Art Around the World Blog Series : Four Questions Answered

Normally I am pretty good about deadlines, but I have to confess that I have well and truly missed the one concerning this blog. I’ve been asked by fellow artist Dean to contribute to the Art around the World blog series and I’m delighted to answer the four questions asked of all the contributing artists. I’m less delighted with my very late delivery, but better late than never – sorry Dean…

What am I working on at the moment?

As always, I feel I work best when I am well outside my comfort zone and am currently collaborating with good friend Ian Phillips to produce a joint print of Cheddar Gorge. Just teetering on the edge of the cliffs drawing was honestly enough excitement for me, but we are attempting an ambitious mix and match with my Japanese water based woodblock creating a dreamy backcloth for Ian’s bold linocut foreground. As you can see from my working sketch,10420753_950942418279464_4781282218830405252_n the Gorge offers plenty of great shapes and contrast for a printmaker; we just have to stitch it into a well aligned and cohesive edition of prints. You can watch us both at work on this collaborative print during our show and residency at RK Burt Gallery in London during May.

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

I work with reduction (all colour layers cut from one piece of lino) for my linocuts. In linocut my work is perhaps a little different in that I like to ‘free paint’ with small rollers and a mix of colours while printing. This allows me a very free approach and results in an edition of prints which, while they all share identical cut marks, are unique artworks in themselves.Barrow Beach after the rainstorm I also like white space and don’t necessarily abide by a regular edge to my work. I do try and be disciplined about using these techniques though; it is easy to fall into using them as a gimmick or trade mark. There has to be a good reason for my approach to each print and by no means all my linocuts are free painted or use white space. This print of ‘Barrow Beach after the Rainstorm’ uses both techniques.

Japanese woodblock is a rare technique in the UK which probably sets me apart from many relief printers. I am extraordinarily lucky to have trained with master craftsmen, as opposed to artists, in Japan. I had a classical grounding in traditional water based woodblock and a very sober lesson in the difference between an artist printmaker like me and the decades of experience a master carver and master printer amass as they specialise in one aspect of woodblock. The Needles, Isle of WightWhat I cannot hope to achieve in technical skills I attempt to balance by my freedom to play and experiment. I try to create the feel of the English landscape with the sensibility of traditional Japanese prints. My approach is a very traditional one amongst the more conceptual prints made by many contemporary Japanese woodblock artists.

Why do I create what I do?

Probably because there is nothing else I know that gives me the fierce joy I feel in creating a print and then the heady delight of selling it. There’s a persistent tension between what I want to create and the technical challenge of the process. The constant need to learn, adapt, progress, deliver and sell is very addictive. I came to a realisation a while ago that what I really want as self employed independent artist is to earn enough money to be able to keep learning and trying new things. Heating in the winter is good too of course and plenty of my time involves running the business rather than working in my studio, but for me it’s the combination of business and art that’s essential. If I didn’t sell, I wouldn’t print.

How does my creative process work?

I tend to set myself a brief (unless I am working for a client) and establish ground rules for my work. I find this focuses my mind and throws up new challenges and ideas. For example I have a solo show in September and I am working on a series of prints in the Japanese Oban format. Oban prints are portrait shaped rather than landscape and that is a tough layout for me as my landscape prints are nearly always wide and shallow. I have also chosen to create a series of views of Buckinghamshire and, with my business head on, that means local landmarks and character, but images which appeal to locals and non-locals alike.

Once I have the brief, I go out drawing and photographing. The real designing comes in the studio where I stitch my sketches into the landscape for my print. While I very rarely use photographs in the designing process, I use them all the time as a visual memory jog for individual things: the shape of a tree or a hill maybe. I certainly get more information out of a rough sketch than I ever will a photo and working from photos alone never works for me as that tends to result in a ‘dead’ image. Most of the time I’m trying to find the essential shapes that make objects identifiable so that I can pare them down to be as simple as possible, but still recognisable. You can see this in the teazles and trees in my ‘Chiltern Seasons: Summer’.Chiltern seasons summer While I work with landscape, my real interest is in shape and colour – reality will always come second to a strong composition.

