22 July 2012

A Quick Thing About Dragons

Recently I got out a drawing I had started to do on my watercolour pad and decided I might as well finish it. So I started by re-inking what I had already done with a pen using a brush instead. Then I added details with a pen (a dip pen with a Hunt 102 "crowquill" nib, which not only has a cool name, but is my favourite nib for drawing with).

Once the inks were done, I painted it with watercolours. And the whole time I was painting it, I was thinking about text I could add to it, and how it could be part of a book project (because everything I do seems to end up connected to books somehow). I won't say much more about that here, as I'm going to do the book under my Calliope Strange pen name, but it'll be a sort of travel journal by my mad scientist character Sophia Shallowgrave. But more on that later...

13 July 2012

Reindeer Girl Cover

If you're a Facebook friend or you follow me on Twitter, you'll have seen pretty much everything in this post, but I thought I'd bring all the work-in-progress shots for this book cover together in one place.

First, a bit of background. I've been working off and on to write a novel about a character called Maring Darkberry, who belongs to a culture called the Reindeer Herders (or just Herders)--a genetically mixed people who live on the barrens of my imaginary island/continent of Frisland (also the setting for many of my short stories, and for the Aeryn Daring stories I write as Calliope Strange).

The story started out as a short story called "White Foxes, Full Moon," but I soon realized there was a lot more to Maring's tale. But for some reason I never got farther than perhaps two-thirds finished.

So recently, I saw a call for submissions from a place called JukePop Serials which had an interesting business model. And I thought maybe by serializing the thing, so there were people waiting for the next chapter, I might actually finish it. And the editors at JukePop liked it. So now the title is Reindeer Girl, and it'll be serialized starting in September. And it needs a cover.


First I needed a reference for Maring. It didn't have to look like her, exactly, as long as the pose was right. So digging through a box of old pictures, I found this one of my beautiful mother with my sister and me (I'm the chubby one on the left) in her lap.

I did a sketch I was pleased with, changing her features to make her look less like my mom and more like the character in my story. Though in the story Maring has fair skin and blue eyes to go with her black hair, I wanted it to be clear from looking at her that not all her ancestry is European. Her people have intermarried all over the place, and they currently live quite close to a people they refer to as the Snow People (who are, of course, Inuit). So I wanted Maring to look like some of her recent ancestors were Inuit or perhaps Siberian or even Mongolian.

I could already tell that I probably hadn't really left enough room for the rest of the picture, but I was thinking about scanning the inked drawing and colouring digitally, so I went ahead and inked the drawing on the sketchbook paper, rather than transferring it to watercolour paper.


 I spent a long time looking at type, and found what I thought was the perfect typeface for the title. It was Celtic, but rough-looking; calligraphic but loose. Unfortunately, none of the links on the designer's website worked. So I kept looking and eventually decided that what I really wanted to do was hand-letter, a la Walter Crane, or more recently, Charles Vess.

Of course, I then decided I also wanted to hand-colour, so I had to figure out a way to squeeze everything onto the page.


I had in mind a particular photograph, taken on the barrens of the southern Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, which just happened to have caribou in the shot (for the curious, caribou and reindeer are the same animal, Rangifer tarandus, the first usually used in North America and the second in Europe). Alas, there must be another box of my photographs still in storage at my mother's house in BC, because I couldn't find it. So instead I used this one, taken somewhere between Cape Ray and Gros Morne, Newfoundland.

I started with a blue wash, and quickly began to wish I'd taken the time to transfer the drawing to watercolour paper before inking.

Then I added green and yellow. You can see the paper getting more and more wrinkled with each colour I add.

Then some brown and grey, and a little red and purple.

Finally, I brightened up some of the colours and added a few details with pencil crayon.

Then I had to flatten the thing so I could get a good scan. I did this by thoroughly spritzing it with water from the back, until the paper relaxed and it lay flat. Then I put it between sheets of printmaking rag (I used some old proofs) and newsprint, and put it under a goodly amount of weight to dry. And the next day it was perfectly flat.

I had to scan it in two pieces, because it's too big for my scanner--thanks to Photoshop's "photomerge" function, putting the two pieces together was a snap.

And if anyone's interested, I've made it available as a print through Zazzle (if you order, make sure to let the preview load for the size you select--some sizes will cut off the top and bottom of the image). I may do my own prints at some point, on my very nice super-deluxe photo inkjet printer on digital photo rag paper. If enough people ask, that is.

