The getting of wisdom

Along with Woman’s Weekly, I’m a great believer in hints and tips. I do love to experiment and I’m only too eager to share my findings with the world. Mostly my friends and family are not over interested in raising grain on wood, new papers or alum as a mordant, but there are a whole bunch of people out there who are. To that end I run a page on Facebook and if this sounds like a cheap ad then I’ll come clean, it is. Join me at Laura Boswell Printmaker and I’ll tell you all sorts of things which may come in handy with your printmaking.

Not all artists feel the same about this. My favourite horror story came from a weekend student who had asked a technical question about the printmaking she was learning and was told by her artist-teacher that she ‘couldn’t expect to be handed everything on a plate’. I had a chat about this with a class of eleven year olds recently and was told in no uncertain terms ‘if you tell all your secrets Miss, then other people will do it too’.

Fortunately for me there are fairly big odds stacked against me being replaced, whatever secrets I tell. I arrive at my images by a process which is a complete mystery to me. I have a feel for how I want things to look, nothing as clear as a mental picture, and I simply strike out in that direction. It’s not much of a road map and I’m fairly sure that other artists are way more interested in taking their own journey, not mine.

The other issue is sheer hard boring work. A marathon runner can tell you what shoes to wear, which drinks to use, how to interval train, but it’s you who has to get out there and suffer the running. Printmaking is a hard, long, precise slog with many, many mistakes and disappointments before you get to the point where ‘it looks easy’ and that takes serious passion. Add to that the work of being self employed: the pitches, the marketing, the paperwork, the logistics of exhibitions, the rejections, the teaching prep etc. Frankly not many people will be up for that. Most people are sensibly happy to print as an adjunct to normal life and if they are in it for the long haul then, like me, they need all the help they can get.
So, I’ll keep on being open and excited to share everything I do. Frankly if I help in making printmaker’s lives a bit easier then great, I’m proud to do that. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough brilliant advice in my time to be only too happy to pass some along.

The Colour of Money

How I price my prints.

When it comes to my prints, I feel pretty much the same as Quentin Crisp: ‘there’s no greater sign of love than somebody prepared to pay money’. He may have other things in mind, but it’s a valid thought. I know we are, as artists, supposed to live for higher things than cash (which would be nice if we could also be spared boring details like broken boilers, council tax and the need to eat), but the fact a stranger can be so delighted by the way I have arranged ink on paper that they’ll happily give me their money does tend to do it for me.

Pricing art is a really difficult one; there are all sorts of methods out there ranging from complicated algorithms to a price per inch guide for painters. I try to keep my work at a price that reflects the size of the work and the complexity of production, while remaining affordable. Gauging the affordable bit I do in food: the price of a curry, pizza and coke for the family, anniversary meal, anniversary meal when you’ve forgotten the anniversary etc. The public don’t always see it that way: nearly every artist has a show story where their prices have been questioned by Joe Public only too happy to blow almost the same amount in lunch, beer and ice cream in the next tent (not that we’re bitter…).

So, having decided on keeping my prices affordable, the other hurdle is the difference between selling work myself and selling it through galleries who, in my opinion, quite reasonably want their cut. After some trial and error I’ve decided there’s only one sensible solution for me. If a picture costs a curry for four with a couple of pints of Kingfisher each and an unnecessary kulfi, then that’s what I’ll be asking if you buy from me, the internet or in a gallery.

So there you have it, one artist’s view on pricing. It may be simplistic and I may not reap huge rewards as a consequence, but it keeps things fair and me able to sleep. I’ll shortly be adding prices to my prints on the web site (at the moment you have to mail me to ask) and you can do your own conversions – motorbike parts maybe or tickets to assorted Olympic events?

A Cut Above

I think printmaking is a bit like Marmite or skiing – you either love it or wonder why anyone would honestly bother (for me: Marmite yes, skiing why?). To that end I teach all my classes in a way that allows the newly addicted to rush home and do it immediately. To say ‘Glad you loved the lino cut, but sorry, you haven’t got a nice Albion press like me so you can’t do it at home’ takes a meaner spirit than mine.

