Tales of ConQuesT (48)–The Art Part

My home science fiction group, the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, put on their annual convention this weekend. I always enjoy ConQuesT, held each ear in Kansas City on Memorial Day Weekend–but I must say that this year’s ConQuesT 48 was even more fun than usual.

There are many reasons why it all came together so well for me, but here are a few highlights from the “Art Part.” Always first and last, for me, there is the ConQuesT Art Show.

Literally first, because I was once again the “shipping address” for the show. A few years ago I was the Art Show Director, and although I’ve now gratefully handed that job over to a talented and responsible young man named Mikah McCullough, his apartment is a tad on the “small side” for a large pile of incoming boxes of art. Thus, on the first day of the convention I haul not only my own artwork, but also all the mailed-in work from all of the wonderful artists who participate from afar.

My “White Clematis” variations available so far.

I’m showing a collection of new multiple-original artworks at sf conventions this year, the “Guardians” series (four separate designs) and the “Clematis Collection,” which so far consists of three Artist’s Proofs of White Clematis Panel with Golden Dragons, (honored with a rosette as Art Director’s Choice at DemiCon 28 earlier this month), and an edition limited to six smaller pieces titled White Clematis with Dragons. A one-of-a-kind original from this collection, featuring purple clematis flowers and titled Gold and Purple, should be ready to debut at SoonerCon 26 in late June.

I also had a new, one-of-a-kind original to debut at ConQuesT 48, Nose for a Rose. Here’s a glimpse, along with a look at my display at the convention. This is all you’ll see of it, however–it was purchased by a collector on its “maiden voyage.”

It’s always fun to show and sell my artwork, and to help put the Art Show up and take it down. But another joy for me is participating in panel discussions at science fiction conventions–and I was part of several at ConQuesT 48. They’ll be the subject of my next post, coming soon!

IMAGES: Most of the photos on this post are mine. Since I’m the Communications Officer of KaCSFFS, I’m the one who put together the ConQuesT 48 banner. It features a logo design by Keri O’Brien and a photo of the lobby of our convention hotel, the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, which provided the photo. All the other photos were taken by me, of my artwork (and other personal effects). The cat is my daughter’s. Her name is Sora and she is Queen of the Universe (just ask her). All of the photos are available for re-posting, as long as you attribute them and provide a link back to this post or to ConQuesT, as appropriate.

How I make my paper sculptures

I first started making paper sculpture in 2007, but during the first few years I tried a variety of techniques and media before I settled into a pattern that works for me. I have drawn upon my background in printmaking, graphic design, and pen-and-ink illustration to develop my own way of doing things.

1. It starts with a drawing.

During the early years I experimented with cutting freehand shapes out of acid-free paper of various colors, but this didn’t give me the flexibility or the control I wanted. I’d always been a pen-and-ink artist, so eventually I gravitated back to that. 

First come the pencils, then the ink. I erase the pencil lines after the ink dries if I want a more clear, crisp line, but leave some or all of the pencil lines in, if I want a softer look in the scan.

I draw on tracing paper to create wings or other overlapping levels: pencils, then inks.

I sometimes draw my original ink drawings on acid-free, finer-tooth white drawing paper, while other times I’ll use tracing paper overlays to make separate parts of an image.

2. Next step: a scan.

I love using hand-applied colors, especially with Prismacolor pencilsgouache, or acrylic paint. However, I soon discovered that a scan can turn the pigment colors muddy, when reproduced. Now I nearly always scan my ink drawings before I add any color.

3. After the scan, I add color.

I use Adobe Photoshop and/or Adobe Illustrator to add color to my ink drawings. This gives me several advantages. I can make variations on the base drawing’s colors–or make versions in entirely different colors–depending on the effect I’m going for.

Using digital media makes it possible to make the same “base drawing” in several different color variations.

4. Create “pieces to print” pages.

Here’s where using the digital component really comes in handy. I normally export the color work as a JPEG, once I’m ready for the next step. This gives me a lot of flexibility. I can adjust the size of the printed images according to my needs, and I also can make a master “to print” page that contains several repeats of the image I want.

