Part 4, Stages 2&3, Project 1, Exercise 4 – Working with stencils

29 March 2017

Project 1, Exercise 4 – working with stencils

SAMPLE 1: Figure stencil, 130gsm Snowdon cartridge paper, Akua intaglio ink

I wanted to start this exercise with a simple example, so I chose the figure on page 30 of my sketchbook. I started my simplifying the image, then did some sketchbook work to decide how I wanted to proceed with the stencil (see sketchbook pages 39-44). 

By simplifying the figure to a silhouette without clothing, the figure became androgynous. It is shadow-like and mysterious – there is more scope for the viewer to read the image in different ways, to relate to it in their own way and associate their own experiences and emotions.

I had to make a decision about the legs and head which were left indrawn in my optional sketch. I evaluated the options and decided that “framing” the figure top and bottom by extending the stencil worked best (see below)


I liked this configuration because to me it was the most meaningful; I could imagine the figure standing in a walkway of a high rise block, with the top of the head and areas below the knees obscured by concrete and just the centre area of the body visible.

Rather than use a blank, white piece of paper, I decided to rework sample 1 from project 1, exercise 3 (see below):


As well as wanting to use the lovely background texture of this sample, I recalled the figure drawing class where I had drawn the original image. Other exercises involved creating ghost-like effects by working multiple images one on top of each other (see below), which is what made me think this overlaying approach would work. The concept is developed further in pages 40 and 45-50 of my sketchbook)


I cut out my stencils from blank newsprint, and I laid each on top of my printed paper to see whether I preferred the positive of the negative.

It was my intention to use some opaque white Akua intaglio ink, so the white paper gave a good idea of what the finished print might look like. I preferred the dark figure and light background because it felt more shadow-like and therefore easier to relate to.

Never having used the white intaglio ink before, I was not sure just how “opaque” it was going to be, and I hoped that some of the background colour would show through my print. I inked a perspex plate with the neat ink and laid the stencil on top before laying on the paper and taking the print in the intaglio press. The result is shown below:

There are so many aspects of this print which I love; the overall feeling is one of mystery, as if we are looking at the shadowy figure through frosted glass. The white ink has partially covered the background, but is not the same colour white as the original paper, and so blotchy areas persist across the whole surface. The feint lines of the previous figure print suggest creases in clothing. This is my reading of the image, but each viewer will have their own interpretation, made possible by the lack of detail on the figure, and the suggestions made by the printed marks.


SAMPLE 2: Figure stencil, 130gsm Snowdon cartridge paper, Akua intaglio ink

I decided that I would rework sample 2b) from project 1, exercise 3 (see below). This was the ghost print after a back drawn monoprint had been taken from the plate.

First, I tried reusing the inked plate from sample 1 above for a second print. I removed the stencil and used the plate to print over the image. However, their was very little white ink left on the plate and the result was just a fine white outline where the stencil had been. This can be seen faintly to the right of the original outline (see below):

I decided that I would have to ink the plate again, and that white ink would be too pale to give a proper contrast with the background. Although I used the same stencil, by inking my plate in a darker colour (blue), I got the effect of a negative image (i.e. the figure was pale and the background was dark) – see sample 2a) below:

Although I love the white lines on the figure (again suggesting texture of clothes) overall I feel that it is not as successful as sample 1. For me, this is because I expect a figure with a lack of detail (silhouette) to be dark and shadowy and in the background, and there is a conflict with this figure being light and suggestive of being in the foreground.

Having completed this first sample, I thought I would extend the exercise by seeing what other interesting prints I could pull from the plate and stencil.

First, with the stencil still stuck to the inked plate, I laid some strips of etching scrim across it and took another print with the press (see sample 2b) below:

There is no detail from the fabric other than it’s outline, which I feel tends to confuse the silhouette of the figure. For this reason it is not my favourite print. However, I would probably keep it in case I thought of an opportunity where I could develop it by adding another layer of print or embellishment.

Next, I lifted the stencil and the scrim from the plate and took a third print (see sample 2c) below:

Although feint, this image has some lovely delicate features, such as subtle tonal variations between the areas of bare plate, paper stencil and fabric, and the detail of the fabric weave itself. There is also a darker line around the edge where the paper stencil was placed, providing a soft outline. The image has a ghostly quality, again invoking a sense of mystery.

