Monday, February 4, 2019

Happy Year of the Pig! Watercolor and Papercut Process

This is the fourth calendar I've designed for my family's gift store, Archimage, in Rochester, NY. Every Christmas holiday, they hand out these calendars when people make a purchase. Most of the calendars have followed a Chinese Zodiac theme, and starting February 5th, 2019 it's the Year of the Earth Pig! People born under the year of the Pig tend to be logical, kind, and appreciate the finer things in life. Pigs are symbols of wealth, so let's hope that extends to many of us in 2019! Though they say your fortune depends on what animal sign you're born under.

Let me walk you through my process for creating the finished piece:

I researched the internet for photos and facts on farm pigs. I even watched videos. Pigs are cool creatures. They have an excellent sense of hearing and smell. They use their snouts to dig up roots and sniff out truffles, a culinary fungus. Groups of sows and their young live together in communal groups called sounders. Sows are great moms!

I also kept stumbling upon the cruel fact that pigs are tested on a lot in the medical industry and in military trauma-training. Also, in factory farms, pregnant sows are kept in tiny cages where they don't even have room to move around. I was aware of some of this already, but being reminded again made me feel very sad.

I wanted to create a visual for pigs that depicted a sense of hopefulness and optimism for the new year - I thought about the phrase "when pigs fly," but it was hard to escape the fact that most farmyard pigs are not destined to a life of freedom - though if you want to read about a pig who lived a wonderful life, I highly recommend "The Good Good Pig" by Sy Montgomery.

After talking about all this to my dad, he suggested I depict a wild pig instead. I was already leaning toward this idea but felt affirmed by his suggestion. Domestic pigs are the descendants of wild boars. I was delighted by the beautiful coat patterns of boar piglets. Sows in general are amazing mothers! They nurse so many piglets at once, often flopping on the ground to give easy access to their teats. I was especially struck by the maternal and protective nature of these creatures, so my idea for the image formed around a mother sow and her piglets.

I then created thumbnail images of different compositions.

I sketched my final image on tracing paper, but cut out some of the piglets and moved them around to play with the composition. When I was satisfied, I taped the pieces down. I had a million tabs up on my browser of various boars and piglet configurations. I don't like to copy other people's photographs, so I was determined to create my own grouping that was different than what I had seen. Honestly, this was kind of hard to do since I'd never seen these animals in person.

I knew I wanted to work in watercolor, but watercolor can be so unforgiving! I decided to combine watercolor and papercut so I'd have room to move elements around and swap out things that didn't work.

I began with a watercolor background on a 140 lb. watercolor pad. I wanted to recreate a Bavarian forest scene, in particular the beech forests that had such lovely golden leaves in fall. I wanted an earth-colored ground that would nicely contrast the golden leaves and green-tinted trunks. However, I didn't do any color tests or think ahead much further than that, and I found that the ground matched the color of the piglets too closely! I ended up darkening the ground, but had to be careful of not making it too dark or the mother boar would disappear in the background!

Then, using a medium-thickness drawing paper, I painted the hues of the mother boar, piglets, and golden beech leaves. I painted the tree trunks on a thicker printmaking paper because I wanted more dimension in the trunks.

When dry, I flipped the papers over and transferred the drawings by placing the tracing paper drawing on top and going over the lines to transfer the graphite.

I transferred the piglets the wrong way the first time - I forgot I had to transfer the reverse image onto the back of the paper for it to be the correct direction on the colored side! But it allowed me to test out the coloring of the piglet fur. I tried using gouache, watercolor, and pen at first, but didn't like the
contrast. I settled on colored pencil.

Piglet tests.

I used a blade to cut out the silhouettes of the animals and a few interior lines, but I didn't want to get too fussy. I wanted preserve the integrity of the shapes as a whole.

I ended up adjusting the composition slightly, but was able to place my tracing paper composition over the image to check if I was getting too off-track.

This is the way my desk looks when I'm really working, complete with snot rag and piles of mess. It only stays clean for but so long.

If I had a better camera, next time I would photograph the papercut art instead of scanning it to retain more of the nice shadows and dimensional aspect of this form of art.