To this end I teach reduction lino printing using a table top device to hold the lino in place with a frame to take the paper. It all works a treat and makes multi-coloured prints burnished by hand perfectly possible at the kitchen table. If any of you would like the plans then contact me and I’ll send you the instructions to make it. Not rocket science (or brain surgery), but a few bits of MDF to cut unless you want to make it out of stiff card.

Students work
I’ve just finished a weekend of lino cutting at Missenden Abbey and my ten students excelled at their lino prints. I made them work in same three colours plus the white of the paper with some dramatic results as you can see here. As always when I teach, I learnt something myself: to revisit my mark making when I cut the lino. At the moment most of my lino work is very painterly, relying on blends of colour across the block. Now I am eager to be more imaginative with my cutting again and I’ll be starting with a little series of seasonal trees so watch this space…

Much as I love the teaching, I find it almost unbearable to watch my students cutting and not be cutting myself. I have to stop myself asking them to let me help out exactly as I would do if they were eating hot toast, bit of butter and that delicious smear of Marmite…

Pen Pals

Printmaking can be something of a lonely art. I often spend days where the only communication shared is me yelling ‘Oh for God’s sake’ when Radio Four’s afternoon play turns out to be yet another cheering tale of redundancy, terminal illness and relationship angst. This makes it all the more marvellous when I get to meet other printers. I’m delighted to be able to share a couple of pictures by a printmaker and illustrator I met down in Margate. He’s called Alan Burton and he’s the only other printmaker I’ve met so far who draws directly onto the lino in dip pen to give the image it’s quality of line.

Left: Pineapple and Lime.                 Right: Let’s fall in love

Dip pen and ink have always been my weapons of choice. I went to an infant’s school run by two sisters, Miss Bradley and her younger sister Miss Sylvia (those of you who read Victorian novels will appreciate that they hadn’t really embraced the twentieth century), we wrote with dip pen and I longed to be the ink monitor who filled the ink wells from a large glass bottle of weak blue ink. Later I progressed to spiky little mapping pens which could be bought in the stationery shop at my boarding school along with little bottles of black ink. Later still my future mother-in-law took me to a shop near the British Museum* where we bought boxes of assorted antique pen nibs and I have been using these ever since. When I began working full time as an artist a few years ago, my brother-in-law bought me a huge bottle of Indian Ink, finally fulfilling my ink monitor fantasies…

detail from my block showing pen and ink drawing with some cutting

Using pen and ink direct onto lino is a great way of working if you, like me, print with oil based inks. Firstly it stays on the block, good naturedly ignoring repeated washings with white spirit, and secondly it makes where to cut a no-brainer. It gives such a lovely line that the drawing does all the work for me: I just chop out the blank parts. Alan and I stood locked in the mutual pleasure of finding a fellow sympathiser. Why, we wondered, didn’t everyone work like this and why, I wondered, didn’t I get out more?

*Not Cornelissen. If I didn’t still have the nibs, I would have difficulty in believing the shop I bought them from ever existed. Sadly it is long gone, along with the elderly proprietor and the wall to ceiling little wooden drawers.

Turned Out Nice…

I’ve got a show on at the moment down at the Margate Gallery (it’s on until 20th May if you happen to be visiting). I grabbed the opportunity while there to visit the Turner Contemporary. Brilliantly I chose the day the gallery was celebrating its birthday and they gave me a goody bag with a large pink sparkly cupcake inside. No pass the parcel, but you can’t have everything…

Anyway, Turner: what a very clever man he was and how I envy that ability to catch light and shadow. I do try and depict our fabulously unpredictable climate in my prints and I’m always looking for new ways of saying ‘about to rain’ or ‘sun on snow’ etc, but my language is the removed one of printmaking rather than the immediate splash of watercolours. Normally I work with oil based relief inks on lino or with watercolour and rice paste on woodblock, but, excited by Turner and the E numbers in the cup cake icing, I wanted to see if I could get close to a watercolour sketch with lino. One of my experiments is below, a little illustration of the Lincolnshire fens which I drive through when visiting my sister. It’s done in water based ink, a mix of Schminke inks and Graphical Chemical, with an awful lot of extender added for transparency. It’s printed on Zerkal paper which is fine for small prints, but I’ve found to cockle on a larger scale.

