The Physicality of Printmaking with Marjorie Morgan

The Physicality of Printmaking with Marjorie Morgan

Cover Photo by Sarah Rauber

Natural Earth Paint founder Leah Fanning had the chance to chat with dancer-turned-printmaker Marjorie Morgan this month; we hope you enjoy Marjorie's tips, recipes, and stories as much as Leah did!

Leah: I’m a huge admirer of all of your work and the organic, flowing, yet rooted energy of it really pulls at my heart. When I learned that much of your life was spent as professional modern dancer and performance artist as well, I knew I had to talk to you given my life path as a former dancer turned artist as well. And of course, we're excited to learn about your natural, earth-based printmaking techniques and recipes, too!

Where did you grow up and how did that place or landscape influence you and your art?

Marjorie: I grew up in Southern Vermont (Abenaki land) and that place influenced my art so much.I spent a lot of times outdoors as a kid and playing in the woods and the water.There was a brook right next to the house I grew up in, and my sister and I spent many hours playing in that water and the woods and fields nearby. And so it's wonderful to me that my art practice now is with with natural materials. It makes all the sense in the world. I feel like I've been able to come back and integrate with parts of my child self and thus, be able to be really spontaneous and creative in a childlike way when I'm working with natural materials.

When did you first become interested in painting and what pulled you in?

I loved painting as a child. There wasn't a lot of arts education where I grew up, so I didn't really come back to painting until I was in my 40s. And what drew me in was a very particular teacher and a very particular landscape. I was part of a program in rural France, working as a cook at an arts education program. They had teen workshops and art teacher workshops. My wife had participated their art teacher workshop (she's an artist), and then we both got jobs as cooks. I was a dancer at the time so I was videotaping site specific movement practices when I had time off from cooking.

And we did this for many years in a row, and I think it was maybe my second or third year there when I started painting. We arrived a little early and watched the teens do their presentation about their artwork. I was so impressed with these kids. I thought, “If they can do this, I can to do this!” So when the art teachers came, I decided I would shadow one of their classes, so I shadowed a plein air painting class. We went out into the landscape. It's a very beautiful, rugged, rocky terrain, lots of cliffs and chestnut trees, quite beautiful. And first we did drawings to get used to looking at nature and then we started painting. And I just fell in love. I worked on my plein air painting every day in the afternoon when I had time between lunch and dinner and I just loved it. So probably for about seven or eight days, every day, I went out and painted and painted and painted and painted. It really was like falling in love.

Did you receive formal training or are you self-taught?

That experience that I had of shadowing the art teachers was pretty much my formal training in painting. And I’ve taken a couple of classes in figure painting. In terms of printmaking, I took two classes at Zea Mays Printmaking in creating monotypes and monoprints, and that pulled me in and got me going. I would say I'm not self taught with printmaking or painting. I would say I’m community taught. So I was taught a bit formally, but really I’ve learned so much from the artists around me. I have many lovely relationships with other artists. We all ask questions and share ideas and strategies; and so we teach each other and grow together.

Who were your early influences or who inspires you?

As a kid, I just loved art. So I think I kind of fell in love with whatever art I saw. My parents took us to museums when we visited cities. So I saw paintings by Rembrandt early on as a child and was really drawn in by those. I was really fascinated with the incredible skill and emotion in those portraits.

I also loved Van Gogh when I was a child. I loved the colors and the swirling. I loved the movement in the pieces. And I even set off an alarm at an art museum by touching a Van Gogh. I wanted to feel the paint.

And also Picasso… and I think for similar reasons. Even though they're very different artists, the movement and the color just really excited me. The first Picasso pieces I remember seeing as a kid were part of his late works and they're very large and very, very colorful, with lots of movement. They're not like his cubist work at all. I had a poster of one of those Picasso works in my bedroom growing up.

Who inspires me now? Too many to list, but… Delita Martin is one of my favorite printmakers. Her work is so beautiful, colorful, skillful and inspiring. And Leonardo Drew is incredible… his use of materials, and the depth and the soul in his work is astounding to me. On occasion, his work has taken my breath away. Those are two of my favorite artists right now. My work is not like either of theirs, but I am very inspired by them.

Your website talks about your beginnings as a modern dancer and I’m super curious how you feel your innate dancer self finds it’s way into your visual art? Is there a physicality in your art making practice that brings your body into the act of painting?

I feel as though I'll separate out my dancer self (who was very involved in the physical act of dancing) and my choreographer self (who was very involved in the compositional elements of dancing, the more intellectual part).

I feel like painting absolutely connects me with my physical self and movement and full body interaction. I sometimes like creating large paintings. It’s physically immersive and so satisfying to me.

And I feel that the act of foraging itself is kind of like a dance. Going out into nature, walking, bending, twisting, looking, exploring, is a bit of a dance. It's a bit of a journey. Also, the botanical inks that I make and work with have a lot of movement in them.

I feel that my choreographer self and my printmaking self are very similar. There’s a lot of thinking and planning with printmaking. I really love composition. When I'm getting deep into a series of prints and I’m starting to play more strategically with composition, my choreographer self comes out and is really thinking about redefining space in the way that I did as a choreographer.

When and why did you start incorporating natural pigments and materials into your art making?

We moved into a home that was closer to nature. There are trees and fields and vistas, animals, sky, birds, clouds, small mammals (and big ones in the nearby woods). Nature is right next to us in this home. And so that instantly started connecting me to natural materials. And then, very concretely, there was only one sink that was appropriate for washing up art materials in our home. I had been working with oil paints, and that sink was in our kitchen, and I just couldn't do it. I just couldn't clean up my toxic art materials in the same place that we were preparing and eating food. So I realized pretty quickly that I needed to change my ways, and I started exploring with natural materials.

Did a shift in materials change anything in your art making experience or final results?

Oh, everything started changing. The experience of making art was radically different. It felt like I was literally starting from the ground up. I was forging materials that were growing out of the ground, so my art process was starting from outdoors and not in my studio. Every piece I made had a longer history and had roots. So that changed everything. It wasn't just about my ideas anymore. It was about the planet and what the planet wanted to offer and then how I could collaborate with what the planet was offering. It's a radical shift for me and a very beautiful shift in terms of the process and results. One of the things that I love about working with natural materials is that there is no “final” result because the work is constantly changing and shifting. And I think my work looks very different now. I've always loved color, so my work is still very colorful, but I my palette is much wider. I work more with secondary, tertiary and neutral tones than I used to. And I'm also much more open to what direction I go in. I let the materials speak to me quite a bit. So it's not so much about my ideas, as it is about this collaboration with the materials.

Do you have any tips for artists wanting to transition to using non-toxic or natural materials?

So many tips, but I'll try to narrow it down. One is to be flexible, and to let the materials teach you.

I think as artists, when when we are working with commercially made materials, we take our ideas and put them onto the materials. We think things like “I want red, so I'm going to buy this particular paint,” or “I want this shape or this feeling so I'm going to buy these materials.” When you're working with natural materials, you work with what you find and what is in season. And then you need to let those materials speak to you and tell you how they want to work and how they want to move and what colors they want to bring forth.

It becomes much more of a collaboration between you and the materials. So be flexible, be open with your palette, be open with your ideas and just see how the materials want to work with you. You will be working with materials that are made out of the same things that you are made out of, so you will learn how to communicate with each other. It's very different from commercial materials, and it's a really exciting journey.

I've also learned a lot about patience. I think it’s helpful be patient and let yourself explore and fail. Every pigment you work with is going to be different. Every botanical ink you work with is going to be different. Every flower you want to turn into a dye is going to be different. So work with flexibility and patience, and you will be so richly rewarded. It's a really beautiful journey.

We receive emails from printmakers all the time asking for printmaking ink recipes using our Earth & Mineral Pigments and natural binders. Can you share your favorite ink recipes for these artists?

Absolutely. And related to what I just said, you do need to be flexible. So I'll give you the basic ingredients, and in terms of the amounts, it will vary depending upon what pigment you use. Each pigment has a slightly different level of absorption, different grit, different feels, so you'll need to play a little bit with each one and find your way with it.

For Earth & Mineral Pigments, I have two different basic inks that I create for printmaking. One is a water-based ink that I use with wood. The other is an oil-based ink and that one I use with plastic surfaces like PETG or linoleum.

