Unforeseen Errors

"No handmade print is perfect. The errors usually add interest to the artwork and give it a lot of character."

Rigel Stuhmiller is a freelance printmaker and illustrator. Her work has appeared on The Today Show and in Town and Country, wired.com and Apartment Therapy.

What similarities do you see between the creation of literary and visual works of art?

I think both processes require some sort of spark or desire that makes you anxious to express yourself, and then a lot of laborious craftwork to visualize the idea in a way that does it justice. I think this is probably universal to creating something good, whatever the medium.

What initially drew you to block printing?

I was introduced to block printmaking in high school, but became really absorbed in the process by making party posters for my dorm hall in college. It was a fun way to make multiple images and I was the only one who knew about carving blocks. It made me feel like I had something unique to contribute. (It helped, I guess, that I went to a technical school where no one around me was doing much art.) The forgiving nature of the medium really attracted me. I could start with a not-very-good drawing, carve it inexpertly, and print it with zero grace…but despite my caveman treatment of the process, it still gained a “primitive” vibe that made it cool. That positive feedback encouraged me to keep trying, which led to better skills and thus more positive feedback.

What is it that makes a handmade print special, as opposed to a digital creation?

Every handmade print is a little bit different because of all its unforeseen errors. The carving of the block isn’t perfect, or the registration (the way the colors line up) is off, or the ink isn’t mixed to the exact right shade, or the ink coverage is uneven, or there was dirt on the plate, or a whole number of things. No handmade print is perfect. The errors usually add interest to the artwork and give it a lot of character.

Computers allow much more control and so digital creations can be much more perfect. It might be the look you’re going for, but sometimes the precision takes life out of the artwork. You can add randomness yourself, but it’s usually a conscious effort.

I think digital creations can be just as beautiful as handmade prints. Sometimes people lower the value of a piece of art because it was drawn on a tablet with a stylus instead of on paper with a pencil, but that doesn’t make sense to me. In both cases, it’s the artist’s eye, judgment, and skill that creates something that pleases you. Is the tool used to create the art more important than the art itself?

But in any event, it’s true that a printout from a digital file will always be the same, whereas a handmade print will always be a little bit different from the rest.

Everyone has different qualifications for what makes a piece of art great. What are yours?

Great art has got to make me feel a strong positive emotion, using whatever tools it wants: craftsmanship, colors, or composition. That’s about as specific as I can get.

I recently tried to define Art (not even Great Art…just basic Art) with some friends. It’s not easy! I jotted down our conclusions in my sketchbook.

What’s your creative process usually like? If you had to give it a label (something like evolving doodles, energetic emission) what would it be?

Pow! Scribble! (That’s the most creative part of it. What follows is a long process of trying to turn the idea into reality.)

On your website, you’re very open and detailed about your art process. Do you see yourself as an educator?

People love to read about the process that goes into making block prints, which is great because I also think it’s very interesting. I guess I don’t see myself as primarily an educator, but maybe that’s because not many people have asked me to educate. When someone truly wants to learn something from me, I’m happy to teach them and have always enjoyed the experience.

In six words, give us your artist statement, world view, or life’s story.

After accepting myself, happily ever after.

Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece? Why?

This is hard to answer. One that I’m most proud of is definitely the book Aesop Cop. This is a series of collaborations between myself and writer Franklin Crawford. He scans police logs of small towns and writes Aesop-style morality poems about notable crimes. I illustrate the poems in an old-school style. I love it because it’s smart and weird and funny on many levels, from the deadpan original police reports about shoplifting and assaults, to the ridiculous verse and moral, to the overblown illustration. The creation becomes so much more awesome than any of the parts, and the collaboration with someone so intelligent and funny is a great thrill. I guess this is our take on “Creative Nonfiction.”

Do most of your art pieces have stories behind them or do you start creating and see what happens?

I almost always have a reason to make art. Sometimes it’s a weird conversation I overheard, or an object I find beautiful, or a memory, or something. Rarely do I just start creating with no purpose.

You’ve mentioned that a high school art class introduced you to printmaking. What kinds of art forms do you think all kids should try?

I think kids should learn two things in high school—that it’s the process of making art which is most vital, not the specific medium, and that the more you experiment in life the better your art will be. I was very lucky to have an art teacher in high school, Fred Marinello, who created a safe and fun space for us to think differently and explore whatever idea we wanted to pursue, without thinking about whether we were doing it right or how we looked to other people or how it would affect our chances of getting into college. To have an adult encourage me to keep an open mind about everything, even my own fate, was invaluable, even though I didn’t absorb all the lessons right away. I think the specifics of what kinds of art I learned were a lot less important.

If that’s a cop-out to the question and I have to choose a specific form, I suppose I would choose figure drawing. It is endlessly challenging, very meditative, and can help you learn many different mediums and artistic concepts.

What book or work of art do you find yourself returning to?

It depends on what mood I’m in, but I often like to look at old advertising posters. I also like Japanese prints and book illustrations from the turn of the century and Van Goghs and Gauguins. I guess I like looking at well-crafted art with beautiful colors and composition.

Is that another cop-out?

Much of your work captures the quirk of animals, especially dogs. What do you think owners are so captivated by their pets?

Pets have no ulterior motive. They are like small furry people who are unable to plot or deceive. They want to be fed, they want to play, they want you to love them. In return they love you back, unconditionally, and trust you to do the right thing by them. That’s an impossible situation not to be captivated by. Well, I’m referring to dogs since I’ve only ever owned a dog. I can’t vouch for cats.

How does your dog make you a better artist?

Indirectly he makes me a better artist because he makes me happier and more content with my life. Directly he makes me a better artist because he requires two meals and two walks per day. Thus I move at least four times a day and get some fresh air and exercise. Getting away from my work helps me see it in a different way when I return.

About the Author

Rigel Stuhmiller

Rigel Stuhmiller is a freelance printmaker and illustrator. Her work has appeared on The Today Show and in Town and Country, wired.com, and Apartment Therapy. For more, please visit her website.

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