Tom Killion

Point Reyes CA, Printmaker // October 2012
The sketching process is so personal and I think people respond to my work because there’s an intimacy to it— I’m there on site, surrounded by the landscape, soaking in all the details, and not relying on a photograph.

If you’ve lived in the Bay Area long enough, chances are you’ve come across a Tom Killion print. Since 1975, when Tom produced his first illustrated book, he’s steadily been making multi-color landscape prints; carving his images into linden, plywood, linoleum and other block materials using Japanese handtools. Born and raised in Mill Valley, Tom has long drawn his inspiration from the distinctive scenery of Northern California. His outdoor excursions where he makes on-site sketches are central to his work; spending hours amidst the backdrop of mountains, coastlines, and forests lends him a nuanced understanding and appreciation for the colors and textures of his prints. Though Tom relies on his notes and sketches, he also allows his imagination and memory to break with reality a bit– colors are often hyper-saturated and perspective slightly torqued.

On his Point Reyes property, just a few steps away from the home he shares with his family, Tom’s studio is organized for efficiency. He’s got everything tweaked just so— when working the press he wants all necessary tools to be within arm’s reach. Tom’s meticulous methods are influenced by both Japanese woodcut techniques and European wood-engraving; his process begins with reversing an image onto an initial or key block, which is usually the most detailed of the multiple blocks needed to make a print. 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. Though multiple colors can be rolled simultaneously onto the same block, usually each color is individually printed on handmade Japanese paper with a hand-cranked press he has owned for 35 years. Several shades of ink are layered atop one another—from lightest to darkest—to create the rich hues of his Big Sur canyons or ombre effect of a dusky Mt. Tam sky.

During our visit Tom mentioned that though he’s been making prints for close to 40 years his technique is constantly evolving. These small discoveries and innovations are often incremental, but they continue to keep his process progressive. I think the desire to continue pushing one’s method is a crucial component in any creative process— without it work can easily become too settled, too definite, and therefore somewhat spiritless. So, it was nice to hear that even after almost 40 years in the game, Tom hasn’t quit fine-tuning.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work
Japanese-style woodcut prints are what I make. I carve my images into cherry, all-shina plywood, Amsterdam linoleum and other block materials using Japanese handtools. My multi-colored images are printed on handmade Japanese kozo paper using oil-based inks and a German hand-cranked proofing press that I’ve had since 1977. I love the process of Japanese printmaking, but I never studied it in Japan. I just spent a lot of time looking at old Japanese prints, mostly landscapes. Almost all my work involves landscapes, which all begin with sketches I’ve done on site. My focus is primarily the Northern California area, but I do have many sketches and prints from further afield.

Your process is involved and begins with on-site sketches, can you briefly summarize the steps in creating your multi-colored prints?
It’s important to me that I start with sketches that I’ve made on site. I also take notes and utilize my memory and impressions. I give myself permission to not completely stick to “reality”— especially with colors. The sketching process is so personal and I think people respond to my work because there’s an intimacy to it— I’m there on site, surrounded by the landscape, soaking in all the details, and not relying on a photograph.

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. 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. This process is repeated with each color block, allowing a day or two between each print run for the preceding color to dry.

In the past you have collaborated with others to create handprinted book illustrations; notably, you worked with poets William Everson and Gary Snyder— how have these projects come about?
I always have loved the interface between poetry and visual art (indeed, one Chinese word for visual art is “wordless poetry” or “silent poetry”— which was the title of my retrospective exhibit recently up at USF’s Thacher Gallery). Those large-format Sierra Club books of the 1960s were an inspiration as were the Japanese “poetic diaries” combined with woodcut prints of the ukiyo-e era — so I started out doing hand-printed books of my own poetry and prints, but soon was able (through showing my earlier works to them and working with them on other projects) to get my favorite poets to collaborate on projects that I, or my printer peers, dreamed up.

How would you characterize the interplay between your work and poetry— specifically what does language bring to your work, and vice versa?
Many aspects of landscape, and certainly the human emotions elicited in response to it, are hard to put into visual communications, so we need the intangible world of ideas and emotions supplied through words to fill in the complete “picture” of a landscape. I see the written word as supplying another dimension so the viewer/reader can immerse herself totally into a sense of place. Also, from a design standpoint for books, the type “fills in the white spaces”— but don’t tell the poets and writers this!

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
To do the printmaking I need a fair amount of space for my press, several worktables and storage room for supplies, especially paper and woodblocks. Also, as I have gotten more into providing finished art for my public, I do a lot of custom framing so the presentation of my work is up to my own standards. So, I NEED a space big enough for this, too. I used to have a one-car garage— really, it was an old carriage house built on dirt and slowly sinking back into it; it was a block form the beach in Capitola and I called it “the rat-hole.” But now I have a two-car garage built from my own design in Inverness Park— it’s got lots of natural light, cross ventilation, storage and a press set-up that enables me to print without walking more than two steps in any direction.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
The newest print I am making is called “Isosceles Peak from Dusty Basin” made from sketches I did in The Palisades, on the Western side of the Sierras.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I am ALWAYS inspired by the beauty of the natural world. Currently I am finishing up a new book on the Coast of California that will be published by Heyday in Berkeley, which will include poetry from many wonderful California poets of the past and some who are still with us. I am also starting a whole series of “treescapes” where the landscapes are dominated by trees as the primary visual element (but still in the context of a total landscape environment).

What shifts have occurred in your work? Have there been any distinct experiences that have steered your work in new or significant directions?
Actually I have slowly evolved my ability to do elaborate Japanesque landscape prints over many years— my earlier work was cruder and more “decorative”, first one-color, then with just a few color plates. Now my color prints are quite elaborate, running to 10 or 15, and sometimes more colors with many reduction cuts and other little innovations. So my technique is constantly evolving, but incrementally, always along the same path.

How have you navigated the art world? Has your relationship with it changed over the years?
It has been a long, slow process of evolution to reach the point where I can now make a living at it. Fine book printing once dominated my relationship with the marketplace, now it is multi-colored prints sold through a few small craft-galleries that I have been involved with for many years, along with outdoor art shows, bigger shows in public spaces/galleries and (increasingly) my websiteon the Internet. But my biggest and best shows are right here at my bi-annual Open Studio events every Thanksgiving and Memorial Day Weekend (see my Point Reyes Open Studios group).

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I’m done with that! But I did used to teach in the Humanities Department at San Francisco State University. Before that, for many years, I taught African History and worked in Africa, back East and elsewhere.

What do you think is the function of art in society? Do art or artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular?
I can only speak about visual artists. There are myriad art forms and all artists do different things, it is way too big to be a “category” of any kind and clearly artists have many different “societies” they function in and are responsible to.

Do you have a motto or a guiding principle?
Honesty and integrity: to the natural world, to the landscape, to my patrons who are mostly outdoors-lovers and environmentalists and lovers of beat poetry.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I recently had a show at USF’s Thacher Gallery, which only just ended on October 9th.
I currently have a show called “The High Sierra: Two Views” at Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite that will be up until November 17th.
Also, my Open Studio on Thanksgiving Weekend in Point Reyes, for directions and info go here.

To see more of Tom’s work: has a complete catalogue of prints and current shows and galleries where his work is represented, along with a bio, technique and of course info on how to buy prints direct from Tom.

He is also represented in some small California craft galleries as well: Storey Framing in Berkeley; Low Tide Club in Sausalito; The Great Acorn Co. in San Anselmo; and Viewpoints in Pt. Reyes Station. Also, Freehand in Los Angeles carries Tom’s prints, and Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz.