Killion's Technique

Tom Killion describes his technique, tongue-in-cheek, as "faux ukiyo-ë" to emphasize his aesthetic debt to the landscape prints of early 19th century Japan, but also to acknowledge his embrace of early 20th century European / American wood-engraving and book illustration techniques and styles as well. Among his influences are the Japanese ukiyo-ë landscape masters Hokusai and Hiroshige, but also European and American wood-engravers such as Eric Gill and Rockwell Kent. Killion carves his images into all-shina plywood, Amsterdam linoleum, cherry and other block materials using Japanese handtools. He prints his often elaborate, multi-colored images on custom-made traditional Japanese  papers using oil-based inks and a German hand-cranked proofing press.

Visit In The Make to take virtual tour of Killion's Pt. Reyes studio.

See PBS Documentary Craft in America: Process for an inside view of Killion's printmaking process in his Studio and out sketching on Bolinas Ridge.

The complex process of transforming Killion's on-site sketches (he doesn't work from photos) into multi-color prints involves a combination of traditional Japanese techniques with some modern innovations necessitated by the use of a printing press and oil-based inks. Briefly, the image is first reversed onto an initial or key block, which is usually the darkest and most detailed of the multiple blocks needed to make a print. The key block contains the outlines and visual information necessary to make all the succeeding blocks print their colors in register on the final print, so it is carved first and its image is then transferred to several more color blocks, which are then carved. Sometimes a different block is created for each color, and other times the process is accelerated by the use of reduction cuts, in which a color block is printed in a light color, then carved away some more, and printed again, with the second color overprinting the first. Combinations of split fountain inking (in which several colors are rolled simultaneously onto the same block, as witnessed in sky color gradations) and overlays of semi-transparent colors add to the multiple colors that can be produced by just a few blocks.

The actual printing of the multi-block image begins with the making of a set of proof sheets from the key block, which are then used to insure perfect registration of each succeeding color block. Beginning with the lightest color, the first color block is set in the press and adjusted in relation to the proof sheets. When the color block is perfectly aligned with the key block image, the handmade edition paper is then used, and a number of sheets are pulled equal to the edition number of the print (usually around 150-175, plus some overs to cover mistakes and for color experimentation, which, if unspoiled, are then numbered as "artist's proofs"). This process is repeated with each color block, allowing a day or two between each print run for the preceding color to dry. The last block printed is the key block, after which the artist organizes the edition according to his preference for the finished prints, with the lowest numbers going to his favorites. (Each print is unique in the multi-color editions, because Killion frequently experiments with hand wiping, inking and color values throughout the run.) Color blocks involving reduction cuts are destroyed in the process; other prints have the color blocks cancelled at the end of the edition, but key blocks are saved for possible second editions with changed and recut color blocks.