Woodblock Printmaker Interview #1: Jennifer Worsley!

jennifer mug2Bio: Jennifer Worsley is a graduate of Boston University School for the Arts, Boston with a MA and BFA, 1996; a Hudson River Fellow, New York, NY. 2009; and attended The New York Academy of Art, New York, NY. 1998-1999. She works in drawing, pastel, and woodblock prints.

Her prints have earned many “Best of Show” awards and is an active exhibitor in the West and Northwest United States.


Please take some time to see Jennifer’s work: strikingly.com & squareup.com

tanuki prints interview3EDITOR’S INTRODUCTION: I’m particularly excited (and would imagine all mokuhanga printers would also be) to know how the heck she plans the impressions that result in her prints’ striking realistic and beautiful hues and values. Tanuki Prints goes where the chips fall with Jennifer Worsley

salt lake valley with snow
Salt Lake Valley with Snow- mokuhanga, 13″ x 23″

Question icon [Tanuki Asks]: First of all, I understand that you work reductively which can hold both advantages and challenges. Do you also use multiple blocks? How do you decide what strategy a print requires?

Answer icon [Jennifer] Thanks very much! One of the reasons I enjoy working with a reduction process is the fact that there is no going back- it limits the process of making a design in a way I find helpful. Most of my prints (especially larger ones) are reduction prints.

When I do a multiple block print, the number of variables that go with changing each color and the way colors will overlap, tends to lead to it never feeling “finished”.  I can experiment endlessly with colors and textures and all the variables in the printing process, but– unfortunately I tend to lose my way in all of these meanderings, when I have many separate blocks.

white rim
White Rim at Sunset- mokuhanga, 8″ x 12″

One of my multiple block excursions, “Coastline Madrona Trees”, (see below) started as a reduction print using a single carved block. I worked from light to dark in the design, which makes for a fairly straightforward process of deciding on colors for each step of the process.  It was successful as a reduction print, and the final stage of that reduced block, from which I printed the darkest color, had a nice linear skeleton of the design of the image.  So I thought I would use that skeleton of the reduction print as the key block, for a new, multiple block version.

I carved five other blocks with the key block as the basis for the design, and with the reduction print as the jumping off point for the color choices.  I thought that would make the print a bit easier to work out, but no. Even with a long process of testing colors, the overlapping of each just causes so much variation with each small change in the color, and I feel like I have never gotten it right.

I do have other multiple block prints that have worked out well- and those are uniquely satisfying.  Coordinating many blocks is its own difficult puzzle for sure.  (I generally only try it with small prints now.) A reduction print, by contrast, has a clear path, and a definite end stage: when most of the block is gone. It may or may not be successful, but if its not– I can let it go and move on to a new project.  It also, of course, simplifies registration, since often there is no need to line up one block with another.

Images of “Coastline Madrona Trees”- mouse over for captions

Question icon After visiting your website, I noticed that you draw and paint outside quite a bit. Do these develop into later prints? Do you also use photo reference? Do you emphasize or ‘improve’ on reality? Do you use Photoshop, painting, or another tool to help visualize the end product and, if so, do you match the color to some reference?

the waterfall

The Waterfall- mokuhanga, 17″ x 24″

Answer icon When I draw and paint outside, I do try to capture reality- but at the same time distill it.  Working quickly on the spot means having to balance those two goals.  I enjoy using pastels because they are linear (a distilling process on its own) and a fast, portable medium.  I usually am attracted to fleeting light effects, especially ones that you can’t capture in a photo (like moving water or vividness of a sunset).  I very much enjoy making some of these pastels into prints in the studio, especially if the pastel ends up with a strong design, with clear definite shapes.

One of the reasons I became interested in woodblock printmaking was the fact that its by nature a studio process. Many other mediums seem to lose their magic when I am not using them directly in front of my subject, on location: whenever I bring pastel, oil, or watercolor into the studio, to work from a drawing, photo reference, or mental idea- all of those mediums just die for me. I need to be in front of my subject to do anything worthwhile (definitely a personal limitation).

the river in spring.jpg
The River in Spring- mokuhanga, 15″ x 21″ 

“A woodblock print, by contrast, takes on a life of its own whether the subject is there or not. I use photo reference for some, and drawing or pastel reference for others, but it always ends up with qualities unique to itself.”

Question icon What specific technical challenges do you have to keep in mind while printing? (example: ink can dry lighter, etc).

Answer icon Ink drying lighter is a big one. I always have several test sheets, that I will print my latest color on, and then dry to see how it looks.  I have been using opaque white recently, and it especially will cause a color I mix it in to dry differently than I would expect.

