Why a Book is Not a Painting
Originally published as Bee, Susan. "Why a Book is Not a Painting." The Journal of Artists’ Books, (Spring 1995): 14-15. Viewable online.
For thousands of years... we have told ourselves tales and stories, and these were always analogies and metaphors, parables, and allegories, they were elusive and equivocal: they hinted and alluded, they shad-owed forth in a glass darkly. - Doris Lessing
I made my first artist's book in 1978. Photogram was self-published and consisted of 6 full-page black and white offset reproductions of abstract photograms. From that humble beginning to 1995, when Granary Books published Talespin, I have been involved in a number of other artist's book projects, but mainly I've been painting paintings not making books. (That is, aside from working at numerous commercial design and editing jobs, raising two children and a husband, and editing, designing, and publishing M/ E/ A/ N/ I/ N/ G).
Painting is a very different kettle of fish from a book. First of all, my paintings are one of a kind. They involve single-minded concentration, and focused work, on the surface and image of the canvas, with the gradual emergence over time of the final form of the painting. While the process is labor and time intensive, it was little preparation for the arduous exercise of hand coloring the edition of 40 books for Steve Clay's Granary Books.
In working on Talespin, the first question was the form of the book. I decided that I didn't want to do a collaborative work with a poet (which had done several times in the past); I wanted to do my own book. During 1993- 94 I had been doing a series of mixed media works on paper that incorporated 19th century engravings. These were published as a little color Xerox book called Liquid Perceptions. For Granary, however, I wanted to do something different and more elaborate. I started out by making a series of 22 spreads in black and white suggesting different narrative scenes. These collages used images from 19th century ladies' magazines, 19th and early 20th century children's books, clip art, and other sources. The collaged elements were combined with ink and wash drawings and paintings on heavyweight watercolor paper. As I worked on each image, another one would occur to me, each image leading spontaneously to the next. There was no preplanning. Within the format given by the size of the page and with the stipulation of black and white—all else fell into place. After I finished the lengthy process of creating the 22 original drawings, I then worked out an order for the images that created a fragmented, evocative, poetic narrative.
I was inspired by the melodramas and mysteries, with their wonderfully detailed engravings, published by the popular monthly magazines of the 1880's. I'm also fascinated with the plaintive and nostalgia-laden innocence put forward by illustrators of books for children. These images of childhood contrasted in my collages with the unexpected dangers and pitfalls of adulthood. The theme that emerged from this stream of associations was a Blakean loss of innocence and gaining of experience with a healthy dose of feminism and postmodern irony thrown in. This is embodied early in the book in the image of a hand with a gun shooting a rocking horse, while a child and his mother play with blocks. Behind them is a window framing the city skyline and beyond them the moon shines, [see page 1 9] The subthemes of the book are violence, desire, romance, procreation, sex, birth, death—expressionism leavened with groins of humor and fantasy. As I proceeded with the collages, I started to view the book as a bildungsroman—a spiritual, educational journey for the characters with new twists and turns on every page.
Woven throughout the book are collaged excerpts of verses from turn of the century and early 20th century children's books, instructions from drawing manuals for artists, poems by Christina Rosseti and Robert Louis Stevenson, and captions from children's activity books. These excerpts, though not present on each page, form the written text of the book. I was interested in the lyrical, rhyming, punning, Utopian innocence of the verses for children. The underside of this is the didactic, moralizing, threatening aspect of both the verses for children and the parallel universe of the drawing manual instructions for budding artists. Both come complete with their hierarchy of do's and don't's and their implied punishments for stepping out of line.
This set of images was titled Talespin and so a title page, a cover image, and a colophon page were also created. We then decided, after much head scratching, to print these images offset on Rives BFK paper so they could be hand-colored with watercolor and gouache. This was in keeping with other books that Granary had published but it was a new approach for me. In the past my books had all been offset, Xerox, or letterpress with no additional handwork from me. I had not been used to doing much work with watercolor—I've been working mostly with oil paints.
After the pages were printed, they arrived—or were dragged in many boxes and packages from SoHo Services on Greene Street in New York City to my studio a few blocks south in Tribeca. The images had altered considerably during the printing process. They were shrunken down to fit the paper size, the bumps of the collage, of course, had flattened out, and the overall effect was somewhat grayer than the original drawings. I then started to color the first few offset pages to create a prototype artist's proof. After many failed attempts to get anything resembling the colored dummy copy I had made with a Xerox of the original pages, I found myself at Pearl Paint buying new sorts of watercolors and trying out different types of paint. The offset inked paper absorbed the watercolor in novel ways and I hod to become a kind of mad scientist to counteract these weird tendencies. After a lot of trial and error I came up with a set of proofs that pleased me fairly well. Since that point I have been engaged in making the first 20 copies of the edition. Because my hand coloring is so elaborate this has proved to be a time consuming and exacting task. I've never painted the same image over and over again in assembly line fashion. But this has proved to be the best way to proceed. So with the radio blasting away for company—I've been working my way through this labor intensive and decisively non-automated, non-technologically advanced project. I am attempting to make each page the same (though this goes against my anarchistic impulses) and I've been trying not to be too freewheeling with the paint. All in all this has been a very educational experience and it's been quite a different way to spend the winter months. I've now got the first copy in hand. It has been beautifully bound by Daniel E. Kelm of the Wide Awake Garage in such a way that all the spreads can open out and lay flat. And someday I hope to finish the edition and get back to painting again.