Critical reflection Assignment 3

Stepping back a bit and trying to take this assignment as a whole, post-tutorial,  I can see themes and preoccupations emerging.

Art and Science

Firstly, the continuing association of art and science, through the use of chemical procedures, such as cyanotypes and photo polymers, and etching in different salts. There’s also the links to photography which are emerging more and more. 

These connections are coming out both in images and processes, with a key text being Kemp’s “Visualisations”, on the subject of the importance of and influence of analogies in understanding the unknown. The images I made of “moons” in the previous assignment morphed into Newton’s Apple, using the technique of chiaroscuro as created by lateral lighting, and inspired by 19th century photography of the moon, and of textured close up objects, a wrinkled hand and a wrinkled apple. These were photographic images as objects of scientific enquiry, whereby analogical thinking led to deductions about unknowable phenomena. (I’m thinking ahead to an enquiry into the appearance of a brain damaged by dementia as part of the “portrait” assignment, in which I plan to focus on my mother as a subject)

Image as object

This has led to the beginnings of an exploration of the unreliability of images, of images as objects whose form and meaning is determined by the processes of seeing and producing. After going through a series of images of a historical/biblical story, the interpretation of which is so open to biased representation and contextual understandings, I made a small model of a sculptural image, “facets” which links together ideas of media representation, conflicting lenses, the idea of “the gaze”, with connotations of feminism, distortion and self-regard,  which I would like to develop further. After discussion with my tutor, I understand how scale, shape and form of the sculptural piece would invite a viewer to engage with it in a particular way- for example, if it were scaled up to the shape and size of a body, it would invite that type of engagement, whereas it could be a landscape, a feature of a landscape such as a cave, or if dropped on the floor, scrunched up newspaper, and if hanging, then other analogies would come into play. This comes back to the power and influence of analogical thinking when interpreting the Unknown, and emphasises the role of culture in perceiving messages, thus leading to a theoretical stance that an image is a cultural object.

Xu Bing Parallel Project

This brings me back to the work of Xu Bing, and his appropriation of objects, signs and materials as a commentary on and creation of new cultural objects in his works. Text as object as a key feature of his work, in his use of tobacco company logos for example, although he works on a grand scale, creating his own languages, and challenging the way we read cultural signs: in his square-word calligraphy, he is also taking a swipe at mainland Chinese suppression of ideas by making the texts (characters)  “meaningless” in that culture. 

I continued the process of degrading materials, as I’d done earlier with copper, by creating a series of prints involving the staged destruction of a plate and the signs written on it, as a reflection and commentary on deterioration and loss, inspired by the work of Xu Bing, specifically the woodcut Series of Repetitions, but relating to the concept of metamorphosis, and the way that new objects and new signs and meanings emerge from the remnants of the older ones. The idea of process in these works would lend themselves to presentation in series, even, if I had enough images, as animation, although those are contrasting narratives. Xu Bing ‘s animation of the evolution of the Chinese character for “one” turned that into a history of the country and its politics, and could run on a loop, thus perhaps hopefully implying the “power of one”, whereas the Series of Repetition derives its pathos from the finality of the empty woodcut in plate 12. My own final image in the “greying” series is ambiguous, as it could be seen to have metamorphosed into a hopeful new sign. 

I’m contemplating whether I could make this sign a starting point in a portrait, linking birth and death in a cyclical progression: thinking of the Wordsworth quote from Intimations of Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:  

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

        Hath had elsewhere its setting,  

          And cometh from afar:  

        Not in entire forgetfulness,  

        And not in utter nakedness,  

But trailing clouds of glory do we come 

        From God, who is our home:

I’m also channeling TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton from The Four Quartets: “in our beginning is our end…” and the notion of linear time as an analogical construct, as a way of exploring portraiture as a mark made in time, and as a way of interpreting the world my mother now inhabits. 


