Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mistake Vs. Happy Accident: Technique Vs. Art

Oftentimes, a student begins to print and the inking is too light or too heavy, a linoleum carved image is coming out with stray marks, the hand set type contains letters that are wrong or upside down, the paper has fingerprints. And so on. When I learned to be a printmaker, I had teachers who stressed clean hands and perfect inking, and I dutifully followed their instructions. If I said, "But I like it like that," they explained that the viewer needs to know the marks are intentional; the viewer needs to understand that the maker knows what s/he is doing. My teachers helped me train my eyes and hands to see and do. But there is always a tendency to accept the first attempt—hey, it looks good to me because I have nothing to compare it to. And it's exciting to see the plate or the block transformed into a print for the first time, no matter what it looks like. But we have to be able to read it or see it clearly, and what we print today will be compared to all the printing we have ever seen.

The problem here is not one of art, it is one of technique. In printmaking, like many other art processes, there is good and bad technique. The image must print as intended, which is clearly, cleanly, and distinctly, even if they are meant to be scribbles or scratches. The markings are where they are intended to be: no fingerprints, smudges, or stray lines. Usually the intention of printmaking is a clean, clear print. Even a monotype, a painterly print, needs to be printed well so that the art will shine.

Mistakes in technique have nothing to do with happy accidents. Happy accidents include deciding that the final print doesn't have to look like the print you planned in your head. Happy accidents are part of the creative process, not the technical one. Happy accidents are part of the art. Accepting a happy accident can lead you in a direction you never thought to go.

But poor printing is poor printing, not a happy accident. Acceptance, in this case, does not lead to growth. Wrong letters make it look like the printer didn't proofread. Why not practice more? Why not aim higher? Why not continue to learn? It's an ongoing process. By accepting the first print you see you've shut down the process. Same with writing; you're probably going to have to throw out the first sentence, maybe the first paragraph, maybe the first draft in order to refine your craft. You have to challenge yourself. And stay open to both refining your technique and exploring new paths.

From Lightning Strikes A Butterfly, 2002 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Formatting Magazine Submissions & Cover Letters

When submitting work to magazines, you will want to read the specific guidelines for each publication. If you are unsure how to format your work and the publication does not explain, consider using these standard guidelines as the default. I found them long ago in a print copy of Writer's Market and have adapted them. Long ago, that book was my writer's Bible, now much of the information can be found online.

Formatting for Fiction Submission
If you are submitting fiction, most likely the publishers will want your work to be formatted something like this. Use 12 pt. Times or Georgia or Helvetica or Arial. No fancy fonts. Double space the lines. Only one space after a period.

Upper left corner (single spaced)
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Upper right corner
word count

Footer (unless requested to omit name for blind jurying)
Last Name - Title or Key Words - Page Number

Formatting for Poetry
Use the same upper left corner block as above. In upper right corner, instead of word count, use line count. Footer is not necessary unless one poem is more than one page. Use 12 pt. Times or Georgia or Helvetica or Arial. No fancy fonts. Single space the lines.

Sending Artwork
Artists, consider sending your work to magazines! Think of it as a way to advertise your art and connect with writers. Look for guidelines regarding dimensions, ppi and jpg or tiff. If the mag is web only, then 72 ppi will be fine. If print, then 300 ppi. See if they want 4x6 or 8x10, by total Ms or how many pixels on the largest/smallest size. It is recommended that you have Photoshop skills. If you aren't sure, this tutorial looks good.

Cover Letter
Your cover letter is just that: an introduction. Most are placed in a little box on a submissions website, so keep it simple. For some ideas about what you should and should not include in your bio, see this postWhen submitting short written pieces or art to a magazine, you don't need to include much information in the cover letter unless the publisher specifies more in the guidelines. Always read the guidelines.

All flush left (single spaced)
Dear Fiction Editor (or Editor's first and last name if you know it),
Thank you for considering my story, "(Put it in Quotations.)" My bio is below.

(Start your bio with your full name. Include highlights of relevant work and publishing information as well as your geographical location. Keep the total word count between about 50-100 words. Each publisher may want slightly more or slightly less. Always, always read the guidelines carefully.)

Your full name
Street Address
City, State, Zip

You can find listings for magazines at Duotrope and Everyday Fiction and New Pages, among others. Good luck!

