Tom Huck Woodcut Bootcamp Day 2: Huck Shows Us The Morgue

Pencil sketch of my idea for a woodcut

Pencil sketch of my idea for a woodcut

I'm up at 6:30am, partly because I just can't sleep. I figure I might as well draw. The real wake up time isn't until 8am. I find some coffee down the street and come back to get to work. At some point I need to develop an idea on paper. I didn't come empty handed as I was afraid I'd freeze under pressure, so I'd been thinking on it for the past few weeks. There is a story I heard from an interview with Howlin' Wolf's guitar player, Hubert Sumlin, (probably my favorite guitar player), where Howlin' Wolf left Chicago to visit his elderly mother in Mississippi. The two had been estranged and he wanted to show her how successful he'd become. At some point in their conversation, Howlin' Wolf took a wad of cash from his wallet, a few hundred dollars, and gave it to her. According to Hubert, she took the money and threw it on the ground, saying she wanted no part of his devil music. Howlin' Wolf left devastated and the two never reconciled. This story has stuck in my craw since hearing it and I've had this image in my head of the devil hanging out in his furnace lair listening to all of Howlin Wolf's incredible music and somehow getting the credit for it. So I ran with this idea, and spent the day drafting two renderings, one small and not exactly the right dimensions, just to flesh something out, and then a second at half scale. I'm more of a composition guy than an "meaning behind" guy. So while I might have a spark of an idea from something that hits me, the visuals of the piece need to take over at some point. When playing with different titles for the album the devil is listening to, I realized the perfect title is simply my favorite Howlin' Wolf song, Down in the Bottom. While the song is not about hell, it coincidentally adds multiple meanings. Can't pass something like that up.

Huck at the big green table where he delivered most of his lectures. (This photo was taken by Shannon Cousino, our den mother. And no, that is not my purse. And yes, I am wearing new all black converse high tops because they are cool and total rock and roll, which incidentally, is the vibe I was hoping to give off. Turns out they squeaked at every step. Not so rock and roll.)

Huck at the big green table where he delivered most of his lectures. (This photo was taken by Shannon Cousino, our den mother. And no, that is not my purse. And yes, I am wearing new all black converse high tops because they are cool and total rock and roll, which incidentally, is the vibe I was hoping to give off. Turns out they squeaked at every step. Not so rock and roll.)

Huck arrives for his first lecture and we gather around the big green table. He takes a seat against the large windows that look out over the street. This session is to be about the ways in which he comes up with the ideas for his art.

Huck is a big believer in notebooking, a tradition, he tells us, that stretches all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci. No matter how brilliant you are, he says, no one can remember every great idea they had for a drawing, a painting, or whatever is your craft, so it must be written down in a notebook. And anything can be used as a notebook; the artbook types, the moleskin types, the spiralbound school paper notebooks that are sold for cheap during back to school sales, or for the down and out 'starving artist' with no money to spare, grocery sacks obtained from the local grocery store, cut into uniform sizes, and stapled together. For Huck, there is simply no excuse for not keeping a notebook.

In his notebooks, Huck writes just as much as he actually draws. As his pieces are sometimes political, satirical, and topical, he daily records anything that strikes his interest (or disgust), from things he's witnessed personally, to things he overhears, to things he digests in news and television. A radio spot about the remake of the old Battlestar Galactica television series will morph in his brain into the title of his next big tryptic work, Battlescar Craptaptica, a commentary on failed U.S. military operations. Simply writing the title into the notebook was all that was needed to launch his imagination for the content of the three future panels. His brain, he says, works in three distinct categories; the title of the piece, the imagery that supports the title, and finally the marriage of the two, the construction of the compositional narrative. The notebook helps him make that third crucial step, the 'narrative leap,' binding seemingly random ideas into a singular, powerful image.

It doesn't take long listening to Huck talk about his notebooks to get a sense of the catharsis he derives from putting these sudden ideas out of his brain and onto paper. As I would get to know him better over the coming days, the man has a steel trap mind that is difficult to keep up with. It is definitely not out of forgetfulness that he has adopted this method. It is a habit that brings him comfort, or as he calls it, a lifeline. Huck told us the story of how he used to carry notebooks that would fit in his back pocket, convenient, and always at hand. Then one day his notebook accidentally found it's way into the washing machine. Several years worth of ideas disintegrated in a single spin cycle. He described it as one of his darkest days. And even though unreadable, he still keeps the pages of that notebook in a plastic bag, hopeful he might someday be able to recover some of his entries.

So boiled down, Huck sees three crucial benefits to using a notebook:

1. The continual cataloging of ideas for your art. You never know when you will need an idea quickly. It is an insurance policy against creative block.

2. Practice. Constantly drawing in the notebooks improves drawing skills. Besides cataloging ideas, Huck does lesson drawings from other artists' work or sketches out bugs in pieces under development.

3. Profit. Once full, Huck sells his notebooks to collectors after he's photocopied the contents. Huck will also sometimes screen print directly from the drawings he's made in his notebooks.

