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What is Handmade Japanese Paper?

I describe nearly all of my lino prints as being printed on “Handmade Japanese Paper”, and many customers may wonder what this actually means and why it’s important.

Printmakers, including photographers who sell prints, will often list the type of paper used in their artworks and it’s a good indication of the quality and care that has gone into the product. 

Some papers are better for printing on than others. Printmakers will look for “wet strength”, absorbency and a suitable surface quality to print on (very smooth if printing by hand without a press). Finally, for professional prints being sold to customers, there’s the all important longevity of the paper. The paper must be acid-free. Anything with a high acid content such as newspaper or cheap drawing paper will turn yellow with age. A good quality paper should be able to see out several centuries and still look good.

Personally, the fact that the paper I use is handmade is also a very important factor and for this reason I source my papers from the Awagami Factory in Japan where beautiful papers are hand-crafted using natural and renewable plant resources. It’s an impressive fact that the Fujimori family who run the Awagami Factory have been making paper for as many as six generations! You can read more about them here;

The Awagami paper “Hosho Select” is the paper I have been using now for several years. It is strong, supple and a lovely warm shade of white. One side is slightly textured and has a fibrous nature, but the other side is amazingly smooth, just like a fine silk.  It is this extreme smoothness that makes it such a good printing paper – it allows for great contact between the plate and the paper, meaning a great print every time.

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What is a limited edition print?

Ever wondered what those numbers in the bottom corner of an artwork really mean? Is it a good thing if the number is small or big? Editioned prints can confuse people… even those who have been working in the art industry for some time.

I’ll explain how I go about editioning my own lino prints and it might help shed some light.

When I design a lino artwork I decide how many copies of the print I will make. I print exactly that amount and no more. Each print is then labelled in the bottom left hand corner. The first print is labelled number 1, the next number 2 and so on. The number is written in front of another number which states the total amount in the edition so the owner knows exactly what they have bought. For example 1/20 means they have bought the first print in an edition of just 20.

Why is it important?

If an artist’s work becomes significantly valuable then this is vital information for valuers as a print from a small edition is going to be worth more than a print from a large edition due to its relative rarity. Not many printmakers are expecting their work to be valued at Christie’s, however it is still an important responsibility when selling prints to let the buyer know exactly how many other copies exist in the world and therefore how unique their purchase is.

Big editions or small?

Some artists sell in huge editions, particularly if their work is popular and they can satisfy a large market of buyers, but also if their prints are made by a process that easily produces large quantities eg digital printing. They may even have technicians to help with the workload. This is all great news for the artist and doesn’t really de-value the print itself to the current owner.

When I print my editions the numbers are a lot smaller. I choose an edition of around 20 for my smaller pieces and as low as 5 for the larger artworks. This is because printing by hand with a baren is hard work and I have chosen a career as an artist and not a machine! 

Printing in small editions does mean that the artworks are pretty special… there’s not many of them in the world. But then, I would argue that what makes a piece of art truly special is what it means to you, regardless of any numbers, price tags or editions.

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Making a Reduction Lino Print

There are many ways to add colour to a lino print, such as chine colle, jigsaw linoprint, or using multiple plates for example. I am drawn to the reduction printing process however, which I find particularly absorbing due to the methodical nature of the technique, and the problem-solving aspect to it.

One problem, that of registering the prints accurately, can be easily solved with Ternes Burton registration pins. The print needs accurate registration so that each layer lines up to create the desired image. I map out a plan on the desk of where the lino will sit, then tape two Ternes Burton registration pins to the desk. Before going anywhere near my printing inks I place each piece of paper face down in the correct position and affix the tabs to the paper so that I will be held in exactly the same position each time I print.

Using more than one colour means that I need to plan the colour scheme carefully before beginning. I often use Photoshop to try out colours on my early sketches or proofs so that I can see how the colours will eventually work together. After that it is a case of deciding which colours to print first. As a rule it will be the lightest colours and the areas of the lino which are going to be easiest to remove after printing the first layer.

The next stage of carving takes some careful thought so that exactly the right areas of lino are removed and nothing else. I will usually mark the lino clearly with a sharpie at this stage.

The second layer of printing is when the Ternes Burton pins become very useful, helping me to accurately position the first printed layer over the second.

As you can see, it’s a lengthy process. Once you are aware of this technique you become attuned to notice the different layers of colour in other artists’ prints and really appreciate the time and effort spent.

Hints and tips for learning the reduction printing method;

Plan carefully. You need to learn to think in reverse and this can take some time to get used to. We are more accustomed to creating colour effects by adding media to the page, such as in a painting. With reduction lino we remove the lino to reveal colour we have already printed… quite a brain-teaser when you think about it!

Start simple. You don’t need a really complicated image to get good effects with this technique, so begin simple, with just two colours until you perfect the technique.

Always print more copies of the first layer than you think you will need. It’s repetitive but you will be less worried when the odd print misaligns or goes wrong later on.

Invest in a pair of Ternes Burton registration pins and accompanying tabs – it makes life so much easier!

