Singalong

It’s hard to write a blog this week without mentioning coronavirus which, as I type, I see is already embedded in the spell check of my software. Most of my friends and colleagues are, like me, either self-employed or work in creative industries that rely on an audience. Many are already starting to feel the effects of cancelled or under-attended shows and exhibitions and there’s no doubt that it is going to be a very difficult year ahead for everyone on many levels.

It’s very quiet up in ‘one of the largest indoor spaces in Europe’ that is our local shopping centre, except it seems in the loos. I went in and found singing in progress as a mix of shoppers exchanged hand washing songs. It was lovely, stumbling into scene worthy of Richard Curtis. Complete strangers, debating and trying out the benefits of Jolene versus Daisy, Daisy, Love Shack or The Circle of Life. My vote’s for Jolene (that song has seen me through many a tight karaoke corner in Japan over the years) except I’m stuck with reciting Auden’s Night Mail. I’m part proud that I’ve dredged the poem up from my primary school memory in full and part horrified that I now go into auto-recite at the sight of a tap.

Self-isolation comes more naturally to some than to others…

Leaving the impromptu musical performance in the loos, I saw the effects of panic buying. As an artist, I’m in the fairly happy position of a studio packed with materials that can, at a pinch, be changed into hand sanitiser and loo roll. If push were ever really to come to shove, my large stock of rice flour for my students’ Japanese woodblock prints would make for some extremely worthy and dull bowls of perfectly edible gloop. A bit of investigation in my mum’s handwritten recipe book does come up with a pudding based on rice flour which might make that bearable. All I’ll need to stockpile are ground almonds, eggs, double cream, plus a ‘good’ brandy and we are home dry.

This week on Ask An Artist we’ve dragged Mr B out from behind the sound system to explain how to take good copy photos of artwork without breaking the budget on photographic equipment, or setting up a fancy lighting rig. This sort of photography is a job every artist has to do at some point and, dare I say, one that’s perfectly suited to a period of self-isolation.

Not to worry…

You might have noticed there was no Friday blog last week. Writing came a poor second to printmaking that week and a good deal of the week before, as did laundry, regular meals, exercise and remembering not to hold my breath for long periods. I’m sure you’ll recognise the symptoms of starting a new project and the excitement of running with your ideas to the exclusion of everything else.

For most of my life the failure to provide a Friday blog as promised would be so anxiety inducing that I’d have made myself write one whatever the inconvenience. Letting people down, however distant and virtual those people might be and however tenuous the promise, is a fear I have in common with many others and it’s one that’s easing gradually. I’m sure I’m not the only person to back themselves into a corner by making a commitment while failing to realise that it’s mainly, or even only, me that actually cares about it. I’m guessing you’re OK with this blog missing the odd week or two*. It’s not a huge deal, I’m not writing anything more important than something to muse over while eating a biscuit. I’m getting over it and, if you’re prone to worrying about this kind of thing like me, have another biscuit and drop a few minor commitments too.

The all-consuming project is far more exciting. I am making a set of Japanese woodblock prints of the North Yorkshire Moors.

One of my new Yorkshire prints – rough grasses in a December afternoon dusk.

These prints have demanded a fresh approach and I’ve been rising to the challenge. Ironically these new Japanese woodblock prints owe much to the kind of mark making that’s more a part of traditional linocut, while my recent lino work is fast becoming indistinguishable from the washy transparency of traditional Japanese woodblocks. Contrary, but it’s what’s working for me and now it’s working, I can’t leave the printmaking alone. So this week’s blog was a bit touch and go too if I’m honest.

This week on the Ask an Artist podcast we interview master paint maker Michael Harding who, even as a student, never had any issues about prioritising his love of mixing pigments to the exclusion of everything else, including the welfare of his bedsit and the loss of his housing deposit.

*I did get one complaint from my brother-in-law who wanted last week’s blog to feature my award for the tartan todger. Sorry about that, but the whole story of my early artistic genius concerning the male member is included in last week’s Ask an Artist episode on competitions.