This was my first real experience of collaboration , when working with students on cyanotypes, in which they turned themselves into signs, using their bodies as objects, from the perspective of the sun, that block the light, and cast shadows. They are reduced to empty outlines, although movement can be “captured” through the manipulation of shadows. This is another way to explore portraits as a mark made in time, with the bodies as variants on sundials. 

Themes to develop

Destructive processes

Text and image- text as image

Cyanotypes bodies

Sundials- passing time

Ideas to develop- progressively evolving images- perhaps a film or animated series.


Reflection on Assignment 3

This has been very long and dragged out, and I have become quite obsessed with a few new techniques, to the extent that I’ve had little interest in cutting wood or Lino, or in making monoprints. I think it’s the relative sophistication- or so it seems to me- that can be achieved using these techniques- the possibility of layering in so many ways, and the use of photographs, always a bit of a thought to do, as they have to be justified and defended, even with their status as “ready-mades”.

That’s all very well, but they need a press to print, and that severely reduces the chances of working and experimenting.

I have been studying other people’s prints, and despite admiring their technical expertise, have at times felt bored with them… I really liked the work of Marc Quinn though, that I saw at Art Central in Hong Kong recently, and this was what made me want to experiment with photos, as I was doing recently, using portraits of my mother, but that’s for the next assignment as it falls under the title of portraits. I’d really like to nail the process of putting photos onto photopolymer plates, but without all the gear, it’s really hard. Even though you’re  not looking for technically high standards.

What interested me was Marc Quinn’s etchings from photos of meat- I believe he used laser printing from photos though. I also loved his etching of the frozen wave, made by embossing.

Anyway to get back to this unit- it was called chiaroscuro, and therefore invited exploration into light and dark, black and not-black in print, with all the practical technicalities and metaphorical imagery related to that. In terms of print-making I guess the “solid black” is the holy grail. I have managed it, using copper plate etching, with aquatint created using an air-brush, and a deep etch, which can create a velvety black.

What was interesting was to use my practice plates as a mezzotint layer and smooth them back into white. Photopolymer is much harder to get blacks with. They are so delicate, and I am still working on details such as whether to expose a plate in the sun after developing, or whether to clean with vinegar, as I have had disasters with both. Climate and other variables also make a difference. I’ve now got a bee in my bonnet about this process, and although I could probably get on with something else more successfully, I won’t until I’ve got somewhere with it.

I know I haven’t resolved the images of David and Goliath, and the idea of the truth and perception gaze. I’m just stuck, and have had to move on. There’s a worthwhile idea there somewhere, but it needs more work. I am reasonably happy with the “Facets” piece though, and think there is definitely something in this sculptural approach.

My earlier prints, the Newton’s apple and hand, were getting to know the materials and processes, and were much closer to a traditional interpretation of chiaroscuro. But even here, the connection to photography was latent.


Moving on from here

I am feeling very dissatisfied with myself at this stage, and feel I need a radical rethink of my ways of working. I have been far too obsessed with thinking and not involved in enough making. Everything is in my head, and part of that is the need to conceptualise what I’m doing, which is something mostly done in words, but it’s also because of embarked on techniques for which I don’t have the materials to hand. I am going to have to step back, sketch more, make more, find ways of making substitutes. I’ve signed up for a weekend workshop in Japanese woodcut printmaking- which has a focus on the printing process itself, including preparing paper for hand burnishing. At long last I hope to get to grips with what the paper is that’s for sale here, and what it’s good for, how it can be treated etc.

One of the more fun things I did as part of this was the Cyanotype project with students- the issue there being that it’s difficult to have control over the output, while still respecting their rights to self-expression… This is something I will have another go at in the coming autumn, as I’m planning another project week on the theme of printing with light… but it depends on whether the school is going to actually get an exposure unit, which would mean we could be more ambitious. Without one, it will still be sun exposures.



The final project, as was, was supposed to bring together my practical experience and theoretical ideas about truth, perception and reality.

