Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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Negative Days

Negative / Positive

Light bounces off a transparent negative held up to a dark background, the ink reflects light and shows up positive. It is from negatives like this I make my Cyanotype prints.

The original photo was of a papermaker from a remote hilltribe in North Vietnam and her son, bemused by my guide as he toyed with their paper press: a lever weighed down by large heavy rocks. A one-of-a-kind rascal, my guide was a full-time smuggler who ran an internet gambling business on the side. He was from the same hilltribe as these papermakers, and ensured they received copies of the photos I took of our afternoon.


Orwell had Burmese Days, and this week I’ve had Negative Days: every day and most of my evenings have been spent refining and printing negatives for a new series of illustrations.

Since my return from Singapore and Malaysia, I’ve been scouring the thousands of pictures I took during my Paper Quest last year for the best candidates for Cyanotype illustrations.

From thousands of photos I’ve selected and edited nearly a hundred which have what it takes to look good in blue-and-white: high contrast, an emphasis on structure and value rather than color, and a dynamic composition.  From these I’ll make hundreds of Edition Variee cyanotypes, and from the resulting prints, ThingsAsian’s designer Janet and I will select just thirty to illustrate the book.

Once I’m finished writing it.

But I’m a perfectionist, so it’s all taking longer than expected: last year I inked thirty illustrations for the book but have decided Cyanotypes offer more possibilities, so am submitting two sets of illustrations instead.

It takes thousands of hours of work to produce a book like this. I eat with my words and images, dream of them at night, rediscover forgotten references while scanning my water-damaged notes into archives. When people ask me what I do with my days, it is this: I prepare my prints in the morning, print through the afternoons, and edit and write at night. For me, there are no boundaries between my work and life, and when not traveling I spend most of my days and nights shut away in my studio.

Travel is a fleeting suite of experiences, only the beginning of a work; it is how an artist edits  words and images that will make a lasting impression.

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