November: Tax return and printing my Christmas card, two things now looming large on my to-do list. Both of them are essentials to my business and I would suggest to most working artists, even if the tax return results in a sympathetic note of encouragement from the tax man and a large rebate.
The Christmas card is important to me as an opportunity for a bit of feel good publicity. As a printmaker I am in the perfect position to send out a hand pulled card which shows people exactly what I do and how well I can do it. Fact is that it is a chore. I don’t print editions of sixty for good reason: I find it boring and the more I print, the less faith I have in the image. There’s a tipping point which I almost reach every year where I trash the lot in a flurry of anxiety. Pragmatism prevails and I’m glad as most people seem perfectly delighted with the result and occasionally I stumble on one in an office or up on a friend’s wall and it all seems worthwhile.
I have three Christmas lists. Well, three in my head. Reality is one very confused and dirty piece of paper which I dig out every year and curse the fact that I haven’t written it all out nicely with proper addresses like I intended. The lists go: family, friends, and work. Not everyone gets a proper print. The beloved family do (probably thinking ‘not another damn print’), then the appreciative among friends (inducing rivalry as to who gets the highest edition number) and lastly work. I’m ruthless about the last one and I advise anyone planning this PR exercise to do the same. I only send them to current people: galleries where I’m exhibiting or will be exhibiting, suppliers who cut me some slack (quite a few of those, thank you), magazine and newspaper contacts etc. People go off the list, but may come back on again. Point is that I can only print so many and it’s an exclusive treat.
The other thing to do is to TELL people just what a treat they are receiving. I only have to look at the print to envisage three carefully aligned layers of colour cut from one lino block printed on decent paper standing at a heavy press. My audience doesn’t, so I tell them. I send the print flat in a card envelope with a nicely printed sheet saying Happy Christmas etc with a paragraph at the bottom explaining exactly how I’ve made the print and why.
After several years of this people start to have a collection and, as I hopefully get more important, they look forward to having a new one. They remember me with warm and fuzzy goodwill and that’s got to be a good thing hasn’t it?
Oh and I do truly want everyone to have a Happy Christmas, while I aim at a prosperous New Year
I use touch all the time. I must use my fingertips at least as much as my eyes when I am cutting my printing blocks. I depend on touch to tell me how to pack my press, the texture of my printing inks and the quality of my paper. It’s a hugely under estimated tool and one I am trying to get my students to rely on at every opportunity. It can be a whole new mine of information and if you don’t use it, you are missing out.
I was brought up to touch things. Where other mums would be shouting ‘hands off!’ mine would be telling me the best way to know things was by feel. I must have had clean hands in those days and some guidelines; I certainly never remember being in trouble for touching, but I learnt to do it carefully and with respect. Do please try it, though I don’t advise squishing peaches if the man you are buying them from has a cross face and his eye on you, or teaching your five year old the merits of cashmere after a visit to a chocolate shop.
Touch will tell you lots of things about printmaking, but it comes at the price of using your bare hands and not minding too much about details like nails and cuticles. Personally I am proud to have strong (stronger now I am nine sheets of ply into my latest commission) clever hands that tell a story of life lived and I wouldn’t like to be without their feedback.
My hands are sore and currently covered in tape like a boxer. This isn’t the result of some terrible print related disaster, just a consequence of having to get used to cutting much harder wood. I have a commission, such a lovely one, to fill a health centre on the Isle of Wight with fourteen huge watercolour woodblocks. I’ve had to adopt a semi industrial approach as they each measure over a metre wide and my artist’s lime ply (the usual stuff I cut) simply isn’t big enough. I’m using sheets of carpenter’s birch ply and boy is it hard.
My hands will toughen up. They already look like hands out of a schlock horror movie: ‘Hands of Satan’s Bride’ perhaps. A bit harder won’t make much difference. Birch ply is a good material for the job: cheap, available in large sizes and delivered to my door by a slightly confused, but energetic man in overalls who said kindly that it takes all sorts and that he expected I knew what I was doing. Good job he didn’t stay to watch me balance precariously on a swivel chair trying to make accurate cuts with a razor sharp chisel on the far side of the width.
The aim of the commission is to bring space, light and air into the building. It’s a great health centre, but a little austere and short on windows. I’ve come up with fourteen wide airy views of the Island from the obvious, the Needles, Alum Bay and Osborne House to the industrial, East and West Cowes, with a funfair, windmill and a couple of monuments thrown in. The sea features a lot, not really surprising, but in different ways: waves crashing onto the shore at Gurnard, slopping swells at Cowes, choppy bay at Alum and great calm stretches at Tennyson Down. It’s been a real learning curve for me, bedded down as I am in the rural landscape, but I am loving it. Give it a couple of weeks and maybe my hands will too.
So many things in the business of being an artist are left unsaid, rules hidden and guidance lacking. Somehow we all have to find our way through the minefields of pricing, exhibiting, finding a niche, marketing and so on. Most of us blunder through somehow, learning as we go and frankly it’s often the ability to fall repeatedly and still get up and soldier on that makes for a successful artist/maker.
There are times when I think that business has it right with the idea of qualifications, work place training, mentoring schemes and networking meetings: at least you know where you are in the world of the accountant (This view doesn’t tend to make me many friends among my peers, but I do think there are times when you just have to embrace your inner pinstripes). To this end I think we should clutch at every chance we get to take advice and to hear what some of those unspoken rules are.