Lately I have been doing a lot of experimenting with ink transparency and opacity. In art school, painting with oil, I always enjoyed layers of transparent and opaque paint and how they interacted, and I have been trying to bring some elements of that to layering colors in my prints.  What I am liking right now is to start with the transparent warm colors during the first stages, working in layers from light to dark, before moving to cool colors–going from deep dark blues to lighter opaque cool colors in the subsequent layers. Then after that adding the last darkest darks.

Another big issue for me is that I tend to keep my stack of paper wet for such a long time, when I am in the process of making a reduction print, that the sizing in the paper breaks down and causes problems.  I  believe this is a big culprit for colors “sinking in” to the paper– this tends to happen quite a bit in a print I keep damp for a long time (more than a couple of weeks in the fridge.) I also find I need to add interleaving sheets between each piece of paper so there isn’t color bleeding through to the next print underneath it in the stack, and I think the breakdown of sizing contributes to that.

I don’t find that sumi ink, especially the ink that comes in a green bottle from the US -based art supply stores, has that tendency to “sink in” to the paper as much– and on researching it, I learned it has shellac in it! So now, one of the experiments I am going to try is to use ink with a bit of shellac.

Question icon Who were your teachers and which printmakers do you admire?

Answer icon I have taken two workshops with Matt Brown that were fantastic, and learned a huge amount from him. His approach to mokuhanga makes it very approachable for someone who might not use strictly Japanese materials and methods- he doesn’t design with a key block, generally, and prints on a Western paper (Rives Heavyweight, which is the main paper I use.) These modifications of the techniques have definitely been helpful for me, and made it more accessible.

Behind the scenes

Of course, I have also learned a great deal from Dave Bull, through his online presence. His generosity with sharing his working processes never ceases to amaze me. When I read about your [Tanuki Print’s John Amoss] month-long stay at his shop in Tokyo where you could be part of his printing workshop there, I was so envious!

I had never seen a Western (non-Japanese) mokuhanga print before coming across Elaine Chandler’s print “Early One Morning” in the catalog for McClain’s Printmaking Supplies in 2005 .  That print was what inspired me to learn how to do mokuhanga— I just loved the image so much and still do.

Question icon Is there is something that you’d like to know more how to do, and if so, what would that/those thing/s be?

Answer icon I would like to learn how to be more methodical.  Please tell me, does anyone teach a workshop in that?  I would also like to learn some methods for handling larger prints- printing mokuhanga with larger sheets of paper and the logistics of that.

Question icon How do you communicate to the public about what you do?

Answer icon My favorite way is to take my work to art fairs and festivals, where I set up my booth along with 100-200 other artists and crafters.  Printmaking is often its own separate category at those events, and there are very few other printmakers, so we always stand out.  I always get lots of fascinating feedback and questions about my process, and people buy my work there too!

Question icon Here’s a ‘softball question’: What is it about mokuhanga that you love? What aspects of yourself attracts you to this difficult process?

Answer icon I love the elegance of it.  All the natural qualities of wood, water, and paper work together to make it happen, with very simple materials but with incredible nuance. It’s such an especially good medium for depicting atmosphere in landscape images- the way a simple bokashi can create a sky full of depth and light, for example.

I do have a lot of reverence for the traditional mokuhanga methods, although I myself have only learned a bit. I would love to learn in depth from a Japanese craftsman or from Dave Bull in Tokyo.  However, I also love the fact that it allows for non-traditional experimentation and a lot of individual expression. I am the kind of person that questions “the way things are done” generally, and I always love to find new ways that suit me better.  Mokuhanga, for all its difficulties and trickiness, does allow this. Maybe that is even one aspect of its elegance!

Question icon Are there any other questions that you would ask of yourself?

Answer icon If I asked myself what directions I think my prints will take in the future:  right now, I think I would like to move towards bigger, simpler images, with just a single reduced carved block. I don’t know that for sure though- I am happy to go in any direction that mokuhanga wants to take me.

road throught the palouse
Road Through the Palouse- mokuhanga, 8″ x 23″


A BIG thanks to Jennifer for being Tanuki Print’s first interviewee and for sharing her great work with us! strikingly.com and squareup.com

One thought on “Woodblock Printmaker Interview #1: Jennifer Worsley!

  1. That was a really fun interview! Having returned from a workshop with Matt Brown (just last week), I can say it was an invaluable experience. I got home and promptly made a reduction print in a little over 3 hours. It really has me rethinking my approach.

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