Northern California is home to some of the world’s most gorgeous landscapes. From the Sierra to the Ocean, to mountains that touch the Pacific, the ethereal beauty is a work of art itself. For over 40 years, Tom Killion has delicately archived the environmental majesty of California within the traditional process of Japanese-Style woodblock printmaking, creating stunning, colorful works through a handmade, ancient operation. We visited Tom at his Point Reyes studio to experience the comfort of a beginner’s state of mind. —Alex Nicholson
Kristin Farr: Are there environmental concerns behind your work? Is there a reason why you focus on nature?
Tom Killion: I've always had some sort of an interest in drawing nature. As a little kid, I was drawing trees and flowers. I have a really nice drawing of a Ponderosa Pine, and on the back my mother wrote: "Age 8." Kids can be really good artists, but it's kind of a lost art. Most artists these days are not actually very good drawers. I hate to say it, and I might offend some people, but they don't have the training to draw from life.
It’s true. I didn’t have to learn how to draw to get a fine art degree.
Art today is not about drawing, but drawing used to be part of a complete education. In the upper classes in Europe, the men would get these educations so they could go off and be in colonial service or the military. And one thing they learned was how to draw. Anybody that has some hand-eye coordination can be taught how to do it.
Is there a layer of activism in your work?
There was when I was younger. I consciously went around when I was a teenager, drawing all these places that I loved because development in the suburban areas of the Bay Area was going crazy in the 1960s. All of the places I loved were disappearing under concrete and housing tracts. And of course I draw and make woodcuts of places that I would like to see stay that way. But that's pretty conservative when it comes to environmental activism, the idea of just keeping things the same. The big environmental issues go way beyond that.
When a contemporary artist works in a traditional form like landscape representation, the tendency is to look for today’s message.
There's a part of me that's conservative because it's a conservative art form. What I do is something that's a traditional Japanese art form. It had its organization and a way of doing things. I've played with it and tweaked it for the modern world, but I think if you want to master something, it's good to have sets of restrictions in disciplines that impose some sort of limit on you. And then you can, within those boundaries, impose them yourself. I decided that I was going to do things like Katsushika Hokusai. I was going to do them from drawings because there were no cameras during his time. I was going to use carving tools and old-style materials as much as possible. And within that little, tiny world, I got really good at it. It wasn't that I wanted to master something, but I did want to do things that looked like Japanese prints. And to really do it, you have to put in your time.
The ceramicist and professor Viola Frey said all artists are beginners for the first ten years out of school.
Right. Like the Zen people say, you know, you're always a beginner.
What was it about Japanese printmaking that grabbed you?
I liked Hokusai's views of Mt. Fuji that I saw in a book when I was probably ten. All my interest in art comes from childhood. It predates any schooling; the last art class I took was in high school. I learned how to print on a printing press and how to print fine books, but that was always extracurricular while at UC Santa Cruz.
What is your relationship to color? That seems to be the most stylized part of your prints.
I came to color late. I started doing single-color prints and got really good at achieving what I wanted with just black and white, negative and positive, and lots of little line detail, which is not much like Japanese prints because the classic prints we think of are very color-based. So my first book on Mount Tamalpais was supposed to be like Hokusai's 36 views of Mount Fuji. It was 28 views of Mt. Tam. But it was just blue ink on white paper. It took me years to figure out how to do the Japanese key-block technique, and along the way, I got fast and good at carving, which you have to be if you want to do it all yourself.
I wanted to be a one-man artist, like so much in the Western tradition, the individual and all. The group effort is not really typical here, but traditional Japanese prints were made by a group of artisans. There were block-carvers and printers. The "artist" was the designer of the image, you know. It was not the artists but the publishers who oversaw the entire process, especially in Hokusai's time. They would produce reproductions of a brush painting by the artist. Since I got into it as printmaking for itself, I went off in a slightly different direction. To do it all yourself, you have to be fast at the carving because it takes a long time. That's still where I spend most of my time.
What are the main steps of your process?
I start out by sketching from nature. A sketch is critical because it has all the lines for a landscape. I then reverse that sketch, using tracing paper, onto my first block, which is the key block, an old Japanese technique that has outlines of everything that's going to be in the picture. I print that onto some kind of paper or acetate and onto all the other blocks I’m going to need. I decide in advance how many colors I’m going to want and always make an extra block for prints that I know are going to be elaborate. I then carve one block for each basic color. I'll have six or seven for a pretty elaborate print, which is pretty common for a print that will eventually become a fourteen-color print. Some of the blocks I can then cut up into pieces and print, one part in one color, one in another color. With other prints I do what are called reduction cuts, where I print the block in a light color, and then I carve it away some more and print the same block again, but with less printing surface and in a different color.
That's the joy of printmaking. It's always different, never what you expect. You have to lay down that first layer of color, and you're stuck with it. You have to go with it. And then build up over that. You've got to be in a good mood.
For more information about Tom Killion, visit tomkillion.com