Monday, 1 March 2021

Drawing with stencils

Cave of the hands: Perito Moreno, Argentina

Stencils have been used for thousands of years to make images. In the cave painting above from 10,000 years ago in Argentina, the image maker was nearly always using his or her left hand as a stencil. As we look at this image, we begin to imagine a right handed human, spraying paint from a mouth full of pigment and saliva. This direct contact memory of hands on rock enables us to conjoin in our minds with early humans as they engaged in the image making of themselves. These are images of touch, of direct physical engagement with the rock surface, and it reminds us of how fleeting is the life of human beings and of how long in comparison is the life of a rock. It reminded me of those dinosaur footprint fossils, especially those of running tracks; preserved moments that are still as they were millions of years later. 

Fossilised dinosaur footprints

Today however we tend to associate stencilling with street art, Bansky seeming to have cornered the stencil market, at least in relation to a popular awareness, but stencilling is a way of working that has a long and interesting history, so its well worth investing time in exploring its potential and not being put off, simply because one artist seems to have made the technique his own.

Victorian stencil decoration

If you go to Harrogate spa baths for a traditional sauna and dip in the cold plunge pool, which many of us that live in Yorkshire used to do before COVID struck, you can as you recline after your sauna experience, gaze up at walls and ceilings covered in traditional Victorian stencil decoration. These decorations reflect the importance of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain at the time, 
From a 1910 stencil catalog by Sherwin Williams 

Both Charles Rennie Macintosh and William Morris used stencils, a technique which continued to be an important approach to surface decoration on through the 1920s and 30s in both Britain and Europe, in particular because the low tech approach was something most tradespeople could use when decorating both public buildings and a private house. However stencils weren't just for wall decoration. 

André Marty

George Valmier Pochoir technique

George Valmier Pochoir

André Marty and George Valmier were French artists that both used what was at the time called the 'Pochoir' technique, a stencilling technique that was very popular in Paris during the time of Art Deco. (1920s/30s) It was stencilling (sometimes combined with collotype) used as a very basic printing technique, but it has often been forgotten that it can produce very sophisticated results, both for making abstract and for figurative imagery. 

Here's a how to do it video.

Monoprint with stencils

The history of printmaking is very closely linked to the use of stencils, especially in combination techniques such as woodblock with stencils. 

15th century playing cards printed from a woodblock with a stencil used for the red colour

It is in Japan that we will find some of the most sophisticated uses of stencil techniques. Katazome is a stencil method used to make patterned fabrics. You apply a resist, usually made from a rice flour mixture, through stencils. Then the cloth is dyed and where the paste mixture covers and permeates the cloth, the dye will not penetrate.

Kimono detail cloth printed using Katazome as a stencil method

This process is essentially a silk-screen printing technique. The first known use of a screen printing technique was by the Polynesians, who would force ink through holes cut into banana leaves to make prints. However in Japan the process was developed into a very sophisticated art form. Katagami was an extension of the art of making paper stencils for dying textiles. The stencils were made by several sheets of washi paper being bonded with glue extracted from the persimmon fruit. This made for a strong, flexible, brown-coloured sheet, which could be finely cut out into patterns. These delicate pieces were then stabilised on a screen built from a fine silk mesh. Large swaths of fabric could then be printed by repeated moving of the screen and lining up the edges of the repeat pattern. 
Since that time of course silkscreen printing has become a standard printing process and stencils can be photographic as well as hand cut or painted. The University has a very good print facility which is well worth spending time with and getting to know several stencil techniques, not just screen printing. It was Andy Warhol that made silkscreen prints so familiar to us, but it's worth remembering that a lot of artist's screenprints look nothing like Warhol's and that it is a technique always ripe for re-invention. 

Jonathan Lawes: Screenprint

If you want to make your own stencils, the stencil material can be made from paper, mylar, thin plastic, or metal. However, if you do use Mylar sheets to make them, you will probably need a hot pen stencil cutter. The advantage in working with a stencil cutter is that you don't get those tiny nicks caused by craft knives when trying to cut sharp changes in direction.
A hot pen stencil cutter

Using a roller to apply the paint. 

The paint has to be of the correct consistency, not too thin or it will drip and run, but liquid enough to be rolled or dabbed evenly through the stencil holes. 

Stencil Brushes

Like every painterly craft stencilling has its own special brushes that come in different sizes. If you are using letter and number stencils in particular, you will find that it is so much easier to use stencil brushes than ordinary ones, because the long bristles of paint brushes push paint out under the edges of the stencils. However neatness isn't everything and Jasper Johns has worked with stencils of numbers and letters since the 1950s, using his orderly grids of stencilled forms to visually engage and play off against gestural brush strokes. In his case the paint sliding over and across stencil edges is part and parcel of the effect he is looking for.

