Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

It's easy when you know how

I promised to tell you all about my visit to Kettles Yard in Cambridge yesterday . . .

The current exhibition in the gallery space is 'Bridget Riley: Colours, stripes, planes and curves', which I enjoyed greatly; there were a few working drawings, some smaller scale gouache paintings and many large canvasses – all wonderful compositions of colour against colour.

But, what most delighted me was the views through the gallery, with glimpses of parts of paintings seen from oblique angles – which makes the flat paintings become optical sculptures.

Of course, the main reason for me being in Kettles Yard yesterday afternoon, was to see the master Chinese printmaker Yu Chengyou demonstrate his water-based woodcut printing techniques.

Yu Chengyou swiftly got down to work and his translator explained that his home in Heilongjiang in north-east China right on the Russian border is where his inspiration comes from. Printmaking became a major means of expression among the artists in this remote area, as oil painting was seen to be a 'western' medium and this traditional way of working was revived. There was another reason this art-form was popular . . . the materials and equipment needed are relatively cheap and easy to get hold of:
  -   plywood (from a builder's merchant/DIY store – a good fine grained wood like birch, about 8mm thick)
  -   chisels
  -   paper (rice paper or cotton rag, slightly absorbant surface)
  -   water in spray bottle (to dampen the paper and water down the paint)
  -   a sheet of plastic (protects the paper from burnisher and stops paper drying out)
  -   bull-dog clips (to hold the paper in position on the block)
  -   water colour paint (tubes of normal painter's water colour)
  -   brushes (good quality flat ones in a selection of size)
  -   burnisher (a cylindrical piece of plastic, or tubing is good)

And that's it!

Oh, and imagination, creativity, skill and 30 years practice, come in handy too!

Right, then, on with the demonstration of how to do a multi-block water-based woodcut print . . . you'll see Yu Chengyou's hand and brush are blurred in most of these photo – he works very quickly!

In three stages, the first colour has been applied and pressed lightly with the hand to give the speckled texture. The paper has been attached to the second block and the second colour is applied to it . . .

And now the third block, which has the fine detail, is painted with the darker colour . . .

and printed . . .

Instead of printing all the paper in an edition of prints with the first colour, before moving on to the next colour; Yu Chengyou completes a print (all the colours) before starting the next print. No need to have lots of space to hang drying prints, there's only one drying at any time so you can work in a small space!

There was a short discussion about whether we'd like to have a go a printing or see another demonstartion – the consensus was to watch the master at work again (I was itching to have a go!)

This time it's a beautiful intricate carving of a flower, here it is being painted with a pale soft grey . . .

A tiny detail of yellow is added in the centre of the larger flower before moving on to block two, the background . . .

A piece of scrap paper is used to protect the print while it is being rubbed hard with the burnisher . . .

The same block and same colour paint is printed again to get a more intense colour . . .

Now the third and last block, details of leaves to print over the blue background . . .

And there we have it, one beautiful print finished!

It's amazing what you can do in two hours when you know how!

Thank you to ArtChina and St Barnabas Press for inviting Yu Chengyou to show his great skill and unpretentious art here in the UK and arranging such an inspiring workshop.

I'm off to the builder's merchant tomorrow to buy ply-wood ;-)



  1. What a wonderful post - thank you Celia :D

  2. Wow! Thank you for sharing this. I can't believe he got such fabulous printing using watercolour paints.

  3. The trick, I think, is to work fast.
    And, yes, 30 years of skill-building is good! :-)
    Thanks for this, Celia.I'll give it a whirl once I find some usable wood.

  4. Oh, lucky you, Celia, to be able to watch this artist at work, take such grand photos and notes, and to get the "feel" of how he works.

    I'd also like to go buy some plywood, but don't know where to go to buy the time to try a woodblock's cutting.

    I am so hoping to find that time in 2012.

    Please let us see how you apply what you learned from this session.


  5. What a fantastic workshop Celia. I love seeing a master at work but I can never get my head around the reductive layers of a woodblock or linocut so I would be useless at this. Looking forward to seeing what you do with that birch ply.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your visit- I'd been looking forward to seeing what was done. It looks amazing!

  7. So interesting. I have so many questions about this but I think that is because I probably need to have watched it being done.
    Can't wait to see what you do with your ply.

  8. Wow, I never would have thought of printing with watercolour paints. The results were absolutely breathtaking. 30 years' experience clearly gives the best results - If I start now...
    Thank you for sharing this. It must have been a priviledge to be there.

  9. How wonderful, I am sure you will be fired with enthusiasm!

  10. That's a fascinating insight and I LOVE that beautiful flower. I can see why you were so inspired!

  11. Please more details!

  12. It's a pleasure, Frances - and also a record for me.

    Patricia G - yes, I didn't realise he uses standard watercolours.

    Dinahmow - yep! speed!

    Frances - I learnt a lot in 2 hours... in fact I've been able to apply one of the tips today :-)

    Hi Lesley - no complex reductions here, multiple blocks so you can revisit and revise, it's a lot easier than you think, really!

    Thrifty Household - a very impressive free workshop!

    Rhiannon - I've picked up enough to have a go, but I'm sure it's all down to practice and adjustments from experience.

    Lizzie - I need to try it myself, it's a balance between the damp paper, wet paint and absorbency of the wood - a bit like cooking, you have to do it to get a feel of what is needed.

    Sarah - sorry, I'm not elaborating further about Yu Chengyou's technique, I'm, sure you'll be able to hunt down videos and blogs that give more clues ro find courses and workshops you can attend.
    And I'll do further blogposts about my own experiments.


  13. Good evening Celia,

    That was a truly wonderful post. To watch an artist at work is awe inspiring. I have fond memories of Kettle's Yard from many moons ago.

    Did you look at the Fairysteps website by the way?

  14. Fascinating! How wonderful you were allowed to take photographs. You must have gone away buzzing with inspiration. Fascinating, thank you Celia for letting us watch too. Vanessa xxx

  15. Isn't it great to watch someone so talented at work and the results were so good in two hours!!

  16. What a wonderful experience to watch him work lik that. Have you done any yet?


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