Brent Harris on making The Problem (2015)

In 2015 the Print Council of Australia commissioned Brent Harris to make a special fundraiser print to help raise money to pay Imprint contributor fees. The result was The Problem, an edition of thirty photopolymer gravure and multi-layer screenprints.

The article that follows is based on the short talk Harris gave at the Fitzroy Town Hall on 26 November 2015, along with collaborating printmaker Trent Walter of Negative Press, about the way this print was worked into reality.

Printmaking has been an important part of my working life as an artist, and an integral component in the development of my imagery over the past twenty-seven years. Since 1988, I have generally worked with master printers including John Loane of Viridian Press (intaglio), Larry Rawling (screenprint), Kim Westcott (woodblock), Peter Lancaster (lithography), Martin King (lithography), Adrian Kellett (monotype) and
Trent Walter (photopolymer gravure and screenprint).

I have also participated in two international printmaking residencies: a three-month residency learning the Japanese watercolour woodblock technique at Nagasawa Art Park in 1999; and a five-week residency working on large scale paper pulp works with master papermaker Richard Hungerford, and woodcut prints with the printers at Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2004.

Brent Harris
The Problem 2015
photopolymer gravure
with multiple screenprint layers
76 x 56 cm
edition of 30.

Getting to The Problem (2015):

In 2012 I worked on a series of one hundred monotypes. These works became a series titled the fall (2012), which was shown at Tolarno Galleries in November–December 2012, and was presented in nine groups of seven, two triptychs and twenty-one single prints.

Brent Harris’s studio, 2012
Below: Tolarno install of the fall, 2012

Even while this body of monotypes was being made, I was thinking: there is so much imagery here. I have to be able to use this across different media in future works.

the fall #83 was my first attempt at this. Obviously the two challenges here are scale and bringing colour to a black and white image. An element from the fall #70 has been flipped and also used down the left hand side of the painting below.

Top left: the fall #83 2012
collection: Art Gallery of Western Australia
Left: the fall #70 2012
Above: The Prophet 2012
oil on linen 240 x 160cm
collection: Shepparton Art Museum

It may seem that I am digressing, but this relates to what I am seeing as my imagery bank, which formed in the monotypes, and to how the imagery was developed for The Problem.

In 2013 I made another smaller series of monotypes titled embark. There are twenty prints in this new group and they were shown, along with nine small board paintings, in an exhibition of the same name at Lister Gallery in Perth (below).

Three of the nine paintings exhibited in Perth contain imagery that first appeared in one of the monotypes: this figure at the lower right of the monotype below.

embark #15, 2013, private collection Perth

This character has been cropped from the monotype, flipped horizontally, and then redrawn into the painting.

embark no.9, 2013, 52 x 38.2cm, private collection Perth

I’m not sure what the figure is about. At times I have thought of him as a stand-in for the artist.

In the monotype he seems to be a witness. He seems to be supported by a hand belonging to some larger being. In the paintings he appears as though he’s being delivered to some kind of portal, as though his past is delivering him into his future.

This character appears in several paintings including the large painting below.

Embark, 2014, 220 x 160cm, private collection Melbourne, shown at Tolarno Galleries in February 2015.

I should explain the monotype technique that I am using.

In December 2011, I went to Boston to see the Edgar Degas exhibition Degas and the Nude. He is an artist I love. I knew there was going to be a good selection of his monotypes and in particular the ones where he uses the ‘dark field technique’.

With this technique a substrate is rolled up with printing ink so as to achieve a totally black inky surface (in Degas’s case I think he most often used a copper plate). I use a piece of Perspex cut to the size I can comfortably print on the small press in my studio. Then you start wiping into the ink. The image forms as light, where the ink has been removed.

I think Degas would have known the image he was aiming for, either as an idea or from a drawing. For myself, I start with no preconceived idea. I just start smudging and watch for whatever imagery might surface.

It is possible to push ink back onto the plate into areas you might want to change while trying to retain areas worth holding onto (I use my fingers). If nothing of interest comes to the surface you can just re-roll the whole surface with ink and start afresh. Most often the monotype is printed on the same day it is made. Otherwise the ink will dry on the plate and print poorly. Many times at the end of the day, with no strong image having surfaced, I end up wiping down the plate.

the fall # 7, 2012, private collection Melbourne

the fall # 7 was so nearly not printed. I had worked on it all day and there had been many figurative elements trying to surface on the right hand side of the plate, but I could get nothing to stick. I liked the figure on the left, he reminded me of a figure in the painting The Flagellation of Christ (1455 -1460) by Piero della Francesca.

You have to remember that when making these prints you are working in the reverse, so on the plate this figure was coming in from the right, as is the flagellator in the Francesca painting.

As worked on the plate.
Piero della Francesca, The Flagellation of Christ (detail), 1455–60.

So at the end of the day and with no firm imagery appearing on the left, I was about to wipe the whole thing off when the finger marks where I had been pushing ink back onto the surface reminded me of another work by an artist I admire, Savarin 3 (red) by Jasper Johns. With Johns’s lithograph in the back of my mind I decided to print this plate.

When printed, it reminded me even more of the Johns lithograph. I was pleased I hadn’t wiped off my day’s work.

Jasper Johns, Savarin 3 (red), 1978, lithograph.

For the purposes of extending this monotype and using it for this new print idea, I inverted and coloured it similarly to the Johns.

I printed out a couple of these at A4 size in the studio and started mucking around on them with coloured pencil and gouache.

Quite quickly I saw the three figures/heads up at the right and presented them with eyes, and one with a beard. Also this figure with his hand behind his back arrives from another work of mine. He moves around within the image but doesn’t hold on, and gets dumped – it was starting to look too religious.

Now this other character arrives from the bottom right.

The bearded figure drops out of the group in the upper right. I am starting to feel this could be the print, but try one last stab at the new figure introducing more colour, which doesn’t work. So I have the print.

These two images are gouache on cheap reproductions; the right hand one will become the print. Trent and I now had to talk about how to realise this.

We had originally spoken of a screenprint; Trent did a test screen to see how this could work with the subtle tonal changes in the monotype. We found that the possible screen dot breakdown from a screenprint screen could not be made fine enough (see below). I don’t think it necessarily looked so bad, but it had a different feel, and was not achieving the richness of tone found in the monotype.

We decided to try photopolymer gravure for the ground image and multiple screenprint layers for the eyes and the character coming in from the lower right. Firstly, where the screenprinted image lands on the ground image, we stripped out the underlying surface from the photopolymer plate. This is shown below from a proof of the photopolymer gravure plate.

The proof here showing the stripped out ground plate where the screenprinting will hit.

I made a line drawing for the lower figure. This drawing was used to indicate where to strip out the photopolymer plate and also for the black line screen layer.

An early charcoal drawing above and then another finer black pencil drawing used for the screen.

I made a drawing for the eyes, at a much larger size. These two drawings were used for the one screen carrying the black. There were two other screens: one for the pink and one for the white.

So that was it: the printing from the photopolymer plate, followed by the printings from the three screens. Problem almost solved, apart from registration of all the elements by Trent Walter.

The title for this print refers to the problem of titling the work as much as anything. I am unable to impose a definition or meaning on this image.

To purchase The Problem view the PCA online store here. Brent Harris’s upcoming exhibition A Backroom Project opens at Tolarno Galleries on 5 March 2016.