Finally, I took the stencil and flipped it over on a piece of scrap paper to expose the inked surface. From this I took a final print (see sample 2d) below:

This image still retains textural detail where the scrim was placed during sample 2b). Personally, I don’t like this image quite as much as 2b) because it lacks the detail of the inked plate and residual marks of the scrim, which I feel add to the interest of the print.


SAMPLE 3: Fabric scraps, 130gsm Snowdon cartridge paper, Akua intaglio ink

My felt that samples 2b-2d lacked impact, and my preference would have been for them to have been bolder and the fabric weave more noticeable. However, these were ghost images taken from a plate which had already been used to produce a primary image, so I wondered whether I might get stronger results had I not already taken a print. The primary aim of this sample was to answer that question. I wanted also to understand what results I could get by using different types of fabric as stencils (see pages 42-43 of my sketchbook where I explored the concept of using fabric as a stencil for the figure prints)

I started by inking a plate and placing a selection on scraps of interesting textured fabric on top, including scrim, lace, burlap and irregular metallic mesh.

With the exception of the metallic mesh (where there was a slight ingress of ink), the ink did not penetrate through the weave and the scraps of fabric acted as solid stencils (see sample 3a below):

At the bottom of the print is the burlap, which made a lovely embossed pattern. I am drawn to the bold simplicity of this area and the contrast between the large blocks of white and the tiny thin threads at the edges of the shapes which have also acted as a mask to the ink. 

After I had carefully removed each scrap of fabric, I took a second print from the plate (sample 3b). This time I got a contrast of tones between the background of the printing plate and the areas which had been masked by the fabric. 

I was hoping for some strong impressions of the fabric textures. Burlap gave a very strong and striking print and the lace a feint one, but the texture of the scrim and metallic mesh were barely discernible. To understand this properly, I would have to do a series of experiments with different paper and ink combinations, to see how these variables might influence the print quality. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time (printmaking is a technical as well as an artistic discipline and one could spend I lifetime acquiring knowledge and experience).

Next, I took the fabric swatches, and flipped them over onto a scrap piece of paper on the print bed (sample 3c). The resulting print was very detailed, with all the fabric textures being replicated extremely well right down to the finest detail of single threads. In the case of the burlap, the “hairiness” of the cloth is also apparent, with prints of tiny loose fibres in the negative space between the weave.


SAMPLE 4: Burlap fabric figure stencil, 130gsm Snowdon cartridge paper, Akua intaglio ink

Following on from my experiments in sample 3, I decided to use the burlap fabric as a stencil, because it was the textile which had given the most bold and striking results on all three prints.

My burlap fabric was a wide “ribbon” made for floristry use, but it was unfortunately not wide enough to accommodate the complete stencil. As a consequence, I had to truncate parts of the strips which framed the top and bottom of the figure. In order to get the whole figure on the stencil, I also had to cut it out off the straight of the grain (see below):

The first print I took is show below (sample 4a):

I love the embossing from the burlap and the mask in the background which arose from loose fibres becoming displaced after cutting (detail below).

The edges of the mask look like edges of torn paper – another appealing characteristic, which I feel adds texture and softness to the print. I am less happy that the stencil is incomplete and that the figure shape could not be cut out precisely. I had an idea for developing this sample which I have expanded in my sketchbook (page 45) based on back drawing into the stencil area.

I used tracing paper to get an idea of how I could use back drawing to enhance the image (see below):

I think that the contrast between the bold smooth lines of the back drawing and the rough informality of the stencil outline are very strong visually. I decided to go ahead and add the backdrawing to my print, as shown below (sample 4a):


In hindsight, I should have known that the backdrawn lines would not show up against the dark blue background. One way of compensating for this would have been to run a print of white opaque ink over the whole print and allowing it to dry before attempting this backdrawing. This would have had the effect of making the background paler (see sample 1). When I did the backdrawing, I used a graphite stick to make the thick bold outline and the point of a cocktail stick to draw in the clothes. This worked well to give me the two different thicknesses of line which I wanted. An added benefit of the embossing was that it has picked up some of the smudges of the backdrawing to add texture to the print – a lovely subtle feature, suggesting textiles worn by the figure. 

