Laura Boswell is not at home…

I am not good with heights or indeed with the wild outdoors. As a child of the city, I used to spend summers with friends in Lincolnshire. Daughters of a farming family, they were perfectly at home running wild all day with their father’s horses, up trees and lighting fires. I was not. I was unfit in almost every sense and, put up on the farmer’s expensive hunter, allowed her to run onto the main road before falling off and needing stitches. With the wisdom of age, I see that I was not the clumsy idiot I felt, just skilled in other ways. Navigating the tube with ease by ten and possessing a Londoner’s knack for jumping on and off moving buses. This was the seventies when kids were free to roam and, provided I had the sacred 2p for a phone call, a fair chunk of London was my playground.

Hoping I live long enough to turn this view into a print…

These days I work with landscape and you’d think I’d be better at being out there. Sadly, it isn’t true. I’ve just a couple of days drawing, first on the North Yorkshire Moors and then at St Abbs Head up in Scotland. The moors were everything you would expect from a Yorkshire December bar the snow, while St Abbs Head is a magnificent length of Scottish Coast: picture a rucked-up candlewick bedspread falling into the sea from a great height.

I’m fit enough these days, but not what I would call comfortable. You can see it in my urgent, ‘get me out of this weather and into some dry/warm clothes’ sketches. Add the dizzy plunges of St Abbs Head and I go from grumpily uncomfortable into properly scared. This part of the trip I alternated between a sort of locked-knee mincing walk and, anywhere near the edge, I opted for all fours or a sort of amateur commando elbow shuffle flat out. Nobody falls off a cliff lying down – am I right?

You’d think I’d give up landscape for bowls of roses and cityscapes, but my work is increasingly looking to wilder places and I think there’s probably good reason. It’s my discomfort and craven fear that makes these places so damn exciting for me and so much more productive for my printmaking. It’s the ‘hiding behind the sofa while thrilled by Doctor Who’ syndrome. Perhaps I’ll get happier at being out there, though probably not, but I’ll feel the fear and keep on going regardless.

This week on Ask an Artist podcast we discuss writing an artist statement. Funnily enough I don’t say anything about my clumsy and reluctant embrace of nature in mine, but then I think they’re best kept short.

Christmas Games

Christmas is looming so here’s a little game to play that’ll hopefully be more fun than reviving the annual bicker about a) who fed the cat/dog the most inappropriate treats and is now responsible for the subsequent fallout b) why all the hard/soft centres have vanished from the bottom layer of the chocolate box before the top one was empty c) whether a brisk post-lunch walk/drinks with the neighbours is a seasonal highlight/to be avoided at all costs.

For the game, you each choose three things from around the house that you have bought over the years and that have a special meaning for you. I’d love them to be pieces of art, but it’s not really that important. You could choose a soap dish, or maybe a wooden spoon. Or choose both and a piece of art, since I did say three things. Then each person gets to tell the stories behind their choices. Prizes for the best stories are optional and awards go to any object chosen by more than one member of the family. This should go well unless you choose the distressed leather recliner you bought at a car boot sale and have reclined in it throughout the clearing up post-dinner.

Gifts and inheritances aside, objects we buy that mean a lot to us tend to come with a story and, more often than not, it is about the moment when the object is found and bought. You’ll have just proved that with your warm and witty stories.

As an artist, I have a head start over the sellers of soap dishes and wooden spoons since people are buying my work as a pleasurable luxury. But it’s still in my power to make or break the experience. The trick for success is really simple and it’s to take the time to listen and respond to the customer with genuine interest and kindness. Customers when coaxed to tell, come with the first part of the story; the why of the purchase. Then I fill in the middle where they get to learn about the who, what and how. By the time the artwork gets home, it’s a purchase bound up with empathy plus a deeper understanding, and the whole experience becomes more than the sum of its parts. It may even become a winner in a Christmas game one day.

This week on the Ask an Artist podcast we are interviewing gallery owner and art dealer Nick Bentley about his gallery Bils and Rye and his customer and artist relationships. Listen out for his bittersweet story about a piece of jewellery and a special customer he’ll always remember.

The Artist’s Persona

I do like a personality quiz. There’s something appealingly Daliesque in discovering the public building that most represents my taste in men, or which Jane Austin book reveals my secret sporting ability*. Surreal answers aside, the one fixed point in these random tests is my high score as an introvert.