Jasper Johns: Alphabet 1959

Jasper Johns: Numbers 1960

Christian Guémy (C215)

Bansky is not the only street artist to use stencils and Christian Guémy (C215) has been using them to make expressive close-up portraits of marginalised people for over twenty years. 

You might be thinking why am I bothering to spend time posting information about such a basic technique. Well besides the fact that most techniques are when you boil them down pretty basic, it's a reminder that so much of what we do comes out of an investigation of material possibility that has always been with us. In this case the making of a stencil and the application of a pigment. We sometimes need to dance with materials, to hold them close and move them around, so that between us we can find out the potential that can emerge from humans and bits of materials rubbing together for a few hours. The module first years are undertaking at the moment is centred on research, but people can get stuck in too much background reading or internet searches. Sometimes the research can be simply, what can I do with this material or this way of working? 

Spray diffuser

The first time I remember using stencils to make images was back on my pre-diploma course, but I used a spray diffuser to apply the paint with, which I see are still available for only £1.95. We used them mainly to spray our charcoal drawings with fixative in those days and I have noticed that a very cheap low tech option now being used is to buy children's felt tip pens with a spray attachment. Back then I was very interested in Pop Art, and I used spray techniques to make paintings based on the images you found on seed packets. I'm sure I would have played around with felt tip pens and these children's spray attachments, if they had been available then. 

Felt tip pen inserted into a simple hand pumped spray attachment

Avery Singer's paintings use masking tape and paper stencils and the paint is applied using spray. The spraying is done using spray pens or airbrushes rather than being spat out through the mouth. But the technique is basically exactly the same. She uses 'SketchUp' on her computer in order to work out her images, the very basic building blocks the software uses, being ideal for inventing scenes that have nice clean mainly straight edges, that can be transferred into stencil cut designs.

A 'SketchUp' idea being developed

Applying the paint through masking tape stencils

Avery Singer

If stuck play with some materials, go back to being a child in the sandpit and see what happens when you dig or push or scrape. It is only afterwards that you begin to find a story for what you have done and as you find that story it often goes into directions you never intended it to go into, but that's the great thing about open ended play, you don't know where you will find yourself, but that's exciting and if you are prepared to take the risk, it can be exhilarating. 

A couple of years ago the artist David Faithfull and fellow members of Edinburgh Printmakers set out to make a sustainable print out on the sands of the North Sea shore. Using a stencils made out of plastic bottles and a black ink mixture made up from squid ink and Scottish seaweed, they made one image using the black squid ink to mirror an oil slick and another image using stencils of the hundreds of plastic bottles found on the beach. 

David Faithfull 

The only materials used were those found on the beach, both natural and man made materials were regarded as possibilities, and then the tide came in a washed it all away. Sometimes you need to make things that only last for moments, but they can still mean something.

See also:

Avery Singer at work

Sustainability resources 

Drawing and printmaking

The Vignette


Shadow drawing


Thursday, 25 February 2021

Authenticity and blockchain


Beeple is the online name under which Mike Winkleman operates. He is an artist that is proficient in a wide range of image making software and he has an aesthetic to his work that could be described as post pop expressionist surrealist collage. I. e. a playful relationship with invention, that is fuelled by collage techniques. I think his work is interesting and worth looking at, but no more so than quite a few other artists. However he has come to be seen as a symbol for the continuing hold of capitalist ideals and the power of the investment market. 

Today Christie’s auction house will become the first to offer a purely digital artwork for sale.  Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS,” is being offered as a unique NFT (non-fungible token) consisting of 5,000 individual images created every day between 2007 and 2021 and posted on the artist’s Instagram feed. Those of you that follow this blog will have become aware over time that I have serious worries about the art market, and have long thought that it skews meaning and value in such a way that it makes it extremely difficult to understand how art can be used to benefit society, or to be a communal resource, if the best of it is priced far beyond the means of the average person. For a while I naively thought that online work might open out a new 'money free' arena from within which artists could operate, but I was not aware of 'blockchain'.  

Noah Davis, a specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s in New York who is leading the sale, states that, "understanding NFTs is an exercise in abstraction, the actual NFT-based artwork is just a code. It doesn’t exist. It has no objecthood." So we are asked to see this as 'abstraction' and of course abstract art has remained a very good seller on the investment market, so why not attempt to link the abstract nature of code with that of abstract imagery, after all they are all symbolic languages. 

Christie’s will also accept payment for the artwork in cryptocurrency, a coin known as Ether. (The buyer’s premium, a set of fees tacked on to the principal, must still be paid for in dollars.)

