Exploring traditional printing

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Plein-air painter and printmaker Nancy Friese lives in urban Rhode Island. But for the past two weeks she has had a rare opportunity to dwell among tall pines, the rushing Elk River and a dramatic backdrop provided by Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.

"Rhode Island is very civilized, low and rounded. The East Coast responds to the human scale," Friese said from the banks of the Elk River as she admired the tall, dense alpine forest around her. "But this is so much bigger than human."

Friese said these are the kind of "big, vertical, epic landscapes" she really loves to paint.

As artist in residence at Riverhouse Editions, Friese has been creating a collection of oil and watercolor prints that reflect her plein-air painting sensibility and the aura of Rocky Mountain wilderness. She is the first of several well-known artists who will visit the traditional printmaking studio on Seedhouse Road this summer.

Riverhouse Editions gives painters an opportunity to delve into the ancient and multi-faceted art of making original prints under the guidance of master printmakers.

"It's concentrated here, but you take that energy with you," Friese said.

As she nears the end of a yearlong sabbatical, Friese plans to bundle up that energy and take it back to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she is a professor of graduate studies in charge of printmaking.

Working with Riverhouse Editions print master Susan Hover Oehme and her assistants is ideal, Friese said. She said she always has done her own prints, but they take her a long time to make, and she does fewer every year. And Friese's past prints have been limited to three- or four-color woodcut prints.

But during her stay at the Riverhouse, Friese has had the opportunity to try new kinds of printing techniques, including "more painterly" carborundum and watercolor prints. The studio walls are covered with her vivid explorations in printmaking.

A key difference between creating a painting and creating a print is the process of layering color. In making a painting, colors are layered in a visible process where the artist can watch as the painting develops. For a print, there is an element of surprise as the artist creates separate plates for different colors that are run sequentially through a press to construct the artist's final image.

"It's inside-out of painting. What you see is the back of what I've done," Friese said. "Everything's a surprise as the painting grows."

On Monday, Friese and Oehme ran a proof of a print they expected to be ready for signing by the end of the week. The colorful landscape started as a watercolor monoprint, but Friese decided to re-create something similar to her one-of-a-kind creation in a multi-edition print.

After printing four copper plates bearing four colors, Friese and Oehme stood back to analyze the layered landscape. The two women discussed techniques and color changes that would maximize variation and texture. They mulled over corners needing more light, what parts need to be dark, areas of the plate that need sanding and spots they thought needed the delicate texture of dry point etching.

"I think there's a lot there. I think we can get something good," Friese said after a long, hard look at her emerging print.

And it's Oehme's master printing expertise that helps nudge the creative process along, she said.

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