This week for the 'The Inkkplate' newsletter I interviewed Illinois artist Alex Carmona. A woodcut printmaker & engraver. The interview has been condensed and edited for understanding. Interview date: May 6th, 2022.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me Alex, the readers of 'The Inkplate' will be thrilled to read this interview. Let's get started with something simple. What techniques and mediums do you work in?
When it comes to printmaking, I only really work in wood engravings and woodcuts. I used to do linoleum cuts, that how I kinda got started, but I don’t do them anymore. Apart from that I love drawing my whole life. I grew up drawing since I could remember really. I love illustrating, and I also really like painting, hand lettering, gold leaf. I am into all different types of crap, you know! Gold leaf. Woodwork. I have a lot of different hobbies that I try to do here and there you know, but obviously printmaking is my number one.
I think that’s smart, because all that bleeds into each other and I can see that in your work. The way you incorporate these elements and how they complement each other. How long have you been printmaking?
Let’s see, I am 34 and started when I was 19. I learned it in college, and I have been doing it ever since. I took like an intro to printmaking class, where we did collagraphs and I hated that! I could not get that, it was too artsy for me, it kinda reminds me of collages you know. Didn’t like that, but when we started doing linoleum and woodcuts. I was like oh man I can get on board with this. So, after I learned [linocut/woodcut] that’s all I basically did from there on now.
For me monotypes have the same effect. Even though I started as a painter and then switched to printmaking, it doesn’t connect with me. If I wanted to paint, I would get a canvas and paint.
Yes, and all those other forms of printmaking etchings, lithographs, I like looking at them, but as of now I don’t have any interest in doing anything else besides woodcuts and wood engravings. Mainly because I am still trying to find and accomplish a different bunch of things when it comes to that medium. For right now I am not sure, when, or if I’ll venture in another form of printmaking to be honest with you.
You were one of the artists of high calibers readers of 'The Inkplate' requesting to see here. As a master printmaker what would you tell a beginner who is looking at the work you are producing and asking themselves: how and when will I ever get there? Where would you recommend, they start?
Thank you, I really appreciate that compliment. I think it all has to be a progression. I feel that any hobby or endeavor I have ever done you have to learn the basic first, and then build, and build on top. When I first started printmaking, it was with linoleum cuts because they are so much easier to carve. Easier to get the basic idea of what it is that you are doing. Now the level that I am now, I knew I had to switch to wood to get the detail I wanted.
The first time that I did a wood engraving I was like holy shit you can get razor thin lines on this thing!
I have always been so detail oriented my whole life. My art goal when I was young was to be able to draw photorealistic. Right about the time when I started accomplishing that, is around the time when I started learning printmaking.
So, I would tell any printmaker to start at the basics, learn how to use your tools very well. Then start to transition to woodcuts if you are doing relief prints, because I feel a lot of people get caught up on linoleum and just stick with it because they don’t want to learn the nuances when it comes to wood. I don’t want to blame them because there is a lot to learn, but I am also a proponent of the thought that you should always be a student and should always try to learn and get better every single day.
Once you start getting into woodcuts you have to learn how to sharpen your tools a whole lot better. Once you get those things down, the biggest thing that any relief printmaker needs to learn is tonal values. Whether you are doing expressive woodcuts or things that are nonrepresentational.
Tonal value in all art, is the most important thing, if you consider what we do.
There are only a few different ways that we can create tonal value, lines, dots, hashmarks. Just like in scratch board you don’t have a lot of options; you can’t shade it with pencil. Learn how tonal value works and learn how to create several different types in your piece. Honestly, you don’t really need a lot. If you have three different tonal values, you can give them depth and dimension.
I often get asked this question, how can I start getting the detail, or different values on my print and just getting a grasp of that. I see a lot of peoples work and it might be detail, it might be cool, but when you look at it from far away is all gray. You can’t tell what is going on, and in any kind of art you don’t want that. You want to be able to tell what is going on from afar and when you are close to it. Tonal value!
You are a full-time artist, what is that life like? And what would you tell someone who is on fence about making that leap?
So, I have three kids. I’m very, very honest with them. My oldest wants to be an artist like me, she is really good, she is learning a lot of stuff which is great. I told her I know you want to be an artist BUT remember it’s not going to be easy ever, and if you are not cut out for it, I am going to tell you should look into something else.
I told my wife this, a while back, being a full-time artist sound cool but it is not easy at all. It is a constant grind, there are ups and down and you have to learn how to maneuver, how to figure out what works what doesn’t. Ultimately, you have to have the mindset to continue moving forward whether it feels good or not. You have to be a problem solver all the time, it’s like being any sort of entrepreneur you are going to have failures, but you have to use them as learning opportunities and improve your approach. Whether that is marketing, trying to find new clients, if something is not working you have to be able to adjust.