This one will be my final for “Chiaroscuro” as it’s the one that sums up how I feel, and also links back to Xu Bing, Series of repetitions, as well as being an echo to the image of David and Goliath. If that was the triumph of youth over age, this is really about aging and deterioration and loss. Thus it echoes the theme of Xu Bing’s woodcuts. Instead of woodcut, or copper, I used Perspex and photopolymer – the Perspex chosen as a brittle material, which I have already practiced with, using cracked lines to create patterns.


This was a simple typed text, one white on black the other reversed, and it was printed backwards with the words partly cut off,  so as to take away some of the distraction of the semantics, while leaving it there to be found. Then lost again.

The grey colour evokes age, death, ashes, and the “ing” form reinforces the continuous day after day year after year nature of existence, with creeping decay. The later shapes echo skulls, primitive or animalistic ones, and the words are lost as language is. Towards the end of the series, negative space dominates.

The words were printed onto a transparency using a laser printer, so not dense blacks, and then exposed for an approximate length of time using aquatint. It didn’t really matter, all I wanted were shapes of grey and some outlines. Even the ragged edges of the photopolymer wouldn’t matter, as my intention would be to degrade it.

This is the single image.

Greying: photopolymer on perspex
I like these imperfect photo polymers, for the range of tones you get, for the juxtaposition of commercial typography or photographs with damaged surfaces, the fact that you have a “perfect” image that is pockmarked by errors and accidents. There is a hint here of weathered stone, of gravestones falling into neglect.

Before degrading the plate and losing it, I intended to print this multiple times, as first as a brick wall- a single sheet of damp paper, working quickly- this was hard to do- the plate slipped in the printer ( I should have stuck it down somehow) and the alignment didn’t work, making this an ineffective image. I tried using slight colour variations, and missing bricks, but it didn’t help.

another brick in the wall
So the next stage was to print my series. This is a series of prints showing degeneration from image to image, created by cracking, filing, scratching, cutting and breaking- both the photopolymer and the Perspex are very brittle and crack and split leaving interesting patterns. There is a top to bottom orientation as the images are progressively more broken. The images are made in three series of three, then a final one made of scattered pieces.

 The images reform themselves progressively as the geometric brick like structure gets eroded into a much more organic state, from factory made to animalistic, like a reversion from industrialism to nature. Towards the end they become skull-like, again referencing the grave. The last one could be hopeful or hopeless. I deliberately placed the pieces as if to suggest taking flight. But it could equally be randomly scattered.


Technically, I was kicking myself for using the wrong side of the Fabriano paper for the first pages. The range of marks is lovely, and the woven texture of the paper is just beautiful.

Chiaroscuro: Final Project: Not Black and White and not final…

This was an outline of something I planned, didn’t actually do. That was an experiment: write it and it will come. It didn’t.

This final project tried to bring together practical experiments, personal experience and theoretical ideas about reality, truth and perception.

The following are notes on ideas. Increasingly, I found myself having my ideas in verbal form, rather than visual, sketched, experimented with, and I think this has been a major flaw in my work process.

The processes used were intaglio, using copper plates, and involing photopolymer and etching in ferric chloride and in sodium persulfate. The two techniques in themselves suggest different approaches to representation, one, the duplication of an image using light and and single or multiple exposures, the other, the more process-driven, physical, experiential. The first technique is described by the verb “capture”, and brings to mind the action of glancing, catching a glimpse, a momentary insight or point in time. The other, as is suggested in the metaphoric phrase, “etched by experience”, suggests something honed over time, handled, considered and reworked.

The idea behind the different pieces was intertextuality, or Baudrillard’s “hyper-realism”, the condition by which “reality ..founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another, reproductive medium” – each element would make reference to a text or type of text in order to challenge the text’s claim to represent a truth.

I wanted to use printmaking as a subject, as well as a technique, therefore reference duplication, reproduction, separation.