This is how Noah Davis describes the situation:

"It’s important to define the artwork itself and the symbol that represents the artwork, separately. The actual NFT-based artwork is truly just a non-fungible token — it’s a long series of letters and numbers that is dropped into a digital wallet. But the symbol that represents the token is the monumental collage that Beeple put together, and one could argue that the token basically implies that this is contained within it. It’s the first 5,000 images from his ongoing project The Everydays, in which every day he makes a new image. More recently, they have been very politically or pop-culturally inclined. But the actual NFT-based artwork is just a code. It doesn’t exist. It has no objecthood. We are not selling a painting to hang on your wall." 
He goes on to state; "You could look at it on your phone, your computer, your tablet, or in virtual reality. Really, the only pre-requisite is a screen that has access to the image." Finally commenting, "There are people who are going to look at this as a volatile marketplace that represents an opportunity for speculation and potentially a windfall down the line. Even though this is probably going to command an extraordinary price, there are people out there who are looking at this as a potential investment opportunity. Then there are people who are looking at this as a radical declaration of philosophy or values or investments in the concept of a future where blockchain technology and NFTs and cryptocurrency become the norm for transacting in the financial marketplace."

So the market driven art world becomes ever more speculative, just like the futures markets that collapsed a few years ago we now enter a world of non-tangible investment, but for what purpose? While we all know that we are failing to look after the planet, we also distract ourselves from this very fact, still looking for investments that might mean that we can get 'loads a money' by being the first to invest in a fast rising stock. 

I have been asked by several students lately as to how to save work if it is to be seen as saleable on line, well now I have the answer, when you have made your digital artwork, publish it directly onto a blockchain in the form of a non-fungible token (NFT).  This makes the ownership, transfer and sale of your artwork possible in a cryptographically secure and verifiable manner.

Beeple set out to make an artwork that was about creativity itself. He was celebrating invention, demonstrating that he could renew himself through imaginative play everyday, and what a wonderful idea that was. But it has now been eaten and consumed by another idea, one that states that everything is subject to commodification and can be sold to the highest bidder. If only Beeple could have been content to gift his work to us as a celebration of our creative possibilities as humans. Not that I blame him, he has to make a living and this is an opportunity that few artists would turn their noses up at. I just feel deep down that it shows us that there is 'something nasty in the woodshed', a hidden something that keeps us from seeing clearly, that distracts us from the real business at hand. 
It is now many years since Suzi Gablik wrote her powerful book 'Has Modernism Failed?' She stated that we needed a renewed moral, social and spiritual dimension to art, and argued for a commitment to socially relevant and spiritually informed art practices. Artists are still working to integrate and entangle the concerns of the environment with and into and alongside their various art practices, but as they do I hope this latest investment news doesn't dishearten them, or make them think that nothing changes. Beeple's patched up giant emoticon, sticks its tongue out in defiance, it rises up out of its construction site like Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Tower of Babel’, another monument to the hubris of humankind. 

Pieter Bruegel ‘Tower of Babel’

Tower of Babel’ and Beeple details

Perhaps we will never learn and we are hard wired to take the money and run, but at some point there may be nowhere to run to. 
It would seem that blockchain can prove that there is only one of something and it is that rare one off nature that gives the work its authenticity; even if when made the work was available in infinite variations to all who happened to click on Beeple's site. But Beeple's work is native to a computer screen, look at how easily you can see his image of the patched up giant emoticon, and compare the experience of looking at Bruegal on screen. The Bruegal image is much harder to read, it was designed to be seen as a painting, not as a digital image, so in many ways by showing Bruegal on screen I devalue it, but Beeple belongs on screen, his images' authenticity lies in their native digital construction, which is a process not an object and this is perhaps what annoys me most. Beeple's process is one of engagement with creation, but the selling of the final result as a commodity reduces the process to a thing, a thing that only has one use and that is as an investment opportunity for those already rich enough anyway. 
As an image maker myself, I do though respect Beeple's inventiveness and the fact that his images are out in the world, does mean that others can make use of them. Whoever buys the 'original' can't take the images back out of people's minds. So maybe the most important issue here is that once an image is seen it will be consumed in another way, like food, it will be digested and ingested by all that encounter it, and as such its potential for use increases exponentially as each new viewer looks at it. 

See also:

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Tiébélé in Burkina Faso

Occasionally in travel articles you see something that really makes you think. In this case it was a series of photographs taken by a photographer and diarist, Rita Willaert and Olga Stavrakis. I would normally dismiss these travel documentary images as yet another example of post colonial travel syndrome, people vicariously gazing into other peoples lives and in recording them making a good living from poor people living on the edge. It could well be that Willaert and Stavrakis are indeed voyeurs and that by poking their noses into a place where they don't belong they may have disturbed the equilibrium of a society that has managed to get on fine without Western interference. But even so, the images I saw really effected me and made me aware of how far we have come in our English towns from a close contact with the ground from which we have emerged. 

