• Printmaking

    Reduction Block Printing: Rainbow Palm Trees

    Reduction Block Printing with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    Over the past few weeks, I’ve been treating myself to what I’m calling Art Camp. Oolite Arts is a Miami Beach-based arts center, with artist residencies, art programs, and classes. Sadly, their classes have been shuttered for months now due to COVID-19 (have you heard about Florida…), but they’ve been offering virtual classes for free. No commute, no pressure, no cost… all that’s left is for me to invest the time.

    Hence, Art Camp. Because it’s the weirdest summer ever, so at least I’m going to play with some paint.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    I really love block printing so I was excited to join a class exploring reduction block printing, which is a technique I haven’t tried before, taught by Nick Mahshie. He’s the Oolite printmaking resident and a really fantastic teacher.

    Reduction block printing produces a layered block print, but each layer comes from the same block – the block is cut away after printing each layer. It requires a LOT of advance planning, because each cut I make in the block impacts the entire future of the design. It’s intimidating because it’s a destructive process by nature. Now that I’ve finished my edition of prints, I can never make more of the exact same, because I’ve carved away and essentially destroyed the parts of the block used to make the first 2 colors of my 3-color print.

    The three stages of my rainbow palm trees block print. The same block is used the whole time, but more material is carved away with each stage.
    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    For layer 1, I carved away only the whites: the clouds and the highlights along the palm trunks. I had to think of this as “areas where I don’t want ink to be, EVER.” There’s no putting material back once you’ve carved it away.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    I had every intention of following the prompt for the class – we all worked from the same source image (a palm tree photo), but each drew our own block images. This process is complicated when attempting it for the first time, so I’m glad the class was structured this way and I was glad we were all on the same page. But when it came time to print, I deviated from the script completely, and abandoned blue sky in favor of this beachy sunset. Because sunset palm trees are the palm trees I know and love.

    Printing the gradient was magical. I mixed up four colors: a red-ish magenta, orange, and two shades of blue; and prepped them on an inking plate. As you can see above, I ended up using two inking plates – this helped me get enough surface to really spread the ink properly on the brayer. With one-color prints, it’s easy enough to roll the brayer in all different directions to ensure the whole area is properly inked, but with the gradient it’s crucial to only roll the brayer in one direction. Having more “runway space” with the two inking plates really helped my ink consistency.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    After printing this first block, I already loved where this design was going. Next it was time to cut away everything on the block that I wanted to remain “sky”, and this meant cutting the outlines of the palm trees.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    I carved away the sky portions of my block, and printed the gray layer of the palm tree silhouettes.

    Reduction Block Printing with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    Here, above, is the block from the gray layer. I took this picture after I printed the gray and was starting to carve for the black layer. Planning the outlines for the black layer was tricky, and I found it easiest to draw directly on the block where I wanted the black printed areas to be.

    Reduction Block Printing with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    Here is the block for the black layer. Everything is carved away except the final darkest shadows. I had used a washable marker to draw the black shadows, so I washed that away before I started my prints.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    The most important part of reduction block printing, or any multi-layer block print, is proper registration. It’s crucial to make sure each layer is aligned, so the overlapping shapes end up where they’re supposed to be. My registration board is just a piece of cardboard, with a rectangle cut to the exact size of the block, and lines drawn on the bottom and right-hand side to align the edges of the paper for each print. I also cut myself a thumb hole to make it easier to remove the block out of the registration jig for each inking.

    I also drew a little pencil palm tree on the side to make sure I always placed the block in right-side up! Don’t want any upside-down palm trees.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    I made an edition of 12 prints total. I wanted a safe margin because there’s risk of messing up prints at every stage, and, again, there’s no going back and reprinting a previous stage because that block no longer exists. I have a few that didn’t register perfectly – the black and gray layers aren’t quite lined up – but that’s part of the nature of block printing and those prints still have charm. There are also a few where the rainbow gradient is a little blotchy because it was REALLY tough to maintain consistent inking across all the colors. But even that – it’s sky, so as the artist I say that a little bit of blotchiness still… looks like sky!

    I was really glad to be working with organic shapes for the first relatively detailed block I’ve carved. The block material is soft, like an eraser, and especially on the final black layer, some of my small details and thin lines just crumbled or peeled away. And this isn’t a big deal, because they’re palm trees! They’re not perfectly uniform anyway. But if I had been trying to carve something like a building, or a design I had been considering – a lifeguard stand – the wiggly lines would become more of an issue. So I may look into different materials in the future if I want to make more precise blocks.

    Sunset Palm Trees Blockprint with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    The whole printing process is so satisfying. I love the meditative process of carving, it’s a very “flow” activity for me. I love the methodical work of rolling out the ink for each print, and the sigh of relief when peeling back each successfully printed sheet.

