Those who can’t…

‘Those who can’t do, teach’ – right? Teaching gets a bad press over here: seen as something an artist is forced to do to finance the creative process at best. At worst we’re teaching because we’ve failed to make it at any other level. So wrong in my opinion, especially after eight weeks of learning in Japan

As an artist, one of the greatest tools I have at my disposal is the opportunity to teach. How else will I get to work with such a diverse crowd of adults and children, all with ambitions, images, ideas, talents so very different from my own? The fact is that I have never taught anyone from age three up who hasn’t had something interesting to say through their work and their approach to printing. To work well I need to be teetering by the toes of my plimsolls on the wrong side of my comfort zone and it’s my students who help to get me there. Left alone, it’s me and Radio Four and no challenging ‘why’ or ‘what if’ or ‘how’ questions.

Japan is different. Teaching in Japan is seen as the art, the finished work is the by-product, and the more I teach the more I see why, though in truth I still see art as the art. With every group of students that leaves me clutching their prints and new found knowledge, the richer my work is for the exchange. I am glad that I have the knowledge to train others in the print process and to do it well: it’s for my benefit every bit as much as theirs.

‘Those that want to move forward, teach’ is the way I see it.

I’m teaching Japanese Woodblock at Oxford Brookes and at Missenden Abbey this summer. There are a few places still available, follow the links on the workshops page of my web site.

It’s not all about me

A couple of weeks ago I printed this linocut for my mother-in-law Sal. It was cut by her dad, Jim Boswell, who was a significant artist and illustrator. He was also, by all accounts, charming, funny, badly behaved and immensely engaging to know. It’s one of my great regrets that I never knew him in person, though I know him well through the many paintings and illustrations we have on our walls. I’d have liked his help and advice, which I know would have been good and, most of all, I would have liked his approval. Having Jim’s endorsement of my work would have meant a great deal.

Jim Boswell's Linocut

I was lucky enough to know his wife Betty, a woman of great good humour and resource. She had the wit, during rationing, to whisk away Jim’s Communist Party protest banners (which he had painted enthusiastically scarlet) and boil them down into suitably pink nightdress material for Sal’s boarding school wardrobe.

This print is very simple, it was done for a record cover (I’m guessing folk music, probably sea shanties), and easy to print on my Albion. Linocuts are like fingerprints: no artist cuts a block in the same way and to ink up Jim’s block was to get that little bit closer to knowing him better. It’s not a great print, certainly not one of his best, but it’s another piece in the puzzle for me. It’s also made me wonder about my own blocks: will some distant relative inherit them? I pity anyone who has to work out my woodblocks which are a maze of multiple blocks on both sides of the same wood (I learned to be thrifty in Japan and will put work wherever there is space). There’s not much hope for the lino either: my blocks are mostly destroyed as I cut away with every layer of colour I print. No point worrying though; I shan’t be around to care!

The Big One

Since 2009 I’ve had a 5m high and 140m long painting on exhibition in Aylesbury in the form of my street length enamel landscapes. People in Aylesbury know it well: they have no choice, they have to walk the length of my artwork to get to the train and bus station. My problem is showing everyone else. It’s impossible to squeeze even a sixth of it into one photo.

The first twenty meters
The first twenty meters

Finally we have a solution – a virtual walk along a massive composite picture of the whole thing and it is now on my web site. I won’t even pretend to understand how my husband Ben and brother-in-law Simon got the pictures taken, sorted and coded to make it happen. My technical involvement (apart from painting the thing in the first place) was to hold up a bit of white card at intervals and be photographed for colour balance. I’m also in the picture: once when I knew I was being photographed and look fairly civilised and a couple of times where I’m bored, cold and clutching a copy of the Sun that I found in a rubbish bin…

The virtual walk gives me just enough distance from reality for me to stop agitating about things I might do differently now and see the project for what it was: a brilliant risk that came good. It’s also an awful lot of happy memories of friends made, laughs had, early morning starts and late night finishes fired into each and every panel.

Do go and take a walk.

Stop Press

It’s always a pleasure to teach a skilled printmaker and I spent a day last week with Annette Sykes one to one in my studio while she got to grips with Japanese woodblock. We met in a hot tent at Hatfield where we were both demonstrating. Like me, she loves her lino, but, like me, she was immediately seduced by the possibilities of water based woodblock printing: no press, no size restrictions and a whole world of texture to explore.

I gave Annette a run for her money: she designed, cut and printed her image in the course of the day, but I also made her try some alternative types of timber. I don’t fancy the chances of her husband’s workshop surviving her enthusiasm for the raised grain of weathered timber. She’ll be filching wood at every opportunity just like me. I shamelessly helped myself to a chunk of unseasoned eucalyptus the size of a small child from a friend’s woodpile last week – I fancy cutting a rough monochrome landscape in wet wood – shouting that I would give them a print as the car buckled under the weight (they had some chestnut too which they foolishly let me see).