12 July 2012

Recent Letterpress Work (Or, I Am Not Dead)

So much for my goal of posting something every week. I don't even really have the excuse of being busy. Which isn't to say I haven't been busy. I have. Just not so busy I couldn't post something. But anyway.

I am writing lots of fiction, and planning some other fun things. I've been making a few things, like this entirely non-letterpress item:

Available from one of my Etsy shops, if you're interested.

As for letterpress things, I finally got the "Spring" card in the four seasons series done, leaving just the "Autumn" one, which I hope to get done soon. The bulk of these are still in the Dawson Printshop, waiting for me to trim them down to size, but they are printed, at least.

I also played around with some wood type (and a linocut) while I was teaching (not during class time, of course, but while waiting for my students to arrive). I started with this little card:

Then did this one:

And then this:

You can probably tell I printed the first colour on the next card right after printing the second colour on the previous card, to reduce the number of times I had to clean the press. I do love printing these simple cards with vintage type and translucent colours, and I have plenty of ideas for more. I'm thinking "Thank You" and "Happy Birthday" cards should be next, since those are things people often ask about.

Right now I'm working on a book cover for my novel Reindeer Girl, which will be serialized by JukePop Serials starting in September, but I'll do a whole post on that once the picture is done.

20 May 2012

The Vanishing Bestiary 1: Dodo

Friday afternoon I started on the test illustration I mentioned last post that I wanted to do, to see if I could get enough detail in linocut for the illustrations for The Vanishing Bestiary. By the time I went to bed, I had a good start on the drawing, and by Saturday afternoon I had something I was happy with (if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you may have seen this first image already):

Next, I needed to transfer it to the linoleum, which I did with good old-fashioned carbon paper (I believe it's still possible to buy it at Staples, but I have an ancient box that somebody gave me many, many years ago). I actually began by scanning the drawing, flipping it in Photoshop (since I wanted the final image to be facing left, like the original drawing), and printing it full-size on my laser printer. Then I used the printout and the carbon paper for the transfer. Finally, I went over it again on the linoleum with a hard pencil. The lines from the carbon paper are pretty stable, but I wanted to make sure I had all the details and smoothed all the lines, as it's very easy to get confused when cutting lino.

Above is the traced-over scan, the carbon paper (look closely and you can see where the transfer process left the image of the dodo in the carbon), and the lino. At this point, I had only gone over the head with pencil; the rest is still just the carbon transfer.

Cutting this image was easier than usual in a way. I didn't have to think too hard about what to cut and what to leave, because skeletons are white, so I could just sort of draw the skeleton with my cuts, if that makes any sense. Of course, I did have to remember to leave lines between elements, and there was a lot of small detail, so it was not at all easy in other ways. The final task was to cut out the silhouette of the animal, since I don't want any lino residue printing around it. I may or may not cut a second plate to make some sort of background in another colour, but for now it'll just be simple.

For the first proof, I used some water-based block printing ink I had kicking around, and immediately regretted it. I remember now why I hate the stuff. It was pretty much drying as I rolled it on, and it refused to go on at all evenly. And to top it all off, it pulled some of the newsprint off the proof (you can see it stuck to the tail in the image above). So then I used some rather aged rubber-based ink, and had problems with that as well, for reasons I haven't determined--possibly it was just too close to being dry, with too much oil leached out. Finally I pulled out a tin of truly ancient, but still very good, proofing ink I inherited when I was helping clean out the Dawson Printshop. It may be older than I am, but it still spreads like warm buttercream icing. The proofs I made weren't perfect (for one, I didn't clean up the rubber-based ink thoroughly enough, and for two, flat areas are hard to print well on my little tabletop proof press).

All in all, I'm very pleased. I hope to get some time before teaching on Wednesday to print a small edition (as prints, not for the final book, which I'll do once I have all the images cut and figure out what size to make the pages). I'll pop them in my Etsy shop for sale, too. Oh, and I think I'm going to make myself a t-shirt with this one.

18 May 2012

Pondering The Vanishing Bestiary

I love bestiaries, and I've been wanting to make one for ages. So slowly this idea has been taking shape in my brain, for a bestiary of vanished species. It will be letterpress printed, with minimal text (but what text there is hand-set in metal type), and illustrated either from polymer plates or linocuts. I'll probably go with lino, but I'll have to do a test illustration to make sure it'll work.

