Capturing the beauty and individuality of animals in woodblock prints.

As a pet owner and birder, I observe distinct personalities in my avian subjects.  It is because they are such complex creatures that I choose to anthropomorphize them.  The color and patterning of their plumage combined with their transient way of life inspires me to illustrate their forms in both figurative and abstract compositions. – Lyell Castonguay

Castonguay’s woodblock prints span a range of aesthetic influences from Audubon to Baskin. The artist contextualizes the natural world through the filter of his imagination, creating portraits of animals that embody tension, conflict, restlessness, and uncertainty. Their bold personalities refuse to fade into the background. Instead, they command attention and ask the viewer to consider a future where consumption and displacement push more creatures to extinction.

Castonguay teaches woodblock printmaking at nationally recognized studios and art centers. He is also the director of BIG INK, a collaborative project that facilitates the production of large-scale woodblock prints carved by artists residing throughout the USA. Castonguay received his BFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2010 and resides in Newmarket, NH.  Castonguay’s work is represented by Mitchell • Giddings in Brattleboro, VT and Brumfield Gallery in Astoria, OR.


The following interview was conducted by Emily Liu of The University of Queensland.

Emily Liu: Please tell us a little about yourself and what prompted you to be an artist?

Lyell Castonguay:  I am originally from a small town in central Maine. When I was young, I had never met a professional artist or been to an art museum.  I became inspired to draw by seeing my older brother’s artwork. He had a natural talent. Comic strips and superheroes were his favorite topics. Around the age of 8 I began drawing myself and have never looked back!

EL: Can you recall your first experience with the medium?

LC: In my third year of college I took a printmaking course which included an introduction to woodcut. At the time, I was struggling to find a particular medium that I enjoyed. I had taken painting classes but often felt lost.  Woodblock printing felt right because printmaking has structure. By following a series of steps you arrive at a finished print. I always liked structure because I am an analytical type of person.

EL: Who has been the most inspirational person during your career?

LC: My teachers have inspired me with their kindness and solid work ethic through the years. Some examples include my high school teacher English teacher Mrs. Hatfield who solicited my school for funds to attend The Center For Cartoon Studies free of charge or my college printmaking professor Bill Cass who often spent months perfecting a single etching or lithograph.

EL: Can you please describe your day?

LC: I’m self employed and I maintain a consistent 9 – 5 work schedule throughout the week between making my own art, teaching, and facilitating BIG INK events.

EL: How do you get your creative juices flowing?

LC: Everything is a result of continuous drawing. When I’m stuck I silence the critical voice in my head and draw. If I amass a pile of bad artwork I just keep working. Memorable art always stands on the shoulders of bad. It is always worth making mistakes when a great composition comes along.

EL: Where do you draw your inspiration from?

LC: I draw inspiration from a combination of nature, books about birds, and my own imagination. Sometimes I create art related to historical prints. For example, I have borrowed elements of J.J. Audubon’s compositions. My print Exodus is a play on his iconic American Flamingo image.

EL: If you had the opportunity to work with any artist/designer/company or public figure who would it be and why?

LC: Definitely Leonard Baskin and Antonio Frasconi. They knew how to achieve dramatic woodcut designs. These two great artists also helped to usher in a late 20th century book arts renaissance.

EL: Your collaborative woodcut project, BIG INK is quite an innovative concept. Why is it so important to make the woodblock printing practice so accessible?

LC: When I started teaching, I realized there was huge potential in large woodblock printing. In my opinion too few artists practice carving large woodblocks. I think it is partly due to logistics. Individuals often express interest in creating a large woodblock but access to proper equipment, lack of knowledge and manpower prevents them from following through. I provide all the necessary materials and schedule events at the best print studios, museums, galleries, and art centers. BIG INK is my way of organizing individuals who are passionate about the medium.

EL: I’m terrified of birds so I am interested to know why the image of birds has piqued your interest.

LC: I have three birds myself and being so close you see how they behave and interact.  It is hard not to be inspired.  Birds are iconic. As long as there are two eyes and a beak the audience immediately comprehends the imagery. This allows me to exaggerate a bird’s natural characteristics. They can become fat or skinny or stretched out. I continue to push the limitations of this subject matter.

EL: What do you enjoy most about your job?

LC: The work itself has its own rewards. I am a people person. Making connections is the key to success. That goes likewise if you are speaking to the general public or a gallery owner. You have to be willing to introduce yourself to everyone. Art is a great way to meet people.

EL: What has been a memorable response by a viewer/artist to your artwork?

LC: Viewers often “find” all these bird silhouettes in the abstract textures of my work.  They start making conjectures about the meaning of the piece and develop a personal narrative. I couldn’t ask for a better response.

EL: If you could have any other career in the world, what would it be and why?

LC: I wouldn’t want any other job!

Envision a stamp with tiny details and intricacies.  Imagine hand carving your own stamp, out of wood, investing countless hours to craft it.  That is essentially a woodcut and this is how I make them…

I start a project by making painterly washes with diluted acrylic onto plywood, establishing general shapes in the composition. I use wet and dry brush techniques, capturing the essence of the subject. The immediacy of painting will be balanced later with hours of tedious carving.
Layer upon layer of gray acrylic wash is applied to the plywood. Naturally, the image get a little chaotic but I outline the washes with permanent marker and charcoal pencils to define shapes and patterns.
Stippling and highlights are added with white chalk. When the composition is resolved and I am satisfied with the drawing, I start to carve.
Carving is the most laborious part of the process. When I am working large scale it can take months to complete a single image. The artist’s hand is a finely tuned instrument. With patience and practice tiny details can be achieved.
Once carving is complete we are almost ready to print! Oil based ink is mixed and a thin coat of ink is rolled onto a highly specialized rubber roller. Think of it as a rolling pin on steroids. The rubber roller distributes ink across the surface of the carved image.
Inking Woodcut
Ink sticks to all the un-carved areas of the plywood. The carved areas don’t catch the ink and therefore remain white on the printed paper in the final step.
Fine paper is placed on top of the inked surface and the woodblock is run through an etching press. This baby applies light even pressure pushing the paper into the sticky inked woodcut surface.
Pulling Woodcut
The paper is then peeled away from the woodcarving resulting in a finished print. You don’t necessarily need an expensive press to print a woodcut. You can apply pressure with a wooden spoon. There are no hard and fast rules about making a woodcut. Every artist’s approach is a little different but that is what makes it so gratifying. Once you discover your favorite methods you can share them with others.