I got shot

March 17, 2010

I spent one day last week going to gun shops. I’m not used to gun shops – I don’t own a firearm nor even care to have one. I was looking for lead shot with which to fill a leather bag.

Perhaps I should back up.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time during the last many months doing research on relief printmaking techniques, focusing most closely on wood engraving, hoping to use this method to provide some illustrations for Moby Dick Made Me Do It.

Relief printing techniques include letterpress printing, woodcut and linoleum cut, as well as stamping, which provides the best example of the operative principle. Imagine a rubber stamp. Or, better yet (to my way of thinking anyway), a potato. You cut the potato in half. Taking one potato half in hand, you then cut the outline of a star into the flat surface. Now strip away all the potato flesh surrounding your star, taking the surface down about an eighth of an inch, say.

Your star is now cut in relief. If you dip the face of your potato into food coloring, ink, or paint and then slap it down on paper, you will (if your potato hasn’t been crushed from all this handling) produce a reverse image of the star design you cut in the potato.

Maybe this illustration is superfluous, since we’re all pretty familiar with rubber stamps, even if we’re not all practicing printmakers. We all know, moreover, how when you look at a rubber stamp, say one designed to print a word like PAID or CLASSIFIED, the word reads backwards or upside-down, depending of course on which way you look at it.

But I like the potato case. I like to think about how there’s really no important difference between printing types, a Dürer woodcut, or the bank’s rubber stamp (“DENIED”) and a potato.

A detailed technical discussion here of the distinguishing characteristics of the various relief printing techniques would probably be misplaced. The internet, after all, is full of information. But I’ll say a few things about what I’m up to and then provide some pictures.

To get back to the issue of the gunsmiths and their wares, I’ll point out that it is traditional, as well as sensible, to employ a leather sandbag when cutting a wood engraving. The reason for this lies in the nature of the tools used in this process: the sandbag allows the engraver to raise the block off the surface of the workbench, so that she might hold the block by its sides, keeping her hand below the surface and out of the way of the cutting tool she wields in her other mitt.

Spitsticker, engraving block (for Stingray), two shotbags

Unwilling to buy what I can only expect would have been a very nice (read: expensive) bag from a printmaking supply outfit, I got some scrap leather from a shoe repair shop just down Colfax, cut circles from it, and sewed the circles together. I decided that it might be rather difficult to fill the bag with sand, or, more accurately, it might be difficult to keep the bag full of sand, given that the seam was to be hand-sewn by an untried leatherworker.

I considered using beans or lentils for filling, but was discouraged when I considered how light the resulting bag would be. I imagined it skating around on the bench while I hacked at a moving block and nicked my hands full of scratches.

The solution, I determined, could only be lead shot. Which, it turned out, I would have to travel ten miles (by city bus) to procure and could only be purchased in 25 lb. bags.

Another time I’ll talk more about what I find so captivating about wood engravings. In the meantime, pictures. Interested people should check out work by contemporary engravers Michael McCurdy and Barry Moser, as well as books by the late master Lynd Ward and technique pioneer Thomas Bewick.

Note: The shots of the proofs are pretty bad; I haven’t got a scanner, so in the meantime these’ll have to do. I apologize. Hopefully better photos (and better proofs!) will follow.

Proof for "Stingray". Wood engraving.

Proof for "Whale Tale". Wood engraving.

Zumbi and his favorite leopard-print body pillow

Post-post script: I’m going to be adding links to interesting stuff related to art, literature, and people we know. Keep an eye on the links list!


4 Responses to “I got shot”

  1. Kate Says:

    I like your woodcuts, your shot-bag, and most of all Sir Zumbito of the Belly. A+ post.

    Also, you would think if there were anywhere you would expect to be able to fulfill your every gun-related need, it would be on Colfax, no more than a mile from our house in either direction. Almost makes a body want to join the NRA!

    ….At least we have shoe leather?

  2. Kate Says:

    PS: I would also like to go on the record of being in favor of potatoes.

  3. Su-Yee Says:

    Your proofs look awesome! Also, the great zumbi with his fuzzy white belly. I, too, am in favor of potatoes. Now I want to make potato cuts instead of woodcuts…

  4. Susan Says:

    I look forward to hearing more of the story of hauling the 25-lb. bag of lead shot back via bus.

    But I have to think: 25-lbs of lead shot…that would shoot a lot of squirrels or grouse or whatevers. Can you imagine?

    Also, I’m picturing bankers stamping contracts (APPROVED; DENIED) with potato stamps that have green potato tendrils growing out of them. Would liven up the office.

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