Lights, Camera, Action…

I have been starring in a film of my own life over the past ten days or so. We’ve documented one of my linocuts from drawing to finished edition, the goal being to relax and inform others with a slow film about printmaking, rather than an educational video about specifics. The result is a film that’s as much about the passing of time as it is about technique. We’ve deliberately kept things as silent as we can, bar a couple of snatches from Jane Eyre and Miss Marple before I got into the swing of switching off during takes. I had to shut up too; I never realised how much non-sensical muttering I do until I didn’t.

We both knew it would be tricky. I am viciously impatient of anything that gets between me and my print. Plus, used to being alone in the studio, I’m inclined to trip over (kick) cables, cameramen and tripods.

Look how nicely we are smiling!

Thankfully Mr B specialises in working unobtrusively and never expected me to pretend to do anything just for the camera. The worst he did was to make me wait while he set up shots and ask me to hit a specific mark from time to time. We finished with him imagining that I barely conceded to any of his directions and me knowing that the Pope will be in touch shortly to celebrate my saintly abundance of patience and good will.

Watching the film was as close to an out of body experience that I ever wish to experience and certainly the death of my vanity. There’s no posing for the camera when deep in concentration. In many respects it was an encouraging trade-off. I found it very easy to forget how I looked in terms of appearance because I was so interested by what I could do in terms of print. That said, I gradually found myself thinking that something was missing; that the me on film should be referring to a colour plan, or at least a to-do list, instead of just staring into the middle distance with unbrushed hair. It seemed such an inadequate approach.

We set out to make a film to highlight the time, focus and creativity involved in printmaking and I think we’ve done it. For my part, I’m pleased that watching it has made me pause and appreciate how lucky I am that the colour plans and to-do list are reliably spooling away, hidden inside my head, desipte the unbrushed hair. For everyone else, I hope it says a lot about what goes into making a print and a little about my methods. As for Doris, I can only apologise. She’s a starlet out of control.

This week on the Ask an Artist podcast we discuss writing rather than filming, but you should listen anyhow. The epic print film can be seen on my YouTube channel at Laura Boswell Printmaker for your viewing pleasure. Choc ices optional.

Talking trash

Can you remember your worst teacher? I don’t mean the one who couldn’t keep the class quiet, or the one who bored you to tears, or even the one, like my husband’s, who found himself during the summer holidays and returned to school with a kaftan and a passion for mystic religion replacing his previous one for mathematics. I mean the one who messed up your confidence with a few chosen words.

Advertisers love us to get all warm and fuzzy remembering our best teachers. Hopefully you have at least one, I was fortunate in having a couple, and of course they are a wonderful thing. Where would I be without Dr. Sullivan’s engaging ability to make sense of written English or Miss Fountain’s generosity with the art supply cupboard and her blind eye? But these are never the teachers I get to hear about in my classes. Students never say ‘I’m here, keen and confident thanks to Mr Woolford’s encouragement in applied woodwork’. Rather they say saddening things like ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I’m so sorry, I’m hopeless with design’ or even ‘I’m not sure I can do this’.

Nine times out of ten there’s a teacher at the back of it and I sympathise, I really do. To this day I would almost rather starve than speak French. Madame Wharton did for me. Elegant Parisienne trapped inside the nightmare of an English boarding school facing badly dressed and clumsy girls, she took out her frustrations on us and left me unable to mutter une seul mot.

These days my job as a teacher sometimes involves unpicking this kind of damage done long ago. It’s not easy and it takes time, but the good news is that there’s always the same outcome: the teacher’s words are never accurate, never the truth.

Checking out a new print, always an exciting moment!

I’ve yet to meet one student who comes to a class and really can’t do it; who is actually unable, given the right help, to design or draw something interesting and worthwhile. I don’t believe they exist, but plenty of my students arrive convinced they are that very person.

I don’t aspire to be one of the memorable teachers, the people who come to me are too grown up and independent to need that. But I do hope to occasionally be the one who gets to release the iron grip of a bad teacher. It’s just so damn satisfying to prove their idiot words wrong and see the student blossom.

