I think of Laos, I imagine orange, blue and green. Vibrant colours dominating the landscape. Clear skies and still air. I arrived in the city of Luang Prabang, surrounded by mountains and river ways. The airport appeared close to the city so I made the now barmy decision to walk with a rucksack, ignoring the taxis and keeping my umbrella up for shade. However hot and heavy, there was something quickly connecting about entering this place by foot. I would now, not be lost.
After 45 minutes the city starts to be revealed. I sit on a wall and rest, the weight of my rucksack released for a moment. I gulp water and watch the anonymous, robed monks walk by, captured here in the photo. Their orange fabric lit by the sun, in perfect contrast to the sky. Complimentary colours in action. Laos cast its spell and lingers still.
I share this beginning because it’s how I remember Laos, this high pitch of colour. Amid the quiet, spacious surrounding, it’s easy to absorb details here. Some of which I’ve been trying to translate through mono printing. I’m going to share three prints inspired by Laos imagery. It’s a challenge for me to resist pure abstraction and pattern which is my more comfortable place when printmaking.
Mono printing has been part of my creative practice since art college, falling in love with its direct approach to colour and texture. It was infectious to me, a way of building a body of work quickly and loosely. I made a little video to introduce the mono print, using a ceramic tile and acrylic paint…(refresh your browser if you can’t see the video below).
Mixing colours from Laos
I begin with an edit of my photographs, selecting a few images which might work as a mono print. I’m drawn to all the natural materials in Laos. Bamboo, indigo, drying chillies, baskets and building work. I’ll use the group below to extract a colour palette for my prints.
I start colour mixing with a binder, a white but translucent substance which I separate into a few bowls. The binder is normally used for printing onto fabric, but I tend to use it for paper too, it dries more slowly than acrylic paint, critical to give more time in print prep. I add highly concentrated pigment inks of primary colours and just a tiny drop at a time. I mix up my palette, gradually finding a group which correspond to the elements in the photographs. I add small amounts of the emerging colours to each other, a good way to unify a palette, each a part of the other. This always makes me think of sourdough bread! I prefer to colour mix in bulk, in advance of the printing stage so I can get into a flow without interruption.
I passed this house at the start of a waterfall trek up the mountain. Its in a village near Nong Kiaw on the banks of the Ou river, about four hours bus from Luang Prabang. Housing is in a variety of material here, some wood, some concrete. This house is a mixture of wood, bamboo, palm leaf and dried grasses. Drawn to the roof texture, I’m going to focus on this as a mono print.
I’m using a pane of glass about 45cm x 30cm as my printing surface. I apply the colours with various sized paintbrushes to recreate the shapes and textures in the image. Once the blocks of colour are on the glass, I fold a piece of paper to create a point, and draw/scratch into the surface of paint, removing lines of paint as I go. Changing the direction of the lines and the pressure I apply to the glass, I can create a variety of mark and feeling of direction.
A sheet of paper is laid on top of the painted glass and even pressure applied to transfer the paint to paper. I’ve been using a lovely Fabriano printmaking paper 285gsm which absorbs the ink well. For a successful print, it’s a combination of the right amount of ink (paint), clear, dynamic marks and the right amount of pressure for the paper/fabric being used. All this needs experimentation, lots of trial and error. The white areas in the print below suggests I could have added more ink or pressure to get a little more detail in the image. This print feels more like a suggestion of the straw roofed house rather than a direct representation.
Too much ink
I’m always interested in building work going on, wherever I am. I like seeing the materials ready to use, in bulk. Back in Luang Prabang I walked passed these tiles. I’m think they are for roofing, looking at the turned corners. I like the arrangement, the repetition of lines and also the unexpected colour provided by the plastic tape.
Here’s my pane of glass which I’ve marked with some purple tape so I know where the paper will sit. I use mixed sizes of paintbrush again, a rag to create some mottled texture and some scrap paper folded to a point to make the lines. I fold the paper various ways to achieve different line thickness.
My first print feels a bit cartoon like. All the lines exaggerated, not much delicate mark and texture. Too much ink has been applied which cancels out more gentle mark making and ‘noise’ in the paint surface. Looking at the remaining glass panel, I can see there’s plenty more ink to try a 2nd print, using up the remaining colour.
From the same painted glass surface, here’s the 2nd print below, a much finer texture although marks are more faint. I prefer this print, the colour looks more rich and I can see the ‘noise’ in the print, every brush mark. The quality of mark that tells you its a print.
Using Paper Stencils
The daily food market in Luang Prabang, an inscrutable variety on offer, I was feeling shy to photograph too much. But fish – I know fish and the stall holder wasn’t looking. I loved the careful display of size and shape of these little fishes. Their white-silver colours shining above the fresh green of the palm leaf where they lay.
With the white in mind, I’ve decided to use some paper stencils when tackling this print. Tearing and cutting pieces of paper to lay on the painted glass panel. The paper arranged to mimic the groups of fish seen in the photograph. The white paper acts a resist to the paint when the paper is applied.
I scratch into the paint, drawing around the paper stencils to add more detail. The paper applied and the resulting first print is shown below. The directional brush marks are showing up well, but the stencil shapes lack some definition. More pressure needs to be applied around stencilled areas to pick up enough of the paint.
Here’s a close up of the glass panel after the first print. Left over paint is very visible between the paper shapes telling me there’s opportunity to do a second print in these areas. I decide to try some fabric for the second print. Sometimes fabric is more malleable and sensitive to a printed surface, absorbing more detail and less pressure needed.
What Next? Developing the Mono Prints Digitally…
What will I do with these prints? Always a dilemma in printmaking, pages of work can be produced rapidly. I will work into them with some drawing, and share again at a later stage. I’ve also photographed the prints close up, which can be used as a digital layer to combine with other imagery using Adobe Photoshop software. Below is the start of a few ‘merges’ of mono print and original photograph. It’s an approach I use a lot in my work, combining the digital and hand made together to achieve something new.
The first step is to superimpose the mono print photograph onto the original photograph in Photoshop (a copy and paste action). I then reduce the opacity (heading towards translucency) of the top layer to reveal the image below.
Adding the hand drawn element will be my next stage in building this imagery – watch out for future blog posts. Taking the original Laos photographs through a process. Dissected, re-arranged, flipped and disguised.