Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reproducing a Kandinsky Painting in Pochoir

The main artistic work of pochoir ateliers in Paris in the 1910s was to reproduce facsimiles of manuscripts and paintings in limited editions; they also added color to printed (phototypie) fashion plates in fashion magazines.  Many large printing firms had a contingent of pocheurs in addition to an on-site bindery, like Crété in Corbeil, the company that printed La Prose du Transsibérien.

I wanted to work with pochoir again in my Typography class at Scripps College, and so I invited Julie Mellby to give the Fall 2014 Frederic W. Goudy Lecture for the Scripps College Press on the history of pochoir. She is the graphic arts curator within Rare Books and Special Collections at Firestone Library, Princeton University. Normally the Scripps College Press offers a workshop to accompany the lecture. I thought it would be possible to reproduce a Kandinsky painting in a small edition with the workshop participants. I was still working on a timeline for the production of the pochoir for La Prose, and I hoped this experiment might give me some clues.

In 1988, I had taken a pochoir workshop where we made the stencils from acetate and worked with French pochoir brushes, so I taught the workshop. My husband had mentioned that our Kandinsky calendar probably had a good candidate for attempting a pochoir reproduction, so I chose the Landscape Near Murnau with Locomotive painting from 1909.

Kandinsky, Landscape Near Murnau with Locomotive, 1909

Since there would be fourteen participants, including Julie Mellby, and there were fourteen colors in the painting, it would be a test to see if we could produce an edition of sixteen copies in one day-long workshop. 

Workshop participants cutting stencils

The first task is to identify all of the colors in the painting and make a tracing. 

Tracing of the fourteen color areas

You’re looking for areas that might need a bridge; for example, if you have a donut shape, you have make a bridge from the center circle to the outer circle to connect the two. I made color copies of the painting and copies of the tracing so that each participant could choose a color. A registration system with a three-hole punch was developed, where I punched holes in both the Bristol paper and the acetate stencils.

Each participant had to mix their own gouache color to match the color photocopy, and write down the recipe on a card. 

Gouache color swatches with recipes

With a black narrow marker, they traced their color areas onto acetate and then cut away those areas with a knife. 

Knives used for cutting included Olfa (my favorite), X-acto, and inexpensive snap-off knives (above)

I brought in several different kinds of knives and let them choose whichever one worked well for them. It is difficult to cut tight curves in acetate because the plastic pulls up while cutting, so they practiced first.

The gouache is mixed to the consistency of milk in a canister. We bought a double-cup holder for the gouache. You charge the fat French pochoir brush with a small amount put into one cup and swirl it around in the second cup. Then you test on scrap paper to make sure you are not too wet. One of the challenges of editioning is to add just the right amount of gouache to the brush each time you are ready to do the pochoir. Attach the acetate stencil to the paper using the registration system and swirl lightly in your color areas until you build up to the intensity of color desired.

Swirl in a continuous circular fashion with the French pochoir brush

If your brush is too wet, the color will seep under the hole. The paper you use is critical, since the paper could abrade easily if it is too soft. We used medium-weight Bristol paper.

Normally each pocheur would complete the edition in her color, and then go on to the next color in succession. But in this workshop, the participants had different completion times because some pochoirs were more complicated, so the order was random.

Example mid-stream with eight colors
Example mid-stream with different colors completed

We numbered the edition pages to keep track. My press assistant, Chris Yuengling-Niles, made an accordion-fold exemplar of all the colors in order.

Progressive proofs in order by Chris Yuengling-Niles

 We completed all the pages by the end of the workshop, hooray! But note that the cloud painting did not get done at the very end, so the participants would have to finish that last area at home. 

The final proof (before cloud painting) compared to the original photocopy

I knew from reading Jean Saudé’s 1925 book on pochoir, Traite d’enluminaire d’art au pochoir, that they originally used metal stencils: copper, tin, zinc, pewter and aluminum in various thicknesses. I wished that I could see one. I had gone twice in 2014 to the Firestone Library at Princeton for research, and on the second trip, I actually discovered one of Saudé’s copper pochoir stencils, which was stunningly intricate. It had originally been included in the deluxe edition of Saudé’s book and got separated until I found it in the collection. You can see this amazing stencil in a Princeton blog post written by Julie Mellby. If you want to read Saudé’s book in English, Havilah Press commissioned an English translation of two sections of Saudé’s text, and published this in 2013 in a limited edition, accompanied by an introduction outlining the history of pochoir, two pochoir illustrations, and a list of references.

I had experimented with various thicknesses of copper and aluminum for my own stencils for La Prose, but even after reading Saudé in French, it was not clear how to cut into the metal effectively. There is a drawing of the knife they used, the blade of which is slightly curved. When I discovered that Atelier Coloris in France was using the original techniques, I wrote to them and asked if they would work with me. The next blog will be about the magnificent time I had in Ploubazlanec with Nathalie Couderc and Christine Menguy, and how to cut and use the metal stencils.


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