over Grand Canyon, the massive canyon walls fade away into the distance un- der a clouded blue sky, yet the viewer is accompanied by a few little trees, making it feel as though there are friends standing nearby.
Unlike many other mediums, printmaking allows the artist to create multiple copies of the same piece of artwork. The artist prints each one, so they are all originals — but it is a
limited edition. The goal of the printmaker is to have each print in an edition look the same — same color, same saturation — so each print in an edition is indistinguishable from another, whether being the first or the last issue. With a reduction woodcut, there are only as many prints as the artist initially began; once wood is cut away, there is no going back.
Other forms of printmaking allow the artist more freedom in determining how many prints will make up an edition, such as Mr. Williams’ lithograph prints. Lithography came about as a means to reproduce sheet music at the end of the 18th century, but quickly became adapted to art — from poster making, to political cartoons, to fine art, to large-scale printing. Lithog- raphy works upon the principal that oil and water don’t mix.
“The actual printing process is one of the most difficult to teach, because it’s all chemistry,” says Mr. Williams, who is a printmaking professor at Northern Arizona University. He pulls a massive piece of Bavarian limestone partway out of a stand. A dark image of a curious raven dubbed Edgar stares out from it. The heavy stone is nearly three inches thick and requires a lift to help move it to the workstation or the press. “The artist draws on the stone with an oil-based medium such as an oil crayon or tusche,” Mr. Williams explains. He holds up a con- tainer with the thick, greasy, black substance which is often spread onto lithographs. “They can also add washes and ink to create all kinds of different textures.”
When the artist is ready to print, he prepares the block (with water, a couple compounds, and a little more chemistry), and runs it through the press. The ink sticks to whatever areas of the stone have the oil-based drawing mediums, and the image on the stone will be printed as a mirror image onto the paper. He can then make as many prints as he chooses in an edi- tion, and then each one is numbered and signed. When he is finished, the artist will clean the stone using an abrasive until it is smooth and ready to be drawn on for another print.
Mr. Williams’ new line of raven lithographs demonstrate the flexibility of the medium. He draws the upper part of the ravens with a complex realism which captures the character of these intriguing birds through their natural behaviors. Their faces are bright, inquisitive, and social as they engage with each other or peer out at the viewer. But the detail begins to fade away into sketches until the edges of the ravens are little more than lines hinting at feathers or wings.
He uses ink and reticulated washes to form dark, obscure borders around the ravens, add- ing a certain mystery to the enigmatic birds already surrounded by cultural mystique. The transition from detailed drawing to a loose, even chaotic background in his corvine prints varies from most of his other lithographs and intaglios, which are highly-detailed pieces. “I have been wanting to add more abstraction to my prints for a while,” Mr. Williams says. “So, I have really enjoyed doing more sketching.”
“I personally like to work in black and white,” he says of a majority of his mono-chromatic portfolio. “But you can certainly create colorful lithography prints as well.” He walks over to another stone with a drawing of a young girl next to a gigantic mouse who is holding a box of crayons. He has already printed a key proof of the lithograph, Beady-Eyed Mouse, but he isn’t nearly done. “I’m going to create an edition of this print in full color.”
The large stone lithograph with the original image will be the key, but he will use highly- textured metal plates that mirror the surface of a stone to create a separate plate to apply each color he adds to the print. It will take quite a bit of time. He smiles and reiterates a senti- ment his wife had shared earlier. “Printmaking is a process and the piece changes throughout it. If you don’t like the process, you’re not a printmaker. I often have to tell my students their final work won’t turn out exactly like they had envisioned. Seeing an idea change and evolve is the joy of art. If I knew what a print was going to look like when I started it, what would be the point of making it?”
Mr. and Mrs. Williams have won multiple awards for their work nationally, included in pub- lic and private collections throughout the world. However, the couple are incredibly ap- proachable people and appreciably active in the Flagstaff art community. If ever attending the Art in the Park summer extravaganzas, one may recognize the two, as they’ve partici- pated for over ten years, sharing their love of art with locals and tourists alike. The Williamses will be at Art in the Park again this year, as well as participating in the Art 35° North Tour July 22 and 23, when they’ll be opening up their home studio to the public. And if that isn’t enough dedication, the duo are also headlining Arizona Handmade Gallery for the First Friday ArtWalk in Flagstaff on June 2 from 6-9PM, where a selection of their most recent art is currently on display. | the NOISE arts & news | JUNE 2017 • 21

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