As well as engendering a feeling of shadow and mystery, the two displaced images also make me think of the issue of identity; of being comfortable (or not) in one’s own skin. Another interpretation might be deja vu, or perhaps a feeling of social awkwardness, loneliness or being physically displaced. One of the strengths of this image is it’s multiple readings.

Next, I carefully peeled away the burlap and took another print from the plate (see sample 4b below):

The detail of the fabric and the tonal differences are beautiful; there is so much textural interest in this print.

I thought about using it for a backdrawing as I had the initial print, and developed the idea in my sketchbook (see page 45). Below is one example:

From my experience with sample 4a, however, I knew the back drawn lines would not have shown up due to insufficient contrast, so I decided to keep the print as a reference. Next time if I use a lighter ink initially I will be able to successfully back draw over it.

Using the stencil from sample 4a, I flipped it over so that the inked side was uppermost, placed it on some waste paper and took another print (see sample 3c below):

I decided that the image as it stood, was too vague and simplistic, and would be enhanced by emphasising certain parts of the outline using backdrawing. I wanted to add shading to remove the suggestion that the shape on top of the head was a hat and to emphasise certain parts of the negative space. I made several sketches of alternative ideas (see sketchbook page 47) and also thought about using either opaque or semi-transparent inks.

On this occasion, I used opaque Mars black for my backdrawing. As for sample 4a, I used a graphite stick and pointed end of a cocktail stick to transfer the ink using the backdrawing method. Above and and below the figure I used my fingers to press down and transfer marks/shading. To the left of the figure I used the edge of the graphite stick to transfer ink in a way which looks very similar to graphite stick shading. To the right of the arm are smudge marks associated with the pressure of my hand when I drew the outlines.,

I find that the variety marks and variation of tone make this image work well. It is also easily readable as a figure. Emphasising the negative space helps give the image a three dimensional quality, whilst the burlap texture reminds me of a metal mesh, perhaps suggesting an industrial setting, prison, or detention camp. The bright side of the image to the right suggests that this is where the light is coming from. This is the direction in which the figure is facing, perhaps looking to freedom, hope or a new horizon. The grey tones of this image are soothing and contemplative and overall it has a passive, reflective feel.

Finally, I just had to take a print from the inked plate which I had used for the backdrawing on sample 4c. However, before I did so, I used a paper towel and cotton buds and the edge of a credit card to remove ink from the background (thereby creating different textures and emphasising the negative space). This sample should really belong in project 1, exercise 1, because it is composed entirely of reductive process. However, it is included here because it was a logical progression from the figure stencil prints.

I love the soft tonal reductive work of Degas and the simple monoprint lines of Matisse. This print draws from both those influences. It is bold, simplistic (the figure), and yet complex and textural (the background). I think it works because it is interesting without being over detailed (see sample 4d below)



SAMPLE 5: Bamboo leaf and newsprint stencils, 130gsm Snowdon cartridge paper, Akua Intaglio ink

I wanted to do a series using plant material as a stencil, inspired by the collagraphy of Brenda Hartill, whom I had researched for my contextual studies. 

With most branches still bare, early Spring was not the best time to gather leaves. There are also very few of lovely seedpods and husks which are abundant in Autumn. Nonetheless, I managed to find some evergreen bamboo.

For added interest, I tore strips of plain newsprint to lay horizontally across the inked plate. I then laid the bamboo frond onto these strips, so that the paper stencil prevented some of the leaves from touching the plate.  

This sample was entirely materials led. It wasn’t planned from any sketchbook work – I just foraged for interesting materials and experimented with strips of paper stencils until I found a composition which I liked.

Working with Akua intaglio ink, I tried to make my plate more textural this time. In previous samples, I had inked the plate with a rubber roller, which gives a smooth, uniform covering. This time, I used the rubber roller, but purposely added colour without thoroughly blending, working in different directions to give a variable coverage of ink. The inked plate is shown below:

Below is the first print I pulled from the plate (sample 5a):

Both the paper and the bamboo have acted as solid stencil and there is some lovely embossing from the bamboo stem. This is an image which could easily be overlaid with additional prints, or perhaps used as a base for backdrawing or stitching. 

Next, I removed both the paper an bamboo stencils and took a second print from the plate (sample 5b). This print is very beautiful because of the exquisite detail of the leaves and stem. In fact it is much more visible when printed than simply looking at the leaf.