This was a lot of fun to make, and I'm excited to keep working in watercolor and papercut! Wishing you all a Happy Chinese New Year!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Wisdom Mask - From Sketch to Linocut

It's funny how setting limits can increase creativity. As an art instructor, I often go in new directions because of project ideas I set for my students. On February 16th and 17th, I am teaching a workshop called Magical Masks: Linocut Weekend Workshop (you can register HERE) inspired by the current special exhibit "Congo Masks" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, through February 24th. As I worked on my own linocut mask example to show students, I had ideas for many masks. I may end up making a mask series!

One practice I've been incorporating in recent years is to create a piece of art I can put on my studio wall to represent the state of mind or qualities I want to embody. I decided to use the idea of creating a mask to help me with this.

Let me walk you through my process...

I started off by visiting the Congo Mask exhibit at the VMFA. It was a beautiful exhibit. All of the following masks are from different regions and cultures within the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Common materials were wood, pigment, and raffia. The information related was transcribed or paraphrased from the placards in the exhibit.

Anthropo-Zoomorphic Ndunga Face Mask
First quarter of the 20th century
Sundi Culture

I loved the simplicity and bold shapes of this mask. And the ears!

Ndunga Face Mask and Replica Costume (Mamboma)
First quarter of the 20th century
Woyo culture

What a fantastic mask and costume! It is speculated that it may represent a member of the secret ndunga society, which sought to restore justice and to uphold social order and ancestral law within their communities. It was also speculated that the mask may have been performed to ward off disease, and that the painted dots represented smallpox.

Large Face Mask (Pumbu)
Second quarter of the 20th century
Eastern Pende culture

According to the placard, this pumbu mask was performed following times of crisis, disease, and famine in the community to help restore order and good will. What struck me about this mask was its bold features, the raffia beard (raffia was a very common material in many of the masks), and intricately carved and whitened patterns. 

Round Striated Forehead Mask
First quarter of the 20th century
Luba culture

This mask may have represented beings relating to the Luba culture's origin myths, as well as the moon and spirit realm. The crest at the rear was thought to serve as an antenna for detecting evil. Something about this mask really reminded me of a Dr. Suess character! I think it is the eyes.

Oops, I didn't take down the info for these masks. But I love how sculptural they are. They look like crescent moons to me.

Horned Face Mask (Kayamba)
First quarter of the 20th century
Lega culture

Whenever I'm doing visual research, I like to not only take photographs, but sketch from life. I believe this imbues my hands and spirit with the "feeling" of my subject. Also, when I'm drawing from life I get a better understanding of what it takes to create my own version, and I'm able to move around and see the object from different angles in case I don't really understand what I'm seeing. With photographs, the image is already flattened and it's hard to "zoom in" on a detail if you didn't take the right photo. It's also hard to tell things like the actual color or material of an object. I only drew a couple of masks, but it gave me a better sense of how dimensional and well-balanced these masks are, even the ones that appear simple.

Pencil on cold press watercolor paper. Over the summer I made a small sketchbook that is lightweight and easy to fold the covers back, which I like to use for sketching from life. 

Later in the week, I began sketching ideas for my own mask. I looked through my notes and photos, thinking about such elements as the visual look of the masks - I was personally drawn to masks with simplified shapes and highly stylized features; the performance aspect of masks - they are worn with costumes and performed with dance and singing for various purposes such as spiritual ceremonies and rites of manhood; the colors used (mostly red, black, and white pigments); and the natural materials that were specific to the different regions. I also loved how dimensional the masks were, and wanted my linocut to look like a real object incorporating some shadows. I can't say I'm an expert on Congo masks, but I tried to use what I learned as a guide for thinking about the elements of a mask.

I began doodling and writing a list of some of the qualities and gifts I want to embody and learn from this year. I thought about what the different features of the face could symbolize: eyes for vision and clarity. Mouth for speaking truth. I had a couple of dreams about snakes recently, so I drew one on the page.

Then I got totally overwhelmed! I realized I needed to take a lesson from my favorite Congo masks and SIMPLIFY! And also, to switch mediums.