The starting point for this piece was the painting of “David with the head of Goliath” by Caravaggio, in the Prado, Madrid. The links to modern day events involving beheadings by ISIS could not be avoided, and thus to an engagement with ideas of heroes/villains, right/wrong and the construction of reality through images.

Prints and Practice

Here are some of the images and plates produced along the way in thinking this through. The plates of David and Goliath  went through several stages.

Caravaggio’s painting

The painting has been x-rayed, reportedly showing that an earlier version stressed much more the physical pain of the victim, and suggesting that this may have been changed to please the patron, to avoid it being too graphic. This reminds us of the audience for images, for whom representations must be manipulated. As it is, the portrayal of the two characters seems to me to favour neither one over the other. David is shown as youthful, and his profile, in shadow, is that of a classically proportioned ideal, with his high bridged nose, graceful facial features and delicately curling hair. His muscular body and indications of physical strength and poise suggest athleticism, rather than a homely shepherd boy. Goliath, on the other hand, is not significantly larger- therefore not a mythical “giant” as the Bible version tells. He is clearly older though, and with a face in death that looks more sad than pained: his eyes are open, and strangely bright, and although they do not look back at the spectator, they come closer than David’s, which are focussed on the task at hand, and therefore Goliath’s might actually invite somewhat more empathy.The head has presumably now been severed from the body, although the process is clean and bloodless, and the positioning of the head seems to be for compositional value, creating a strong diagonal, rather than for an authenticity. David is unstained by the whole process.The light shines on his body in a way that stresses his physical form, and on Goliath in a way that stresses his life in death, and seems to play no symbolic role of highlighting good over evil. Of course, the principal technique to be noted here is the use of chiaroscuro, as a method of creating an illusion of solid forms and three dimensions as the darkness recedes and the highlights construct highly plausible contours of flesh.

As a painting in the “history”genre, Caravaggio’s work can be seen as a “dramatisation” of a traditional tale, an imaginative recasting of the plot, starring a young Greek hero and a middle aged man, his victim. By showing us a moment in time, one that is apocryphal, we are invited to see this as a naturalistic event rather than an allegory, and thus to give credence to the literal truth of the Bible. The role of the light is to reveal, to play on the forms, and to make us feel we could touch the cloth and the skin.

On the other hand, my reading of it would say it is the triumph of youth over age, rather than good over evil, and it is only the application of intertextuality, knowing the story, that would make it otherwise.

Context is all. How different would our reading be of such a scene today. Images of beheadings, meant to be as graphic as possible, to make us look at the face of victims, to hear their screams and feel their pain, and be told, this is what we want to do to you too, are diabolical. Video, as the chosen medium, is used to make us feel present, to leave us in no doubt that what we are watching is real, but becomes surreal, subject as it is to taboos on what we should be able to witness. We are confused by the deviant use of the media, which we expect to serve us up illusions.


Part 1:

Contesting historical narrative

The image was to have been printed multiple times onto pages of a. The Bible and b. The Trial, by Kafka. Here’s the thinking behind it. (The trouble with me is if I write it down and justify it, I’ve already as good as made it.)

Repetition was to be used as a reference to how historical narratives are created, as well as a self-conscious use of the printing process as a commentary on two printed texts.

The pages were to be roughly printed and perforated at the corner, and hung on a hook which might remind people of how newspaper is torn and used for toilet paper. This links to the idea of “yesterday’s news” being no longer of interest, to the speed at which we digest news and move on, and our low level consumption of repeated “human interest” narratives.

The choice of the Bible was partly because of the transparency of the paper, its fitness of purpose (either its intended one or the one suggested above) and its ability to confer “authorised version” status on a story, which then becomes reified and contested in equal measure, depending on the audience.

The Trial was selected as a piece of modernist literature which in itself challenges ideas of historical narrative and literary convention, with its lack of narrative structure, absence of heroism, or of cathartic conclusion. The order of the text is one that was constructed by a friend of the author, as the original manuscript was simply a collection of unconnected chapters.