As I said, the pictures will be of vanished species--I'm thinking beasts that went extinct directly, or at least largely, due to human interference. And the images will be skeletons, because I like bones. I may do just the skeleton, or I may include the body of the animal (perhaps just as an outline). That's one of the things that hasn't quite formed in my head yet, but which test illustrations will help with. (Apologies for the mangled sentence structure there.)

So my next step is to decide on a possible list of species to include--dodo, thylacine, quagga . . . if anyone has suggestions, feel free to post them. And I need to decide on a size, so I can start on a test image. After that, I have to figure out paper, typeface, binding style . . .

Way back at the beginning of the year (which looks so far past on the calendar, which feels like such a brief time), I said I wasn't going to start any major new projects until I'd crossed a bunch of half-done things off my list. And while I haven't really finished as many things as I'd like, this isn't really a new project. It's been percolating in my brain for over a year now.

I also had thought of doing a similar project that would be a suite of intaglio prints rather than a book. And it would be just skulls, each one life-size on the copper plate. That's something I may revisit at some point, when I actually have some way to make and print intaglio again.

Anyway, no pictures yet, alas. But I may start on that sample image this weekend.

15 May 2012

Calligrapha multipunctata

Calligrapha multipunctata. If that's not one of the coolest Latin binomials there is, then I'm no judge of cool. (Okay, probably I'm not much of a judge of cool, anyway, but never mind.)

Anyway. I came across this little fellow (or lass) on the way back from the mailbox. I might never have spotted him if he hand't been on his back, flashing his quite reddish wings in order to right himself. Against the beige and grey of the gravel road, he stood out quite a lot. He's just under a centimetre long--maybe 7 or 8mm.

I'm not absolutely certain of the species identification, since I didn't find him on his host plant. It could also be C. philadelphica, which is very similar. Most of this genera is very closely associated with a plant species--willow in the case of C. multipunctata, dogwood for C. philadelphica. Of course, I could go back down the road and do a survey of trees. I'm pretty sure there are willows nearby, and not so sure about dogwood.

At first I thought I was looking at a non-red species of ladybird, but the fabulous online Bug Guide set me straight. Still, identifying insects is hard, even when it seems to be something pretty different, though I guess you get better once you know what to look for.

04 May 2012

A Couple More Frogs

This will probably be the last frog-related post for a while (though I can't promise anything), but I wanted to post pictures of the finished card and print, as well as an in-progress shot of the cut on my little proof press.

Spring Peepers Card

Here's the finished card, printed in green ink on handmade recycled cotton rag printmaking paper. I plan to do some on cattail paper later on, assuming I can salvage the half-made pulp that's fermenting on my picnic table.

I like the green, but the next ones will probably be brown or black. And spring peepers aren't really green, anyway.

Spring Peepers Print

I also did these little frogs as a print, on the same paper, in the same ink. Because the cuts are actually two separate pieces, I could move them around.

As you can see, though, I really liked the configuration I put them in on the card, because even though I wasn't looking at that when I set up the print, they ended up in almost the same places, just farther apart. Ah, well.


Here are the plates on my little table-top proof press, inked up and ready for the paper.

My press is type-high, so to print unmounted lino, I have a piece of 3/4 inch plywood on the bed, then newsprint and mylar to keep things clean (unmounted cuts tend to pick up ink on the back, and mylar is easy to wipe clean). Then the lino goes down, then the paper. On top of that I put another sheet of newsprint, then a press blanket cut from an old wool blanket (like an army blanket, but it's pinkish instead of grey), then two sheets of eska board (bookbinder's board). That gives a nice deep impression on the handmade paper, and if I need to, I can adjust it by changing the amount of board and paper.

02 May 2012

Spring Brings Out the Peepers

Here's something I'm working on:

Two little wee linocuts that I'll print on handmade paper tomorrow. I originally planned to print them on cattail paper, but I'm pretty sure I won't have time to make any more paper by the weekend, so I'll print them on some odds and ends of recycled and the last of the last batch of goldenrod paper. I'm thinking of printing them in bright green ink, even though Spring Peepers are usually more brown. Green just seems more springy.