Tiébélé lies nestled at the base of a hill, and is an African village which was first settled in the 15th Century.  Belonging to the Kassena people, their chief, and royal court, this is the home of one of oldest ethnic groups in Burkina Faso. Digging a little further into their history I found that the Kassena peoples belong to a larger subset of peoples, the Gurunsi, that inhabit an area encompassing southern Burkina Faso and northern Ghana. The Gurunsi share common histories, languages, and political structures, but French and British colonial systems differed in their administrative practices, which means that a once united people are now separate. The lines drawn on maps by French and British administrators in the 19th century, still divide populations that had deep cultural connections and of course an affinity with and awareness of the land and its possibilities. It was at the Berlin Conference of 1884, that the European nations agreed upon their respective territorial claims and a border was agreed by mutual agreement between Britain and France on 14 June 1898 and a more precise border was then drawn up by an exchange of notes in 1904, and officially approved in 1906, a border that was later demarcated on the ground via a series of pillars.
Map of Ghana and Burkina Faso

Look at the line that divides the two territories, it looks as if for most of it's length someone simply placed a ruler on a map and drew a straight line. The contrast between the sharp gridded lines of 
longitude and latitude that divide up the map, and the organic lines of the Kassena peoples' adobe buildings couldn't be more stark, and they point to a fundamental difference in cultures. The Western nations had 'abstracted' themselves away from the world, mathematics and scientific thinking had allowed them to maintain a distance from reality and to believe that they could control things from a distance. The Kassena peoples were living in and as a part of their environment, therefore their constructions followed the contours of the land rather than cut into or through it.

These houses emerge from the ground organically, and are made of local clay, the walls are decorated with various colours of clay slip. The Tiébélé royal residence is made up of a series of small houses that are hand-painted in different geometric patterns and symbols using clay paints. These patterns are one of the visual indicators that differentiate the royal homes from that of the “ordinary people.” While most of the structures are homes, some of the most elaborately decorated are mausoleums, where the dead are laid to rest. The dead living amongst the village people even after death and recognised as an integral part of life. 

An altar for animist worship  

The fact that the village still has a working animist altar for ceremonies involving milk, feathers and animal blood, suggests that the people that live there still have a close spiritual relationship with their local environment. The recent stains of milk running down the sides of the altar, indicating that cows are still an important part of the local economy. Somehow these people have been able to continue living within a culture that still maintains aspects of pre-colonial traditions. The most visually striking being the powerful decorative surfaces that cover the village buildings. Their resilience is amazing and I would hope that rather than encourage some sort of tourism, that the message goes out about growing architecture out of the landscape rather than flattening it. The integration of people, architecture, and typologies of landscape with sensitive ecological effect is vital to all our futures and our ability to survive. 

3D printed buildings made from mud: Mario Cucinella Architects (MC A) and WASP

The Green School in Bali


What this post is also about is a reminder of the power of drawing. Lines drawn on a map of Africa divide a continent between Britain and France. When it was first realised that lines could be used to define a boundary, no one would have predicted that eventually this concept could be used to define the borders of artificially constructed countries. But it is also drawing that empowered the people of 
Tiébélé in the decoration of their buildings and artefacts. These buildings covered in zigzags and squares, communicate both the sheer joy of making lines and shapes over surfaces, as well as an awareness that these lines mark out differences between the homes of the living and the dead. But drawing can also be a tool that allows us to visualise new futures, the organic structural forms now possible for architects and engineers to use because of the power of computing, are only made visible to us through technical drawings. Drawing allows us to have powerful visions, sometimes so powerful that it would seem that humans have lost contact with the effects of that vision. 

Technical drawing of the atom bomb

Drawings of the Nazca people

Nazca lines were made over 2,000 years ago and are most likely connected to water worship. The Peruvian archeologist John Isla points to the Nazca people’s intricate irrigation systems as evidence that these desert-dwellers had developed an intimate and worshipful relationship with water; their sophisticated aqueducts and spiral shaped wells still operating today. Nazca society developed around 200 B.C. alongside a river basin that allowed them to grow cotton, beans and corn. The Nazca River, which often flows underground, springs up at the foot of the remains of an important temple and shells from the coast of northern Peru are found at the sites of ceremonial altars in the mountains. I once read that the indigenous peoples of America visualised thought as 'crystallised air', their relationship with their environment being such that they were inseparable from it. We forget that we 'swim' in air as fish swim in water and that without it we would die; the drawn lines of the Nazca are it would seem a way to 'talk' with the sky. In the 1940s in the USA the Office of Scientific Research and Development, forged an unprecedented alliance between government, academia and industry, to shape a different idea that also emerged in a desert environment, an idea that reminded Robert Oppenheimer at the time of a piece of Hindu scripture; “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

 See also:

Drawing Maps.   Mapping as thinking.   Drawing and politics.   The broken line

Signs of life in flowing line drawings.

  Walking and drawing