in Prisoner's Cinema

Unfortunately, work on my next art book, Prisoner’s Cinema, has been on the backburner while I was writing my thesis. Now that that is done, and I’ve had some time to reorient myself, I’m getting back to the drawing board. Since my last production journal entry,  I reached my goal of a minimum 120 base collages, so that’s a fair step on the way to finishing the work.

But I have previously written about the process, from assembling the collages to doing different monotypes on top of those — let’s have a proper show and tell instead. When I realized I’d passed my preliminary milestone, I decided to do one more and document the entire process from empty paper sheet to finished monotype; a “victory lap” if you will.

As always, I emphasize that I’m by no means a photographer, and the following images are taken with my phone camera in the heat of the moment as I were putting the piece together. That means that they are, at best, passable as process documentation, and one or two of them are downright bad photos that I only include to give an idea of the evolution of a Prisoner’s Cinema piece. Was that enough of an advance apology? I think it was. There’s fun to be had, below the fold:

Base materials

Since working on When the Last Story is Told, I’ve been collecting magazine clippings fairly obsessively. I have more paper scraps than I know what to do with, and deliberately so. Just as I’m producing more work for Prisoner’s Cinema than will go into the final book, I’d hate to be short of materials when I paste up a collage. The pile pictured above is just a tiny part that I picked out from my files to do this piece. At this stage they’re just unfulfilled promises and good intentions, of course.

Breaking the page

The most terrifying thing is usually a blank canvas; it’s also one of the problems most easily solved. Just put something on there, the bigger the better; when in doubt, make a deliberate mistake. The next steps will be mitigating that error by adding other pieces that fit— or clash just so.

I found a great photography of a Malmö city scene to start off with, the flare of a low sun giving it all a nice amber hue. The contrasting shadows and the wedge of cold sky give the palette a bit of balance and subtle drama:

Yes, I know it’s upside down. Before we’re done there won’t be much identifiable detail left, but I try not to derail myself too much underway. In the collages, I work primarily with colour, and occasionally with pattern; in this case my first intuition was to place the sun burst on the far left of the image, but I decided to trip my instincts up a bit, just in case they were habits in disguise. Routine should always be questioned, and frequently avoided.

With the next component I managed to cover the pre-drawn grid, so effectively I could finish there. The outline of that grid represents the format of the final book, 25×14 centimeter; I try to make sure I have 5 mm bleed outside of that, and the rest of the sheet is just wiggle room. In When the Last Story is Told, I worked with a lot of blank space and erasure, but Prisoner’s Cinema is a more maximalist affair. Once or twice while working with this book, I’ve contented myself with just juxtaposing two clippings, but mostly it takes a good deal more before I’m happy with the collage. For the time being, I chose part of a concert photo from a music magazine to counter and add some more colour drama to the sunset:

Once again, with apologies to the band that were the original focus of that second photo, my main interest here is the colours and the interplay between the light show and the dark surroundings. Also, by setting these two photos against each other, I get to play with two stark light sources on opposite sides of the image field. Those give quite a range of bright, burnt and saturated hues around the sides that I plan to emphasize with the monotype textures spreading from the center of the image. In my first batch of works those black areas tended to stretch in from the edges, and in this last iteration I want to do more pieces with an opposite focus, hopefully giving an effect of blinding auras bleeding in from the peripheral vision.

The heavier contrast on the lower left-hand side also adds an imbalance to the composition that should be a challenge as I work further on the piece, both with the collage and with the black monotype. Working within a grid (though not adhering too strictly to it) and using largely rectangular pieces of paper for the collages, there’s always a danger of the work becoming static. In the same way that I try to avoid routine and repetition, compositional balance and harmony are elements that I like to steer clear of.

For practical reasons, I tore off the upper few centimeters of the second photo before gluing it down. First off, a lot of it is going to get cropped off in print anyway and, secondly, the sheets are easier to archive if they don’t have too much sticking out over the edges. Besides, like The Minutemen I jam econo. That bit of photo that’s not going to show anywhere might as well go back into the file for future use.

Here, I also adjusted the position of the left-hand element to get more mileage out of the lighter nuances in the upper half of the photo. The darkest areas in the lower half are shifted out of the final crop area to enhance the effect of the centered black monotypes, yet maintaining the desired tonal counterpoint to the right-hand photo element. Coincidentally, the two light bursts are now closer to balancing each other out, hovering on each side of the horizontal center of the image. With their radiating beams they become slightly off-kilter vanishing points in a rickety two-point perspective. Off-kilter and rickety are good things at this stage of the process.


There is still something lacking to the collage before I can move on to the monotype, just one smaller element to break that tentative balance with a splash of colour or — something. If the blank page is as anxiety-inducing as I said, I broke that quite quickly by making a rash choice. Here is where I need to make up for the mess I’ve made so far. In the end, this final touch took me longer than choosing and mounting the first two combined.

Getting my hands dirty

The above process must seem like unnecessary work to fine tune a that, in the end, isn’t really much to look at:

For one thing, of course, this is only the end of the collage process. Call it my “underpainting”, the base tones filled in before the monotype rounds off the piece. At this point, I want a collage that is just settled enough that it gives me ideas of what to do with it next, and sufficiently unfinished that I need to carry out those ideas. This is still a stage of correcting mistakes, and improving on what’s on the page. That’s where I literally get my hands dirty with printer’s ink, but first I mask off the page to contain the mess:

As I said above, I want to utilize the edges of the collage as they are, letting the monotype spread around the middle of the page. Here, I abandoned the grid altogether to better accommodate the colours of collage elements. There are still some louche nuances that I’ll want to preserve while enhancing the masked areas, so I’m going to approach this rather more carefully than some of my early pieces.