Note: A query letter is different from a cover letter. If you are requested to query first, then you would send a brief synopsis or summary of the piece, written in a way to hook the reader. Queries are most often requested for full length manuscripts, however.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Painting Calm

I've spent a large portion of my life making art to sell, which can be gratifying on one level, but anxiety ridden on another. More recently I've been taking the time to make art for myself. In my book Painted Paper: Techniques & Projects for Handmade Books & Cards, I show many techniques for painting with acrylic inks and gesso for bookmaking, but what I cannot show is the calmness that comes from the activity itself. Painting paper, whether it is for a finished piece with written content or not, is relaxing. Students from elementary school age through older adult age are able to play with the inks. Artists and those who consider themselves non-artists will all be pleased. It is simply fun. Some tell me they enjoy relieving stress this way. Others are surprised that they can make art after all.

Paper. You'll need a paper that will withstand water and that does not tear or pill or buckle: my ideal papers are the lightest weight watercolor paper (usually 90 lb.),  the textweight paper Velin Arches, or the heavyweight, printmaking paper Stonehenge. 

Inks & Gesso. The inks should be lightfast, pigmented, and water soluble: I use FW Acrylic Inks, Australians can use Matisse acrylic inks for the same result. If you are interested in using gesso also, I recommend the one from Daniel Smith, Inc, because it is a little rougher and your book pages won't stick together when it dries.

Brushes. All I can say about the brushes is that they should be large: use 1" -3" wide, cheap brushes. This isn't about detail work. This is about movement, flow, and release. If your inks don't have a dropper tip, I'd recommend you purchase at least one eyedropper, possibly from a drugstore or scientific supply store.

Additional materials. A large water container and some paper towels are all you really need. Cut up a kitchen sponge, get a handful of twigs, gather a few pencils, grab some water soluble crayons for more painting experiences. Use a vinyl tablecloth to cover your painting surface.

I most commonly paint on Stonehenge paper and cut it up to make a Circle Accordion book (instructions are in the Painted Paper book and in all of my bookmaking books). It helps me to have a mood or theme in mind before I start, but it isn't necessary. I've had students do some freewriting: write whatever comes into their heads, then circle some words they want to work with and start by painting the words very large. Another example is to think about types of water: ponds, lakes, streams, waterfalls, toilets, gutters, oceans, tears, etc., and to see which of those speaks to you. Gather colors to support your mood.

Start by drawing with the ink in the dropper tip. Use a dry brush to spread it around. Dip the brush in water and draw out some of the ink. Whatever you like. Make your movements large, like a dance, and try to make different marks in different places. For best results, don't try to make one overall pattern. Vary the speed, the shapes. Try out sticks, crayons. Scribble with pencils. Just paint or throw paint. Ultimately, you will cut it up and it will change dramatically so you can't and shouldn't evaluate it yet.

Use a hair dryer periodically, or place the painting out in the sun clipped to a large board to dry. You'll be able to paint on top of it once it is dry and you can create multiple layers, letting the paper dry in between. The pearlescent colors are great for accents near the end because their particular ink sits up on the surface. Use a toothbrush to spatter the ink, or a serrated tracing wheel to make shimmery dotted lines. Add stenciled images with a dry, flat-bottomed stencil brush, if you like.

Cut the paper into strips, following the instructions for the Circle Accordion or the Drum Leaf Binding previously posted. Add content by flipping through the pages and see what they tell you or what they remind you of. Or, try to remember what you were thinking about when you began painting. What are you thinking now? What has changed? You might use that change for your content.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

We {Heart} Books: Codex Book Fair 2013

Another Codex International Book Fair swept into the San Francisco Bay Area, this time in its new digs at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, California. I saw many treasures and talked to many treasured book arts folk and friends. I spent about 5 1/2 hours there over two days and still missed a few people and books I had wanted to see. Here are some highlights.

Welcome to Codex, the International Book Fair
This year there were 175 exhibitors.

Inge Bruggeman (INK-A! Press) is a regular at Codex.
She's showing a book from a residency in Marseille, France,
called The Infinite Between Us that "maps the space
between the known and the unknown."

Robbin Ami Silverberg is holding a new book about mapping
her neighborhood, particularly the subway in Brooklyn, called Subterranean Geography.
Self Scrutiny, made with altered card catalogue cards, 
is the little green box on the left.
Robbin also featured a handsome book about snow for which she made
paper with silk in it and enclosed a custom scent in the box with the book.
"This is it." She held her wrist up for me to sniff.