Instead of trying to cram all the elements I'd wanted into one mask, I used one or two to give a focus to each mask. Sometimes when I'm feeling stuck or afraid to make a move, I switch mediums to help me. There's something so final about a drawing, but collage allows for re-arranging shapes easily before gluing them down. I cut some shapes out of painted papers: leaves, a shell, a snake, a tree trunk. I played with them and arranged some pleasing combinations. I decided to let go of trying to mentally direct the idea of each mask, and instead let shapes and colors guide me to what felt right. I added watercolor. At first, stylizing the human face was harder than I thought. I'm more comfortable drawing animals, so it made me respect the vision and craftsmanship that went into creating the Congo masks. After awhile I loosened up and began to have more fun with it.

I settled upon the mask at the right (above) for my first carving! 

I sketched ideas for backgrounds to add environments and mood to the masks. Then I was ready to start my linocut! I begin as I always do, measuring and cutting my linoleum to size with a razor blade. Then I applied a watered-down india ink wash to the surface. I traced my mask from my sketchbook onto tracing paper, then transferred it to the linoleum plate with white Saral brand transfer paper. I knew from the blue watercolor sketch above that I wanted to keep the stars and leaves of the background very simple, so I started carving there. 

But I kept avoiding working on the actual face. I'll tell you the truth, I'm often scared before I dive into a piece of artwork - afraid to make decisions for fear I'll mess it up. Afraid to invest so much time into something that might not look the way I hoped. Deciding about how to carve the face was hard because I started off with a full-color watercolor/collage sketch, and linocut is a totally different medium! In linocut, you either cut or you don't cut. There is no tone. Also, you can plan for colors in a linocut, but you have to think ahead a bit. I've used a few different methods to add specific areas of color in linocut. You can carve multiple plates, each a different color, to print in layers. You can leave blank space to hand-paint later in watercolor. There's also chine-collĂ©, which involves adding colored papers during the printing process.

Anyway, I forged ahead blindly without deciding how I would add color to my linocut until I had already carved the background (generally not recommended!) I thought about carving two plates, but then settled on carving just one plate and hand-coloring. There are some printmakers who plan exactly what their cut will look like ahead of time. I almost never do that, because for me the most fun part of making a linocut is carving and uncovering what it's going to look like. I often make decisions I regret, and sometimes I can carefully fix them (see my post on Linocut Surgery), but sometimes I just have to let it be. Usually it's good enough for me! Anyway, I realized I couldn't stall any longer and had to make a move. So I began carving the top section of the forehead and the shell!

One thing that helps me when I'm worried about how to go about a piece of art, is to remember that it doesn't just come from myself. I believe art comes from another realm and I need to be sensitive about accessing that other world and allowing ideas to come into physical existence. My dad has talked to me about this before, and a few years ago I heard about it in Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic." So if I'm afraid, I think, "What wants to come into existence?" rather than "What do want this to be?" 

Moving on to the lower part of the face, I sketched out fine lines in white colored pencil. I like working in pencil because I can change it around and erase. Another method is using white watercolor pencil and wiping away unwanted elements with a damp tissue or cloth. Notice on the photo below that I tried out a checker pattern on the snake/nose but later ended up removing it.

I've never carved such fine parallel symmetrical lines like this before. I would not recommend this for a beginner! Luckily, I didn't mess it up.

And here is the finished linocut! I'm quite pleased with it. Well, it's not over because I haven't printed it or added watercolor. As you can see, areas in the original watercolor sketch that had color were carved away. These areas will not print, so I can paint into them later.

I call this piece, "Wisdom Mask." For me, the shell represents wisdom - both spiritual wisdom and cultivating my mental faculty to think and make decisions without wasting so much energy on fear and anxiety. The snake/nose represents grounding down my energies into the earth. The full cheeks and gently smiling mouth are a reminder of a child's innocence and joy.

I loved how dimensional this piece looked when carved. Maybe one day I will carve real masks out of wood.

And there you have it! I will post again once I print this mask.

