Rick Allen made his stunning picture book debut with his illustrations for Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, written by Joyce Sidman. The book explains a little about the process on the copyright page, which you should take a look at if you missed it. But I was curious to find out more about this unique way of making pictures.

Rick Allen runs the business Kenspeckle Letterpress with his wife Marian Lansky (a talented artist in her own right) where they create “printed ephemera” (his words not mine) with the help of an assistant. In honor of April being poetry month, I contacted him with some questions, and he was kind enough to answer back.

First, is “illustrations” the right terms to use? I see you use the term prints, linoleum cuts, and engravings. Is there a different process that you use for each of these that distinguishes them from one another? Was the artwork only accomplished through printing, or did you use ink or paint to “touch-up”, accent, or highlight portions of the pictures?

Yes, I’d call them illustrations. That being said, the illustrations for this book are all relief prints made from linoleum blocks. Relief prints can be made from a wide variety of materials, but all are created by removing material from the block and leaving an inkable surface behind for printing.

Engraving refers to a specific kind of relief printing usually made by cutting into end-grain blocks of wood with tools that make very fine lines in the surface of the wood; the end-grain block is extremely durable and you can pull many thousands of prints without losing sharpness and definition of the engraved line. Linoleum by comparison is a fairly soft material, which limits the number of prints you can pull before the printing process begins to compress the surface of the linoleum and you lose some of the crispness and clarity in the image.

I’ll occasionally use some of my wood engraving tools on linoleum cuts to make finer lines that are even more susceptible to filling with ink or being compressed by the press, furthering limiting the number of impressions we can make from each block. Typically our editions of original prints (the number of prints pulled for each image) number less than twenty, and often as few as ten to twelve.

Most of the prints in the book do have some hand-finishing in them. I use gouache, a heavily pigmented watercolor that can be used full-strength as a poster paint for opaque passages and in a very dilute form for delicate washes– a very versatile medium.

If you want more information on the process, there is a write-up on Kenspeckle at the Sivertson Gallery’s website.

What does your workshop look like? What’s it like working with your wife on your projects and how do you divide the labor?

For the past four or so years we’ve had our studio on the second floor of a commercial building in Duluth, MN, a couple of hundred yards away from the shores of Lake Superior; in the two weeks of summer we often get up here we can walk ten minutes across a bridge to a seven mile-long beach for swimming in the 35-45 degree waters of the Big Lake, but I can’t really recall the last time we were so motivated.

We designed the studio ourselves, including an open workspace with large beautiful north-facing windows for the four presses we use in printing lino blocks, wood engravings, and letterpress projects, and a separate office for my wife and partner Marian Lansky’s design business; we refer to her as the smart 21st Century part of the business with her suite of computers and printers while the cast iron brute beasts and I hang back in the 19th.

Marian has been a graphic designer for twenty years and has her own clients and projects (including her own fine art prints that she shows under Shy Nimitta on our website). We collaborate whenever we can on projects. She was involved with the book at every stage from suggestions for type faces and page layout to scanning the finished art and making color corrections for production.

As Charley Russell (the cowboy artist) said about his own situation, anybody who can make a living doing what he likes is lucky, and I am that, but going to work every day with the same person I go home with at the end of the day is simply the best possible life I can imagine.

I read on your website that it took nearly two years to complete the book. Did you, the author, or the publisher ever get impatient with the process? How did you maintain your focus throughout?

I can’t speak for Joyce, the wonderful author of Dark Emperor, or Ann Rider, the equally amazing editor we worked with at Houghton Mifflin, but I certainly never got tired either of Joyce’s words or the process of making the images. Ann and Joyce have together produced a number of award-winning books and certainly have no illusions about expecting assembly-line efficiency from artists. All the people involved with the book at Houghton Mifflin were marvelous to work with.

Making each of the thirty or so prints that went into the book required a number of different stages so I could jump from image to image when I got bogged down on one block or another. From sketching out initial concepts for the images, transferring the sketches to the blocks and beginning to cut the blocks (anywhere from three to six or even seven blocks per image), working out the color palette for the blocks, and then finally registering and printing the blocks and finishing the print with hand-coloring, each step on each block provided enough diversion and challenge to keep me engaged and interested. You’re never quite sure how each image– produced from so many blocks and with so many hours of cutting– will turn out until they’re finally pulled off the press, and that in itself introduces enough healthy uncertainty to keep your attention.

On each of the left-handed pages of the book, there is a little lizard (called an eft in the book) that also appears in most of the right-handed pages of the book. Why didn’t you include him on every page? Was he always meant to be so prominently featured?

The wandering red eft that appears on the verso page with the poetry was my visual indulgence, which Joyce, Ann, and Cara (the designer at HMH) all generously let me develop. I thought he could provide a connection between all the poems (each in a different poetic form and about a different inhabitant of the night woods, including a ballad about the eft itself), and act as a guide who would lead the reader to the next page throughout the course of the night.

The eft doesn’t appear in all of the main illustrations because a few of the images required an up-looking perspective that would keep us from seeing it on the forest floor. For example the prints for the Night Spider and the Primrose Moth each look up toward the night sky and the moon’s progress across it, which in itself seemed like a good idea to keep the reader from getting a stiff neck by having to look down at the ground the whole time. Sometimes the absence of an expected element is good for pacing and to keep one’s interest going in the face of repetition.

The very front and very back prints are noticeably the same print, just with different coloration. Was that the only time you could reuse the same block, and if not, where else can we find identical prints in the book? Did you base the introductory and closing pictures on a real life location?

They were the only blocks I did reuse, but even then they required some substantial recutting and additional blocks to make the transition from Dusk to Dawn.

I tried to suggest a place that wasn’t geographically specific so that a child could imagine it might be their home town or someplace near to it, with a window to a room they might imagine was theirs.

Are you planning on doing any other books in the future?

There’s nothing on hand right now, but I know that Ann is keeping her eye out for another project. She has a pretty unerring eye when it comes to putting artists and authors together, so if she finds something that she thinks will work for us, I’m sure we’ll agree.

Thank you Rick for answering my questions and taking the time to explain the printing process. I certainly hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen some of your prints in print.