If life consisted of hiding in the studio and pretending to be otherwise occupied when required to speak to anyone other than the studio spiders, introverted is all I would need to be. I’d have a considerable talent for the task. But most of my time is spent in front of other people; teaching, chatting, selling and generally being a pleasantly outgoing and engaging person. Indeed, my livelihood depends on it.

Keeping calm and carrying on!

Fortunately, connecting with people is a skill that can be learned. It’s terrifying, like most extreme sports, but comes with practice. I made it a rule, when I started out as a printmaker, to engage with strangers whenever I could. Not in a mad person on the bus way. Think more inept British person breaking all bounds of normality to mumble something about the weather. I still make myself do this to keep my hand in; take away the art and I’m back to staring at my shoes and avoiding all eye contact.

Over the years I’ve actually come to love this duality and my outgoing role as an artist. I like meeting people, hearing their stories, coaxing lovely prints out of students and taking part in shows and fairs. I weirdly adore giving public talks about my work: an evening all about me and a chance to show off in public, what’s not to like? Turns out that inside the introvert, there’s a borderline extrovert waiting to break free. It just takes my job, backed up with some hard core training, to make the switch.

Ask an Artist podcast explores the artist’s persona this week, the how and why of developing a professional public face. Have a listen and tell your friends – we’d love to have your company

• Tate Britain/talented (obviously)
• Sense and Sensibility/downhill running with mixed success

Putting on a show…

My boarding school was big on presentation. Any event that involved us as a group saw every girl issued with a pair of deeply horrible American Tan tights. In fairness to Americans, I think the colour was based more on the idea of America as a place of glowing opportunity than a skin tone. Either way, we were made to wear bizarrely tangerine tights in the name of unity and good presentation.

The tights might have sucked, but the presentation thing stuck. My first ever exhibition took place in our garage and consisted of about twelve prints. A small show, but I was big on the presentation aspect. We hauled out every last bit of junk and scrubbed the place, added lighting and hung work in matching frames made by my husband on our kitchen table with huge care and painfully little experience. I hung signs on as many local lamp posts as the local council would stand and made carefully coordinated price labels and little storyboards about printing. Then I optimistically invested in wrapping and a cash float for the imagined sales.

Ouch, mixing that colour ink was traumatic…

Perhaps I should have worn the lucky American Tan tights too. For the first six of the nine days nobody came at all except my family. Thankfully they showed up, made robust comments about giving things time and generously found a need to buy a print or two.

On the last weekend I got some proper visitors; four unknown strangers. The first couple came and took my small show perfectly seriously, writing in the visitor’s book that they enjoyed the ‘well-presented work’ and promising to come back next year. The second couple bought a print, commenting that they were sorry they’d not noticed I was open in previous years as they very much liked my work. Suddenly all that preparation was worth it and the show seemed a total success. The sale felt great, but more importantly the casual acceptance by total strangers that I was the real deal did wonders for my confidence. It also confirmed my faith in the power of good presentation. That said, I remain steady in the belief that American Tan tights, still available on Ebay, are best avoided.

This week ASK AN ARTIST podcast is all about art fairs, don’t forget to subscribe!

Understanding Galleries.

I have a gamekeeper turned poacher feeling about galleries. I had a similar sort of job working in a picture library in the nineties and the overlap has stood me in good stead when it comes to understanding and working with galleries as an artist.

I used to manage a collection of child development photographs, the work of about ten or so professional photographers. There’s much I could tell you about alternative methods of childbirth and developmental milestones. Instead I’ll tell you that looking after those photographers and managing their work was more than enough labour to entitle our business to the 50% we took from any sales. Hopefully no artist would arrive at a gallery with a big smile and several carrier bags packed with uncut and rapidly unspooling ribbons of film as my photographers often did, but still the workload for any serious gallery is huge and the responsibilities equally demanding. And that’s just the behind the scenes work, not the selling.

My time managing the baby photos taught me not to be sentimental. I needed to send out photos that would sell, not photos I liked. Among the hundreds of babies, it was easy to spot that my son Jim was the winner; clearly the most intelligent and beautiful child on file. That didn’t mean he’d sell for every job.