This is one of the “pieces to print” pages for Coming Through!, a multiple original edition I started in 2012.

5. Print copies of my “pieces to print” pages.

I always use archival-quality, acid-free paper and fade-resistant inks for my printouts. No ink is totally lightfast in direct sunlight or high humidity, but I try to ensure that with proper care I’ve used inks that will keep their bright colors as long as possible. I also like to print on several different weights of paper.

Whenever possible, I print what are to become the upper layers on 20-lb. paper, for maximum flexibility with strength. The Southworth Archival Business Papers I normally use take embossing quite well without tearing, and hold the impressions without losing their sculpted form.

I prefer to print the base layer for any image on heavier stock, ideally 62-lb. paper (sometimes I’ll print intermediate layers on 32-lb. paper, depending on need and availability).

2-up dragon wings, one of the “pieces to print” pages for my Common Cliff Dragon–Male multiple original edition.

6. Cut out the images.

Now comes what I call the “lap art.” Cutting out the images is exacting work, but it also can be tedious. I normally station myself in front of the television, with a lap desk or corkboard to catch the clippings, for this part. It’s also a great thing to do with my hands while talking on the phone–kind of like some people crochet or do cross-stitch.

A lot of people ask if I use an X-ACTO knife for this. In general, no. X-ACTO blades get dull way fast for this kind of work, and then they tear the paper. I vastly prefer a small pair of very sharp scissors for most of this work. Until they grow dull (which takes a lot longer), they give me considerably more control on curves or intricate shapes. If there’s an inner shape to cut, sometimes in that case I’ll use an X-ACTO.

Here are pieces of a Coming Through! in various stages of being cut out, on a corkboard with two of my more indispensable tools: small, sharp scissors and my favorite tweezers.

7. Sculpt the cut-out pieces.

Now comes the actual sculpture-part. I have a variety of tools, some originally designed for leather working or bookbinding, a few stolen from my old set of etching tools, and others taken from my pottery-making tools. They help me burnish, crease, emboss, and otherwise manipulate the paper (especially the 20-lb. stock) to stretch and mold it into 3-D bas-relief forms.

Here are some more of my favorite tools.

8. Assemble and glue together. 

Once the pieces are sculpted, it’s time to put them together. Normally I ensure the raised forms will stay raised to the desired level by gluing little rolls of paper to the backs. These become the anchor-points for attaching upper layers to the heavier, lower layers.

Two layers of the Protector dragon: the 20-lb. layer is easier to emboss and crease. The 62-lb. layer (at right) anchors the sculpted top layer so it holds its form. The rolls of paper (on the back of the piece at left) provide dimension and anchor points.

If there are little creatures, leaves, etc. that are distinct parts (such as a dragon, a unicorn, a clump of grass, or a tree, I’ll sculpt and assemble them first, then layer them into the larger image I’m creating. Once it’s all assembled and glued together, it needs to dry at least overnight.

Once I’ve sculpted them and stabilized them on a solid base layer, I can create quite a bit of dimension, even at a very small size. These guys (made for the editions Protector [L] and Brave) would just fit into a 2-inch square.

As you can see, it’s a rather complex process from concept to finished piece. Sometimes a work is so complicated, I can’t face going through all that rigamarole more than once. Or perhaps I had to use some kind of hand-coloring or embellishment to finish it to my satisfaction. In such cases, there can only be one. 

But for most of the pieces I’ve been making in recent years, my little printmaker soul can’t stand to do all that work and only end up with one piece as the final product. Instead, I’m turning them into limited editions–but as you see, each is made individually by hand, and if you look carefully it’s easy to see small variations. Thus, each is unique: a true multiple original.

A Common Cliff Dragon–Male waits to be matted. Pieces need to dry at least overnight, after they’ve been sculpted and assembled.

So far, all my editions are limited to 25 copies. I figure that’s about all of any one design I’ll be able to stand making, and by then I’ll have made others I’m more interested in doing. Unlike traditional plate-based multiple-original print editions, however, I’m discovering that as I make these pieces I find better and more effective ways to give them a truly sculpted and well-defined execution. I make each piece to the best of my ability, but the latter ones in the edition may actually be “better” than the earlier ones, thanks to the learning curve.