And I finished printing the goldenrod lino today, so tomorrow I'll fold and package the cards. It's on goldenrod paper, of course.

And here's a terrible photo of one of the latest batch of blank books. I'll take better photos of whichever ones are left after the craft fair and get them up on Etsy. I made ten in various colours and configurations, and have one left from the last batch.

27 April 2012

Coelacanth: Living Fossil Birthday Card

So here's another one of my recent lino pieces finished.

The actual linocut is one I made several years ago to go with some hand-set type, and I've been wanting to use it again for a card. Here's the inside (also hand-set metal type):

If you're unfamiliar with the reference, the coelacanth is a big, ugly fish that was thought to have been extinct for thousands of years until one turned up in a fisherman's catch in the late 1930s. Since then, it's often been used as an example of a "living fossil."

I am wondering if I should take along some blank inserts with me to the craft fair next week, in case anyone likes the card but not the insides.

Anyway, I only printed a small number for now, because I didn't have many sheets of this particular paper, which was a batch I made to use up some pulp. It's half recycled rag, half goldenrod, but the rag had been frozen and didn't spread out well in the vat, which created the blobby look. And because the goldenrod was the end of the batch, there were a lot of stem bits it it, making the paper brittle and crunchy. I also had problems with the paper sticking to the plate and leaving bits behind, so I had to wipe off the lino and re-ink after every print.

I'll see how these sell before I print more, at which point I'll use a different paper.

25 April 2012

House Frogs

I haven't got much exciting or new to report on the making-of-things front, but life on the edge of the woods continues to be interesting. Late last night I happened to step outside and looked, as I always do, to see what moths had landed near the light over the door. There aren't many moths out yet, but I saw an odd dark shape that I thought might be something new. When I looked closer, it turned out to be two small frogs, clinging to the loose paint of the siding. By the time I got my camera, naturally, one of them was gone, but the other one sat still while I photographed her from several angles, and didn't seem too bothered by the flash.

She (or he) is a Spring Peeper, a common species in Nova Scotia. We're treated to choruses of hundreds of them every spring. These two were rather large, though, to the point I thought maybe they were some other species. I'm not a frog expert, but I'd guess they must be about at the upper size limit for Spring Peepers.

18 April 2012

New Design and More In-Progress

Phew. I still haven't got back in the groove of blogging. I blame it on finally having something resembling full-time work (with its firm deadlines and all that). But anyway, here are the few little things I've been working one.

Scarab Card

Thing the first (actually, it's thing the second, but it's the first one done, so it gets bumped up): a scarab greeting card.

It's a hand-cut and hand-printed linocut (see my previous post for pictures of the actual plate, if you're interested), printed on handmade (by me) paper. The paper is approximately 50% recycled cotton rag printmaking paper and 50% Nova Scotia goldenrod harvested from my back field. It has a sheet of classic laid paper tipped-in to the inside to make for easier writing, and it comes with a nice deep red envelope.

I had originally planned a multi-colour print for this one, but I started with the black so I'd be able to see how to register the other colours, and I liked how it printed (see that lovely deep embossment? No? Click on the image for a close-up) so much I decided to just go with the black.

Scarab Print

Then I decided to pull a few as prints, which I may do multi-colour, but I think I'll try hand-colouring instead of a multi-block print. I'll try one and see if I like it. But here it is with just black, printed on the same paper as the card version.

The fun thing about these is that the imperfections in the handmade paper actually enhance the print (at least I think so), so I can save all the less-than perfect sheets for prints. Incidentally, the image is my own original design, based on ancient Egyptian and not-so-ancient Art Nouveau images, as well as on actual photos of real scarab beetles.

More Linocut Cards

I don't have individual pictures of the other two cards I'm working on, and won't until they're done, but there they are in the half-finished state.

The fish is a coelacanth, a "living fossil," and it will get a tipped-in insert with "HAPPY BIRTHDAY to a living fossil" printed from hand-set type. The plant is goldenrod, and will have a second colour added. All of these are actually on 50% rag 50% goldenrod paper, but the different batches produced very different results.

The first batch, with the goldenrod flower printed on it, is paler and was made from fresh pulp. The second batch, with the scarab, was made from goldenrod plants that had sat and gone swampy for several weeks because I got busy and had no room in the freezer (it was the actual boiled plants that sat--I rinsed and pulped them after). The paper is much darker. The third batch, with the fish, is the same goldenrod pulp as the second, but the rag pulp came out of the freezer and didn't disperse into the vat very well. I liked the way it looked, though, so I left it.