My lovely Jim, cover boy for Mothercare during the boom years…

When I sent my photo selections to clients they were based on sales, not mother-love, and he often didn’t make the cut. Remembering this when a gallery turns me down or returns work unsold helps to remind me that rejection isn’t personal, just a practical decision based on sales and not to take it too much to heart.

We loved our photographers, crazy and demanding creatives that they were. We welcomed their visits, drank tea, shared lunches and took time to truly understand their work and methods. I don’t expect every gallery to supply lunch and tea, but I’ve no time for any who have no time for me. A good gallery never makes an artist feel it’s a favour to take their work and, if they don’t mind, could they use the back entrance and be quick about leaving. Without the artists, there is no gallery and without taking time to understand the artist’s work, selling must be close on impossible. It’s not often I walk away, but I did the day a gallery owner greeted me with ‘love your work darling, now remind me which ones of these are yours?’

On this week’s Ask An Artist podcast we talk all things gallery, don’t forget to subscribe!

There was no grand plan

My becoming an artist was a chance event, so entirely dependent on the kindness of almost-strangers, that I could easily have missed the boat entirely and spent the rest of my life without so much as picking up a sketchbook, let alone an inky roller. And when the chance did come, I was far from keen to seize the day; it took a year of gradually evaporating patience on the part of distant, to me, family friends to press the gift of an Albion printing press upon me and more or less force me back into print.

Sounds stupid doesn’t it? Even if you aren’t a printmaker and are not presently shouting ‘YOU SAID NO TO AN ALBION??’ at the screen, it’s obvious in retrospect that I was an idiot. I was indeed an eejit (as my Irish father-in-law, best mates with the press-offering friends would confirm), but the problem was a big one. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the printing, though after a sixteen year period without drawing, let alone printmaking, it was a serious concern. It was that I knew from the very first suggestion that I might like a press, that this would be no private hobby. Agreeing would launch me on a new path as an artist and open a whole can of worms that were noticeably absent from my part time work, gardening and family life. I can’t say how I knew that, but know it I did, and I was fairly sure that I was going to die trying to make it all happen.

Early days with my new press, but already a deadly serious face!

Thankfully I caved and took the press. Fourteen years later, I still get cold sweats thinking I could so easily have missed my chance.

My story does lack the fairy dust of passionate ambition fulfilled and instead reveals considerable ingratitude and dithering on my part. But I did get one thing mostly right; the journey to becoming an artist was a tough one and, while I didn’t die trying, it’s been a staggeringly steep learning curve. Starting with a very simple lesson: always say yes to the offer of a press.

So this is new…

I’m painfully aware that it’s been a long time since my last blog. Increasingly aware and increasingly pained as my brother-in-law and manager of my website, has taken to pinging me emails on the subject. Reminding me of my blog deficiency with an ever-lengthening timeline of my failure to provide.

I wouldn’t mind, but it’s made worse by the fact that I like writing this blog. Here’s the place where I get to write with slack on subjects I fancy. Those who know me will know I have a monthly column at Artists and Illustrators Magazine and have just written a book*. Noble projects both of them, but requiring me to be accurate, conscientious and not to slag off my relations for calling me out on my failings. The book’s done, but the articles are ongoing and once I have cudgelled my brain into embracing a fresh topic for A&I every month, there’s precious little energy to think again for my blog.

That’s about to change. Hurrah. At 10am GMT Friday 8th November I launch a podcast with fellow artist Peter Keegan. We are channelling everything we know about the business of becoming artists into Ask an Artist and hitting the airwaves. This for the greater good of all those out there who want to make a start on earning some money from their art. For the greater good of me, there’s going to be a lovely cascade of blog ideas weekly. The proper show notes and yet another writing job, I’ll be doing over at the Ask an Artist website more or less in the style of a stern but kindly aunt. Here I get the freedom to blog along freestyle.

Of course, I urge you to tie up all the loose ends by subscribing to the show on your platform of choice, embracing my sage show notes over at Ask an Artist and completing the triad by reading this blog, which I promise will now appear on a more regular basis. But it’s not compulsory. Nothing about this blog is compulsory, not even not writing it for a bit. Just saying…

*My book ‘Making Japanese Woodblock Prints’ Crowood Press is coincidentally also due to be released on Friday 8th November. I’d shout more about this, but the first print run is already spoken for in pre-orders, so there’s going to be a bit of a delay while they print some more.