For the water-based ink, the most basic version you can do is to mix honey with the pigment. I typically use a ratio of about one to one and you'll know right away if the pigment is liking that ratio or if you need to adjust. I mix it in a mortar and pestle so I can grind a little bit, but you can just use a palette knife if the pigment is very fine. And then, if I have some, I will add some liquid gum arabic. If you have powdered gum arabic, you can create a liquid version mixing that with water. So you'll mix those two (or three) ingredients together into a paste. When applying it to the wood, you need to dampen the wood a bit, so get it wet and then towel it off. The wood should feel cool, but not wet. And then paint that ink onto the wood as evenly as you can. Then, you can use a baren or a spoon to print the the ink from the wood to the paper. I use a thinner paper for that, usually some type of Japanese rice paper.

For the oil-based ink, I use pigment, walnut oil, rice starch and powdered gum arabic. And I mix them in that order. Put a little bit of pigment down on a surface. Build a little well in it just like you would do for oil painting. Put in a little bit of walnut oil and then mix to create a thin paste. Then thicken that paste a little bit with rice starch, and add a little bit at a time. The rice starch is going to start to absorb and give you the tack that you'll need to be able to use a roller or brayer. Once it's gotten a little bit stiffer, but not too stiff, then add a little just a little bit of powdered gum arabic and mix that in. Mix it well. I use a palette knife for that. Spread it out on a surface (I usually work on a glass surface) and then use a brayer to roll it out. You'll know right away if it's the right consistency, and then you can adjust as needed.

Here's an example of oil based ink proportions using Yellow Ochre Earth & Mineral Pigment:

  • Add 1 part pigment (ex. 1 teaspoon).
  • Mix in 1 part walnut oil (ex. 1 teaspoon) until you get a loose paste.
  • Gradually mix in 1 part rice starch (ex. 1 teaspoon) a little bit at a time to stiffen the paste.
  • Sprinkle on 1/4 part (ex. 1/4 teaspoon) powdered gum arabic and gently fold into paste.

For water-based ink for wood, you'll need pigment, honey, and liquid gum arabic. That's all you need. And for the oil-based ink, you'll need pigment, walnut oil, rice starch, and powdered gum arabic.

I've loved working with these pigments from Natural Earth Paint! They are lush and colorful, and they mix beautifully with either water or oil and the needed binders.

I have an old cookie jar on my studio work table full of Earth & Mineral Pigments, and it is a treat to reach in and find a color to play with.

Do you use traditional printmaking techniques or do you create your own to allow for the unpredictability of working with natural materials?

It's a little different based on which materials I am using. If I'm working with botanical inks, I have my own unique process. I pour the inks onto a PETG plate and let it dry completely. Then I print on dampened paper, which rehydrates the inks. I usually use a pasta roller or larger press to print. When I'm working with wood and earth/mineral-based inks, I am also using my own method, and I’m still exploring with that. So stay tuned! When I'm doing an oil-based ink, I am working somewhat traditionally (working on a PETG plate, adding stencils or natural objects, and then using a press).

How do you find balance and stay connected to the natural world in the typically disconnected chaos of today’s world?

My art practice keeps me balanced and connected to the natural world. I have all sorts of natural materials in my in my studio, and the work on my studio walls is all made from natural materials. So that keeps me grounded in my indoor space. I love foraging for materials and even just looking even if I don't gather anything. I'm always out looking, and, in my own way, communicating with nature. I walk every day in the woods or in the fields near my home.

If I'm in a city and I have less access to nature, I go to museums and galleries to connect with creative energy. And I also love listening to live music when I can. My dog grounds me no matter where I am.

Where can our audience see more of your work or take your workshops?

I have a website that shows a lot of my artwork and lists workshops, demonstrations and exhibits: I also post on Instagram pretty regularly and my little tag is @marjart. I teach in person and virtually at Zea Mays Printmaking I finally got to teach in person again and it was so fun! We created an online tutorial early in this COVID era, and we're going to redo that tutorial very soon. The new version should be released this spring. And I have some exhibits coming up in 2022, and I will post details on my website and on Instagram. Thanks so much for these questions, Leah; and thanks for all the work you do connecting people with natural materials!

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