After the designing stage comes the printing and that I make up as I go along (though I do thorough research and experiment with papers and pigments so that I have a fair idea of what will and won’t work or is suitable for the print I’m editioning). I never plan colour in detail or number of layers of printing. For me, the printing has to develop with one colour bouncing to the next and as many layers as I feel I need. That way my work feels fresher and more edgy as well as giving me a better result.

The final part of Art Around the World blog is to ask another artist to answer the same questions and I nominate Peter Keegan. He specialises in portrait painting and has a completely different approach from me, but like me he is an independent full time artist balancing the books with his creativity.


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Mother’s Day

This week I have the proud though very sad task of writing a eulogy for my mum’s funeral and the more I fiddle about with ideas and sentences for mum, the more I realise how much of my childhood was spent learning from her how to be a decent artist.

She wasn’t the sort of mum who played with her children. Though she was always there to pick up the pieces and administer an almost solid concoction of glucose and tea for the varied accidents we used to amass back in the days of concrete and no railings. Rather she was the sort of mum who allowed me into her adult life, teaching me at an early age that it was perfectly acceptable, indeed essential, to touch as well as look in shops and that I could get down from the table in the tea shop if I was prepared to walk politely to the counter and settle our bill.

She was intensely interested in so many things and an avid reader, teaching me how to research in her frequent visits to the local library where she would order books of interest while frowning at the romantic ‘schmaltz’ on offer. I do remember howling at her that I never intended to read ‘anything I hadn’t written myself’ after an especially trying visit, but I’m a reader just like her and she was patient with books propped against cereal boxes and hours lost in the bath, merely suggesting that perhaps I should put the light back on instead of reading with a torch after bedtime.

Mum was keen on light and air, probably because of a rather dark childhood in Kensington Church Street and a later evacuation to live above a tripe shop in the war. ‘Look, look at that light!’ was a perfectly normal request as were conversations about the exact colour of pears, how different sorts of rain change the sky and why some air is ‘good’ and some ‘bad’. More exciting conversations took place without my help and with my godmother while I was reduced to interpreting their silently mouthed words. To this day I can’t see a Les Dawson tribute without thinking of those sherry-fueled chats.

Mum wasn’t given to dithering; ‘Don’t just DAB at it!’ was her exasperated shout during my teens. She was a firm believer in action and that working hard and keeping occupied was infinitely better than ‘just sitting’ (the latter said in a manner recalling mild torture). She’s made it impossible for me to just sit and I blame her entirely for my knitting during the undertaker’s visit to discuss her funeral.

Of course there were lots of other things, but I’ll save them for the eulogy. The important things for my career: the reading, the constant observation of the light and landscape, my love of the tactile and my drive to get on with my work were all rooted in my childhood with her.

In fairness I should also add the footnote that, thanks to her first aid, mum made all three of us children totally unable to face tea with any kind of sweetening ever again, however much good it might do for shock.

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Chop and Change

I’m often asked about my sketches and how I turn my ideas into a finished print. I always feel a bit awkward about this (it’s uncomfortably close to the ‘what music do you like?’ question which I dreaded as a teenage devotee of voice radio). For me, it’s a vague process at best; leaping from a few pencil lines to the full size template drawing for the block with nothing in between. Like most worriers, I suspect there is a party going on in the next room where artists in the know have exquisitely pleasing sketch books with annotations, fold out bits and delightful little objet trouve. Somehow my works on crime novel and thriller fly page seem sketchy beyond the point of sketchy, but they work for me and will make for an uber-cool retrospective if they haven’t gone off to Oxfam for re-reading.

The drawing and planning comes with the print sized template drawing. These days all my drawing is done in outline with no colour. I only shade for planning purposes, not visual effect.

full size template drawing

full size template drawing

The upshot is more blueprint than charm and I simply draw, erase, draw until I am happy. I tend not to make more than one drawing, unless I am trashing it for a new start, as multiple efforts quickly lose their life and freshness. Since I arrive at my shapes by scribbling and then refining, the result is ‘architect meets infant scholar’. Neat drawing, but the paper a lumpy mess of rub outs and corrections.

