Chop and Change

How sketches turn into prints

I’m often asked about my sketches and how I turn my ideas into a finished print. I always feel a bit awkward about this (it’s uncomfortably close to the ‘what music do you like?’ question which I dreaded as a teenage devotee of voice radio). For me, it’s a vague process at best; leaping from a few pencil lines to the full size template drawing for the block with nothing in between. Like most worriers, I suspect there is a party going on in the next room where artists in the know have exquisitely pleasing sketch books with annotations, fold out bits and delightful little objet trouve. Somehow my works on crime novel and thriller fly page seem sketchy beyond the point of sketchy, but they work for me and will make for an uber-cool retrospective if they haven’t gone off to Oxfam for re-reading.

The drawing and planning comes with the print sized template drawing. These days all my drawing is done in outline with no colour. I only shade for planning purposes, not visual effect.

full size template drawing
full size template drawing

The upshot is more blueprint than charm and I simply draw, erase, draw until I am happy. I tend not to make more than one drawing, unless I am trashing it for a new start, as multiple efforts quickly lose their life and freshness. Since I arrive at my shapes by scribbling and then refining, the result is ‘architect meets infant scholar’. Neat drawing, but the paper a lumpy mess of rub outs and corrections.

I do proof my woodblocks. Below you can see the proof for ‘Chiltern Seasons: Winter’ and play the spot the difference game with the final finished print.

proof print
proof print

See how many blocks I’ve cut and then discarded. Less is often more and I discard blocks and simplify the print far more often than I cut extra ones. The colours too are very different as you can see, though I never make rigid colour plans for either proof or edition, I just see the proof problems and address them as I go along. Proofing is also a chance to see if the blocks line up correctly and, if they don’t, it’s best to get the crying done over the cheap paper.

Finished Print
Finished Print

The journey from idea to print is different for every printmaker and I’m sure that there isn’t actually a rule book demanding a set route for the journey or means of travel. So I choose the Star Trek transporter method of arrival at finished work. Beam those prints up Scotty!

Touchy Feely

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.