If you live near the Richmond, VA area and are interested in taking my workshop, the information and registration link is below. Though I will say that carving this mask took me awhile, so for this workshop we'll focus on carving a mask without the background, and your design should be considerably simpler to carve, especially if you're a beginner. I've been doing this for many years, so I challenged myself a bit with this cut and don't expect you to do the same!

Magical Masks: Linocut Weekend Workshop NEW! [54]

Sat & Sun, Feb 16 &17, 10 am–4 pm (2 sessions) | Studio School, 1st floor Aijung Kim
Masks can simplify or exaggerate a human character. They can represent animal, magical, or non-human qualities that the wearer wishes to embody. The class will tour the Congo Masks exhibition in the VMFA galleries to explore the materials, aesthetics, and meanings of Central African masks. The group will then return to the printmaking studio to design their own mask. The instructor will demonstrate how to design, transfer, carve, ink, and print a linoleum cut inspired by the mask theme.
Register HERE.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Some Art From the Time In-Between!

Hi Friends,

Wow, I can't believe it's been over two years since I've posted here! At the moment, I tend to post art stuff on my Instagram page, but technology apps tend to morph and lose popularity so fast, and I have been missing my blog! Plus, the blog is always here for the technologically-challenged.

Well. A lot has transpired since my last blog post. But, I'll save that for future posts. Instead, I'll show you some art I've made in that time in-between, during 2016 and 2017.

A few monotypes and collages I created in 2016.

A painted "quilt" collage I made in my sketchbook.

I recreated a woodcut I hadn't been totally satisfied with and made it into a linocut instead. For some of the prints, I hand-colored them with watercolor and colored pencil.

I took an amazing online class with Portland, OR artist Alison O'Donoghue called "Bottles, Bananas, and Beyond," available on the website I adored this class and it totally inspired me. The piece above is called "Coexistence." It was created using acrylic paints.

Then I took a class with Alison called "Birds on Birds," similar to the previous class I took. Again, fun times, though I think I enjoyed the "Bottles, Bananas" class a little better because of the freedom of subject matter. This acrylic painting is called "Duet."

Okay, that's all for now. I am on a creative tear at the moment, so I'll keep sharing and hopefully there won't be as much radio silence on this blog from now on!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Note: From September 4th - 22nd I have been in residence at the Rensing Center, a wonderful place in rural Pickens, South Carolina. This is a duplicate of the blog post I wrote for the Rensing Center blog today. To read and see more from other creatives who have been in residence at the Rensing Center or to find out what a creative retreat can feel like (just reading about it is inspiring!), visit Rensing's blog here. Also, I mention the other artist residency, ArtLab, that I attended in June in this post, and I do plan on writing a post about it soon. 

The view from my patio at the Rensing Apartment.

Today is my last full day at the Rensing Center. I leave tomorrow morning for Richmond, Virginia - an eight-hour drive to the city for a slow driver like me. For the last few days, I've been moving through the hours slowly, my mind already in the future, my heart trying to let go of this place so I can be ready to move on. My heart is sad.

Within a few hours of arriving at Rensing in early September, I knew this was a good and right place for me. I felt comfortable enough to allow myself to wander through the first week – taking naps, playing the piano in the library, painting the shed for my work-study hours, and working intermittently, while my energy started to gather. I napped a lot throughout the first week and a half, and realized that my body and spirit needed the rest after a busy summer. Ellen was supportive of this, encouraging me to feel less fretful about my lack of productivity.

Me, after I painted the shed! Photograph courtesy of Hannah Lee Jones.

Even though my ego wanted me to produce, I knew that something deeper was forming within me. Originally for this residency, I meant to work on carving linocuts to accompany some fairy tales and fables I had written over the past several years. I had planned to edit and polish the writing before I arrived so I could work on the artwork while I was here. But after taking a couple of writing classes earlier in the year, I realized that my writing still needs a lot of work and practice. I was not going to polish the stories before coming to Rensing.

Gathered gifts.

Instead, I came to this nearly three-week residency with a number of projects in mind: I wanted to finish the lengthy zine I'd started in June at my previous and first-ever artist residency, called ArtLab, at Mountain Lake Biological Station, take an online class to work on a picture book manuscript, start some short comics, and spend a little time on certain aspects of my art business – prepping digital files, photographing and listing products in my online shop, and carving some linocuts to sell at upcoming craft shows. And perhaps create a zine about Rensing as well. I was overwhelmed before I arrived at the residency.

