Dogster Interviews
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Rigel Stuhmiller's Letterpress Dog Portraits Pop Off the Page

The Bay Area printmaker shares the elaborate process behind her stunning custom dog pieces. And she's giving a set of her cards away to one reader!

 |  Jun 15th 2012  |   18 Contributions


Giveaway alert: The artist will be giving away a pack of her lovely dog cards to one Dogster reader. Find out how to enter at the bottom of this post.

Rigel Stuhmiller is a Bay Area printmaker and illustrator who loves dogs. Her best buddy and muse, a cattle dog mix named Fungus, has always been an inspiration. Her first dog portrait was of Fungus and was printed on an antique Chandler and Price letterpress. Since that first card, she has created more than 70 portraits for other happy dogs, including Fungus' friends Lucy the Rottweiler, Molly the Dalmatian, Max and Daisy the Beagles, and Bacon the Dachshund.

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The artist's own dog, Fungus, is her muse, and the subject of her first portrait. This is the card that resulted from the portrait.

Rigel creates custom stationery for dedicated dog owners. Working from a photo, she creates an illustration of your furry friend in her signature style. The image is then letterpressed onto thick luxurious paper to create beautiful, fun, and totally unique custom stationery. She also offers a line of noncustom cards featuring more than 30 popular dog breeds. (Check them out at her Etsy shop.) Her stationery line has been featured in Bark Magazine andTown & Country Magazine and on the Today Show and Daily Candy. 

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Rigel Stuhmiller and her dog, Fungus.

We saw her cards at a dog event recently, and were positively drooling. We wanted to know more about how she came to create such fun and beautiful portraits. So we sniffed her out and talked to her about her work, which of course, turns out to be her passion.

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All of Rigel's dog portraits begin with a photo provided by the owner.

Dogster: Of all the types of art, how did you end up in printmaking?

Rigel Stuhmiller: I was exposed to printmaking a little bit in high school: enough to know what a block was, what a print looked like, and how to do a basic carve and one-color print. I didn't think too much about it at the time. Art was always supposed to be a hobby, not a career choice. When I went to college I started out studying computer science, then transitioned to architecture. Printmaking was a way to have fun and blow off steam; I would carve posters for our dorm parties and make little stamps for myself. But I never thought I'd have a career as a printmaker.

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To create her hand-carved, hand-printed block print portraits, Rigel first creates a hand-drawn sketch based on the photo.  She transfers the sketch to a block of printmaking linoleum.

A few years out of college, it finally became clear that I wasn't going to be happy with my life unless I was making art. My interest in printmaking grew slowly as I taught myself more techniques, until after a while I found that I was doing a whole lot of it. I am still interested in exploring different types of art, but printmaking has become a big part of my identity.

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Using sharp knives, she carves away the areas of the block which will not be printed with ink.

How popular are your dog prints?

Everyone who loves their dog seems to love owning a little illustrated memento of their pet. Dog lovers can't seem to pass my cards at shows without stopping to look for their favorite dog. I have over 45 designs, so people can usually find what they're looking for. It's so fun to watch people scan all the designs, and then say, "There's Molly!" or "Hey, this looks just like Bacon!"

I love meeting everyone who comes by because a common dog-loving bond is instantly formed. Big beefy guys will pick up a Chihuahua card and smile; the most unlikely woman will get giddy over a pit bull card. People will talk to me and share their stories of the Lab they had as a kid, or the fun little quirks of their Yorkie.  It's so neat and makes my work very rewarding.

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She mixes the correct ink color and then uses a roller to apply ink onto the raised areas of the block.

Have you had many commissions for custom dog work?

Yes, my custom letterpressed dog cards are very popular, especially toward the holidays when people want to send custom dog cards with a letterpressed message as their family holiday card. This is popular with businesses, too -- many businesses have beloved shop dogs or cats. A holiday card with the shop pet gives a very personal and lighthearted touch that their customers can identify with, as opposed to the standard corporate holiday card.

