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.

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

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

Open Season

There will be a lot of people like me in Buckinghamshire today, all scrambling to open their doors tomorrow for Bucks Open Studios. Turning a working studio into a working studio, plus exhibition space, plus shop then making it all safe, clearly signed, priced and welcoming is no small feat and I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a studio which isn’t the spare room or the kitchen table. I have enough wall space to hang my work, my son is quite old enough to fend for himself and this is my day job. I am constantly astonished by the incredible metamorphosis conjured by fellow artists on their homes, studios, local village halls and also by their ability to disguise the effort so that the average visitor sees only the artwork and none of the angst.

Mistletoe
Mistletoe

It’s no small thing to invite strangers into your personal space. I love it, but that’s me: any chance to tell people about what I do and why. Others don’t find it so easy and I do admire the shy, the quiet and the solitary who are prepared to welcome the very thing they find unsettling. Visitors, on the whole, are delightful. Family show up and sit around with coffee and biscuits as a sort of informal welcome committee, annual visitors follow work and are eager to see progress, new people explore, print lovers discuss technicalities and always, always at least one man of a certain age wants to tell me how to install plumbing in my studio or urges me to cut my blocks with a router. There is the occasional hiccough, but I can usually dine out on adverse remarks: better to laugh than cry and better still to remember that I’m the one who has put my work up for public scrutiny.

I used to find the selling the worst part: fidgeting uncomfortably as people discussed my work and whether to buy it, all the time terrified that I would have to justify my costs face to face with an actual person. Over the years I have realised that what that client wants is not a cheap price: they want my confidence. So I never justify my prices, though I will happily explain them on request, nor do I ask for any reassurance. It’s my place to admire the good taste of my customers in buying, not my customer’s place to make me feel better about my prints. I’ve also learned to let a sale go if a visitor bullies for a cheap deal; no need to be confrontational, just sure in my price. These are tough lessons to learn, but I have worked on my role of artist and, even if I am wobbly, I can at least seem serene. Open Studios is theatre after all.

Don’t try this at Home

Mounting Japanese woodblock prints and what not to do!

So, what do artists do all day? I’ll give you a snapshot into this morning…

Today I discover that an experiment I made in backing a pair of prints with a sheet of paper to unite them flat for framing has sort of worked. Sadly the bit that hasn’t is quite important: the prints are desirably flat, but the backing paper is now tightly bonded to the glass sheet I used to support the experiment.

This is a bad thing, but not insurmountable. True these are finished prints and they are now stuck fast to the wrong thing, but they are Japanese woodblock prints. This means I can sit at the kitchen table with a bath sponge and a bowl of water and dab them until the whole thing is wet enough for me to release. Japanese watercolour and rice prints look delicate, but take damping and re-damping with the insouciance of the British at a bank holiday barbeque. I have two more sets of prints to go and another avenue of mounting needs exploring.

I learned the art of backing prints with supporting paper while on residency in Japan. Imagine the scene: a big room empty but for tatami mats and sliding paper screens, Mount Fuji at the end of the garden and students kneeling attentively (this does not include me. I cannot kneel and used to carry a note excusing me from kneeling in infant school. I stand respectfully instead). What the master says makes absolute sense and we accordingly mount and back prints successfully. What doesn’t translate, once I am in my own kitchen, is the access to the right brushes and papers. Here I am lacking in wide hemp, rabbit and deer hair brushes and the easy availability of washi paper. My prints are on European paper and I have emulsion brushes from the builder’s merchants. It’s now a question of adapt or fail.

This time I decide that the glass is best lined with cling film to prevent the backing sheet from sticking. I have seen Masterchef: I know cling film has diverse uses. First I wash the big sheet of picture glass in the bath to remove the last batch of gummed paper. As the glass slips around, I consider the health and safety forms I’ve just filled in for a class I have to teach. They require me to warn students not to trip over their own belongings. Nowhere do they cover the stupidity of juggling large sheets of thin, wet glass in a hard, curved bath.

I and the glass survive. Lining with cling film goes well, but then I worry the gummed tape to stretch the paper won’t stick so resolve to cut the film to the size of the paper to expose glass to the tape. For some reason I choose to use a meat cleaver for this (I am in the kitchen after all). More suited for a father intent on discouraging his daughter’s admirers, it actually works a treat and I am able to put fresh paper onto the film on the glass, damp and stretch.

