Print 1. Project 3: Research point

Exploring artists who use backdrawing.

Paul Gauguin.
The exhibition Metamorphoses: Paul Gauguin’s Oil Transfer Drawings held earlier this year at MoMA showcased around 150 works, 120 of them on paper, however not all pieces were transfer drawn.  The write-up of his technique is very clear, giving details of his apparent invention of a particular drawing/printing style in 1899 whilst living in Tahiti.  He rolled printer’s ink on to paper, laid a second sheet over the top and proceeded to draw onto this surface.  Once complete he peeled the sheets apart revealing the reverse image of the drawing.  The MoMA website shows an example of Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit (c. 1900) which they acquired earlier this year.  They show both the drawing and the print.


Paul Gauguin. Tahitian Woman with Evil Spirit. (c.1900)

Sharp graphite pencils have been used, along with softer blue pencils forming shadowed areas, thereby producing a rounded, dimensional appearance to the subjects.  The level of detail is very high and interference transfer is minimal.  After completing the initial transfer he went on to roll olive ink onto a clean sheet of paper, laid his printed image over this and applied light pressure in selected areas so almost magically transforming and obfuscating the first image transfer (some wording taken from MoMA site).  It has given the print an aged appearance.

The back of the print, where the drawing has been created is referred to as the verso with the printed side called the recto, thus you have a double-sided artwork.  The website refers to these works as ‘hybrid’ as they cross several art boundaries – drawing and printing, sometimes referring back to sculptures or other works of his, or photographs in his possession.

Paul Gauguin. Two Marquesans. (c.1902)

Paul Gauguin. Two Marquesans. (c.1902)

The precision of his drawing is what has captured my attention as I’m finding it difficult to draw accurately without lying my hand/palm on the paper and accidentally transferring unwanted ink.  I’ve almost taken it for granted that he has a high drawing skill but the cleanliness of the transfer, now I’ve tried it several times, is quite difficult.  Reading more about Gauguin, he obviously had a passion and enthusiasm for this method of print transfer and worked at his craft, achieving quality results.

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack.

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Untitled (1958)

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Untitled (1958)

The works here are all held by the Art Gallery of NSW, gifted by Olive Hirschfeld after the death of her husband.

The first is black ink and watercolour, the other two being blue ink with watercolour.

I’ve been trying to determine the order of work.  In the first image it would seem that the backdrawing was done first and then watercolour applied to the different sections, perhaps with masks laid horizontally to define the sharp colour changes across the negative space.  My reasoning comes from the lack of evident mismatching of watercolour and backdrawn areas.  The orange hues sit perfectly within the abstract shape with the outer greys and browns butting up exactly.  Or was his application of colour and registration of plate so precise that the reverse is true?

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Flying (1951)

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Flying (1951)

On this second image I believe the watercolour was definitely applied first.  The brush strokes are obvious and continue through the drawn image so here the image was drawn over the base colour with some additional transfer of interference, matching the ink colour, appearing within the drawing.

I enjoy the roughly rectangular shape to this piece without a definite masked border.

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Two (1952)

Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack. Two (1952)

Again in this third piece the background watercolour has been applied first as it clearly sits behind the main image.

He must have created a solid drawn outline of the design first to enable him to position the line work so precisely after having painted in the background blocks.

The pieces all have engaging focal imagery with complementing negative space and, although precisely drawn, the transfer is not heavy, overbearing or especially dominating.  Instead each draws the background into the composition forming the unified finished artwork.

So here I’ve learned that just transferring an image isn’t enough, more needs to be done with the negative space thereby creating something more complex than just the subject matter.  In the case of the Gauguin example above he has done this by partially transferring a second colour in selected areas over his initial drawing, whereas Hirschfeld-Mack has done the reverse by creating his background and placing his drawing over it.  Or did he transfer his line image and then simply apply the water-colour lightly directly over the print without using any transfer method?  On further reflection, I believe that is the case.

Paul Klee
Using watercolour and transferred printing ink on paper, in 1921 Klee produced Adam and Little Eve.  The image can be viewed here on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.  The line work is minimal, just enough to sharpen the imagery, and the accompanying write-up speculates that the drawn curtain to the left gives the impression of a puppet theatre stage, and how accurate that is.  The figures have a marionette-like appearance and really do appear to be carved wooden dolls.  All that’s missing are the puppet strings.

The piece has a strong theme, clear execution without being overworked but with enough surrounding props and colour to engage the viewer.  It is somewhat enigmatic which adds to its charm.

Out of the works reviewed above my preference is for Adam and Little Eve by Klee.  I find Tahitian Woman and Evil Spirit by Gauguin too literal, well drawn and with no accompanying mystery – for my taste.  I enjoy the freedom I see in Flying by Hirschfeld-Mack and would hang any of the above three pieces in my home.  However, without doubt, the piece by Klee attracts me with its simplicity, overall minimalist content and its ambiguous meaning.  My interest is piqued, which is something I’m sure the artist would have wanted to achieve.

Perhaps another reason I’m lured by this piece is that it is so far from what I can envisage myself doing.  I’m still way too precious, too literal and tight with my drawing style.  Looking through my sketchbook I see some quite good drawings – much improved from a few months ago – but very exact with no real spontaneity.  Am I afraid to experiment or don’t I have the imagination?  That question is yet to be answered and I hope it will become clearer throughout the course.

Janice McBride

Here I’m looking at something a little different, not strictly backdrawing but the results achieve a similar outcome.

Janice McBride. Brothers (no date recorded)

Janice McBride. Brothers (no date recorded)

I came across this artist on the internet by accident and was immediately intrigued by her work.  I wrote to Janice asking how she created this particular piece as it is described as a  monoprint but without specific reference to backdrawing.  Her reply (in part) is below:

No I don’t draw on the back, all the black lines you see are painted on the front before the paper (or film) is placed on top of the image  and run  through an etching press  or hand pressed.    I have done many prints which have been drawn on the back, some nice results can be achieved…….  For monoprinting where the image is lifted, i,e. with a press or roller or by hand, I have collected all sorts of things that I can use to roll off and to build up a piece, such as corrugated card, and stencils, lace etc.

So in this case we see a very different approach to my other analysis above.  Here the artist has applied the line work directly to the artwork surface before transferring a complex layered print plate, or possibly more than one.  Obviously this means that the transferred ink image actually sits atop the outline focal design but as that has been created using solid black strokes it continues to appear to sit forward.

Not backdrawing but the technique has resulted in a multi-layered, textural outcome with line imagery in the same vein, with the eye of the viewer being drawn to the basic outlines of the figures.  This is an image to be pinned up on my workboard, a visual reminder to try to create layers, textures and focal interest within each printed piece.

This research has been very valuable.  I’ve learned something from each of the artists profiled as well as others I looked at but have not recorded here.  I feel I have a better grasp of not only backdrawing but the whole monotype genre now.  Hopefully this new knowledge will influence my own work.

Resources: – Gauguin images – Hirschfeld-Mack images – Paul Klee


About Claire B

I'm a passionate printmaker, paper-maker and a poor sketcher (which I'm working to improve). I've stitched from early childhood and am a perpetual student, loving learning and participating in everything creative.
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One Response to Print 1. Project 3: Research point

  1. Makes interesting reading Claire. I will be sending your feedback later.

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