I do proof my woodblocks. Below you can see the proof for ‘Chiltern Seasons: Winter’ and play the spot the difference game with the final finished print.

proof print

proof print

See how many blocks I’ve cut and then discarded. Less is often more and I discard blocks and simplify the print far more often than I cut extra ones. The colours too are very different as you can see, though I never make rigid colour plans for either proof or edition, I just see the proof problems and address them as I go along. Proofing is also a chance to see if the blocks line up correctly and, if they don’t, it’s best to get the crying done over the cheap paper.

Finished Print

Finished Print

The journey from idea to print is different for every printmaker and I’m sure that there isn’t actually a rule book demanding a set route for the journey or means of travel. So I choose the Star Trek transporter method of arrival at finished work. Beam those prints up Scotty!

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But is it Art?

I like Brian Cox with his hair and his enthusiasm for describing the Cosmos with the help of an empty beer bottle and a stick, but I was very sorry to hear him dismiss art in favour of science*. If I ruled the world (though better hope I don’t because there would be laws against leaving lights on in empty rooms and the airing of Count Arthur Strong on the radio, ever…) I’d just lump everything under the collective heading of ‘creativity’ and be done with dividing the arts and sciences.

Today I have been mapping out my latest print and it raised a philosophical question for me: was the process art or science? The print is a complex one: a view from inside a shady spring wood out over a bright spring landscape and I confess I did have to switch off Radio Four to concentrate. I’ll describe the process and you decide what was actually going on – maths, art, physics, alchemy?

Line drawing which acts as my pattern for the blocks.

Line drawing which acts as my pattern for the blocks.

I begin with a line drawing of the whole image. This I use to trace the separate parts of the design onto wood, creating multiple woodblocks (a block being the area that gets printed, not the whole piece of wood). Each block is printed in turn to form the finished image.

If it were just a matter of splitting the design into a block for each tree, patch of grass, field etc it would simple. However, I am exploiting the fact that I am working with transparent watercolour and can layer washes of colour to build up the image. This is irrespective of the different areas of the design, so the blue of the sky can also be used to create the blue shadows in the wood by cutting a block the full size of the print rather than one the size of the sky. Likewise I can play with building the depth and texture of the grasses and trees by what print surface I leave and what I remove; cutting blocks covering large areas of the print rather than specific subjects. I ink up the woodblocks with brushes, not rollers, so each block can be inked solid, or with bleeds or mixes of colour.

To work this out I hold the image in full colour in my head. Then I mentally pull it apart, like old fashioned animation, into its separate layers of colours and visualise how layers one to fifteen (it’s a big complicated print) look alone and then together in various combinations so that I can work out what part can be printed with one block and what part will benefit from several blocks printed over each other, where the shadows should be deep or sun should dapple etc. Then I delve into my experience of the paper and paints I plan on using, mentally running through how the pigments will actually work (some resist layering and others accommodate it) and what the paper can stand in terms of pressure, over printing and time spent damp. Then I start tracing, making adjustments and changes as I go.

Uncut block showing one layer or colour separation

Uncut block showing one layer or colour separation

Now I seriously think about it, my process (all art has processes and I’m nothing special) doesn’t fit neatly into ‘art’ and I bet scientist would say the same about themselves. So while you can play the ‘is it art or science’ game with the results of all our labours, isn’t that a bit pointless? Wouldn’t it just be better to mix everything together and value the creativity? I worry about our politicians and their need to push science over art at present. So perhaps best if I do take over world domination – when I’ve finished laying down the laws on radio content and unnecessary illumination, I’ll be changing the education system a bit too.

He suggested that ‘we can live without art, but we can’t live without science’ which is a whole other argument (perhaps to have with our early ancestors). What interested me was his need to have a division in the first place.

