I’ve spent most of the last week working on my most ambitious block printing project yet. It’s a deck of emoji cards for use in video calls by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Emoji cards were introduced to BPF by our brilliant unicorn friend Ray Sukin Klauber, as a way for folks to actively participate while listening. It’s a beautiful practice that helps folks feel connected during video conference calls. Usually folks draw their own symbols, but I thought it would be fun to offer a deck of printed symbols for folks to use, in addition to their own ones. Most of these evolved from symbols used by folks in our community.
I initially learned how to do block printing from Margo Rivera Weiss, in a class offered at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center. I’ve done a few different block printing projects since then, and each time I learn so much! I’m loving diving more deeply into this form.
Engineering hacks for art
Someone asked me the other day if I was an artist. “Nah, just an undaunted explorer,” I said. My grandma the artist told me I should be an engineer. And as I noticed in this project, sometimes art requires engineering.
Unlike greeting cards, this project involved single sheet cards that won’t stand up by themselves. Thankfully it occurred to me before I started printing that I’d better figure out where and how they were gonna dry. You know, with cats around. So with 8 boxes of tea, 2 cookie racks, 2 baking sheets and some masking tape, I was able to dry 56 or so at once, in relative safety.
Lessons from the block
I used rubber for these prints. So far it’s the only type of carving medium I have tried for printing. I can see that it might be possible to carve more carefully, especially in tight corners. I am still learning so much about which carving tools to use at different places in a cut. I look forward to exploring linoleum in the future, for greater detail.
Things I learned in the course of this project:
When drawing on the rubber before carving, every pencil line you don’t carve out is likely to be visible on the print as a tiny place where the ink doesn’t take. If you erase it, it creates indentations in the rubber where again, the ink won’t take.
If you use ball point pen and don’t carve it out, it will be visible on the prints, too, if the pen ink is darker than the printing ink you are using.
As I started noticing these effects when I was printing, I was bummed, thinking they were mistakes I couldn’t fix. As the project evolved, I started seeing beauty in these “mistakes” and how it would be possible to actually use these things as techniques to create certain effects. Less ink in areas of erasure can create a starry sky, for example. So perhaps I will start using these things in future projects to add texture.
I’d heard you could carve both sides of a rubber plate, to get two different prints from one piece. I tried that this time, and in some cases I kind of regret it. Where I carved out large areas on one side, it created an indented effect on the other side, where the ink wouldn’t take. For example, there is an area of the heart that is suffering from the effects created by the lightbulb.
I’d previously only used water-based ink. For this project I used a new type of ink, oil-based ink that washes with water and soap. (Speedball, fabric and paper block printing ink). Since people are hopefully going to be handling these cards a lot, I wanted the ink to be permanent, and not rub off if it gets wet. The downside of this new oil-based ink is that it stinks quite a bit. So I’m a bit worried that some folks will have a bad reaction to it.
This ink also required (according to the package) a hard rubber brayer, which I hadn’t used before. After the fact, I’m still not sure why it needed the hard brayer, but I did use one. It seemed at first like it was easier to get a good even layer of ink, without over inking. But as the days evolved, and I washed the brayer in soap and water with each color change, the ends of the brayer started bulging (the inside of the tube is wood, and I think was absorbing some of the water), and so it became increasingly difficult to get an even layer of ink, since the brayer would only touch the glass on the bulging ends, and so over inking became a problem that was difficult to control.
I enjoyed exploring color mixing effects to create “light” in areas of the prints.
Rubbing thoroughly with the baren or spoon takes a lot of patience. It’s worth it to be methodical, and be rewarded with the nicest print possible. I created a system for making sure I hit every area thoroughly, and even counted to myself.
Sharing is sweet!
Part of what’s so beautiful about this is the patience — even though you are producing in bulk, you are really spending time with each print. Since these were being created as gifts, it brought me a lot of joy to really focus on each print, the joy of giving to these people and this community I love, imagining their joy at receiving art in the mail! It also brings fond memories of the mail art I so enjoyed making and receiving in the 80s, and the zines I so enjoyed making and receiving in the 90s. Gratitude to the postal service, which has been an important part of my creative life.
I look forward to seeing how this deck evolves, what emojis people add to it, what prints I am moved to create as future additions.