After reading random entries from his latest notebook, Huck moved on to a small file case which he calls, The Morgue. Opening the top of the metal case reveals several file folders inside. Each folder is written with the title of an artwork. This is what I would call Step 2 in the fleshing out of the final work. After an idea has sufficiently gelled from his many notebook entries, Huck will create a file folder into which will go any and all materials to help finalize the layout and details. Frequently these are visual, pictures from magazines or newspapers, photographs from sessions with hired models, anything that can be used as a reference for the actual work of drawing. Huck is constantly on the hunt for photographs with facial expressions that are difficult to draw, or unusual physical poses, or uniforms and costumes, or landscape backdrops. All these references go into the folder.

Tom and I are about the same age, both of us growing up in the 80's and living most of our lives without digital technology. While notebooking has not been part of my artistic process, I completely understand 'The Morgue.' Back in the day, when a quick google search wasn't a thing, magazines were the best place to find (er...steal) image ideas for referencing. I kept similar folders myself, stacks and stacks of torn out people, expressions, outfits, etc. My parent's National Geographic collection was riddled with missing and scissored pages. Now, I tend to take screen shots from my phone and organize them into folders, but there is a feeling of comfort and permanence in the way Huck does it. I do wonder if it becomes harder and harder for him to find magazine material as the medium slowing disappears and is replaced by everything on the phone.

The Bible. Huck’s well worn copy of the complete woodcuts of Durer.

The Bible. Huck’s well worn copy of the complete woodcuts of Durer.

Later in the afternoon, we are finally given our wood blocks to draw on. We spend the rest of the day/night, redrawing the image from our paper to the 36"x24" block. Woodblock printing, at least in the tradition of Albrecht Durer and Tom Huck, are heavily powered by strong pen and ink drawing skills. These are skills that I am seriously lacking. In school, I was obsessed with painting and painters, turning my nose up at, what I considered at the time, the lowly ink pen. I'm paying for it now. More on this later, but fortunately Huck would direct me to the school of woodblock printing known as the German Expressionists. Here be my people, a bunch of crude drawers who love to print. But for now, when asking Tom about crosshatching and shading, he quickly disappeared to his back studio. When he returned, he announced to the class that he held the bible in his hand, and would leave it out for us to study. It is the complete works of the master printmaker and carver, Albrecht Durer.

Here is a man ready to draw on the block. This would be my station (on the big press!) for the next several days. The gal in the background, Tricia, would later join me. Good thing too, as she is a carving wizard and taught me a few things. (Pic by Shannon Cousino)

Here is a man ready to draw on the block. This would be my station (on the big press!) for the next several days. The gal in the background, Tricia, would later join me. Good thing too, as she is a carving wizard and taught me a few things. (Pic by Shannon Cousino)

Drawing on the board with pencil in painstaking reverse.

Drawing on the board with pencil in painstaking reverse.

Time to put down some Sharpie

Time to put down some Sharpie

Drawing finished and almost ready for carving.

Drawing finished and almost ready for carving.

Pro tips (this section is for those interested in the technical aspects of woodblock printing):

1. For notebooking, Huck likes to use Micron pens; 1 (0.25mm), 3 (0.35mm), 5 (0.45mm), and an 8 (0.5mm). He doesn’t like sharpies for notebooks as they tend to bleed through the pages. For pencils, he finds the Ticonderoga pencils to be the best, especially for drawing on blocks. And to blow your mind, Huck uses a drafting dry erase bag for removing pencil marks. Not familiar with this? Google it. They are amazing! They remove pencil lines with ease and without abrading the paper. They can also be used to remove the pencil under-drawing from the block after the ink is laid down and for cleaning up a print of unwanted marks (called “curating” in printing lingo).

2: On transferring the drawing to the block and the reverse image conundrum: So yes, your print is going to be backward from how you carve it into the wood. Depending, you may need to account for this when you transfer your drawing to the block. I say depending, because as Huck says, if the composition is balanced, it will work just as well in reverse. Everyone 'freaks out' on printing day when they see the reversed image of the print only because the brain has gotten so used to seeing it the other way. But given time to adjust, a well balanced composition will also look just as good flipped. So you don’t necessarily have to reverse the image. However, if you have text in your drawing, or things like steering wheels that need to be on a particular side of a vehicle, or simply want the print image to look like your drawing, the reversal will need to be accounted for.

Huck does reverse the image. He can draw from his sketches onto the block in reverse without any tricks. He's just been doing it so long. He wanted us to do the same, hand draw from our sketch in reverse onto the block. As I have a lot of text in my drawing, I had to be very careful that the lettering came out correctly. There are a few tricks to help (if you want to use tricks). You can shoot a picture of your drawing with your cell phone, reverse the image in your phone's photo app, then redraw it by looking at the reversed picture, OR get fancy and use a projector to project the image onto the wood and trace it directly. For my piece, I drew it by hand, but took many pictures with the my cell phone, reversing the image, and then checking and adjusting the drawing based on what I saw. This took some time, but ultimately was a great reference. Another old school trick is to check your block in a mirror.

3. Once the image is finalized on the block with a pencil drawing, you will draw over it with a Sharpie. (A fine pointed Sharpie can be used for fine line work.) We use Sharpies because the ink is permanent and not water based. You will notice the lines you make will spread a little as you draw on the wood. You get used to it and adjust accordingly. You may use a few Sharpies on a big block. Just buy them by the box. Make a mistake with a Sharpie? You can’t erase it, BUT…you can use a Uni Posca white paint marker. I’m sure there are other brands, but this was the one my table mate had and it was amazing, whites right over that Sharpie mark.