Both texts deal with the concept of justice, the first constructing a moral universe of sin and redemption, the second a world in which crime is arbitrarily defined and punishment administered with no seeming relation to laws.

In the biblical context, the authorised version of the story tells us that right defeats might, that the meek will prevail. A new “reading” of the image could be of the son killing the father, the death of God, the ending of authority.

The work then, would attempt to appropriate the well-known image, and the well-known story, and problematise their politics of representation, their values, their use of signifying practices of composition and narrative.

But how to actually print? These pages could not be soaked, and the print would likely hide the image.

I like some of the ideas here, and will keep thinking of how to make them work visually.

Part 2

The Relic

A copper plate, burnished and framed

This was to be a “relic” of the process of making the images, and as such could be perceived to have higher value, as possessing the cache of originality. The frame would reference this idea, making an allusion to an icon, and also calling to mind the reverence the church  hold for relics, and even the magical powers it attributes to them, despite their being rather mundane objects in themselves. The copper plate has an intrinsic “value” as a mined metal, and one for which workers suffer a great deal, so it has both a material and human cost. The way the multiple etchings have eaten away at this particular plate gives it the look of a worn copper coin.


This one can be achieved by making a pastiche icon, a painted frame, contrasting the real and the unreal.

I haven’t done the framing, and am now less sure of the quality of this idea. It seems like something that would look lazy.

Part 3 The Gaze

This one I have followed through, but only partially.

The grid as non-narrative, silent.

This section references newspapers, and how we bear witness to and report events. The gaze here is a constructed, shallow thing, made up of dots, so that light and shade are merely a pattern. The text is disjointed, making a play on words “is” “Isn’t” and IS. There is a further text, in capitals, “Chop off their rotten heads” which references the central image of the beheading.

I originally intended to create something that looked much more like a newspaper, including pictures and columns. The text element was to be in broken columns, in my own writing, using words taken from diaries from the time of making these images.

On the other hand, there was still a right/ left top/bottom orientation involved in a grid. It still tends towards Narrative. So I wondered about making it a more sculptural object. Following the ideas explored in work by Fionnuala MacGowan  (In Printmaking Today, Summer 2015- sculptural forms made with print) I could explore the idea of making 3-d shapes, “facets” to reflect the multi-faceted nature of truth- our distorted perspectives on it. There is no sense or single view.

Here’s some thinking about how this might be presented:

And here is a small model of what it could look like. These are prints on Fabriano paper- I did more as multiples, intending a bigger piece but the registration went wrong in the press, so I ended up cutting it down. It could maybe work, scaled up.

The diagonal grid folds are good because they can be twisted to fit several shapes, which reflects the nature of reported “truth”.

This isn’t there yet, but is an idea with potential. I’m seeing discarded newspapers in this shape- yesterday’s news. The way the eyes are sitting almost makes a distorted face, with no mouth. How cool it would be to take a movable shape and recast it as a fixed one like Marc Quinn’s Frozen Wave.

Is isnt
Photopolymer multiples







Chiaroscuro: Light and Shade: Collaborative Project on Cyanotypes


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This was a project done with students at school, using Cyanotype printing to create banners on cloth. The idea here was to create life-size images, using the students themselves, and any props or 2-D shapes they chose to create, to represent themselves. It involved mixing large amounts of the solution, and spraying it in a darkened room, leaving to to dry overnight, then keeping it out of the light until time to use. All of this was quite difficult in a school. The students then had to plan their part of the banner and cooperate with each other to create the image. It was a learning experience for all, finding out how long it took for the image to form- not long as it turned out, as the sun was strong- the difference it made using 3-D shapes, the effects of shadows, and what effects could be created by incorporating movement. The first attempts had a lot of crease marks, so gradually we built up team skills whereby each person had to take a role in: unfolding the cloth, shading the exposed cloth with umbrellas, helping participant-subjects position themselves and their props, stretching the cloth tight, moving props where required, then rolling up the cloth as each section was completed. The cloth was then rolled into a black bag by me, rushed to the art room where I had a vat of vinegar waiting, then rinsed in running water until the water ran clear, then stretched out to dry. A lot of fun! Also very effective banners which decorated the school science block, celebrating the collusion of art and science.