Casey Gardner (Set In Motion Press) was a
bookmaking student of mine 
(and of Betsy Davids and of Nance O'Banion) at CCA.
Her latest work, HearSay is a collaboration with 
Nance O'Banion. (I believe that is Oona Lyons, another
CCA graphic design alum, next to Casey.)

Macy Chadwick (In Cahoots Press) is pointing (my request) to her latest works: 
The latter explores her experience listening to Moby Dick as an audio book
and features a collaboration with Jennifer McKnight.

Two Johns, it turns out. John DeMerritt is on the right;
he is the boxmaker for the stars. I got a quick tutorial from him
one day which changed how I made and taught boxmaking.
Thank you, John!
John Wehrle, in the hat, is an artist and muralist whose work
is well known in California, although he is originally from Texas.

Julie Chen (Flying Fish Press) is explaining why 
I probably should not take her picture.
Top book next to the blue sign is a collaboration with Barb Tetenbaum
called Glimpse, about narrative, and the lives we live 
in the space between "prominent events."
The little dark book in the silver box is 
Memento (and can be worn as a necklace),
and was created for the Al-Mutanabbi Street book project.

My longtime book arts friends, Marie Dern (Jungle Garden Press)
and Steve Woodall. (He was formerly at the San Francisco Center for the Book,
now directs the  program at 
This is Marie's table. 
Check out that tree knitted from paper by her friend
Danielle Giudici Wallis for their collaborative book Crow,
a found poem taken from a posted sign.

I bought a few things while I was there. First, the notorious Book Arts Jargonator from Dan Mayer & Ed Lebow (a photo is in Making Handmade Books). Amusing title possibilities like: Harmoniously Minisculed Dingbat; Oblique Bohemian Wormhole; Organically Inclined Hairline. It is printed letterpress from photopolymer plates. (I only now realized that MayBow is a combined word from their last names.)

Next, a very nice Frenchman at the Editions Al Manar showed me the lovely drawings by Diane de Bournazel. The unique books were meticulously drawn, painted, and had cutouts, truly breathtaking. This is a printed one with no color. It also has no text inside, other than the title "La Promenade." I do not know why the text on the front and back cover is in German. When I said, "That's all?" regarding the price, he suggested that he could add another zero. 

Bryan Kring's work is so detailed and so humorous and so well-crafted. I could go on. A book arts friend Mitsuko Baum works for him and was presiding over his table. His paper sculptures were delightful, particularly "Flying Fish" and his newest piece with the flying egg and printed text on the reverse. According to his website, the sculptural pieces will be in a show at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, March 3-May 19, 2013. Sunken Heart is letterpress printed from photopolymer plates.

The introductory text talks about cargo from ships that gets lost at sea every year.
There is quite a bit of stuff floating around out there.

And last, and at long last, I obtained a soul piece of Judith Serebrin's from the Seager Gray Gallery. A little ceramic bird with a little painted book soul.

So, there it is.
Happy Valentine's Day, Book Lovers!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Objects & Their Stories

What if a person purchased an object that s/he wouldn't normally buy because it had a wonderful story attached to it? That is the premise behind the project encompassed in the book Significant Objects. In the same way that Walter Benjamin collected and kept many of his books because of the memories they held for him, just like Nabokov felt that objects had layers of meaning, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, the creators and editors of the project, understood that stories are important to our lives. But how important? Enough to change our behavior? They decided to do an experiment. In it, they found that when stories were assigned to objects, tchotchkes could be transformed into trophies. We aren't talking about provenance, or ownership, famous people or otherwise. We're just talking about the power of the story.

The editors started out by buying 100 objects that they felt were insignificant: figurines, ashtrays, toys, old tools, patches, glassware, etc., and asked 100 writers each to create a story that included that object. Photos of each object, along with the story as the description, were posted for sale on eBay. (Added 2/12/13: to clarify, the story was disclosed as fiction on the page with the object and a link to the website was included for more information.) By the end of the project the editors found they had actually made a substantial amount of money (which was given to the respective authors or donated to charity). The stories sold the pieces. For example, an Indian maiden figurine (Item 40) originally cost 99 cents and sold for $157.50. The story and picture also appear here; the story is by R.K. Scher, and is one of my favorites in the book. The website for the project is Significant Objects.