Fen Skies Series: Squall

You’ll notice that I’ve used a brush to put rain into the print. Normally I work with rollers on lino. This time I used a damp but bristly decorator’s brush and swept the ink onto the block before printing it immediately. The trick is to confine yourself to simple bold strokes; the moment you get fussy you lose the definition of the brush stroke.

You’ll never produce an identical edition this way, but that’s never bothered me particularly: the weather’s never the same two days running, so why should my prints all match?

On the beach

Last month my first town sign went up in Leysdown-on-Sea on the Isle of Sheppey. This engagingly quirky and very traditional seaside resort’s been having a bit of an ‘art’ face lift and my three metre high enamel sign was part of the revamp. I’ve nothing against village signs, well, nothing unless you count the fact that they are often produced in an off the peg format and style which bears absolutely no relation to the spirit of the place. Rather like a funeral I went to where the deceased was praised for her enjoyment of classical music, but no mention was made of her breath taking talent for playing the spoons…

Not so Leysdown. For a start I was damned if I was going to produce something rectangular. Actually I would have been damned as a rectangle the size I had in mind wouldn’t have fitted in the furnace (an essential part of making vitreous enamel signage). I’ve worked many times with enamellers AJ Wells and Sons and between us we came up with a way of turning my idea for an arching segmented artwork into a practical and cost effective sign, immune to the attentions of excitable holiday makers on a high season Saturday night.

Front
Front

Imagery was easy: Leysdown’s the sort of place you visit with your Nan, catch crabs on the beach and get to stay up past bed time in the arcades. I adored similar holidays on the Lincolnshire coast as a child. I worked with writer Mark Hewitt and together we came up with a visual and verbal description of the town; caravan sites, wind farm and all. I believe in telling it how it is – the caravans are what makes Leysdown and they feature as a pattern across my sign. As far as I could see, each one had a family inside having a good time and that’s something to celebrate not belittle.

Back
Back

This is the first time I’ve used silk screen alongside hand painting. The front of the sign is mostly silk screen printing by my mate Ian at AJ Wells who makes it all look easy. Then, holding decorator’s roller trays like paint palettes and glossing rollers like brushes, I painted the seascape, the caravans and the landscapes.

I hope the locals like my sign and that they see it for what it is: a tribute to the kind of holiday destination that made for some of my best childhood memories…

True Grit

Preparing your lino.

reduction linocut

It’s not often these days that I make a breakthrough rather than a series of small adjustments in improving my lino cut. This breakthrough is so modest, simple and, now I think about it, so embarrassingly obvious that I am pretty sure most people do it already: it’s to sand the lino before using it. Give lino a very gentle sanding with a fine paper, I use the black wet/dry 600 (dry), and printing large areas of perfectly smooth thin, thin ink becomes a doddle.

Thin, thin ink is rather important for my kind of printing: I usually go to six or seven layers of colour and because I use my dip pen drawings as my pattern to cut, there’s usually a lot of very fine detail. The gloopier the ink, the more detail goes and the messier everything gets. My friend and fine printmaker Ian Phillips mentioned the business of sanding as a throwaway comment and he’s changed my life. Well, not my life; the house still needs cleaning and there’s no masseur available on tap, but it has improved my printing no end.

The other bit of preparation I find helps is to rub a bit of colour into the lino: cutting through a colour (I usually use red) into grey is so much easier than grey on grey and somehow much more satisfactory.

The print here is inspired by a poem by Carol Ann Duffy about Red Riding Hood. The connection is loose to say the least, I’m taking part in an exhibition for World Book Day next year and this is a possible entry. As you can see it is layer on layer and registration is critical. I also use cobalt dryers to speed up the drying of my now exquisitely thin ink layers. Cobalt dryer is a pretty purple liquid which I add in tiny drops to the inks (it doesn’t affect colour at all) and instead of my waiting around for days between layers, I have only to hop from one foot to the other for a few hours before I’m printing again.

Words to the wise about this sanding business though – do try and remember to do it before you do the master drawing on the lino block. I was in peril of scraping off all my pen lines on this one…

Paper Chase

I’ve been teaching summer school at Oxford Brookes Art School (which incidentally smells exactly like my old art school, whipping me back to a time when I lived on iced buns and lived for printing big linocuts of Aberystwyth’s distinctive architecture and town life) and one of the questions that kept coming up was ‘what paper do you use for printing your woodblocks?’.