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Poacher turned Gamekeeper

For the past four years I have been a part of Art in Action. Every July I have packed up a fair chunk of my studio and decamped to a marquee in the gardens of Waterperry House in the Oxford countryside where, in the company of nine or so other printmakers, I’ve done my best to recreate my working day. For those who don’t know the event, it’s a four day immersion into art for the twenty five thousand or so visitors. In the demonstration tents, artists of pretty much every discipline you can think of (and some you wouldn’t – war artists, horologists, Egyptian tent makers anyone?), work and explain and exhibit. Then there’s a market place of craft makers and art suppliers. Yet more artists run practical classes of every kind for every age group. On top of all this there are talks, music, performance art, lectures, dance and children’s activities. You get the picture and it’s a pretty big and complex one…

How complex has entirely passed me by if I am honest. To be a demonstrator is such a full on roller coaster ride that the mere act of showing up with the right stuff in the right amounts, hanging an exhibition and then printing solidly for four days while being mobbed by a bright and fascinated crowd leaves very little room for anything else. I certainly never pondered the niceties of our marquee with its solid wood screens, floors and two fully operational printing presses, or the seamless arrangements for parking, sanitation and food. Nor the constant arrival of coffee (filter, not instant), tea and biscuits all day, the delicious demonstrator’s dinner on the Saturday night. Nor the small matter of managing the twenty five thousand or so visitors and their needs. And I certainly didn’t think, as I drove away, utterly exhausted but exhilarated, about the clearing up.

That’s all about to change. In 2015 I won’t be demonstrating; I’ve been asked to be the section head of printmaking in partnership with my other half, responsible for selecting artists, organising and running the tent and generally making sure that everything printmaking goes to plan. Now I’m seeing things from a different angle.

This whole massive, complex, slick event runs on goodwill and a passionate desire to share the work and creativity of artists. It is not run for profit and it is run entirely by hundreds of volunteers. There are just a couple of paid members of staff. Think about that: just a couple of  people paid. Everyone else from the security guards to parking attendants, the sound engineers to the shuttle bus drivers, the loo cleaners to the nice people wearing ‘can I help you’ jackets are doing it for free. And they start working for free long before the event opens and go on long after it closes. And when Art in Action does finally come to an end, any money made is money ploughed into making next year better for everyone: artists, visitors and volunteers.

In this cynical old world such a mad plan shouldn’t work and yet it does, year after year, and it is hugely successful. I am entirely happy to be on the giving rather than the receiving end next year. The work has already started and I know I won’t be able to exhibit. That I’ll be twice as tired, that there will be lots of surprises, glitches and emergency lateral thinking to be done, but to be a part of something so optimistic, so unique, so fun and supportive to the arts is just too good an opportunity to miss. And I know I’m not alone in that: several hundred other people obviously think the same.

The deadline for applications to demonstrate at the show end on 5th December and must be made through the Art in Action website. Demonstrators are appointed by invitation only.

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Every profession must have its frequently asked questions and most of the ones I get asked are perfectly reasonable, along the lines of ‘How long does that take?’ or ‘What’s that white stuff?’ (The white stuff is the rice paste I combine with water colour paints for Japanese woodblock printing. I am thinking of perhaps having this tattooed, in gill sans, across the back of my hands. It would save a lot of time. Though perhaps it would lead to endless questions later in the care home at a time in life where I would have neither the energy nor patience to answer.) As a rule, I enjoy these questions and reaping the reward of passing on a bit of knowledge about my passion.

There are two schools of thought which are less fun. First is the assumption that there must be an easier way and that it is the job of the viewer to solve this problem for the artist. It’s usually meant in the kindest possible way, but most artists I know experience a barrage of suggestions which for me include ‘send the blocks to India to be cut, use a router/computer/laser cutter, use acrylic paint/fabric dye/different printing press/mangle’. As a species, we are instinct driven to want to solve problems. Though you might think, in twelve or so centuries, the Japanese would have ironed out most of the kinks in woodblock printing and that perhaps I, with a few years of experience, might have given some thought to the router/computer/laser/India question, people are only trying to help.DSC_0285

Secondly, and this is more serious, there are the comments about the time and effort taken. ‘Why do you make it so difficult for yourself?’ ‘I could never spend (waste) my time this way’ ‘Surely there’s a cheat, who would know?’ and, my all time favourite, ‘Don’t you have a television?’ I’ve asked a lot of my artist friends and most come up against this one in some form or another and it makes no sense to me.