Robert Rauschenberg and Suzanne Weil Cyanotypes

Since completing this project I have come across this article in Art Forum about the experiments Rauschenberg and Weil did in the 1950s using cyanotypes, and the human body. They seem to have used paper, developed on the bathroom wall, and a sun lamp, inside. They seem to have been able to make multiple exposures in this way. I particularly like the use of diaphanous materials in the image below, and the effect achieved of exposing clothes first before the body. It creates a surreal effect of layers and artifice.



Rauschenberg and Weil cyanotype

Assignment 3: Chiaroscuro: hand

For this next project, I wanted to try to create an image of a hand- also inspired by the 19th century photo.

I drew my own one, and planned a series of steps:

  1. Stop out acrylic marker for whites
  2. Aquatint layer
  3. 3 sets of greys: 30 seconds, 1 minute (for the background) and 3 minutes exposure
  4. Soft lines/ shadows on soft ground
  5. Fine lines on hard ground (Lascaux)




I photographed with lateral light:


The final version came out very hard though, because the acrylic liner gives very hard edges. I thought the subsequent layers would work to break them down, but they stayed quite hard. This is the version with the plan for the hard lines.


It ended up rather scary, considering it was my own hand. It looks flayed, and I somehow lost the greys.



I tried to compensate for the hardness by printing on soft paper again. I need to do a monoprint or something to tone down all the lines, and the hard edges of white. How could I have reversed that during the etch?





Assignment 3: Chiaroscuro: Newton’s apple series 2: copper plate etching

The monoprints and drypoint were ok, but it was time to use my new materials, and plan an image using multiple techniques of engraving. I sketched my ideas, and wrote a list to follow, as it’s hardly intuitive yet.



This would involve masking- again, using photopolymer. I decided to make two parallel images, using the positive and the negative mask.

Here are the cut masks ready for sun exposure of laminated copper plates.


The lamination, exposure and developing all went well. The delicacy of the laminate was demonstrated when I realised that the tiny cut I had made into the black paper in order to start the shape was exposed- a tiny sliver of fixed polymer. It was ok, some caustic soda on a cotton bud removed it.

I now had two plates, a negative and a positive apple shape. I started with the negative. I was very keen to try a “tonal wash” which I had a recipe for from Capileira- it involved using a mixture of Graphic Chemical black ink with  high level of pigment, and demineralised water. The two could be moved around on the surface of the plate, and the pigment would be released and will dissolve, forming a surface with a variety of tones and grains, which would substitute for an aquatint layer. It was a technique that could be controlled, ink wiped off with brushes, and redone until it was good. This was the result. I like the swirling patterns: they make me think of the dawn of the universe.


I liked it and decided to use the same technique on the other plate. Having done one, this was now relatively easy, and simple. I etched them for 18 minutes. The unexpected thing here was that the hardened photopolymer was hard to remove, and small dots remained on the plate that I could not remove with caustic soda.  In fact, they work quite well, as otherwise this is quite a simple image. Now they suggest stars, adding to the sense of this shape being a world.



Now back to the other plate. I removed the photopolymer successfully with caustic, and made an aquatint layer with an airbrush and acrylic – concentrating a dense spray on the highlighted part of the shape. The background now had to be stopped out, which I did by painting a layer of acrylic ink- also making a fine line on the apple, to create a thin highlight. The shading was done using a wax crayon- two layers of dark and light grey, and sharp lines engraved with a needle. The stop-out ink was hard to remove from the background though, and I wonder if this could have been done differently.





The background of this one may be too busy, and too dark- going back to the original photo, the grey background rally set off the contoured apple.