The answer is that I haven’t settled on a paper in the UK. As I write there are rolls of paper about to be launched onto the high seas from Japan for me, but in the meantime I am using 200g Fabriano. The paper I was taught to use was washi – a long fibre mulberry bark paper – and, fatally, we were taken to the factory where the highest grade handmade washi is produced. Thanks to the usual extreme Japanese generosity I was given paper and unwittingly printed away, not realising that I was being ruined for life and that no paper I can afford in the UK would ever compare.

Fabriano 200g does work well, but I have found that it needs sizing with alum first. The alum acts as a mordant, making the colour more brilliant. I discovered a document about 17th century western paper making (I admit I was stumbling rather than engaging on personal improvement through rigorous research) which pointed out that the very same alum mordant used to prepare wool to accept dye would improve the appearance of watercolour on paper. Since I spin and occasionally dye my own wool this all made sense and, even better, I had the alum* to hand so was able to plunge into a series of experiments. My semi-scientific (I was wearing surgical gloves and a very inky lab coat) findings are that 32 – 64g of alum per 500ml water improves the colour brilliance no end.

Try it yourself. I should warn you that you shouldn’t get the stuff on your hands or in your eyes or stomach. Mind you, my mum used to lean over the kitchen sink and burn out her occasional mouth ulcers with neat alum. She swore by it, but I only ever did it once: it worked well, but felt exactly how you would expect burning a mouth ulcer out with acid would feel. Not a cheering experience.

*use Aluminium Potassium Sulphate and not Aluminium Sulphate as the latter is not as good for the paper as the former. You will find the powdered alum through any textile or wool dying suppliers.

Free for all

I am currently at the mid point of my Open Studio event. I’ve been opening up my studio for the last four or five years, allowing the public to arrive at will and experience a working print room. This is the first year I have opened for every day of the fortnight and it’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand it’s great because it pins me down in the studio all day and on the other hand it’s rotten because it pins me down in the studio all day. I am suffering from cabin fever. Suddenly the thought of going to the supermarket with an optional visit to the dry cleaners seems as seductively exciting as a trip to Monaco.

On the plus side it is making me get on with my work, though in fits and starts depending on who arrives and what they want to see. I feel there’s no point in having an open studio if people can’t see work in action and talk to the artist, pick up tools, handle the prints and ask all sorts of questions. The questions are interesting and range from the highly technical (a retired engineer interested in the inside specifications of the Albion Press) to the ghoulish (small boy ‘are those tools sharp enough to cut you so it wouldn’t stop bleeding until all your blood ran out?’) and sometimes to the plain well, plain: ‘how much money does this make you?’.

On the whole I enjoy this hiatus in the solitary time I spend with Radio Four and now with Radio Four Extra. Printmaking is such a blend of craft and art: it’s a bit of theatre with plenty of opportunity for thrills and surprises, the dark tragedy of the misplaced registration and the joy of peeling back the final perfect impression. It’d be a shame to keep it to myself all year.

Apron Strings

Laura wearing her Marketing Pinny
My American friend Betsy thinks it's great that we should call this a 'pinny'

This is my ‘printing pinny’ with one of my landscapes sewn on the front. I came up with the idea because I’m often at shows and fairs and I want something that says who I am without slapping a big badge on my front. I’m going to be demonstrating at Art in Action this year; it’s a big festival and the print marquee (as I recall) is hot, crowded and confusing. It’s hard to see the artists from the audience sometimes; one year I asked a charming man all about woodcut tools and, after answering me at length, it turned out he was a fellow visitor (albeit a printmaker). So apron plus landscape hopefully equals working artist plus identity…

There is a bit more to it than that. I grew up with a mum who was a professional dressmaker for a while and a brilliantly good seamstress. She didn’t cut my sister or I any slack and we both learned to sew early. This developed into quilt and collage making while I was running a business and, if you look at my prints, actually forms the basis for how I see landscape: the sky is often a backing cloth for the land. So the apron is just a dip back into the past for me and was such fun to make.

I do still make the odd quilt by hand. I made this one for my new great niece Millie in Australia – something traditional from the old world for a new world baby…

Millie's Quilt
Millies Quilt