In Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, artisans and artists have created an art form using sheet and drum iron as a base for chiseled, tapped, and worked iron, making two and three dimensional sculptures. In many ways their work parallels the printing process, basically the actions of press and lift.
The iron artists often begin with a pattern, sometimes in leather that can be rolled up and stored and used again. The pattern is laid out on the metal and in chalk the shape is outlined. With chisels the piece is cut from the metal and the resultant form is a first "pull" providing the background for the work that follows. Detailed embossing by tapping the metal with punches, chisels, mallets and other marking devices complete the process of shaping the metal and producing images of depth and often subtle meaning. The finished work is then filed, burnished and sanded, and then the work is sealed from rust.
I have tried a first experiment in paralleling the process in relief printmaking using actions similar to those of the iron artists.
The iron artist is using techniques well known to printers - removing the materials not used, a process of revealing what is by removing what is not until a satisfying resulting shape appears. Patterns are often a tool to this end.
In my first effort, I used the pattern of an iron wall sculpture of a cross, some 32x38 cm in size.
As you can see, the details of the work are set within the pattern.
On a piece of plywood 45x61 cm I carved away the surface layer of mahogany veneer and some of the first layer of the ply, first outlining the cross itself, and then the interior open spaces in the cross itself.
Learning: (i) the carving was hard work, particularly when working against the ply grain and in areas where imperfections in the plywood were filled in with glue or other non-yielding material. (ii) I made a mistake in choosing a veneer coating for the plywood. While the mahogany received the ink well the veneer was so thin that cutting through it was not enough to make a clear distinction between the raised or relief material and material not to be inked.
The print from that first outline cut provided a background for the continued manipulations that followed. The background first printing looked like this:
The color, a mix of red, brown and white water based wood block inks, was meant to provide the color for highlights that would be brought out by further carving.
I believe the color was well chosen, but that I erred in inking the whole plate rather than just the cross itself. The opportunities for inking problems grows as the area inked is enlarged.
The small figure in the right hand corner was an experimental free hand carving. I had thought to cover the rest of the open spaces around the cross with additional carved relief images, but realized that if I was following the lead of the iron artists, the relief images they produced were meant to stand alone, without additional distractions.
I then began to work on the details found in the original work.
You can see in the detail from the cross that a variety of tools were used to impress or emboss the metal - punches and chisels primarily.
I attempted to parallel the tool use: chisels were used to make small triangular marks and lines, punches were used to make indentations that would appear as parallel to the punched marks on the iron. Most of this was quite satisfactory, except that the compression of the wood made the resulting surface unstable - both the height and the leveling of the surface was compromised. This made the pressure on the final print run difficult to control. The result was that some areas did not print well.
On the next run I did not ink the whole place, but only the cross.
The inked cross now shows the full extent of chiseling, punching, and marking prior to the final print run.
The use of a nail punch produced marks similar to the punch used on the metal, but the pressure deformed the wood badly in places. In the iron this deformation resulted in the iron becoming three dimensional. On a strictly two dimensional surface there is no easy way to represent that deformation. This will require further experimentation.
Because of the size of this block, I had to print by hand, using a baren to press the paper on the ink. As you can see the ink settled in well on the veneer.
Registration was accomplished by using the edge of the plywood plate as the guide, the paper being the same size as the plate itself.
You can see on the left the final print, pressed on the background color, used the reduction process.
The registration worked (not always the case with me) and the colors worked well. Some of the richness of the iron work came across pretty well, but the burnishing of the iron and the effect of the protective clear coat on the iron is lost. Again further work needs to be done here.
Finally, I pulled several prints of the black and white fully carved image. While this did not produce an image with the same depth of color sense as the original piece, it was highly satisfactory as a graphic image.
The imperfections and instability of the wood shows clearly, but the resulting image shares with the iron work on which it is based the sense of stressed materials being made to carry an image.
The graphic image that results is something that I could use as a basis for a fabric image.
THE EXPERIMENT AND ITS RESULTS:
The concept is right - the iron workers and print makers can share in parallel actions, the purpose of which is to provide a relief print, either on metal or wood / paper. On metal the final print is an embossed image from a cut-away process. On paper the embossing takes the form of various marks made on the background pattern, itself an image using the cut-away process. The final relief print shares with the iron work the same graphic strength. The greatest limitation is that the iron embossing deforms the iron sheet and makes it three dimensional. That is not possible on the print image, except by further color manipulation that would give a sense of depth.
I need to think again about the plate. For a wooden plate this size some form of plywood seems appropriate. It may also be that some other materials might serve including linoleum. I am drawn to wood precisely because the tools used on it can be essentially the same as the iron workers use: punches, chisels, mallets, scoring devices.