This week on Ask an Artist podcast we discuss teaching, its benefits and pressures and how to decide whether to add teaching to your list of skills as a working artist.

Practice makes perfect

I wasn’t expecting an exam. Certainly not a blind test, facing anonymous little pots of paint on Cranfield Colour’s board room table and the Managing Director’s stern questions. I thought I was going for a lovely sightseeing tour around the factory responsible for making my printing inks. Apparently I had to win the entry ticket with my clever answers first. It’s a tribute to MD Michael Craine’s charm that this scenario, which could so easily be me narrating a recurring nightmare, was both fun and illuminating. Could I tell which was modern oil paint and which a pre-industrial mix? Which sample came from Italy and which from the Netherlands?

There seemed little chance of getting anything right beyond a lucky guess, except I found I could. Once I had the sense to relax and trust to my gut feeling.

A slick of yellow printing ink passing through Cranfield’s milling machine

I dipped fingers into all pots, felt the paint, smelt it and smeared it about a bit, probably not best practice in a board room, and it all became clear. Mad as it sounds, the modern paint felt modern, the historic paint authentic, the Italian paint smelt of sun and the south, the Dutch paint of Northern chill and wide skies. I just needed to remember that I had this covered; I spend all my days around inks and paint. If I didn’t know intellectually, my fingers and nose would answer for me.

I don’t think this gut instinct gets enough of a shout when it comes to artistic practice, at least not when it comes to technique. There’s plenty spoken about ways in which artists are moved to create, but little said about their instinctive feel for method and materials. That essential understanding of how materials feel on any given day and what small adjustments in movement, mixing or application is needed to correct and improve them. It’s a shame because this wealth of instinctive knowledge is a beautiful thing. Watch any expert maker working and you can see how much they rely on instinct and experience. That magic only comes with putting in the hours and doing the work, but it’s an essential part of the job if an artist wants to excel.

I’m pleased to say that I did win the golden ticket, I did get to tour Cranfield Colours and enjoy all the delights of traditional paint and ink milling and mixing – and I got to feel like a worthy winner as well.

This week on Ask an Artist podcast we turn the tables on Michael Craine and ask him the questions. It’s a fantastic episode, full of helpful tips and some very interesting insights into all things paint, ink and pigments.

How Much?

Pricing work; nightmare eh? I dare say there are artists out there thrilled by putting a price to their work, but I have yet to meet one who actively enjoys it, especially at the start of their career. I know I’ve lost a lot of sleep over the years thanks to pricing.

I think that’s because pricing is a bit of an iceberg situation. There’s the financial bit bobbing about on the surface for everyone to see. Reasonably clear facts and figures; what the work costs to make, where you sit in the art world, what the market will bear and so on. Stuff you can discuss rationally and more or less pin down with a pen and paper.

labours of love come at a price for both artist and collector

Below the water lurks the larger, less rational challenge of finding the nerve needed to fix a price and stand by it. The confidence and self-belief essential to actually get out there and face the public as a new artist with newly priced work. This was about ninety percent of the difficulty for me, tying it neatly to the iceberg metaphor now I have googled to check the proportions.

There’s no easy formula for that ninety percent, only time. One thing I found did help was to be sure that my prices suited me on my terms. I did the practical stuff: the research and maths needed to be sensible, but only finalised my figures when I was happy and comfortable with the decision reached. It sounds silly, but this checking in with my feelings as well as doing the maths helped enormously with my confidence, tiny as it was at the beginning. And it’s confidence that sells. It helped me to smile and stand by my prices without apology or justification. It was a terrifying charade to begin with; I have a transparent Celtic skin that was no help at all, but my belief in my prices did. Over time selling got easier. It does all get easier, pricing included.

Pricing is a serious business, emotionally as well as mathematically. As any ship’s captain will tell you; it’s a good idea to consider the whole iceberg, not just the bit above the water.

We’ll be navigating all things pricing this week on the Ask an Artist podcast, released every Friday at 10am GMT.

You Are Lucky!

