In 2017 I got the invite to make prints for a Huell Howser exhibit. 2018, We have four new prints that took a month and a half, and a couple of bottles of whiskey, to put together.
Around October I heard about a graphic design show and, thanks to wife who pushed me out into the spotlight, landed a contact at this little, city-run gallery in Irvine. A week or two later I get a call asking if I can fill a gap in this upcoming show. Yeah, I can do that and it would be great to go big. We meet early in the 2018 and set up an outline that includes prints and large, wooden cutouts: like a 3D screen grab from the illustrations yet to be created.
As I set out sketching plans for both prints and these 3D set pieces I started to realize that I’m going to end up cutting a lot of work in order to fit the time frame, because the delivery date I imagined slid from roughly two months to about six weeks. When the math started hitting me I thought, yes I can do the work as scoped, but I wouldn’t be living up to my full potential. Or as others have said, “You can do two things mediocre, or you can one thing really great.” So as we were negotiating the details of the construction side of the project I had a change of heart and moved to focus on the posters and illustration which I partially hit. Not a home run, but I’ll call it a double. Got guys on base ready to score, but I still need to get there.
It seems like every time I make prints I’m learning a new lesson. This time around there’s a lot on the table. Project management issues, new equipment problems, underestimating inventory and challenges of working with a new format. When I got this offer I had a strong need to get back into printing. I spent the last year dealing with the fallout from my Mother’s death. I’m still dealing with that stuff, but 2017 was supposed to be the year that I starting putting the pieces together to form my own independent merchandizing company. A year later this opportunity falls into my lap and I took it as a sign that this is the time to pushing. And it’s been good so far.
From sketch to final illustration it took about 65 hours. The initial concepts were all over the board, but I finally settled on creating four posters that tied together in some ways. In art terms you might call it a quadriptych or four paneled, interconnected art works. While the final versions cut a lot of the connective tissue out, you can still see some common lines between the four prints, when lined up properly. Especially in the horizon.
Roughly one and a half weeks into the drawing session I started to realize that my desire to put an intense amount of detail into these wasn’t going to work for the schedule that I was on. If I wanted to hit the milestones of ordering film, burning screens, mixing ink, cutting the prints and delivery, I needed to move a little faster. Instead of piling on details, like I did with the first poster (Lassen), I decided to see if I can trick the eyes into thinking there was a lot more information than there was by focusing on key areas.
Originally, I didn’t have animals in the sketches, but as I progressed with the sketches I realized that I needed to include an additional element to add dynamics to the otherwise stale environments. I like action and having these characters moving through the environments that I’m highlighting really helps provide dimension – as in the size of the redwoods compared to the elk – and action – like the whale shooting up into the air. So I decided that I needed two characters: the environment and the animals that live there. These would receive the attention and therefore the detail while background elements are sacrificed by being more plain.
So first hurdle cleared – dumbing down the illustrations with slight-of-hand – I needed to manage my time and once I plowed through the first illustration I remembered some advice I got from a painter friend who said you have to paint the entire picture. That is to say, if you spend all your time focused on one area the rest of the frame fill will loose out. You get tired. You get distracted. You get frustrated and impatient. So you can do really well on one area and the style and detail will slowly tapper off. Then you start to notice the unintentional sacrifices you are making. Your painting becomes uneven. So to combat this you paint a little here, a little there, bouncing around, spreading your energy out over the entire canvas so that no one area looks out of place.
With this management style in mind I moved from working on one illustration at a time to three. I think it really went well, because once I had the base layer down I had plenty of time to add in more detail to the focus areas. But you can see a difference between print one and two through four.
For screen printing you have to breakdown all the colors into black. It has to do with the photo processing, but ends up turning all the color you see into a one color film like an old school transparency that, if you’re of a certain age, remember from k-12 education when teachers would roll out the overhead projector. Clear plastic with black print, scribbled with wet erase marker. Subtract the marker and darken the print by 300% and thats basically what you’re working with.
The order takes time and I use a local company that’s pretty easy to work with. Once I dialed out the color – called color separation – and sent the files out to the company, it’s usually a couple of days to turn around. This time I had it in about a day. At this point in the schedule however, I had a about a week to process the new screens which were still in the mail after I ordered a new, larger set. Plus I had to mix the ink, and start printing so that the following week I can cut and deliver. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I was ripping through the color seps, feeling a little anxious with the clock ticking, I made some mistakes that would show up on the day I started laying down ink.
For a while now I’ve been wanting to create larger art prints so that I can get better detail, more artistry, and hit a different price point. To do that I need larger screens. The company I use for a lot of my materials isn’t based here in California so getting supplies takes time and there’s always a risk that inventory is not ready, or is on the other side of the country, or breaks in transit. Not to mention the added dimension of being on a tight schedule. If any part of this process isn’t streamlined it’s an automatic setback and right out of the gate the two new screens that I ordered arrived fine, but due to changes in temperature, or humidity, or whatever reason, they split right down the middle.
So I have films ready to burn, but no screens and this was the first in a series of setbacks that I had to overcome. Thankfully, due to previous screen issues I had a place to get them repaired. I didn’t have a week to wait while the frames were rescreened, so I had to purchase two more from a local company in order to get started.
Then a cascade of small, but irritating series of issues hit, one right after another. The screens being bigger required more emulsion (pink, photo sensitive paste that creates the stencil) and I was almost out. The drying times were a little different. Normally, with the screens for smaller 11×17 prints it can take 20-30 minutes. For the larger screens it was taking 45-60 minutes. That is for both washing and processing. So if I have to clear a screen – one hour – prep a screen – dry for an hour – burn a screen and wash it – dry for an hour, and on an on. But I didn’t figure that out on the first set and ruined my first burns. Time is running out.
So I learn that I need to make some adjustments and I keep this in mind while mixing ink. My custom ink kit is pretty good as long as I pick out good colors. This is a process that I’m still working on, but ultimately get pretty close to what I’m hoping for, and even if I don’t the prints usually turn out pretty nice anyway. But I’m already going into this a little frazzled from the fight with the screens and run into another wall where I’m getting low on product. Luckily I have enough to get a couple of prints done, but with the first pass I run the wrong color through the screen.
For those of us counting that’s two bad screens, bad burn process, wrong ink printing and I have yet to realize my last mistake which was not double checking my color separations. At this point I’ve doubled my work in order to compensate for all the mistakes and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to make the deadline. I start trying to negotiate with myself saying that I can probably get one more week if I need it. Then, as I’m laying down ink, the prints don’t really look right. The color is good, but something’s missing. I realize with print one that the grays that I’m using isn’t going work the way I want, but that’s an easy fix. No something’s just not right.
On print two I realize that a lot of detail is missing and I go back to the films to see that I cut the color separations wrong and knocked out a lot of detail. At this point I can’t reorder films. I can’t reprocess the screens. I have to deliver. Just keep pushing forward. And there’s more that happened that I won’t get into, because the point is it was a fight to get this far.
Looking back through there are a lot of things I could have done differently. Given the amount of work, timeframe, and complications I had to fight through, I think I did pretty good. It’s the first time trying out different techniques and equipment, so I expected a learning curve. But it should not have been this difficult. And I’m so bothered by the turnout of the separations that I’ll probably reorder the films and reprint the posters so that the online merchandise is a better quality. But credit where credit is due, even though I fell down a little, I got to the other side.
That’s kind of the lesson.
By going out and doing these things there are going to be issues and until I’ve gone through it I’m never going to know what problems are going to appear. No that I have this behind me I’ll take note and keep pressing forward, because this is the year where I make this part of my life a bigger part of who I am.
Copyright © 2017 Robert C. Olson