9. Sign, number, etc.

The piece is not complete until it has been appropriately marked. A one-off original will usually have my signature hidden in it somewhere, but other times that’s not possible. In those cases I’ll sign and date it at the bottom.

The multiple-originals follow a more traditional numbering-and-signing format: the marking “AP” and/or a fraction-like number, frequently along with the date or dates (those also may be on the right), goes in the lower left-hand corner. In the middle, I’ll write the title in quotation marks. On the right is my signature. Here are a couple of examples, along with a guide to how to interpret those otherwise-possibly-cryptic markings:

This edition originated in 2017 and this particular piece was made in 2017. It is #2 of an edition of 25 originals. The title is Protector, and it was created by yours truly.
This one’s a little more complicated. It’s an Artist’s Proof (AP), the second of three experimental works I created from several printed pieces. I’ve been trying to find a good way to complete these pieces since 2013, but I think I’ve figured it out.

To alleviate the mystery a little more, each piece comes with an information sheet that tells about it and explains the markings.

IMAGES: All photos were taken by me of my artwork. You may use them unaltered, IF you include an attribution and a link back to this page. Thanks!

What is a multiple original?

Lately I’ve been making more and more multiple-original limited editions of paper sculptures. But what does that mean?

Essentially, it means that each image is made by hand, and that each image is in some ways unique, although it is part of a consistent edition, limited to a particular number of prints. And what does that mean? The answer will take a little explanation, and a short walk through art history:

Commercial mass-printing methods

In my experience, the term “multiple original” arose about thirty-plus years ago, when photo-offset lithography (also called “offset litho” and/or “photo offset” printing) became widespread and affordable enough for individual artists to make reproductions of their own artwork.

This sheet-fed offset litho press dates from 1980. Printers of its type revolutionized the art reproduction print business (for more details see the credits at the end of this post).
This sheet-fed offset litho press dates from 1980. It, and others of its type, revolutionized the art reproduction print business (for more details see the credits at the end of this post).

Suddenly, artists could produce and sell high-quality reproductions of their work by the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands (technically, far more are possible. But that was the practical outer limit). These prints were all virtually identical, no matter whether it was the first print off the press or the 10,000th.

Traditional, handmade printing methods

Of course, that’s not at all the way art prints had been made, up until that point. Handmade, individual prints had been created for centuries (and are still being made) in small editions. Rembrandt is known for his etchings, as well as his oil paintings. He is certainly not the only artist who was a printmaker. Hokusai’s woodblock prints and Daumier’s lithographs are other examples of masterworks created through hand-printing methods.

Hand-pulled original prints such as this lithograph are printed by an artist or artisanal printer one at a time by hand. The printing plates used for these processes break down quickly, so a print from early in the edition will be more crisp and clear than one from later in the edition.
Hand-pulled original prints such as this lithograph are printed by an artist or artisanal printer one at a time by hand. The printing plates used for these processes break down quickly, so a print from early in the edition will be more crisp and clear than one from later in the edition.

In traditionally-made editions, the print number makes a difference. An artist numbers the prints sequentially, based on the order in which they were printed. Print number 1/20 means that this piece was the first print made in a total edition of twenty prints.

The prints in an edition should all look as much alike as possible, to be considered “consistent.” Consistent handmade print editions are technically difficult to produce, and prints made early in the edition are often of better quality, because the plate has not broken down significantly yet (when it breaks down too much, the edition ends). However, a commercially-produced offset litho edition, potentially numbering in the thousands of prints, produces identical images, and requires no artistic skill.

Inevitable controversy

When artists in the 1980s began to produce offset-litho reproductions of their prints, a huge controversy arose, especially because they often numbered them, just as prints in hand-pulled editions were numbered. This confused many art-buyers, and, not surprisingly, tended to outrage artists who used those technically-challenging traditional printmaking methods.

Yet the new reproduction method made it possible for artists in “slow” media such as oil and acrylic painting to sell their images as they never had been able to before. It also fulfilled a need among would-be art buyers who had never been able to afford the kinds of art they liked best, before. Now an artist didn’t have to be able to make originals quickly to make a good living selling his or her work to a wider retail audience.