Adorable young goats at Chad and Jon's farm.

Affectionate mamas.

I ended up working on a little bit of everything, except for making comics and carving linocuts. In fact, I mostly wrote during this residency, something I felt a bit self-conscious about because I have much less experience with words than with images. I outlined and wrote a draft of my experiences at my previous ArtLab residency, worked on a picture book manuscript, and took notes on daily happenings at Rensing. I learned what it feels like to write everyday, to write as a practice. And without planning to, I wrote poems in my notebook. Poems about what I saw and felt and dreamt: the goats, the wild persimmons, the piano, the dead rabbit that Bob the cat left for me in the bathroom on my first night here, the strangely similar dreams Hannah and I shared on the same night.

Some unfinished spreads from my forthcoming Rensing zine. 

As I realized that the writing and illustrations for my ArtLab zine required more time than the Rensing residency would allow, I switched gears and focused on making a zine about Rensing instead - a zine of the moment, one that I could finish in time for the Richmond Zine Fest where I am tabling next weekend. I told myself I'd keep it simple. Use the words I had already begun to write. So I did. It's going more slowly than I had hoped, as everything does, but I've decided I will finish it by next week no matter what, even if that means leaving out a few pages I had previously planned. I want this zine to be spontaneous and impressionistic. And I want it to be finished. One thing the two residencies from this year have taught me: in the ebb and flow of the creative life, it's best to catch the comet and not let go until it burns out. I work by obsession, and if I don't have proper time to indulge in the obsession, it's hard to put myself back into the mindset I had before. With my horrible memory, past experiences turn into a milky haze of pure feeling, with no detail or knowledge of where things begin or end. That's why the zines are so important to me. They help me to capture a place on the page. They anchor me to the ephemeral and prompt me to look deeper. 

Hannah and her horse-love, Rocky, from down the road.

Rocky eats an apple while I laugh.

During these final days at Rensing, I find myself counting out each of the last things I'll do here: this is the last time I'll visit the horse down the road, the last time I'll wash this cutting board and oil it, the last time I'll scrub the cast iron skillet. I can't let myself forget to bring home the sheet music from my high school piano lessons that my dad mailed to me from Rochester, NY. I don't have a piano in Richmond. Tonight will probably be the last time I play on it and sing, sing as loud as I want with no one hearing me. I need to make sure I feed the goats persimmons one last time before I leave.

From left to right: Ellen, Hannah, Ron, and Evelyn. 
Ron made the delicious Meyer Lemon Meringue pie they're all eating!

I will miss this place and I will miss the people: Evelyn, with her pure white hair and clear voice, coming by on her golf cart to feed Bob, Ellen with her ruler-straight posture, warm eyes, and wise words, Hannah Lee Jones, my fellow resident, with her eloquent poetry, diligent work ethic, and healing conversations, who has been a kindred spirit through our time here and will be lucky enough to stay through October to watch the foliage brighten. Neighbors Ron, Jon, Chad, Eric, and everyone else who stopped by the property to talk or work or share dinner with us. The goats, the cows, the swallowtails on the patio, Bob the cat. I have deeply felt the role of community during my stay here: why it's good and necessary to share knowledge, resources, talents, friendship.

Full Moon night.

Though I have a few things to show from my stay here, and more to come when I finish my zine, what I mostly benefited from here was the magic, the poetry of this place. Not magic in a vacuum apart from worldly problems and concerns. But magic that reminds you there is more than what we can see in the physical world. There is waiting and right timing, connection, acceptance, the ebb and flow of energies, coincidence. And benevolence: that's what true artists impart to each other. The benevolence of respecting and giving (to ourselves and to each other) the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual space we each need to function as creative individuals, as humans.

I know I needn't feel so sad. This place feels like home to me, and home is a place that will always welcome you back.

Aijung Kim, resident artist in September 2016

Bob, the best company to have while you're working.

You can purchase the zine I created of my experience at Rensing HERE