My two other favorites are fictional stories that imbue the objects with talismanlike or lucky qualities, and give us a glimpse into the very human and emotional lives of the characters. Toy Car (Item 69) is by Marisa Silver (originally donated / sold for 41.00). You can see it also here. Another wonderful story is Fortune- Telling Device (Item 71) by Rachel Axler (1.49 / 56.00. Read it here.

And Jonathan Lethem's entry for the Missouri shot glass had a paragraph in the middle that made me laugh out loud. (He'll have a piece in the upcoming Star 82 Review!)

A dozen more I found notable for one reason or another:
45—Wooden Mallet by Colson Whitehead (simplicity)
51—SARS Mask by Helen DeWitt (oddness)
54—Shark and Seal Pens by Susanna Daniel (story)
66—Praying Hands by Rosecrans Baldwin (concept)
68—Jar of Marbles by Ben Ehrenreich (surreal, laughed out loud in the middle)
73—Toy Airplane by Robert Lopez (minimalistic telling)
74—Miniature Turkey Dinner by Jenny Offill (strangeness, concept)
75—Pink Horse by Kate Bernheimer (imagery, but very sad story!)
76—Candyland Labyrinth by Matthew Battles (story)
81—Creamer Cow by Lucinda Rosenfeld (naming the object)
91—Maine Statutes Dish by Ben Katchor (concept, humor)
92—Star Wars Cards by Jim Shepard (story, emotional truth)

Even without the experiment and the data included in the book, an object is a great starting point for a story. If you are having trouble with subjects for book art or for writing, go to a flea market or garage sale and pick up something strange and cheap to work with. Or take something out of your desk drawer for something that holds a story you already know. 

A similar project, and even more fun (I think), is a collection of fictional Q&A that James Thurber illustrated and wrote called "The Pet Department" from the book The Owl in the Attic and Other Perplexities. He drew an animal doing something odd or vague, then wrote to himself as if he were an advice columnist. Yet another good writing/book approach to try.

The Significant Objects book holds a fascinating collection of writing and some really hilarious objects. The binding, unfortunately, is irritating. But, unlike a book by a book artist, the editors and authors are not to blame for the binding: the publisher is. The book is stiff to open, and once you try cracking it open to read, it never completely closes. But it's going by my bed and not on my coffee table (I don't have one, anyway), so if I have to rubber band it closed, that's okay with me. Maybe I can find a rubber band with a really interesting story on eBay…

Addendum, a few hours later: If you mention it, it probably exists. I was told about these James Bond rubber bands now going for about $34.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Insecurity and the Third-Person Bio

Having just written about how bigger is better, I want to say that longer is not. Something possessed me to start an art and literary magazine, which I am excited about, and an unintended benefit is that I also get to read numerous bios. I've written about artist statements before, but having bios directed at me is quite different. I have to tell you, the longer it is, the more insecure the person looks.

Most of the time a publisher will want you to write your bio in the third person. It is tempting to get cute and write "Alisa often refers to herself in the third person," but it has been done. In fact, the good thing about having to write about yourself as a she or a he is that it gives you some distance. Use the distance. Stay far away from too cute, too earnest, too anything. What's that phrase you always hear? Oh yeah, be yourself.

"Yourself" should be crystalized in about 3-5 sentences or about 50-100 words. These sentences should say why you are you and not someone else, and what is it about you that is distinctive. What do you do? Where? What else is different or interesting about you or makes you particularly qualified? Does your degree make it better or worse? Keep it simple, flavor it slightly, if you like.

Some strange examples I've seen are huge paragraphs listing every website, every publication, and a person's business venture in detail. The long lists of publications are not very interesting. Pick a handful and say "among others" or something similar. In a magazine I once read, a bio said the writer had been published in over one hundred other magazines; I couldn't help feeling sorry for her—wasn't it time to move on?

If Dr. Seuss were here (1904-1991), he might write something like this (no, maybe not, his would probably rhyme). But anyway, I've written up a simple possibility, with info gleaned from this article.
Theodor Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss, is a writer and artist, best known as the author of numerous children's books written in rhyme, including One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham. He has an extensive hat collection and often puts on skits with knives and spoons. He lives in La Jolla, California.
What do we learn? He writes under a pen name. His work rhymes. He is also an artist. He has an extensive publishing background, but he's modest about it. He is playful. He lives in California. I mentioned his hat collection, in this case, because it seems to inform his work and the skits because they give him a human dimension. 58 words. It doesn't have to look like this, but this is one way to do it.