Artists who exhibit their work at art fairs such as this one (the Kansas City Plaza Art Fair in 2013) or in other, similar venues have more ways to offer their work to buyers in a wide range of prices, thanks to more affordable mass-printing methods.
Artists who exhibit their work at art fairs such as this one (the Kansas City Plaza Art Fair in 2013) or in other, similar venues have more ways to offer their work to buyers in a wide range of prices, thanks to more affordable mass-printing methods.

A matter of terminology

It became clear that distinctions had to be made. If a print has that fraction-like number on it, buyers need to know what that means. Is it a hand-pulled lithograph or a photo-offset lithograph? Is it a handmade serigraph, or an inkjet-printed giclée? Is the sequence number an indicator of print quality, or simply an inventory number? What does “limited” mean, if an edition is “limited” to several hundred? Part of the answer lies in an art-buyer’s knowledge, and his/her understanding of the differences. Artists can and should help educate them if they aren’t sure.

When something is identified as a “lithograph,” it should mean that the print was produced through the traditional hand-printing method (as in the photo of the artist above) that uses a smooth stone and the principle that oil and water don’t mix–not that it was printed using the related-but-much-different process of commercial offset lithography.

Printed paper money provides another example of mass-produced identical images in limited, numbered quantities. The rules about making that kind of printed image are a little bit different from the rules about art prints, though!
Printed paper money provides another example of mass-produced identical images in limited, numbered quantities. The rules about making that kind of printed image are a little bit different from the rules about art prints, though!

Mass-produced images that are essentially photographic copies of originals made in other media (such as oil paintings, pastels, etc.) are appropriately called fine art reproduction prints, not lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, etc. Those terms should be reserved only for the corresponding hand-printmaking methods.

Fine art reproduction prints usually come in limited editions. That means the artist has limited the number of reproduction prints that s/he will make to a particular number. If you see the fraction-like number 234/500, that means this is a fine art reproduction print from an edition limited to 500. The “234” is primarily there as an inventory number, and to reassure the buyer that it is the only “234” available. It’s a double-check on the artist’s integrity. If there is no number on the print, that means it is an open edition. In an open edition there is no limit to the number of reproductions that may be made.

Chris Pig of East London Printmakers uses
a brayer to roll out ink for a woodcut, a similar
technique to the printing method used by Hokusai.

Traditional hand-printmaking methods are understood to be multiple originals. This means each one is made by hand, and it is in some ways unique, because small variations arise from the process of making it (such as from the plate breaking down in subtle ways, although that’s not the only possible source of variations).

I feel justified in calling my limited editions of paper sculpture multiple originals,  because although some of the early parts of their creation involve the inkjet-printing method often called giclée (generally considered a reproduction-print technique), each individual piece is made by hand, one at a time, and each image invariably has small variations that arise from the process of making it. My editions also have so far been limited to small editions of 25 images each (plus some Artist’s Proofs, a term I plan to define in a follow-up post). This is much more in line with the editions created by traditional hand-printmaking methods.

Next week I will describe how I make my limited-edition multiple original paper sculptures, step-by-step.

IMAGES: The photo of the photo-offset press (an Einfarben-Bogenoffset-Druckmaschine, Type “Roland Favorit RF01”, Baujahr 1980 Hersteller: M.A.N.-Roland Druckmaschinen Aktiengesellschaft, Offenbach am Main Foto aus dem Deutschen Mudeum in München) is used by permission of the copyright holder, Clemens Pfeiffer of Vienna, Austria. It was made available via Wikimedia. Many thanks! 

The photo of the (unnamed) artist making a lithograph is from Orange Carton’s blog post, “Do You Know What an ‘Original’ Art Print Means?” The article discusses the topic in some depth. Check it out, to learn more. 

I took the photo of crowds and booths at the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City, MO in September 2013. It is available for use by others if you include a link back and attribution.

The photo of the sheets of uncut pound notes is from The Commentator. The photo of master printmaker Chris Pig is from East London Printmakers. Many thanks!