If you look at it from the perspective that printmaking is my profession, that I expect to sell work to the public and that I take their money in exchange, then I wonder on what level I am wasting time in working to the best of my craft and ability? Why is an artist wasting their time in handling a process well, when in other professions this is expected and respected? Who wants a doctor who can’t be bothered to read the big books, who’d go to a concert where musicians left out the hard bits and who would buy food from a deli who thought food hygiene was an optional extra? The fact is that I can only do the work I do in the way that I do it and I choose to do it properly. It does take time, but I think that is a fair trade for people’s hard earned cash. I wouldn’t be happy cutting corners and my customers don’t deserve it.

It’s interesting that on the one hand we are questioned about ‘wasting time’ while on the other we are often seen as being ‘lucky’ to be artists with the suggestion that somehow it is not a real job. Surely that, for people who apparently spend most of our time languid on a chaise longue, we should be expected to do a proper hand’s turn when we do finally get going? I do wonder if there is any other profession out there where doing things properly is seen as a waste of effort and time? It’d be interesting to know if we’re alone in this…

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Something for nothing

I’ve written in the past about money and for many of us it still remains the embarrassing end of the business of being an artist. It’s taken me ages to get to the point where I can dislocate myself enough from my prints to be able to stick calmly to my guns in the face of wheedling, questioning and sometimes outright rudeness.

I’m not sure when it happened, but look on the TV and there seems to be a multiplicity of programmes where jolly antique experts, with or without dazed members of the public in tow, scour the countryside for artifacts and antiques to resell. The conversation, once a ‘piece’ (and they always are ‘pieces’) is found runs along the line of

‘Oooh this is lovely.’ Coos the expert ‘It says £350 on the label, what’s the death?’

Man in shop frowns ‘I couldn’t take less than £325’

Expert recoils in horror and then says flirtatiously ‘How about £200?’. Man in shop caves in immediately and agrees.

Now that’s all well and good for TV cameras and antique fairs, but I’m seeing this crop up more frequently than before between art buyers and artists, especially at fairs and open studios. There does seem to be a certain proportion of the art buying public who see art as negotiable and artists as having one price for the tag and another for the sale. I simply don’t work that way and I don’t think many other artists do either. Yet we are perceived as fair game and it is often the people who can most afford to pay who are the keenest to secure a bargain. At best this shows a lack of understanding of how narrow most of our profit margins are and at worst it can become straightforward bullying.

My stance on this is fairly simple and, while I may have to fight a pink face and wobbly voice, I do always stick to my guns. I set fair prices and I charge the same for work wherever it is bought. The upshot of this fairness is that I would rather lose the sale than be pushed into charging less than ticket price. It helps enormously to think about the kind and supportive people who collect my prints: they buy regularly and never, ever ask for or expect a discount.

There are a couple of exceptions. I will negotiate a discount if a client is buying a significant quantity of work at one time and I may have a deal on sets of prints where they cost less than the individual price. Very occasionally it is quite clear that the decision to buy my print means a serious dent in day to day finances for the buyer and here I reserve the right to knock a bit off the bill in homage to their pursuit of art over gas bills.

So while this craze for ‘Hunt Antiques Bargain Super-Expert’ continues to suggest that anything on a stall should cost at least sixty percent less than the label, I will continue to state that my prints are a fair price for a fair day’s work. Perhaps I can find a pokerwork sign to that effect – at a knocked down price of course…

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Dog Day Afternoon

I’m usually good at deadlines. I went to the sort of school where handing in essays before their due date wasn’t seen as a revolting bit of crawling by the class swot, it was considered the least you could do. In fact I expect some of my classmates probably had essays written just in case, like newspapers awaiting a royal death. Good training, but it didn’t leave me much time for smoking behind the bike sheds.