Next, I removed the leaf frond from the inked plate, and replaced the the paper stencils which I had removed for sample 5b, flipping them over so that their inked side was uppermost. I took a third print (sample 5c):

Because the newsprint is so thin, the pressure of the strips going through the intaglio press on the first print has transferred all the detail of the bamboo leaves onto them. In this print it means we have a strong but fragmented image of the plant transferred from the paper strips and a very subtle background print (because this is the third print from the plate without re-inking).

I love the composition of the three strips covering just over half of the paper and the other part being a feint image of the same subject. There is a sense of imbalance which is intriguing.

There is also a sense of distance, with the three strips being in the foreground and the rest of the image being further away (as if shrouded in mist, perhaps?). This three dimensionality makes the print interesting in it’s own right, but also as a candidate for further development. I can imagine folding the paper, and if it were printed on fabric, then pleating. Joining with other materials could be used to provide contrast; perhaps a opaque smooth material (but not shiny) in chromatic grey (unfortunately, I do not have the time or sketchbook space to follow all these ideas through, but I am recording them here for future reference). 

Next, I took the perspex plate and re-inked it using a darker colour. I then took the bamboo frond which I had used previously and flipped it, so that the inked side was uppermost. Because it had been used with the paper stencils, however, only part of the leaves were inked. The result is shown below (sample 5d):

Because the bamboo frond has been used, there is embossing from the stem. I like the two colour effect and the fact that some of the leaf print extends over the frame of the perspex plate. As a stand alone image it is striking and engaging.

Next, I removed the bamboo frond from the inked plate, flipped it over, placed it back on the plate before taking a second print. The result is shown below (sample 5e):

Although this is a single colour print, it is perhaps the one which best captures the fine detail of the leaves and stems, and for this reason I like it very much. The plant is the star, and the complexity of it’s construction is offset by the single colour and subtly different tones.

My final print using the bamboo is shown below (sample 5f):

I flipped the bamboo frond again and placed it back onto the plate. Similar to sample 5b, there are shadowy prints in the background and bold prints in the foreground. There are white areas where the tips of the bamboo leaves did not touch the ink in the previous pull. It is just as beautiful as the previous print, but slightly more complex. What I like is that all the marks are related because they are made with the same bamboo frond. This gives harmony and a sense of togetherness to the image.


SAMPLE 6: Dried grass stem, 130gsm Snowdon cartridge paper, Akua intaglio ink and liquid pigment

I wanted to extend the work I had done in sample 5 by seeing if I could combine the plant stencilling technique with reductive techniques and drawing using the Akua needle nib and liquid pigment. 

First, I inked a perspex plate by brushing on Akua intaglio ink and used a paper towel to remove ink in the areas that I intended to draw on the flowers. Next, I loosely sketched lilies from memory using akau liquid pigment, directly onto the same plate. I laid the plate on the bed of the intaglio press and placed grass stems on top. The print which I took is shown below (sample 6a).

I like the mark-making in this sample. The lillies have a lovely loose spontaneity about them and the intentional texture from the background brushwork is also pleasing. Because this is the first print, the shape of the grass stems appear as a resist, suggesting they are in front of the image and adding depth and interest. For me, it is analogous to a photograph where the focus is on the lillies, and the grass stems appear out of focus in the foreground; the decision has been taken to only provide visual detail to the lillies. The viewer is left to interpret the grass stems as they wish.

The only aspect of this image which I do not like is the colour scheme. The pink I have used feels slightly sickly and rather kitsch.

Next, without re-inking the plate, I removed the grass stems, turned them over and placed them inked side uppermost. The ghost print which I took is shown below (sample 6b):

This image is more subtle, with a powdery or misty feel and an added layer of tone/depth. The detail of the grasses is now visible, so the image is more prescriptive.

These two prints almost make me want to introduce another layer – tissue, stitching, a semi-transparent photograph? Any additions, however would have to be made without causing the image to become confused or muddled. Another option might be to expand small areas or particular interest and enlarge them – maybe to make a set of square tiles, related by colour and mark. These could be joined with a contrasting material, either as a flat panel or make into a three-dimensional polygon. I have thought about some ideas on page 53 of my sketchbook.




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