Last night I attended a meeting at Oxford hosted by the Oxfordshire Crafts Guild to listen to Sarah Wiseman give a talk on how to submit work to a gallery. She owns the excellent and widely respected Sarah Wiseman Gallery in Oxford and she gave advice so helpful and clear that I asked if I could make a few notes for fellow artists.
You’ll find her dos and don’ts on my website in the resources section along with a few bits from my experience of working as an artist. Enjoy…
Recently I have become computerised. About three weeks ago I became the proud owner of a ‘system’. This is a proper system, not my ‘write it on a bit of paper and hope I find it again’ system of picture management. I now know what I’ve got, what size it is, if it is framed, mounted or just paper, if it is with a gallery, due home from a gallery, or, best of all, sold. I know what greetings cards are selling and which are not, what needs invoicing, who’s paid and who hasn’t. In short, I have all the answers.
The reason for this is nothing to do with me really. I like computers, I really do, but I am small child to their efficiency. It all goes well as long as I get exactly what I want exactly when I want it. Ten seconds with no gratification and I am thumping on the keys and shouting unreasonably. I’ve been known to cry and I do put sticky finger prints and toast crumbs all over my laptop’s nice black coat. No, this is to do with my brother-in-law for whom computers are more like intellectual friends: good company to an all night session of thrashing out complex algorithms. He decided that he would write a programme which would ensure that I would have more time to make lush puddings for the writer of that programme. A win,win for us both. So far he’s had homemade vanilla ice cream with a rum baba strong enough for a bona fide hangover. This weekend it’s the turn of Anton Mosimann’s killer bread and butter pudding.
To be slightly earnest about this, I have had to take things in hand a bit. It’s part of the big new plan to take myself seriously. No longer just a dabbler in a shed, I am a woman running a business. Admittedly a business which can involve some pretty strange stuff, but a small business nevertheless and having proper delivery notes, invoices and accountability does all make sense and the right impression on galleries, the tax man and my clients. I do know how extraordinarily lucky I am to have a relation with a fondness for programming and a weakness for patisserie, but it really had to be done one way or another and best to do it now when things are still small and beautiful rather than big and out of hand.
I’ve been doing an experiment for about six months now, not my usual sort where I get all pseudo scientific with paper, inks or whatever. This one is a behavioural experiment: I have stopped apologising for what I do.
This all dates back to a conversation I had with my printer friend Ian Phillips who pointed out that ‘if you behave like a housewife with a shed in her garden, that’s how they’ll treat you’. I’m paraphrasing here, but he was quite right: be timid about your art and people will react appropriately. I gave it some thought and realised that I had to change. I needed to stop saying things like ‘I was lucky to get the commission’ and start saying ‘I won that commission’. Both true, but I feel much better about the second!
It’s mainly an attitude thing. I don’t exaggerate my skills, but I have given up under-selling them too. The hardest thing was money of course (what with the double whammy of being British and middle class), but I have found that the opening gambit of a smile and ‘Of course I like to keep my prices affordable while I can’ doesn’t bring the world to a catastrophic end. Far from it, people are actually much more respectful. The second bit of good advice comes in here and this was given to me by a barrister. He said ‘If you must squirm, make it your toes inside your shoes and remember to keep your mouth shut unless you have something sensible to say’ (this suggests that I was on trial at the time, but I promise that wasn’t the case). Note the keeping your mouth shut: no waffling, no justifying along with no apologising.
All this doesn’t mean I have stopped automatically apologising to people who’ve bumped into me. I haven’t turned into Gordon Gecko, but I have managed to change how people see me and, more importantly, how seriously they take me. Try it: it works. Takes a bit of nerve and you do have to be very conscious of it at first. But it gets comfortable and it does feel good to be respected and, like me, you may find you sell better.
Firstly I have some follow on news from my previous blog ‘Pen Pals’. Thanks to my lovely pen pal Alan (whose work features in that blog) I have a picture of Phillip Poole, the man who sold me my mixed box of antique pen nibs. Alongside that I have a little picture drawn for me by my good friend and wonderful illustrator Stu McLellan.
Presently I am reeling a bit from being a living exhibit at Art in Action, one of the biggest and best art festivals around. I look upon demonstrating as being a seriously important part of what I do. It’s certainly a serious factor in selling my work. It’s important to remember that printmaker doesn’t mean much out there in the non-printmaker world. Print tends to be what your computer does if you remember to stick the cables into your laptop (which I often don’t). Print to lots of people means any quantity, any colour and any size. Hand cut, hand pulled limited edition prints still get asked for ‘a bit bigger and can you do it with a blue background?’ or better still ‘can you crop out those trees and put that hedge from the other print in because I like that better?’
There’s a quiet pleasure in showing people that an original print has its own integrity: it is what it is and has as much validity and presence as any other art form. Anything I can do to convince people that we printers are skilled artists, not button pressers or poor relations of painters has to be a plus. Yes, it does mean I won’t manipulate or resize my work, or indeed reproduce a print in any other way than a greetings card, but that’s the way I like it and that’s the way my customers like it too!
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.
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?
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.
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…