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She carefully places a sheet of paper over the inked block and rubs over the inked area with a wooden spoon. This transfers the ink from the paper to the block.

What do you like best about doing the dog prints?

My favorite part about the artistic side of making a dog portrait is capturing that special quirk that makes each dog unique. Sometimes it's the flip of the hair, or the stance, or the eyes, or the tilt of the head, but there's always something that turns a portrait from just a drawing of a generic dog into a drawing that captures the personality of the dog. 

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The image has been transferred to the paper. She will repeat this process for every additional color. Every additional color requires an additional carved block, an additional ink color, and an additional round of printing.

Could you please explain how you go from looking at your model to the finished work, and how long it takes? 

Since most of my clients are out of the area, I usually work from photos to create my letterpressed cards. I first draw an illustration based on the photo and modify it as the client requests until they are totally happy. Once the design is approved, the illustration is turned into multiple plates. Each plate is designed to print one color of the illustration, so a two-color illustration will require two plates. Ink is hand-mixed to create exactly the right shade.

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The final image. This image used five different colors.

I use an antique letterpress machine to print all the cards. The press can only print one color at a time, so a two-color illustration needs to be run through twice. Between each color, the press needs to be cleaned of the old ink, new ink mixed and applied to the press, and the new plate aligned correctly so that it prints in the right spot. There is rigorous quality checking during the whole process, and adjustments have to be constantly made. Every additional color that is added to the design adds another round of all these steps.

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A similar process is used to create her letterpressed notecard sets. After she creates a sketch from the provided photo, she turns the drawing into plastic plates.

After all the colors are printed, the cards dry for a bit and then are cut down to size. Many customers request custom-printed envelopes, and the printing of those usually occurs at the end of the process. Depending on the quantity of the order and what type of pieces are being printed, I may use a different type of press. There are four styles of letterpress that are commonly used to print my cards.

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Ink is hand-mixed and applied to the letterpress.

Letterpressing is extremely hands-on and time consuming, but the result and quality is unlike anything that you can get from a digital print. The whole process usually takes about six to eight weeks. I have a detailed explanation of the process on my blog, which illustrates every step with photos. (The project is a handmade letterpressed book, not dog cards, but all the same steps are used.)

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Depending on the number of cards required, different letterpress machines can be used. This is an antique Heidelberg letterpress machine. 

Do you have a favorite print, either doggy or noncanine?

My favorite dog design is definitely the Cattle Dog card, which is an illustration of my own dog. [Editor's note: The first illo in this post.] He is the best guy in the univers,e and I smile every time I see it.

It's hard to choose a favorite from the rest of my prints, but I am also quite fond of a chicken portrait that I've done -- Mattie the Hen. She's got some sass that I really like.

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The final letterpressed card. Letterpressed cards have unique quality and feeling that cannot be reproduced with normal printing methods.

Is this something you can see yourself doing for years to come?

I would love to keep making these dog portraits! The fun aspect of the project is that I have unlimited muses. Every dog lover knows that their dog can't be pigeonholed by breed -- there's something unique and special about them. So it's fun to know that even if I managed to draw a representative of every breed, there will always be special and unique dogs waiting for their portraits.

Contest Time!

Rigel would like to give away a pack of her canine cards to a Dogster reader! To enter, leave a comment telling us which of the dog cards at her shop are your favorite.

P.S. In order to be eligible for prizes, you must use your Disqus account to comment below. Creating a profile and avatar takes just a minute, and is a great way to participate in Dogster's community of people who are passionate about dogs. We'll pick a random winner on Friday, June 22, at noon PST, and will notify you by e-mail (so please make sure you have a valid e-mail address associated with your Disqus account, or we won't be able to contact you!). 

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Tip: Creating a profile and avatar takes just a minute and is a great way to participate in Dogster's community of people who are passionate about dogs.

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