Lack of Control Becoming An Opportunity
BY THE RUSSIAN ARK | MAR 6, 2021
1. THE PLAY OF LIGHT AND SHADOW
It's Friday night in Singapore, but midday in St. Petersburg. Launching a zoom meeting, the first thing we see is a ray of sunlight on Varvara Drobina's face. She is laughing and says that so much sun is a rare thing in St.Petersburg. Varvara is an artist. This year, she will graduate from the graphic arts department of the Saint-Petersburg Art Academy. She talks about her work with great passion and enthusiasm. “What distinguishes a graphic artist from a painter?” we ask. After all, artworks represented by our gallery have mostly been by painters and Varvara is the first graphic artist we showcase.
She pauses for a couple of seconds, smiling, and replies that the difference lies not so much in the technique, but rather in the mindset. "When you see artworks by painters and graphic artists, you’ll immediately discern who is who. Painters are more sensitive to colour, whereas graphic artists pay more attention to lines and rhythms."
Varvara Drobina at her printmaking workshop, Saint-Petersburg Art Academy, Russia. Photo: © Madina Murtazina for The Russian Ark Gallery
"<...> different pressure, different amounts of paint applied and voila! you end up with something new each time. This variability and lack of control is a huge advantage for an artist."
“Linocut printing technique offers so much opportunity! I love that each imprint comes out differently – different pressure, different amounts of paint applied and voila! You end up with something new each time. This variability and lack of control is a huge advantage for an artist. Even though I like playing with some formal design elements in my work, I make sure that the final artwork is convincing, that the perspective, light, shadows, and the relationships between warm and cool colours all make sense.”
As Varvara is saying this, the ray of St.Petersburg sunshine is still touching her face. This interview left a pleasant aftertaste and the absolute conviction that we had found another wonderful artist, whose works will become a proud addition to our gallery.
Varvara Drobina, Finding Your True Self
Artwork © Varvara Drobina
2. FINDING YOUR TRUE SELF
Varvara grew up as a passionate and curious teenager, studied foreign languages, excelled in physics and mathematics, and always thought of becoming a lawyer.
She sometimes doodled in her free time, like many, but never thought of becoming an artist. One day, her mother introduced Varvara to an artist friend, to get some professional feedback on her creations. The artist immediately saw Varvara’s creative potential and invited her to join his workshop. Little did she know that this invitation would change her life.
"When I first entered the workshop, I found myself in a completely different world, filled with different people and ideas. I started attending these art classes regularly. At some point, my art mentor and I half-jokingly discussed the possibility of studying in the world’s top art university - the Saint-Petersburg Art Academy. It was a sort of experiment. Nonetheless, one day I pulled all my courage together and called the dean, bluntly asking for an appointment. I showed him my drawings, and he allowed me to attend classes with the second-year students as a volunteer."
"The next day, I told the principal at my high school that I would no longer attend classes, because in the mornings I was going to drawing and painting sessions at the Saint Petersburg Art Academy instead.
This abrupt change of my prospective major, from law to arts, came as a big surprise to everyone. Truth be told, I managed to pass the entrance exams to the Art Academy only on my second attempt. I believe it was for the better: students from my intake became my second family. This is how it all started. And I have never regretted not becoming a lawyer.”
3. PRINTMAKING TECHNIQUES
When you start studying printmaking, you enter the world of unusual terms, objects, and tools. Artists working in this domain can think graphically, translating three-dimensional concepts into black and white language with mere lines and strokes conveying form, light, and mood.
Varvara Drobina, Kitchen (left), Self-Portrait (right), linocut print. Artwork © Varvara Drobina
Linocut prints are made using a sheet of linoleum from which various elements of design are cut out with a sharp knife or a chisel. The paint is then applied to the protruding parts of the linoleum plate, which will subsequently be pressed onto the paper to create an imprint. Since the printed elements are located higher than the hollow (unprintable) ones, a linocut is also called “high printing” or “relief printing.”
Not every type of linoleum is suitable for this task. You need the one that is perfectly smooth and does not have a fabric lining. "The perfect linoleum for linocut is similar to the one they used to lay in the subway cars in the Soviet Union.” Varvara laughs, " Do you remember that blue linoleum with white dots?"
Linoleum has a pleasant softness and flexibility. It does not resist as much as wood or metal does. You can reuse your plate many times, while a lithographic stone or copper plates for etching wear out after a large print run.
Colours and textures
Once the design is cut out, it’s time to apply the pigment to the plate. The linoleum sheet is inked with a leather roller using typographic paints before being impressed onto paper. As a result, you get a linocut print with clear contours and flat colour masses.
Each new imprint is different from the previous one, depending on what paints and paper you use, how you apply the pigment, and how much pressure you employ when printing. All these processes are manual, so a certain degree of spontaneity is inevitable.
“Sometimes I add a monotype on top of the linocut print."—Varvara continues. In monotype, the artist manually applies paints to the printing plate's surface, creating unique textural qualities. The paint is applied unevenly, more thinly in one place, more thickly in the other, creating soft and complex colour transitions. You can create a monotype on a separate surface and impress it on top of an existing linocut print, or you can manually apply paints onto your chiselled linoleum plate, modelling volume as you go.
The monotype technique generally yields only one good impression from each prepared plate because the pigment that remains on the plate after the first imprint is usually insufficient to make another print unless the original design is reinforced.
"Instead of the usual typographic paints, you could also use oil paints, smearing and mixing them directly on the linoleum plate. In this case, you’ll need to dry the oil out of the paints so that only the pigment remains. You can also draw on your plate with acrylic paints if you can work quickly,” —adds Varvara, and her pace of speech accelerates to the point that we can barely keep up with her.
Varvara Drobina at her printmaking workshop, Saint-Petersburg Art Academy, Russia © 2021 Madina Murtazina for The Russian Ark
"You can take the white spirit and sprinkle it on the painted plate to create curious leaks and drips, like in my work Basis of Life."
“And that's not all. In linocut, you can create additional textures and effects using unique and unexpected objects and materials: sawdust, wire, talc, even dry detergent. The former is perfect for creating the effect of snow. You can take the white spirit and sprinkle it on the painted plate to create curious leaks and drips, like in my work Basis of Life. Or you can throw in a fishing net to create an additional pattern. All this comes with practice and a bit of luck.”
Varvara Drobina, Triptych 'Basis of Life', linocut print © Varvara Drobina
This is Part 1 of the exclusive interview held by The Russian Ark with the artist Varvara Drobina in February 2021.
All artwork by Varvara Drobina © Varvara Drobina
Photo © Madina Murtazina for The Russian Ark. All rights reserved