    But the best part is the progression. Each stage looked so good. I loved my rainbow sky gradient. It got even better with the gray silhouettes. But that final black detail layer really makes it all pop. Each layer almost felt like it could stand alone, but the final layer comes along and proves them wrong. “This is what you needed,” it says.

    Reduction Block Printing with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews

    I’m taking more classes with Oolite and I highly recommend them! Since they’re virtual, you don’t have to be local. Art Camp for everyone!

    I got a lot of questions as I was sharing these prints on Instagram and I hope my explanation of the process is enlightening. It’s such a neat method and I’m really glad I had the chance to try it.


    Here’s a sped-up video of me printing the rainbow gradient.

    Here’s another outline of the reduction method that really helped everything click for me: Reduction Linocut Method by Natalia Moroz. Such a gorgeous print, too!

    And some Pinnables:

    Reduction Block Printing with Rainbow Gradient - samanthasews
  • Painting

    Sam Learns to Paint: Introduction

    Watercolor swingset

    Painting is something I’ve always wanted to be better at, but it’s also something with a relatively steep learning curve, especially because in order to paint… one must draw. And drawing is something I’ve always been challenged by. In 2018, I decided it was time to learn to draw, and the only way to learn was through repetitive practice. I chose “draw and play” as my challenge for The 100 Day Project, and recorded my progress on Instagram with the hashtag #100daysofdrawandplay.

    Throughout the project, I was amazed at how hard it was to just start. I was entirely convinced that I couldn’t draw, and possibly would never be able to draw. But every day for 80-something days (yes… I fell off the wagon before I made it to day 100…), I sat down and tried. It was so hard. My brain was constantly nagging me, saying, “you’re not any good at this,” and every few seconds as I drew I’d have to think back, “shut up brain, this is something new, I’m learning and trying.”

    There were a lot of drawings that I just hated. I could see in my head what I wanted the drawing to look like, but it just didn’t make it to the paper. It was – and is – so frustrating.

    But – and this principle is the heart of The 100 Day Project – it’s very hard, maybe impossible, to do something for 100 days in a row without improving. I prefer the German phrase that aligns to “practice makes perfect”: Übung macht den Meister. Literally, practice makes the master. Let’s ignore perfection and focus on the fact that practice begets improvement, and continued practice is the only true path to mastery.

    My 85 paintings taught me many things, especially just how much there was to learn. I learned new ways to squint my eyes, new ways to hold my brushes. The amount of water my paper could handle; the amount of water each brush could hold. I learned that painting realistically is all about finding the light and the shadows and forgetting, entirely, what an object is shaped like and merely focusing on how the light is touching the object at that moment.

    Here is another assortment of paintings. If the first grid was the highlights… this grid must be the “lowlights”. I made these during the same 3-month period, all part of the same project. So there was credence to my brain’s arguments: some of my drawings were terrible! Some days I didn’t have the patience to really dive into a painting; some days I tried to paint something that was beyond my skill level; some days I thought I was on the right track, only to finish a painting and think, “ugh.” I like to think that even on these days where I made “art” that I cringe to look at, I was still learning something. And above all else, I was building the habit of trying.

    85 days of concerted effort were enough to convince my brain that maybe I can draw. Most importantly, the project convinced me that the time spent drawing wasn’t a waste, because the practice led to real improvement.

    I’m sharing all this now because I want to keep trying. I still want to get better at drawing and painting, and it’s still really hard to take the time to practice and to find the strength to push through the creative walls in my brain that say, “this painting is terrible, stop painting and scroll Instagram instead” (and then, while scrolling, say “look how much better everyone else can paint”). Writing this is a reminder to myself that learning new things is hard, scary, and worth it. So I’m going to keep painting. Because what do I have to lose?

  • Laser Cutting,  Painting

    Laser Cutting and Magic Making

    Cactus Coloring Kit, wood outline - SamanthaSews

    After years of pining for a laser cutter, and many hours and dollars spent renting time in various maker spaces, I finally jumped in and bought my own laser.

    It’s a dream come true, and it’s also anything but easy. Most of our quality time together so far has been purely mechanical: tweaking the exhaust to make sure the fumes are extracted; calibrating lens focus and bed depth; running test cuts on each of my materials… just thinking about it wears me out!

    But I’ve also had the chance to start making some art, some experiments, and some magic. I’m able to play in a way that I couldn’t justify to myself when I was paying for hourly rental time.

    I spent the last few weeks tweaking an idea that finally became this Cactus Coloring Kit (now on Etsy). I’ve been thinking a lot about which direction to take my tiny business, with focus on defining my core values. My personal “mission statement”, or at least my truth, has long been, I love making things. I love making shirts, quilts, dresses, necklaces, stuffed animals……. pretty much anything but face masks. (why are masks so annoying to make??!)