How it’s made: reduction linocut my way…

I thought it would be interesting to write a blog explaining exactly how I make one of my linocut prints. This print, called Vale Raking Light is a great candidate for a thoroughly nerdy piece with plenty of technical detail and hopefully some helpful ideas.

Maybe take a quick quiz to see if this blog is for you before you go on reading: you meet a person at a party who begins talking about the rag content of paper. Do you a) wonder in bemused horror how much scraping your host had to do at the bottom of the social barrel to come up with this freak or b) glow with pleasure as you give up the next two hours and all pretence of socialising while you pin down why Somerset may or may not trump BFK Rives. I leave you to judge, depending on your answer, whether to read on or not…

Raking Light is a reduction linocut using traditional artists/battleship lino, printed in oil-based inks onto Fabriano Rosaspina paper using an Albion printing press. By reduction printing, I mean that the whole print is created from one piece of lino (which I’ll refer to as the block in this blog). After each layer of colour is printed, more is cut from the block until the print is finally finished and the block destroyed. This print has fifteen layers of inking in all.

I use Intaglio Printmakers oil-based inks with the addition of their extender and cobalt drier. Extender adds transparency to the inks, like adding water to watercolour paint. A scant drop of cobalt drier to a tablespoon of ink will speed the drying time of oil-based from days to hours. I use oil-based ink because I find it much more sympathetic to colour mixing: what you see is what you get. With water-based ink, the colours look edgier and often darker on paper as opposed to the mixing slab and can look chalky with the addition of white. Importantly I can work light to dark and, less conventionally, dark to light with oil in ways impossible in water-based ink. I also avoid the danger of the paper cockling with damp ink. This can be a problem with water-based inks, especially since I often work with many layers of ink.

Raking Light began with a sky spotted from the car. I lurched to a halt on the road into Aylesbury and took photos on my phone. Usually I make sketches too, but not this time, not on the A413. I used these photos to work up this design drawing ready for transfer to the lino.I assemble my landscapes in my studio with the help of source material. I’m far more interested in catching the feel of a place rather than making an accurate representation of a specific location. That way the viewer is free to make the landscape their own while I, in turn, am free to arrange the composition to my own satisfaction. You’ll see the land change shape later as the print progresses.

I made a tracing from my drawing to transfer the lino to the block. I use Polydraw plastic tracing film for all my tracings. Polydraw is completely stable, no swelling or cockling even if it is splashed with water, unlike conventional tracing paper. I flipped the tracing over to reverse it (so that the print would appear in the same orientation as the design drawing, rather than as a mirror image) and transferred it onto prepared lino using carbon paper. I prepare my lino by giving it a light sanding with fine sandpaper to key the surface and then stain it with red ink much diluted with white spirit. I wipe the dilute ink on with a cloth, leave it for a few minutes and then rub off the excess and wipe over with white spirit to finish. The carbon paper I use is office carbon and it can transfer to the print unless it is treated. To prevent transfer with oil-based inks, I leave the carbon to ‘set’ for an hour or so and then wipe over thoroughly with white spirit. This reduces, but doesn’t prevent, transfer when using water-based inks, for those I suggest making some sacrificial prints to allow the carbon transfer to fade before starting to print properly.