The prints need to be stuck down with rice glue. I’ve made the glue by beating the hell out of a stiff rice and water paste for a full half hour over high heat while wondering if this is for the glue’s improvement or mine. Traditionally the resulting rubber ball is then diluted again by working with a hemp brush. I use the milkshake option on the blender. The cat appears and walks about on the prints. I shut him out. He swings on the door handle and yells, so I stop and place a chair in the sun where he agrees to sit and assumes the expression of Prince Phillip watching some not-so-good tribal dancing. I coat the back of my second batch of damp prints with the rice glue and offer them up to my scrupulously drawn guide lines more in hope than expectation. When they were handing out accuracy, I veered off course into the queue for creativity. I do my best, seal everything down and leave with the cat to dry in the warm.

It’s not yet nine am. This is a pretty normal day for me and I suspect for a lot of you creative people. It’s what we do and, though it’d be nice if things ran to plan, I do like a job that keeps me on my toes…

Des Res

In a week or so I will be setting off to Japan for an artist’s residency of several weeks to further my Japanese woodblock printing skills. At present details remain sketchy: I know I am the British artist, but don’t know who my four other companions are or which countries they will represent. Interestingly this worries me far less than the thought of crossing Tokyo. Printmakers always have plenty in common; I and the noodle sprawl of the Tokyo subway less so…

On the face of it, an artist’s residency seems like a bit of a jolly. Five weeks to indulge. Indeed, ‘aren’t you lucky’ is something I have been hearing on a very regular basis. I wouldn’t argue with the fact that I am lucky, but what I see as luck may not be the same as the luck implied in the comment. Artists like me have the luck of possessing the drive to stick with a technique and work through the catastrophes, goofs and setbacks to get to a point where we can be good enough to be considered for residencies. After that, luck is out of the equation: selection committees select, they don’t tend to pull names at random from a hat (at least I’ve never been on one that’s done that, however dull the evening and close the pub).

The residency also brings responsibility. I am giving up earnings, cancelling a workshop or two and putting family on hold to go out there. I’d better have something to show for it when I get back. I’m gambling that five weeks far from my comfort zone will result in a move forward in my work. I don’t doubt it will be a marvelous trip and I am certainly not asking for sympathy. I’m more explaining that a residency has to mark a point of change for my work or I will have failed and not be lucky at all: I’ll just have been self indulgent.

The Dating Game

Recently I stepped away from having a paper diary and into the cloud world of an electronic diary. The idea of relying on a cloud to keep me up to date with the daily dance of students, galleries, teaching venues, delivery dates (not to forget cat inoculations, the dentist and birthdays) is not terribly confidence inspiring. However, it seems to work and my also-new android phone trills and buzzes with reminders and updates, telling me that I am so terribly important now.

I know artists traditionally have the reputation of being above such mundane tasks, but the fact is that, however fabulous the work, nobody loves an artist who is late or forgets to sign contracts, delivers work on the wrong day or, my personal nightmare, doesn’t turn up to teach their class. There are precious few of us famous enough to get away with this sort of flaky behaviour. It’s my experience that an artist’s reputation is as fragile as a Hardy heroine’s: once the word gets out that you are trouble, people will move on. The plus side to this is that a reputation for being on time, on budget, well prepared and generally efficient will result in work, bookings and happy galleries.

This was brought home to me today when I finally compared my Cumulonimbus’s worth of teaching and exhibiting dates with the events and teaching pages on my web site – disaster! I’ve slipped out of sync and had to spend several hours updating. That opens up the can of worms that is web site maintenance (another time I think, I’m stressed enough as it is). I guess I will have to add yet another task to the diary to update regularly so this doesn’t happen.

I don’t suppose it matters how you keep a diary; I’ve had all sorts in my time from lockable ones (two days worth of serious teenage angst and then forgotten), an eighties filofax (too big) through Moleskines (so hip) to the cloudy one. The point is to pay attention to it. I am very late to the electronic diary, but now I have it I find it has two great advantages: it chirrups until I pay attention plus I can book courses in a year or two ahead without scrawling hopefully in the back of the current year. The only thing I miss is the annual choosing of the colour…

Sale of the Century

Being hard nosed about prices.