    Cactus Coloring Kit - laser cut wood cactus
    It would be neat to use collage as the medium for the cactus kit… maybe this will be my next “product tester” task!

    This cactus coloring kit fits right into that truth: I get to make something that helps other people make something. How perfect is that? Maybe it’s someone like me, who knows that they love making things, and this kit is a nice flow activity. Or maybe it’s someone who’s decided they aren’t creative, but they want to color a cactus… then they end up with art, and realize creativity is nice and not scary. I love that I might be a part of either of those stories!

    It’s a really fun product, and I am loving my job as Product Tester/Painter much more than my other job as Laser Setter-Upper/Maintenance Worker. The cactus art is as easy as a paint-by-number or coloring page, but the framed outline turns it into Art, with almost a stained glass effect.

    I shipped an early concept to my cousins a few weeks back, and we had a coloring happy hour over google hangouts with progress updates every half hour or so. “How’s yours looking?” one of us would ask, then we’d all ooh and ahh at the screen. It was so much fun to be making art, separately and together.

    Here’s a video of the magic. It’s so fun to watch this machine at work!

  • Quilty,  Sewing

    QUILTID-19 Photoshoot: My Completed Rainbow HST Quilt

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt
    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    She’s DONE! My quarantine quilt, labor of love, darling QUILTID-19. A rainbow of light despite the torrential downpour that is our world these days.

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt
    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    A project of this magnitude deserves an all-out photoshoot, so I folded up the quilt, stuffed it in a backpack, and trekked to the park. This quilt and palm trees were just made for each other. It was such a joy for me to lay out this quilt in the bright sunshine, and I reveled in the fact (fact!) that this quilt is gorgeous. And also the very basic fact that it is finished!

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    I’m always curious to know what block sizes other quilters use – the ratio of block-to-quilt size has such an impact on the flow of a quilt! So here’s what I ended up with.

    • Finished block size: 4 ¼”
    • 15 blocks wide x 18 blocks long (270 blocks total, 540 triangles total)
    • 67.5″ wide x 81″ long

    I used a Queen-sized mattress as my guideline – a regular queen mattress is 60″ wide x 80″ long. So if this quilt goes on a queen bed, it will cover the top but it won’t really overhang the edges. I will probably use this quilt on top of a normal, fluffy comforter as a winter layer, so I don’t mind that it won’t cover the sides of the bed.

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    Of course, I made this giant quilt while living in Miami, so it’s unlikely to be used on a bed anytime soon! But I’m so glad I took the time to make it and I know I will treasure it for years to come.

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    Thanks for following along on my quilt journey. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have watching it come together!

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    Click here to see all the posts about my Quarantine Quilt, QUILTID-19.

  • Quilty,  Sewing

    QUILTID-19, Part 7: Binding

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    Once the quilting was out of the way, this quilt could basically finish itself. I still had my sewing room rearranged for optimum quilt sewing, so I forced myself to add the binding before I was allowed to restore order. After quilting was finished, I trimmed and squared the whole quilt, and sewed a basting stitch around the perimeter to hold everything in place for binding.

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    I chose this cobalt blue fabric, which is also included in some of the quilt blocks, for the binding because I love a good striped binding and it coordinates well with the quilt top as well as the quilt back. I cut bias strips at 2.5″ wide and folded them in half, following the instructions in this tutorial: Attaching the Binding – Village Bound Quilts.

    I machine-stitched the folded binding to the raw edge, right-to-right on the front with my walking foot. I decided to hand-stitch the final, folded edge on the back. This was slow and tedious, of course – a lot of hand stitching. But I had read a few posts and tutorials on quilt binding, and one of them waxed poetic about the hand stitching process, and that appealed to my sentimental side. I had spent so much time and effort on this quilt, and this was the last step – why not take the time to do it in the neatest way possible, especially when that meant snuggling up with my new quilt on the couch?

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    I pressed the binding first, so it was already laying with a proper fold. This made the hand sewing very straightforward, but it was still slow. I think I made it around the perimeter in 3-4 movies, probably about 6 hours total (spread over about a week).

    QUILTID-19: Rainbow HST quilt

    But again, this was my view as I did my stitching, so it was a pretty happy place to be.

    Tying that final knot was very anticlimactic. I couldn’t believe that after hours and months (and seven blog posts) this quilt was actually, truly, done! Such an accomplishment.

    And don’t worry, I gave this quilt the photoshoot it deserves. That was really fun. Stay tuned, because this quilt + palm trees are made for each other.


    Click here to see all the posts about my Quarantine Quilt, QUILTID-19.