This photo shows the lino with the first layer of ink applied for printing. I used a combination of different rollers to apply the ink. Here I have at least three rollers on the go and am inking only where I feel it is appropriate. With this approach, you can either just add more ink between each impression, accepting that the image will become softened and blended with each application, or you can wipe down the block between each print so that the painterly application of ink is fresh in every print. I dot between the two methods depending on what I’m doing.
This is the lino showing my early cutting. The red is chinagraph pencil and the blue lines the carbon. I used the chinagraph to resolve the landscape as I went – it changed significantly right up until the end of printing thanks to how the work developed. I may start with a design drawing, but it is never set in stone and I often change and adapt as I go. I never make a colour study or plan of any sort either. This seat of the pants approach means I am constantly responding to what the work needs rather than being restricted by preconceptions.
This is an early impression showing the mix of roller-applied colour in the sky. The ink is mixed with extender at about 95% extender for great transparency. Using so much extender comes at a price: it can make the ink sticky and stringy, flicking it up onto the bar of the roller where drops can drip back down onto the print (solved by keeping and eye out and wiping down regularly). This dilution also requires a good deal more work with the roller on the lino than normal to even out the ink if you want a smooth transparent layer. I use a little ‘tack reducer’ added to the ink to make it flow better and be less sticky. Tack reducer looks like Vaseline and a small amount added to oil-based ink will help it to flow on cold days and eases the stringiness of extender-heavy inks.
Here is my slab showing the various colours and rollers. I always mix using the previous colours as a part of the new colour. This started out as thrift in my student days, but now is more a matter preference for a harmonious palette.
This picture shows the build up of the sky, very transparent and painterly. I enjoy the contrast between the definite cut line in my work and the vagaries of my inking. This makes for an edition where the prints all share the same colours and cutting, but the application of the ink varies. I have no issue with this, making numbered photos available for clients and galleries to select their preferred prints and have never had a problem commercially. If I reach a point where the variation pushes the notion of an edition too far, I will sell the prints as a series.
This series of photos shows the build up of the landscape. The land remained a quandary and, if I’m honest a bit of an irritation, until I started work on it, then it became my favourite part of the print. The first couple of layers of land had almost as much extender as the sky to give it luminosity, but as I got closer to the foreground, I reduced the extender to less than 20% and then removed it all together for the last couple of layers. I didn’t decide what to do about the tree until the end, but kept my options open by putting on some ink at an early stage to see how it looked. I didn’t ink the tree at every stage so that it would stay crisp and detailed when finally printed. I always avoid over-inking areas of fine detail if I can.

These two photos show the lino with a painterly application of bright ink that is going to print over dark ink, then the subsequent print (see how I am now ignoring the tree). While oil-based ink makes it possible to work light over dark, you need to make the lights overly bright, as the darker base layer will always knock paler ink back and subdue its tone on the print itself.

Below is the final result again showing the finished tree which I printed in one hit, highlights and all. I began with fourteen pieces of paper and ended up with fourteen finished prints. This takes a good deal of experience and nerve.

The reduction process doesn’t allow for test proofing or going back and printing more. If you are new to the process, either allow yourself some extra prints for mistakes or accept you could end up with a very small edition (I do remember going from twelve down to one back in the early days, necessitating a cry and probably some chocolate biscuits).

If you want to see the variation in inking you can look at the prints in succession here. Better still, if you’d like to buy one, click here. If you want yet more advice insight and help, you can scour my resources pages here or join me on Facebook or Instagram where you’ll find me as Laura Boswell Printmaker.

What not to say…

I think of myself as a good customer, not really any trouble and certainly not an irritation in a coffee shop. Then my son, who used to juggle his work as an illustrator with work making coffee*, pointed out a few unexpected things I should and shouldn’t do that make all the difference for the staff. Here are a few pointers along the same lines that make an artist’s life a little easier, based on a few things that I’ve experienced and know other artists encounter as well.

‘I did that at school.’ As a complete sentence, this isn’t a winner with any artist. As part of a sentence, it can be. Every Japanese person that’s ever watched me demonstrating Japanese woodblock printing has said ‘I did that at school’. The big difference, and part of why I miss Japan so much, is that they’ve then gone on to add something like ‘so I think I can see what you are doing’ or ‘but I only worked in one colour’ thus turning the phrase from one of dismissal at my childish antics into an engaging conversation starter. Though when I think about it, school’s a place where there are so many things to try. Thus we could be saying this to so many more people. I might try it with an accountant, biologist or journalist next time I meet one.

If you wouldn’t ask your plumber, don’t ask an artist. Here I mean those personal questions outside of our respective skills set. It’s surprising how many people feel fine asking artists some pretty invasive questions. Some I’ve fielded include ‘Do you actually make money at this?’ ‘How much money do you make in a year?’ and ‘So your partner’s the one paying the bills?’ Just because we artists are a bit of a mystery with a business plan that runs along the lines of ‘so I’ll make some stuff out of my head involving some colours and shapes and strangers will pay me’ it doesn’t mean we’ve forfeited our right to privacy and a little respect. Besides we’ve probably all had our fill of such questions hissed in various tones of anxiety and exasperation by our mums and dads, back when we were filling out forms for art school.

