Words by Marley DeRosia
Photos by Andrea Westerlund
There are few things that feel better than sliding a perfectly sanded wooden block in your hand. As you run your fingertips across the smooth grain finish, your path stops abruptly against the sticky gum of a layer of rubber. When you add a dash of ink to the mix, you have a recipe for block printing.
Payton Doerner (she/her) has been working with block printing since the start of the pandemic. While she’s always been an artist, working with paints and pencil, what started as a spark of curiosity has grown into a fully-fledged block printing business: Roc Block Prints. And all it took to start was a chance encounter on social media.
“I first saw block printing on the Instagram explore page,” she laughs. “I clicked on the video because I thought it looked cool! I just went to Michael’s and picked up a beginner starter kit.”
Payton explains that social media is a continuous source of inspiration. The Instagram explore page bursts with new ideas each day while there’s never a dearth of artists burgeoning on Tik Tok.
“I saw the artist pull off the print for the first time and I thought it was so different. They showed the entire process and when they pulled prints off the block, I thought, ‘I could totally do that.’ And I did! It’s that simple.”
The sentiment hangs in the air as Payton’s hands flash over her favorite prints; they look like something you might see available in a tattoo parlor, a style to which she’s happy to be compared. “Flash tattoos are one of my main inspirations!”
Some of her favorite pieces (and mine) range from small thumb-sized prints to hand-sized tapestries. Whether you like the idea of a ramen bowl occupied by two friendly ghosts, a few happy snails, or a skull bursting with ideas, Payton’s simple yet detailed prints of animals and nature capture the darker edge of wildlife.
My eyes devour the patterns, comparing the stamped skull to the carved rubber. It takes skill to carve a design with negative space in mind; when you press the block print face down onto its preferred medium, it becomes a mirror image.
“The hardest part is working in the negative; everything is backward,” she explains. “It’s just how my brain works! When I draw up the design, I shade in the areas that I want to leave dark and it definitely helps.”
I couldn’t help but ask her about the process. Her work is incredibly hands-on. From initial sketch to carving to inking, she’s feeling the rubber, tweaking the design, and testing her patterns.
“It’s a close, intimate process,” she starts. “There’s so much handiwork that goes into it, and I’m constantly touching the block to see if things stick out too much. I like to do it in one sitting since I’m eager to see the end.”
Carving takes the longest. “When I’m carving, I’ll take a sharpie or a stamp pad and I’ll run it over while I’m carving to make sure I’m smoothing everything down.”
But that doesn’t mean the entire block will be smooth. When you look at Payton’s prints, sometimes, you’ll notice small, almost imperceptible lines hallowing her piece.
“I call them hatching marks,” she says. “I honestly just leave them on most of the time since it shows that they’re a hand-made thing. It’s not going to be perfect and that’s okay! The texture shows movement, and it works with my natural-themed pieces with my animals and bugs.”
Along with the care she puts into each piece, she admits that many of her designs are completed in the span of a few hours.
“I don’t even know the inspiration for this, honestly,” Payton says, pointing at the ramen ghosts. “It’s one of my favorites. I remember it was 10pm on a Saturday and I had the vision come to mind—I needed to make this right now. I sat down, drew it, and carved it that night. The whole process took about two hours and I’m so happy with it!”
Payton also works on custom designs requested by friends, family, and folks on Instagram. She shows me a slew of custom designs ranging from landscapes to homes to people. She has a penchant toward the creepy and cool but looks forward to expanding her craft and connecting with more people as her business grows.
“I want people to look at the things that I have and say, ‘oh, I love that motif,’” she says. “I have an odd array of interests and I want to connect with other people. Ultimately, I do want to relate to people and be able to provide something unique, something they haven’t seen before!”
Finding a crowd with similar interests isn’t hard in Rochester. Payton explains that the art community has pushed her out of her comfort zone and has given her the opportunities she has now, including selling at markets and shows.
“The Rochester community supports artists and pushes me further. Knowing that people are liking what I’m putting out is giving me the motivation to keep going.”
Payton even has a piece that’s inspired by Rochester, based on a gravestone in Mt. Hope Cemetery. It reads, “Now I know something you don’t.”
While block printing has been around for thousands of years, it doesn’t have the most populous community in Rochester. Payton knows most of her fellow block printers in the city, and hopes to soon collaborate with the ones she doesn’t.
“There are talented block printers in Rochester!” she said. “I stay in touch mostly on social media and when I’m able to support them at local shows. It’s kind of crazy that not many people work with this medium. It’s special because you’re involved with every step of the process. I’d love to see more people try it!”
Like ink, Payton plans to go with the flow as her business grows and she experiences new opportunities through art shows and festivals.
“I’m open to seeing what opportunities present themselves,” she explains. “I have been offered the opportunities to sell in some shops and I want to get the ball rolling on that. I want to keep doing the art markets around Rochester and working with people personally.”
Sometimes, your favorite hobby can be found simply by saying, “I can do that.”