I’m always a bit worried by cultural stereotypes, trying to define people by nation or class always seems a bit ‘them and us’ to me. However, if there was ever a truth about me it’s that I am hopelessly English middle class when it comes to talking about money. I am overcoming this by blog therapy as those of you who read my blogs will have seen. I can be very brave behind a keyboard. This time it’s about discounts and cutting prices.

I do occasionally get asked to cut my prices by potential clients and this is an interesting one. Thanks to my absolute Englishness about haggling, I get all squirmy. Well, my toes hidden in shoes do: never, ever squirm visibly in front of the client. Below are my thoughts; not just or for those of us who also a) listen, however intermittently, to the Archers and b) like marmite (no really, knife from the jar, like it), but for all who struggle with being upfront about money with clients.

My best advice here is to think long and hard about this before you get into the situation and make your decisions in advance. Bit like writing ‘I do not want a rubbish time share apartment in Marbella’ on your hand in indelible ink before going to collect your amazing free gift, this gives you rules to follow which will save you getting flustered on top of the toe squirming.

My decision is to not give discounts on the whole. My work is priced very fairly for the labour and skill involved and it is priced the same wherever it sells, so that the client never has to worry they are losing out. I would also point out that for every one person who wants ‘a deal’ there are lots of people, including those who collect, who never have asked for or expected a discount. If those lovely people don’t get a deal, why should a stranger get a better price? What I will do, and to me this is one of the most pleasurable things about being an artist, is to occasionally give away a print. This takes people by surprise and I get to choose who gets one and what sort of print they get.

Rules, of course, are made to be broken, but I try never to be hassled into breaking mine. I will give a discount of 10% very occasionally for someone buying more than one expensive print if I think there is good reason, taking the loss on the frame and not the print. I also agree to allow galleries a bit of ‘wiggle’ room as they have to be a judge of when it is prudent to discount work slightly, though not across a sale of work by several artists where the only winner is the gallery.

My final comment is that the sort of people who hassle you for discounts on the ‘oh but we love your work and will buy lots more’ card almost never do. If they are an exception to this truth, regrettably there’s another disagreeable truth about them: they will always want a ‘deal’ on the basis that they are now your ‘special’ clients.

This is only my take on discounts. You may embrace a whole other system. The big point here is that you make the rules about your work and you’re allowed to do that. It may mean ignoring every fibre in your cultural soul, but firmness about pricing is best.

(Remember you can always have a nice hot cup of tea to soothe your nerves after they’ve gone)

Lucky, lucky, lucky

This blog is going to be a tricky one because I do hate to sound like someone who is having her cake and eating it, especially since to have cake is to eat cake as far as I am concerned, especially in cold weather.

I recently had a conversation which ran along the lines, familiar I imagine to most artists, makers, writers, poets, craftspeople etc, of ‘Oh so you are an artist?’ (last word pronounced in the sort voice people use for mythical creatures – though more unicorn than troll I’m pleased to say). ‘You are so lucky doing that and not going out to work’.

This is it is a conversation that crops up very regularly, especially when I open my studio to people. Let me say that yes, I am very lucky to work from home: where else can I work in pyjamas with the cat on my knee and not worry about using a stanley knife straight onto the work surface? That I agree is a privilege, but isn’t not exclusive to artists and indeed, when I was a credit controller wheedling photography professionals into paying their bills (not a huge success, I made too many friends) I did it from my spare room pretending to be wearing a suit while sitting, feet up, on the bed. Anyone who works from home is lucky, but also, if they do actually do the work, has drive and self discipline.

Then there’s the sting in the tale: is being an artist work? I think it is. It is work I love, but I don’t love it any more than the shopkeeper passionate about his news agents or the accountant fiercely happy balancing books. Truth to tell, so much of my work is admin and teaching (if I tack ‘teacher’ to ‘artist’ it often solves the problem because teaching is a real job, though conversely many creatives see it as a major cop out), meetings, visits etc that it begins to look pretty much like standard work. The difference is that the whole enterprise balances on me managing to put colour and line down on surfaces in a way that people will not just pay for, but pay enough to make it worth my while.

So yes, I am lucky to be working at a job I love in a place where slippers are dress code, but that sort of luck applies to many people, not just us artists. In answer to the statement I quoted the famous ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’ which surely applies to everyone?