No need to make creative excuses for not buying work from artists. Artists who sell work directly quickly become realists and we all understand that not every encounter results in a sale. I can relate to this one because, back when I was an awkward teenager (this was so long ago that the local clothes shop concerned had staff who took an actual interest in me as a customer) I found it almost impossible to leave empty handed without concocting a polite excuse usually involving my needing to ask my mum – a teenager? Seeking advice from mum? Really? Not having space on the wall is, I’m afraid, a similar polite evasion familiar to all artists and hopefully we receive it with the same kindness as the ladies in Teen Jean.

Buying a lovely piece of art at a show is a thrilling experience. Share that with your companions, tweet about it, post a selfie with it, or break the news gently to your accountant. Whatever else you do, refrain from rushing back to another artist at the event and sharing the moment with them. No artist, however much they love, support and generally want the best for their artist companions, will share the joy of you having bought a piece of work from someone else. We may be the best qualified to understand the work and the value of your purchase, but we are usually a bit tired and a bit stressed from selling our own work and most likely not really pouring our entire heart into sharing the moment. When this happens from time to time I try just to put it down to overriding excitement and tell myself it’s charming really…

‘How long does it take you to make it?’ is a trick question, or at least it has a trick answer. It’s not a great question for an artist because making art really isn’t the same as turning out cans of beans from the factory. Anything other than a specific time based reply sounds pretentious, but would be the most fair. While I try to avoid the nauseating ‘a week to make and a lifetime of experience’ that’s actually a pretty honest answer. No piece of art exists in a vacuum and a single print, it is always prints in my case, is really a follow on from the things I learnt before and the things I intend for the next one. It may take a week to design, cut and print, but that’s just the mechanics. It takes no account of the time it took me to reach the level to make the print in that week. Reducing work to the mechanics of production with no account for the artist’s skills is to miss the point a bit. Besides, we’re usually rubbish at gauging time when we’re making something. I tend to tell the passage of time by how many clean socks are left and if there’s any milk.

I hope, like Jim’s explanation of what not to do in a café, this helps. I know my coffee breaks now give the staff a break as well as a result of his advice. But not to worry if you’ve said some or all of these things (OK, worry a bit if you asked ‘So your partner’s paying the bills?’ That one was rude). We’ve heard it all before and we’ll hear it again and we understand how easy it is to just say the first thing that comes into your head when you have to say something to a stranger and an artist at that. But dodge the things on this list and we’ll be in a much better position to give you some interesting answers.

* Incidentally Jim’s neat answer to very rude customers was to take the time to perfect his decorative milk pouring skills to the point that he could create a penis design to top the coffee in question. Short with the staff? Might be worth checking that flat white…

Self doubt and the room next door…

I heard a great quote on the radio the other day. An artist was explaining how they dealt with self-doubt: ‘I look at complete confidence as the consolation prize of the less able, while self doubt is the essential partner to talent’. This had me feeling instantly more cheerful, convinced as I am that in the urbane studio next door there are real artists who know what they’re about, while I simply muddle through.

It’s almost impossible to judge where you stand as an artist. Do you choose to measure yourself according to finance, audience approval, gallery wall space, job offers, rejections, social media, student bookings, personal fulfilment or some other criteria? And even if I could pick a gauge and go through the unpleasant task of rating myself, would that stop the nagging voice telling me that those in that other room (a room incidentally I picture as a sort of eighteenth century art salon designed by Tom Ford) have a grip where I don’t?

About a year or so I did some thinking and came to realise that I had it wrong. It’s the self-doubt that’s the important measure of how I am doing, not the other stuff I mentioned. Without that unsettling yardstick of insecurity, I’d fear I was getting comfortable and had stopped being honest; that I’d found an adequate visual vocabulary and was sticking with it, instead of taking the the risk of hunting out new and better ways of saying precisely what I wanted for each new print.

So I accept the discomfort of self-doubt as a good sign that I’m doing my job properly and not slumping into easy ways. It doesn’t make the sensation any more comfortable to feel, but it’s at least familiar and it does keep me rigorous. Sadly, it also means I’m forever denied access to the elusive Tom Ford salon for the grown ups of art, but maybe that’s a good thing too – I haven’t got a thing to wear…