‘You’re so lucky to be an artist, free to do just what you want.’ It’s a common enough remark, one most artists probably encounter as did I this week. Thinking about it, I quite like how this one sentence is both a manifesto for artistic success and a misunderstanding of how hard that success is to achieve.

Doing just what you want is, by and large, exactly what an artist needs to do to succeed, but let’s not confuse that with an easy ride. The ‘doing just what you want’ in question is not the soft focus dream of late mornings sipping coffee barefoot in a pretty studio. It’s the hard graft of developing a personal viewpoint and using experience, practice, talent and time to turn that vision into a consistent flow of well-considered work.

In this week’s Ask an Artist podcast you’ll hear gallery owner Nick Bentley return to discuss artist/gallery relationships and what galleries look for in their artists. Turns out that education, background and age are cheeringly unimportant. It is the body of work that matters, and that work must show passion, consistency and individuality. It is only by the artist doing just what they want and going their own way that this kind of work is made. But this is the freedom of hard work and focus, not the freedom of a fantasy bohemian lifestyle.

Living the dream, working on ideas in the studio

I don’t say this to put anyone off wanting to be an artist. It is a brilliant job and sometimes it does indeed involve sipping coffee in a pretty studio (though bare feet are never a good idea in real studios). But it’s not a job for the fainthearted. Doing just what you want is a great freedom, but holding your nerve and using that freedom to pay the bills – that’s not an easy life.

Not just a pretty face

I left my hairdresser recently; other women of a certain age will sympathise. Undeniably talented hairdresser that he was, Bob was somehow just not seeing me anymore. I’m not sure when I went from paying customer with individuality into the big box marked ‘nice ladies of a certain age’ but, just like in Toy Story, there I was. Left on the side of the style road waiting for the nursing home truck. The nail in the coffin came when I said that I didn’t wish to look like a lady who spent her days colour matching towels in John Lewis and he replied that I ‘had the face for it’. He was right of course; I have the pleasant face of the stranger who’ll mind your bags while you nip to the loo. Doesn’t mean I care to pay to be reminded of it. Now I go to Emily, covered in a riot of tattoos, who is far more interested in my trips to Japan and my prints and far less in pigeon-holing me into a one cut suits all.

The sad fact is that I am as guilty as Bob. I once taught a very elderly woman who was struggling a bit in class. I spent a bit more time than usual one to one with her and sorted out what she needed to understand. Then I stupidly said that being in class could be a bit overwhelming and not to worry. I didn’t actually say ‘for a woman of your age’, but I might as well have done.

She smiled kindly and said that she thought the problem was too much time in class, not too little. Handing in the final papers of her doctorate had clashed with my workshop, so she was feeling a little tired. I’m grateful for that humiliating lesson in teaching me that people are very seldom who you think they are. Can I put in a word here for a similar re-education programme for mobile phone sellers? I’m tired of having my ignorance interpreted as stupidity and I’m sure many feel the same. I’m ignorant about phones because I can’t be ars*d to be interested, not because I lack the intelligence to learn.

Appearances can be deceptive. We all know that and we all forget it. This week on the Ask and Artist podcast we’re discussing social media, the most misleading light ever provided to shine on our personal and professional lives. Surely social media is the greatest villain for misinterpretation the world has ever seen. Or is it?

All the towels in my studio are coordinated to match with equally inky filth

For me as an artist it is the exact opposite and I hope that’s true for most creatives. It’s a platform for my reality. A world away from predictable ‘niceness’ of my age, face and clothes, where I share just who I am and what I can do. I’m good with social media and I believe this is mostly down to authenticity and honestly. That the audience like my output is fantastic, but that I have a place to put the output is even better. Look on social media and you’ll see the truth: in my world, towels are ripped into squares and dunked in ink and spirits, not politely matched to the colour of the downstairs loo.

Take the Plunge

This week’s blog will have to serve for two weeks of podcasts. I took Christmas week off writing to indulge in cooking. The cooking was huge fun, the post-visit laundry less so, but hey it was a good Christmas and I hope your Christmas was a good one too.