You need to have the type of personality that is thicked skin.
I also feel that it is a lot better if you are good at speaking to people. You want people to see you, to like you and the end goal is for them to seek you out. At the beginning you have to do whatever you can to get your name out there and go look for all these people. Luckily, I am in a position now where I have a following and people ask me to do stuff, and I am at a point where I can say no to almost everything unless it’s exactly what I want to do.
I think like everything else; it has to be a progression. Because if you can’t fill all the other boxes: managing a business, being discipline enough to get up and work every day. A major thing about artists that I have learned is that a lot of artist relay on inspiration. They may say I don’t feel inspired today, I don’t feel like painting. Unfortunately, as poetics as that sounds, just doesn’t work if you are owning and running a business or anything to make money.
You have to rely on discipline, other than inspiration or anyone else. You have to get up and have to put in a full day. I carve 10 hours a day, 5 days a week at a minimum, when I started it was even more than that. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes, to succeed, you don’t ultimately fail unless you quit. You have to have that mentality, one foot in front of the other, this didn’t work let me adjust.
You are a great draftsman; your work is incredibly detailed, and you spend countless hours carving. What is the process of creating look for you? Do you work from references, or you work only with sketches?
I would say I use photo references most of the time. I have a lot of friends who transfer pictures directly to their woodblocks. They will basically print into their wood block and carve from there. For my process, I am like a computer idiot. I don’t know anything about Illustrator or anything like that. But I know very basic things now, so before I knew how to use it, I would sketch my idea out and have references of the piece I was using, and I would draw directly onto the woodblock.
What I do now, because I am trying to cut down on time and how long it all takes me. I’ll compose my thoughts, write them all down, once I have a better idea of what it looks like in my head, I will put it on the computer and move things around, see if they work, make a bunch of different thumbnails. From there I’ll have my photo references all put together. I’ll put the basic things I need, say a female figure or a car. Then I take that and hand draw it to my woodblock and add all the different elements that I really didn’t need to throw in on the computer.
So, starting a piece for me is always on my head, then onto paper as notes, then I will draft something on the computer, followed by hand drafting on my woodblock, and after that going back to tonal values. I will separate tonal values, typically I used 4-5 in a piece, but how I do them they look like more. They often transition into each other. I will basically separate them as a paint-by-number, so that it makes my line work easier to think out as I’m carving it because some parts need to be lighter. It’s a roadmap to finishing a piece. That’s basically it, after the carving comes the easy part!
What is your favorite tool?
My favorite tool that I use the majority of the time is this tiny little, No. 11 C gouge. It is super small, tiny. That is the tool I use probably 95% of the time, that, and my knife. I am not sure if a lot of printmakers use their knife, but I use my knife all the time. Do you use your knife often?
I have like the little cutters, excato-knife. Do you have like a knife, knife? (I did not expect to be asked a question)
I have several different knifes, and like your basic [show on camera a printmaking knife]. I probably have ten knifes. I don’t even know why. I am a weirdo. I love tools, I have a ton of tools, but I only use three or four of them. Then there are some I use here and there, for weird areas, but the C gouge for sure and the knife are my favorite tools.
What do you do when you hit a creative block? How do you get out of that space?
You know, going back to what we talked about. I am not gonna say I don’t get creative blocks, because I suppose that I do. But I don’t like to think about it that way, I like to think through things. One foot in front of the other, I make myself continue to solve problems. One of the things I have stopped doing, because I hate it, is making logos for people. I feel that is one of the most challenging things to do. First off, people don’t know what they want it to look like, they just want it to look cool. Logos are very vast in how simple or detail they can be, so I feel I hit creative block when I do stuff like that.
When it comes to my actual artwork, that I want to make, I have a thousand ideas.
I was talking about this with my friend Rick a couple of day ago, laying in bed and these ideas keep me up at night. It is super annoying, to the point I think it’s a problem. I will be talking to someone, my wife, or whoever, and they will be telling me a story, and I am just thinking about an idea on my head. Halfway pay attention to them, but I am mostly trying to figure out this idea I am trying to work out on my head. So, is since I have all these ideas, I write them down, regardless of if they are good or bad. As an artist you have to have an arsenal of thing you can fall back on, what’s next?
The thing that I hate the most is the in between projects, when I have to do a new thing, so rather than spend all this time between projects trying to figure out what I am doing. I am trying to figure that out in the middle of my current project, so I am always thinking of what is next. Behind the scenes planning my next woodblock, the size, the colors, while I work on my current piece. Because my current piece is always already figured out, I have notes, I know what I am doing. That way I am already ready, for whatever the heck is next. I hate not having something to do and not being productive, it affects me mentally if am not producing something. Like I would pay for it!
Thank you so much for your time and your knowledge Alex, where can people find you?