That said I very nearly missed the deadline for writing the paper I am shortly due to deliver at the International Mokuhanga Conference in Tokyo. I suspect my subconscious to be at fault here, throwing up an endless list of important alternative occupations. The mere title ‘Educational Practice Report’ is a tough one to see sitting at the top of a blank page and sit it did, right up until a day or so ago.

Backed into a corner I started to write about my teaching. Given that I teach short courses to people who learn for pleasure and my approach is always to be friendly and informal, my ‘educational practice report’ swiftly started to turn into a long blog. This is easy, I thought as I began to expand on why teaching is such a benefit to the working artist. Then I noticed the dog in the garden. We don’t own a dog.

He was big and white and of the sort that Channel Five might excitably describe as ‘killer pit bull’. The only threat he actually posed, when I went out to catch him, was killing me through sheer relief at seeing a human face. We lurched around as he tried to climb into my arms and I tried to read his collar. Finally I shut him into our enclosed passage at the side of the house while I called his owner. The owner couldn’t have cared less. He was on holiday and Ozzie had already escaped once since they left he said, cheerfully promising to send his mum round to collect. Ozzie was by now living up to his rock star namesake; dancing up and down the passageway, making a great deal of noise and peeing lavishly and indiscriminately.

I went back to the writing, waiting for Mum to arrive, only to be called away for a delivery of picture frame moulding in three metre lengths. The delivery man sank into deep gloom when I explained it had to come off the lorry and into the passageway where there was now a large mad dog. The atmosphere became increasingly charged as I caught the baying Ozzie, held the door and asked him to lift the moulding onto a shelf above the piddle. Apparently lifting, along with speaking, was not in the delivery man’s repertoire and I can’t say I blamed him. However, slowly, and in a pregnant silence worthy of Pinter, he obliged and I re-shut the door on Ozzie who wept and howled. The delivery man departed without comment after a long stare, mulling over both my cruelty to animals and to him.

I went back to writing, now feeling raw and distracted. Eventually Mum arrived. Boy, was she cross. Cross at how hard our house was to find, cross that she had to park in the road, cross she’d been called away from her decorating and, above all, cross with Ozzie. I led her to the passageway where Ozzie burst out, a missile of love and delight, to have his bottom well smacked by Mum (by this time I was half expecting her to smack mine). He was ecstatic with the smacking and shouting game so we obligingly chased him around the garden for a while and then she was gone, still grouching.

You’ll be surprised to hear, after all this, that I did complete the paper that day. You can read it here. It celebrates the benefit of teaching for pleasure and, I hope, shows how important my teaching and my students are to me. It’s not much of a serious paper, but then what can you expect from a dog trapper and exploiter of innocent delivery men?

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If you go down to the woods today…

Bluebells, Wet Spring, now available in my gallery

Bluebells, Wet Spring, now available in my gallery

I often get asked about the difference between a reduction linocut and a Japanese woodblock. Reduction prints (apologies to those who know) are created from a single piece of material, the block being cut each time a colour is printed. As the picture develops so the block is destroyed. The process depends on a build up of ink, one layer on top of another and the entire edition must be printed at the same time. Japanese woodblock depends on the transparency of watercolour and so the print relies on a jigsaw of individually cut blocks which fit together, rarely overlapping. This preserves the brilliancy of the delicate colour and the editioning can be done in stages.