Annette did have a hitch when she got home; enthusiast that she is, she plunged straight back into printing. Having learnt from me to damp her printing paper in newspaper, she, like so many before her, fell foul of the Daily Mail. I neglected to tell her that I use old paper. My copies of the Guardian come via my family. They read it and then either I get it and it contributes to the creative arts, or their neighbour gets it and it’s dribbled on by their elderly Labrador. Point is that my old stuff doesn’t offset while Annette found unwanted coalition news on her printing paper thanks to a Daily Mail fresh off the press itself. Yet another note to add to my take home fact sheet. I can’t see it holding Annette back for long though…

The year of the pig?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of going to visit Industrial Brushware UK tucked away on a street at the back of Birmingham. I stumbled across the company during one of my frequent hunts on the web for anything approximating the print kit I was given in Japan. Brushes are and aren’t a problem: I had the sense to buy enough in Japan for myself in a wide variety of sizes, but I wasn’t planning to teach then and I certainly wasn’t planning to put together printing kits to sell.

Japanese printing brushes are things of beauty. Here I am talking about burashi which look like a mini shoe brush. They are expensive, horsehair and you can buy one sort of burashi of one size in one shop in the UK (please mail me and tell me I am wrong: it would make my day).

Then I found Industrial Brushware whose owner, Mr Palmer, seemed surprised that I should want something as undemanding as a little horsehair brush. He’s used to servicing nuclear plants and the military, making brushes that strip barnacles from boats and peas from vines, brushes that perforate bread wrapping and polish fine lenses…

At the moment I am trying to decide if I should go with fine hog bristle (untraditional, but Mr Palmer says has a better ‘shape memory’ and it does feel lovely and soft – do the Chinese have silky pigs?) or traditional horsehair. Either way when I get the brushes they will need conditioning.

Conditioning means splitting the hair: split ends make for good printing and it’s an essential step. It is best done under a powerful extractor fan. The brush must have its tip singed on hot metal and then have the singed bit rubbed very carefully on sharkskin if you are in Japan or know a keen fisherman, or on coarse sandpaper if you are British. I have done all this with one of Mr Palmer’s hog hair test brushes which now smells unsurprisingly like a wet pig that’s been standing too close to an electric fire. When it dries out I will print with it and keep you posted…

Hand Made Horsehair Burashi
Hand Made Horsehair Burashi

Home Cooking: Nori Rice Paste for Japanese Woodblock

a blog.

Rice paste, called nori, is an essential part of water based woodblock printmaking. In Japan nori is a pretty universal substance used in all sorts of ways from laundry starch to safe glue for infants (eating glue must be a common problem, I certainly ate glue at my kindergarten – it tasted of almonds, yum). It can be bought everywhere and is dirt cheap.

applying white nori to the block for printing

Imagine my dismay when I came home to find that here nori is a rare and expensive thing. It was like blundering into the the fifties and finding that olive oil was back in Boots in 4oz bottles. Concerned and mean, I looked for alternatives.

The traditional recipe involves a lot of soaking, grinding and pushing of reluctant gloop through muslin. About 10% made it into my nori pot and seemingly 150% splattered the kitchen. Then I found a recipe suggesting rice starch – taa daa! Five minutes on the internet and I had a kilo and a half of fine milled white rice flour (turns out I bought enough flour to keep Hokusai’s print shop in business for a year, but it was so very cheap)

The recipe follows, it’s dead easy, takes about ten minutes and you can wean a baby along with printing if you wish. It’s only rice and water so has no preservative. I’ve done the experiments and can tell you that it doesn’t freeze (turns into water and a lump of something very odd). It’ll keep for about four days at British warm for spring temperature before going watery, at five days it’s got a fur coat. In the fridge it will last a week.

Mix 20g rice flour with 100ml of cold water
Stir until smooth and milky
Bring 150ml water almost to the boil in a pan
Add the paste mix in a smooth ribbon and stir
Bring to the boil and keep stirring constantly until the mix goes translucent (about five mins)
Cool, stirring from time to time

This excellent recipe comes from ‘The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking’ ISBN 951-558-085-4

Brave New World

As you’ll have gathered, I have a new web site. That meant many days spent drawing facsimiles of every page onto layout paper with stuck on text and big arrows to show which page went where. I see this gets me credit for being the designer, though I feel it is possibly not how they do it at Apple. The other consequence was having to turn a mixed up plan chest of prints into an accurately captioned on-line portfolio.

I have good intentions, I really do. I used to run a photographic library with fair efficiency. Indeed I once walked the tightrope as researcher in a news agency holding pictures by both Murdoch and Maxwell’s teams. Believe me you didn’t want to get anything mixed up or wrongly credited there: I still have nightmares where I’ve sent Mail pictures to the Mirror. However, the plain fact is that the plan chest wasn’t pretty. Too many enthusiastic ‘look at this, and this, and this’ as I pulled prints out at random to show visitors.

Today I grasped the nettle and with my long suffering brother-in-law Simon (he gets a credit for coding the website which in my book puts him squarely in Matrix country) sorted through my prints, measured them and entered them onto a spreadsheet. You can now see my gallery in all its accurately captioned glory while I have all the worthy glow and evangelical fervour that goes along with being organised. How long the plan chest will stay just so is anyone’s guess…