Okay, so you're not Dr. Seuss. All I can say is be confident. Your bio is there to put you and your work in context. You are worthy. Your work is worthy. It will shine on its own.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Make It Bigger

As part of the art education at the college where I teach, students in their third year go through a process called Junior Review. Three to five faculty members are encouraged to volunteer to be on a panel. Together, we look at the work of four to five students, one at a time, asking questions, giving comments. I've happily participated for many years and have met faculty I wouldn't normally meet and seen student work from all majors. Sometimes I have knowledge of the medium, sometimes not. On one of the first panels I sat, I was baffled by the responses of my colleagues. It seemed that no matter how technically proficient the work was, how interesting the concepts, this group kept saying, "Make it bigger!" (Yes, I know, it sounds like a junk email.)

If you want to be a gallery artist, bigger is better. You can get more money for your work. The galleries usually have high white walls, well-suited for large effects. But being a gallery artist is not everyone's goal. Some of the work we saw was large already. I've always worked small and done fairly well, so it was both irritating and amusing to hear those three words.

That said, this past December I began to draw on 18" x 24" (46 cm x 61 cm) paper and restrain myself from cutting the drawings up into books, which I am naturally inclined to do. My daily walk in the Berkeley hills led me to a woman collecting lichen and moss-covered sticks that had blown down in a recent storm. "I'm going to make a wreath with them," she said, when I inquired. After I passed her, I began picking up the little sticks and moss and lichen, too. I decided to draw them. Big.

I started with a box of 12 Faber-Castell pencils: 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, 2H, 4H. The Bs are dark and get softer and darker the higher they go. The Hs are light, hard, and get more silvery as they go up, recommended for technical drawing and drafting papers. Hs are also harder to erase. I had a white plastic eraser, but a kneaded eraser is really useful, as I found a month later in this tutorial on drawing an eye. I set up one little branchlet under a desk lamp so there would be an obvious light source. Used my arm with a 2B in a big motion to get the shapes down. I liked the swinging, sweeping arcs and how it felt to keep the line going. Then found the darkest darks (8B!) and worked from there. The drawing motions got  tighter and smaller as I went along. I made sure to erase into the whites for the whitest whites. For the finish I used watercolor pencils to color it. 

Meditative, satisfying, sometimes frustrating. Although I have made drawings all of my life, I only just realized I have words to describe what used to be intuitive. And I probably got them from listening to my fellow panelists on Junior Review. The hope is that the students are also able to take what they need from the process.

I don't envision these in a gallery, but I hate to stuff them away in a drawer, so here is what I drew. The photos are slightly cropped. The irony, of course, is that on the screen they are small again, about life size.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Twelve Necklaces

Our language seems limitless, yet we use certain word combinations repeatedly. They aren't clichés exactly, but pairs and groups of words that are familiar, like majestic mountains or winning smile. I think we use them as a shorthand: two words stand in for a paragraph of description. When we speak, we don't have time to choose fresh language if we want the conversation to flow. But when we write there's all the time in the world to choose our words carefully.

In our own language we presume a shared culture as well. Certain phrases may only be understood in certain regions or in certain time periods, particularly if they are colloquialisms or slang phrases. Readers from other areas may or may not understand the word without the description. So, if you leave the shorthand-like phrases in your written piece, be aware that not everyone may understand the references.

On the flip side, beware of the descriptions that are too familiar as well. If you write about a little girl's birthday party and you say the balloons were pink, the girl was wearing a twirly skirt, the tablecloth was lacy, and there were pink plates, you may not be showing the reader anything new: many people have an assumption about what little girls like and are like. You might write that the balloons had wishes on slips of paper inside them, the girl wore twelve necklaces, the tablecloth belonged to her elderly neighbor, and the pink plates held two-tiered cupcakes. Reach past your first impulse, take a second or third look.

If only a few stories exist in the world and they get told over and over, then your job is to tell one in a way that really comes from you. To personalize your story after you write it, check for phrases you've heard before and underline them. Then go back and go deeper into the meaning, imagine the phrases differently. Likely, the piece will get stronger.

Alternatively, use the phrases in a new context. Maybe the majestic oak tree is a way of describing a frilly toothpick on a sandwich.

Freshening our language can change how we see the world. Try thinking about language in a particular culture. Think about rewriting and personalizing familiar scenes and phrases. And think about putting familiar phrases into new contexts. We crave new experiences, whether we admit it or not.