Of course things don’t have to be that simple and this summer I decided to mix up my approach: pushing Japanese woodblock to perform well using the reduction techniques I normally reserve for lino. I wanted to layer watercolour to see if I could exploit its transparency without losing its brilliance. I also wanted, and here’s the honest part, to complete a very complicated picture without cutting a huge number of blocks (huge is a relative number, I did still need to cut an awful lot). Besides I’d spent the whole of my open studios bigging up the print with all the enthusiasm of Kim Kardashian’s publicity team. Whole families signed up to my mailing list on the strength of seeing the finished print alone, thrilled by the prospect of all that ugly splintered builder’s ply morphing into the quiet beauty of a Buckinghamshire bluebell wood. (To watch a short film about this print click here)

So here it is, my ‘Bluebells, Wet Spring’. A print with multiple overlapping wood blocks, some printed as reduction. It is printed on heavy, blanket soft Fabriano Rosaspina paper which I have sized with a mix of fish glue and alum. The size hinders the paint so I had to use more strength than usual to print, forcing the watercolours into the paper. The trade off is the grainy effect of old fashioned fast analogue film which I think perfect for this particular image. By layering four different background blocks, each one reaching up to the top of the image, I’ve arrived at an increasingly ambiguous background. Normally a recipe for muddy disaster, it is this layering of green watercolour on watercolour that allowed me to play with building up the particular sappy, lush feel of a wet spring wood, misty and undefined.

I’ve also varied the tree trunks by cutting some out in some background layers and not in others while yet more are overprinted onto the background individually. Hence the mix of densely printed trunks with those that only have one or two layers of colour. I kept the silver birch trees entirely free of background paint, printing the grey bark in layers as a reduction onto the white paper, chopping into the woodblock for each layer. The same goes for the bluebells. Cutting bluebell shaped holes in exactly the right place across three of the four background layers is every bit as engaging as it sounds, but worth it in the final print; allowing the pure lavender blue of the bells to hum against the green background.

Did I plan all this? Only in so far as cutting the blocks and having a mind’s eye view of the finished image. Colour I always take as it comes, preferring to make my choices as I go. You can see that by the lack of it in my drawings and the difference between the proof and the print. Luck also comes into it: I’d run some tests on the rosaspina paper and had been annoyed by the result at the time, but remembered it and realised it was the very effect I wanted here. Did I appreciate how much my feet would ache by the end of printing the whole edition in one shot over three very long days? Not at all…

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Sticks and stones…

One of the less enjoyable things about being an artist and teacher is just how often I get to watch decent, clever people beating themselves up for failing before they’ve even reached a level where real failure is an option. At this point I offer an apology for the half dozen students who’ve been in my latest class: this isn’t about you. Honest.

I’ve been thinking about this more in the light of many classes this year where students have offered me the opinion that they were rubbish, hopeless, useless or, and this seemed a bit extreme, ‘totally without any talent’. What I think they were actually saying was ‘this printmaking thing is new, a bit confusing and I’m scared because I can’t see how I’ll make a print by the end of class’. I just wish that this absolutely reasonable concern over the unknown didn’t get turned inward and become so abusive. I wonder sometimes if students even know they are doing it. I have listened in the past to the occasional unconsciously murmured soliloquy of such self loathing that Hamlet sounds positively jaunty in comparison and this from the very student who, in the next breath, is kind, positive and enthusiastically supporting the work of her equally inexperienced neighbour. Trust me, the only person actually deserving of abuse would be me as the teacher if I failed to lead students through the process clearly and well.

I feel strongly about this because I used to do it myself big time. I never really thought about it until my first residency in Japan. There I was, before we all settled down, pretty much alone and stuck with my inner voice for company. It’s not much fun being half way up a mountain in a very strange place, so many things a total mystery, feeling awkwardly huge, too hot and profoundly worried by the outsize insect life. Add to that the constant nagging voice telling me I was the wrong person in the wrong place and would never, ever, ever get to grips with the process and it made for some very weepy emails home. After a week I couldn’t bear it any longer and made the conscious decision to stop. It wasn’t easy and having an inner Pollyanna along with the inner critic was a bore, but it broke the habit and I am much more conscious about self criticism these days. Nothing wrong with striving for better, but if I feel myself sinking I just imagine how it would feel to be caught muttering the same words to a fellow student. Unthinkable to be so unkind and thoughtless…

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