We covered criticism on Ask an Artist last week and I hope you listened. Dealing with critics is not just for art, but for Christmas too. A graceful fielding of family critics is always a good skill to possess. I used to get wildly angry with a Christmas relative who added ‘little’ when referring to anything I did. It was a clever ploy; even a NATO accord is belittled by ‘little’. I’d love to tell you how I managed to defuse the situation with witty words, but in reality I learned the wise lesson to let go and that some little things can be dismissed with a little smile.

Come on in – the water’s lovely!

This week the podcast is about finding your own style. It’s something we all need as artists, but I’m beginning to believe that it’s one of those elusive things that arrive the more you do and the less you think. Bit like my swimming lessons. Swimming I’ve always found easy, thanks to my brother who, in the name of ‘teach your small sister to swim’, tipped me into the deep end of the swimming pool and saw to it that I didn’t actually drown. The after-swim flake from the vending machine and the attention of a heroically older brother was more than enough reward for me to embrace the whole proceeding with gusto and to clamour for more.

Artistic identity is a little the same I think. More about jumping into the deep end and paddling hard, less about thinking things through. Individuality will out and, as skills develop, will become more pronounced. A case of loving what you do and following where your interests lie. My initial interest in swimming lay in impressing my brother and eating chocolate, but ended up resulting in a strong and confident swimmer with what I would certainly describe as an ‘individual’ style.

As mentioned, this week’s Ask An Artist is all about individual artistic identity; how to develop your unique style, how to keep it fresh and how to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a one trick pony. Don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite podcast provider!

What goes around comes around…

I spend a lot of time on social media and on my web site telling people all about what I do and how I do it. I’m quite happy, indeed enthusiastic, in sharing knowledge. I am very pleased to share. My family and non-printmaker friends will tell you how pleased I am. They’d just roll their eyes and look exhausted while doing so.

I’m not alone in this. I have just visited two paint and printing ink manufacturers to interview for the podcast. They are going to be long episodes. Far from wanting to control the podcast around promoting products, both companies revelled in sharing ideas, methods and helpful hints. Both challenged artists to get in touch; ‘the harder the questions the better’.

Sharing techniques and materials has never been a problem for me. Printmaking is very process-led and that means plenty of lovely tools, materials and methods to share. Aside from that, I feel a debt of gratitude to people who helped me along the way. Passing on my knowledge to others is simply keeping the chain of generosity intact as I go from novice to experienced printmaker. I believe generosity in the art world is pretty common, here are a few of my experiences.

I’ll start close to home with my in-laws. My lino tools were given to me to take to art school by my now mother-in-law and former illustrator Sal, whose father James Boswell used them for his own prints and for illustration jobs of all kinds.

My mother-in-law Sal painted by her dad James Boswell . I love this painting, she’s less keen.

They are beautiful professional tools that she entrusted to her son’s 18 year old girlfriend of a year who was about to vanish over the horizon to Aberystwyth University, possibly never to be seen again.

Paul Hogarth, the illustrator, who I met in passing and who took time out to chat and to tell me exactly how hard I would need to work and how much passion was needed to become an artist. It took me many years to realise how sensible and realistic he was and to see how much he didn’t need to waste time with a twenty-something shilly-shallying between a paying job and trying to make it as an artist, but he did so anyway.

Old Mr Lawrence of Lawrence Art Supplies who apparently had all the time in the world to discuss Japanese papers and printing inks in his shop in Bleeding Heart Yard and who treated me like a serious artist when I was anything but.

Ian Phillips, linocut printer and member of Pine Feroda, who told me (when I began printmaking in earnest in 2005) to stop thinking of myself as a woman with a shed and a hobby, to grow up and start behaving like printmaker with a studio and has given me endless helpful advice ever since.

The list goes on, but I am sure you get my point. What goes around comes around and I’m very happy to be a part of that process.

This week on the Ask an Artist Podcast we are celebrating Christmas by discussing the many ways of giving back to other artists, the local community and to our supporters. The podcast is released weekly on Fridays at 10am GMT