Quite often, the results of the monotype process are unpredictable, and in the beginning I ended up with more solid, less textured blacks than intended. Adding to the element of surprise, I have decided to use some new materials for my monotype matrices, shelving, for instance, the rather over-used bubble wrap of my last batch of pieces. For the first pass, I will instead use Mister Bean-bag and Mister Sandpaper.

To be fair, the bean bag is a DIY tool that I’ve used consistently for a few years now, to transfer ink onto my collages. It’s just a pair of old socks within each other, filled with dried kidney beans. Not exactly high tech, or even sophisticated, but it helps in applying pressure to whatever material I use for the monotypes, in this case the coarse sandpaper also shown in the above photo. It could also be that bubble wrap, or a crumbled plastic bag, corrugated cardboard, styrofoam or knitwear. Whatever produces an interesting texture, really.

What I’ve failed to take a picture of in this step is that I have a transparent sheet of plastic taped to my work table, and an outline of the page grid sketched out on paper below in case I need to consult it. On that plastic sheet I distribute a layer of printer’s ink and place my monotype matrix in it, dapping or crushing the bean bag onto the back of it to get the desired amount of ink on the material. With the sandpaper I only applied light pressure to avoid smothering the surface in ink, and thereby losing the texture. I then transfer the matrices to the collage, again using the bean bag to make sure the desired amount of ink carries over.

Not a bad start if I do say so myself. Only now did I realize that I would have wanted to mask off a rectangle on the brightest end of the blue gradient, but that’s a little late now. The sandpaper has given a really nice stochastic raster pattern, and the uneven application of ink adds some dynamics to it. It might look haphazard, but I managed to add heavy black marks around the sunburst on the right-hand side of the page, and in the bluish flare on the upper left, both of which contrasts will emphasize the monotype shape as well as the luminosity of the colours around it. The ink mark in the lower left corner should both add depth to the slightly brighter shadows in that area and help define the corner shape.

As a side note, any proper printer will be dismayed by the amount of ink I’m using here, I’m sure. I’ve tried to lay it on thin in the past, but for the monotypes I want to achieve in this project, the dirty, splotchy approach works much better. I wouldn’t try this with delicate aquatints, mind you!

Not dirty enough yet…

As happy as I am with the sandpaper marks, I would like the outline of the monotype to be more clearly defined. The tones and hues of the main collage elements remain quite important, though, so I couldn’t add too heavy textures around the edges of the masked area. Fortunately, I have some non-slip rubber netting lying around just for that purpose, because I happen to buy all kinds of second-hand materials that might lend itself to monotype:

Also, this time I remembered to take a photo of my ink station. Again, printmakers will cry themselves to sleep over how much ink goes into a single printing. Don’t worry, it’s still the same portion I laid out for the sandpaper! However, I was a little worried about the way the ink bled through the netting, and I did a single print on a blank sheet of paper to remove excess ink before transferring to the collage.

Did you ever notice that there are two different sides to non-slip rubber netting? So did I, but only after I made this. My plan was to have a fine lined lattice across the monotype, by instead I got a dotted grid. Had I put the netting onto the ink with the other side facing down, I may have gotten what I intended. Not that I’m complaining, it’s a lesson learned and it looks terrific. In fact, it’s an even lighter touch of marks than I aimed for, so there will be more collage visible.

At this point I lifted the masking paper to see if the piece needed more work. The photo didn’t turn out very clear because I was trying to handle the still wet jumble of taped-together paper scraps while I shot it. The outline of the shape is rather well defined, though I thought there was a bit of added detail missing. In trying to be gentle with the amount of ink I apply, the result may have become just a bit dainty. And the lower left section of the monotype could still need some extra punch to stand out from the dark-ish surroundings.

I decided that one of my frequently used textures could be allowed back in to add a flourish. Knowing how ink consuming that particular matrix can be, I scraped together what was left on the PVC sheet to match the area of the collage I’ll be covering. (Thrifty tip, plastic cards make excellent spatulas — just learn from my mistake and try not to use your current credit card.) As visible in the above, I smeared the corrugated cardboard rather well into the ink to make sure it would leave a good print.

Side note on the pictured matrix, it takes a little extra effort to strip the covering off one side of regular corrugated cardboard, but it pays off because, in my experience, it is sturdier compared to the types you buy in a roll. That’s very specialized advice, but I dare presume that readers who make it this far into this journal entry must have very specialized sensibilities.

And… done!

Removing the masking paper, I’m quite satisfied with this one! The only annoyance is that when I lifted and reset the monotype mask, I must have just inattentive enough that I made a smear of ink, to the left of the right-hand sunset. I can’t say that I don’t embrace flukes and imperfections, though, and that is a tolerable mistake in an overall satisfying exercize.

The below is not the final version as the piece will appear in print (it’s edited from the previous phone camera shot), but it should serve as a mockup  to give you an idea of how it looks without disturbing marginalia and such. As you can see I added two peripheral flourishes after this reportage, in spite of my initial intent to stay off the edges. The bicycle disturbed me, as did the large white area in the lower right, which took too much focus from the sunset above.

If you like what you see, and are as excited about Prisoner’s Cinema as I am, please consider supporting the last leg of my work on this book by buying my last one, or maybe even buy an original artwork. Thank you for reading!


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