Tag Archives: magic

Beauty In Limitations: A Printmaker’s Perspective

Denslow’s Mother Goose, W W Denslow, 1901

I have been thinking about limitations lately.

Like illustrations from old picture books before four-color photo-processing became the norm. The ones I’ve accumulated are mostly from the 40s and 60s and they seem have been printed that way to keep production costs down. An economy of expense leading to an economy of style.

Those images have a particular quality that I’ve always loved. The simplicity of an image made by building layers of color. The opposite of slick. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to printmaking. Printmakers are inordinately fond of process and tools you have to sharpen by hand. We think in layers. We are to painters what typesetting is to Microsoft Word.

Kees & Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Kees &Kleintje, Elizabeth Enright, 1938

Not that images like these were simple to produce. Each color had to be created on a separate overlay in black (or the photo equivalent). Often the print run was limited to two or three colors so overlapping was used to create more.

When you have to do the color separation yourself with specified colors, you have to create the mechanicals whilst thinking ahead to what the image might look like. You won’t know for sure till the finished page comes off the press.

Kees, Elizabeth Enright, 1937

The above images were printed with red, yellow, blue and black inks. The oranges and greens and other tones come from overlapping the transparent inks and using screen tones of those four colors. I know it sounds like CMYK, but the difference is that the color separations were all done by hand. There was no full-color image to start with ahead of time.

Rather than confuse you further by describing what I’m talking about, I will show you an example. The spread below demonstrates how three separate images overlap to produce a multicolor picture.

Woodcuts & Woodengravings: How I Make Them, Hans Alexander Mueller, 1939

When artists work under these limitations, I think a kind of magic can occur. I like the happy accidents that happen when colors overlap and registration gets a bit off. Some people would argue that you can get the same effect more easily using a computer, but there is too much control — down to the pixel — with digital media. There is no room for chance or Happy Accidents. The only accidents I can think of involving computers involve spilled liquids, and they are NOT happy.

Pierre Pidgeon, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1943

Ilenka, Arnold Edwin Bare, 1945

Mrs. McGarrity’s Peppermint Sweater, Abner Graboff, 1966

Josefina February, Evaline Ness, 1963

James and the Giant Peach, Nancy Eckholm Burkert, 1961

So how does all this inform my work?

“Daphne’s Hand”, Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Well, like I said, I’m a printmaker, and printmaking isn’t the most practical illustration technique in which to work. Nonetheless, it is worth it to still leave room for chance in my work. Images like these remind me that working within limits can have positive, even beautiful, results that could not be achieved in any other way.

Horns, Magic, Metaphors, and Me at the Gate

19th Century Austrian Postillon

By way of introducing myself here at BOOKS AROUND THE TABLE, I’m going to share this image of a postillon horn. Never heard of it? Me, either, until I went looking for something to serve as a metaphor for “beginnings” or “openings.” As a poet, I like metaphorical thinking and the sneaky way it makes its point via indirection, in the same way a magician performs sleight-of-hand, making people look at one hand while the other does the actual trick. Look, a dove!

Instinct usually tells me to go with a poem or an image, since one or the other of those will be sufficient. I generally leave explanation to the people who write fiction or non-fiction. But prose is the method of choice for blogs, so let me explain my thinking.

The horn pictured above resides in the Postal Museum in Prague. Postal carriers in the 19th century used it to “give different signals for having the town gate opened, warning the other drivers on the road to give way, calling for help in distress, announcing the post arrival and departure, changing horses, etc.” Note the horn hanging from the neck of the unabashedly jubilant postillon below. Looks like some of those letters aren’t going to make it to their destinations. I hope the news in the telegram was good news – maybe a prodigal son returning? A lost fortune regained? – and not news of cher Mama’s death. That image requires champagne after reading, no?

I don’t expect to toot my horn to warn the other drivers on this blog (Laura, Julie P. and Margaret) to “give way” – I rarely go above the speed limit, metaphorically speaking (Look, another dove!) Nor do I anticipate changing horses very often, though I’ve been known to do it, even mid-stream. But I do like the idea of a high clear note that asks for the gates of the city to open – after all, this blog is about sharing and building community among writers for children, and I hope to hear the hinges creaking, the doors opening and our voices mingling.

At the Gate- Porta Maggiore - Rome

From time to time I might blow the horn as “a signal of distress.” Writing is a strange business, and for many of us it is both exhilarating and exhausting.  There might be an occasional blast on the horn when I’m trying to figure out what keeps postal carriers – I mean writers – going when they’re bone tired. The Frenchman at the Cafe du Postillon pictured below doesn’t appear to be in a Pony Express mood. Maybe he’s a burned out writer. Some of you, I feel sure, have been there yourselves, leaning against that very door jamb.

Cafe du Postillon - Photograph by Aart Klein

Right now, I’m feeling energetic, and I’m here at the town gate with my trusty horn. Hope I’ve got some lovely bit of mail for you from time to time. I wish I could deliver it right to your door, and we’d have tea and talk about books around the table. But I’ll be satisfied with delivering the Books Around the Table part of that scene to your computer screen, 21st-century-style.

Postillon - Neckartailfingen, Germany