And that's what I've been up to.

04 April 2012

Linocuts in Progress

Yeah, I got a bit swamped with dayjob stuff and with trying to keep up my fiction writing, too, so I haven't posted here in ages. But I have been working on a few things.

I've been teaching letterpress for Extended Studies at NSCAD for the past six weeks or so and the final class is tomorrow. I teach the class again starting in early May. I've been trying to sneak in a little printing time of my own before each class--last week I printed some invitations for a client, but I also got a chance to proof a dragon linocut I made off and on over the last . . . well, too long to tally up, but a long time. Then I managed to leave all the proofs in the shop, so I don't have any pictures to show you. But I will after I bring them home tomorrow.

In the meantime, my worktable has this on it:

Wee little linocuts that I will print on my own handmade paper to make cards. The top one is goldenrod, and it will also have a yellow block, and maybe a green one, depending on how ambitious I feel. It'll be printed on 50% recycled cotton rag / 50% goldenrod paper. Here's a closeup:

And the bottom one is of course a scarab. It's an original design based on a variety of ancient Egyptian sources. I've had a big fascination with beetles for a while, but especially so now that I've got a character growing in my head who has a peculiar affinity for beetles.

I'm especially fascinated by the combination of scarabs and falcons, not just with the wings, but with the big falcon feet, too. Here's a peek into my process, with the original sketch, the tracing paper I used to transfer it to the lino and then used to play with colours, and the lino for the black layer.

I'm planning (if I have time) to do this in two versions: a two- or three-colour one on a greeting card, and then a six-colour limited edition print (black, green, blue, yellow, red, and metallic gold).

And, if you're curious about the beetle character, she's in this short story by my alter ego Nic Silver, available for Amazon Kindle:

08 January 2012

2012: The Year of Finishing Things

I've been thinking a lot about the difference between goals and dreams, probably prompted by a blog post from Dean Wesley Smith (if you're a writer, you should really read his blog and go back and read the archives--there's a lot of gold there).

A Dream:
An objective in the future that is out of your control.
A Goal:
An objective in the future that is totally in your control.

It's an important difference, I think. Too often, the goals we come up with (at least I do this) are really dreams, things we can work towards, but which are ultimately out of our control. So this year I'm going to think more carefully about my goals, and not confuse them with my dreams. Which isn't to say I don't have dreams, I have a big one. But I'll actively work on the things I absolutely can make happen and save the dreams for, well, dreaming about.

So my goals this year are fairly simple, and they have to do with two broad concepts:

  1. finishing things I've already started
  2. keeping up the momentum I've already built

And considering how very many things I started in the last few years, I'll have plenty to keep me busy.

Goals for 2012

  • finish something every week from the things-started pile, whether it's a craft project, a book, or a piece of writing
  • start new projects only if I can finish them quickly, and then finish them (exceptions are bigger projects I've planned to to do for some time, but haven't actually started on yet, like the new novel)
  • write every day even if it's just a sentence or two (and not stress if I miss a day, but just pick up again the next day)
I may come up with more later, but those are the main ones. 2012 will be the year of finishing things. I do have some more specific goals, like particular novels to get written, particular publishing goals, and so on, and I may detail those out in a later post(s).

Dreams for 2012
I have a dream, though it's not really one I expect to achieve this year. It's certainly one I can work towards though, by meeting all my goals. That dream is simply to make writing--writing fiction, that is--my full-time job. That doesn't mean I'll stop teaching or bookbinding or letterpress printing, but it does mean that those things will be things I do because I enjoy them, not because I'm scrabbling to find grocery money.

And for those who believe that writing fiction full time is a dream that can only be realized by a select few who sell gazillions of books and whose very laundry lists could generate income, well, maybe you should start reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blog (also an essential for writers). There is another way to make a living as a fictionist, and that is by having a lot of things available for people to buy. The new publishing paradigm that's developing, with e-books at the forefront and more writerly control, is perfect for the mid-lister, and that's a fine place for me. I don't need to be a blockbuster seller. In fact, I think I'd rather not be.

So, onward. I've got goals to hit.