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For the Love of Hosho Select

I discovered the paper Hosho Select in the Hove art shop well known to us locals as “Lawrences”.  They have a display of the Awagami papers there, and you can see the surface quality, transparency and colour of each paper before buying.  

For the uninitiated, Awagami Papers are made in Tokushima, Japan and are produced by hand using natural and renewable plant resources. It’s an impressive fact that the Fujimori family who run the Awagami Factory have been making paper for 6 generations. You can read more about them here;

I was drawn to the particular paper named “Hosho Select” and have been using it ever since.  The back of the paper is slightly textured and reveals its fibrous nature, but run your fingertips over the printing surface of the paper you feel the most amazing sensation as if brushing against silk.  It is this extreme smoothness that makes it such a good printing paper – not a fraction of its surface is going to miss the plate.

I have experimented with other papers from the Agwami range and I must admit all of them are beautiful in their own unique ways.  Hosho Select remains my favourite. It has a particular thickness with makes it just right for printing with a barren as I do.  Thicker papers require more elbow-grease than I am capable of to get a good print!  The gentle off-white tone is perfect for me too, as the colour palette I create with my inks is very specific and a coloured paper could throw the design completely.

Finally, the fact that each sheet has been made by hand on the other side of the world is an inspiring thought.  I feel connected to makers and creators even though far away, and this connection is empowering in itself.

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How Does a Dandelion Grow?

The design process for each artist is unique and often very personal.  Some artists have a very conscious and clear process of working, or possibly even responding to a “brief”.  For others the process is less obvious.  Much of the creative work may be being processed as subconscious activity, and actions and decisions can feel intuitive rather than logical.  My own practice appears haphazard and messy at times, but when I look back at the journey, there is often a visible pathway that was steadily being pursued.

I thought it would be fun to put together a story-board to show each stage of my thinking.  I used my current project of the dandelion print, and collected together a photo of every stage, from the first very scruffy and quick notations made on a car journey, through all of the hesitations and changes made along the way.  In each sketch the composition changes slightly, the shapes of the flowers change slightly, as I wrestle with creating an image which is still faithful to the excitement of my original idea and yet somehow more “finished” or full.

The first two sketches were literally scribbled on some scrap paper that I found in my bag as we travelled along the motorway. For a few days after I kept trying to re-sketch the composition, struggling with the shape of the flowers and the layout. I spent time looking closely at the dandelions in our own garden and drew the leaves from observation to gather a better understanding of their shape. The fifth drawing was made on a large scale using ink and a brush to try to bring some energy and confidence into the composition. After that I consolidated it into a design, ready to trace and transfer to the lino.

It has been interesting for me to look back at the journey this image has been on. Too often my sketches are scattered across different sketchbooks or on scraps of loose paper and I cannot remember where they started. When I was teaching art in schools I often wished I could share more of my own process with the students to help them understand the relevance of what was described by the exam boards as “Development”.  It sometimes feels like an artificial process made just to help an examiner assess the work. However I really believe it is the most vital part of the work an artist will do. 

My key takeaways would be this;  Rarely is it a good thing to simply stick with your first idea.  Any idea that’s worth something is always worth developing, testing, experimenting, and trying to improve.  There can be disheartening moments when it feels like it’s just getting worse the more you work on it. If this happens take a break and try again the next day.  Something will always come of it, even if not what you expected or planned.  This is possibly the most rewarding aspect: allow the work to take the lead, just observe what has happened and allow the next stage to follow as a natural result, loosening any pre-conceptions about what you wanted the work to be. 

As artists, we design, and imagine, and can guess where things might be going, but are never really in control of the end result.  The best we can do is to observe, take note, and learn as we go.

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The Making of “Winter Hedgerow”

Now that “Winter Hedgerow” is completed and hanging in Chalk Gallery, I would like to share a little more of my working process which I have documented in photographs over the last year or so.

The wind-blasted hedgerows that line stretches of the A27 first caught my attention two years ago.  I had been driving to my studio in Worthing listening to the radio and finding a state of gentle awareness that so often arrives once the children are packed off to school, and I have the space and time to draw and print.  I admit that I dislike cars, and traffic, despite driving one and being part of the traffic…  The naked trees struck me as so vulnerable amidst the pollution, noise and speed.  They also seemed to say ‘winter” in a way that was so irrevocable. These sketches were my first emotional response.

I knew the subject matter did not lend itself to lino print in that there are a predominance of tangles and textures, rather than clearly defined shapes. However I am a lino printer, and I could not resist tackling it in my favourite medium all the same.  I decided to approach the lines as expressive rivers of energy rather than attempting to depict every single twig.  I felt I could still capture the cave-like dense nature of the hedgerow, and its nakedness, with the bold lines which result from my style of carving. I draw in pencil and felt-tip pen with little concern for neatness.  It feels as if I am carving an idea out of the page as I work, and I will layer up, change colour, and scribble over until the design is clear and confident to me.

Then begins the process of tracing, transferring, sometimes re-drawing and finally carving.  The lines take on a personality of their own during this process which is one of the aspects of lino printing that strongly appeals to me.  The medium and process start to dictate and tell the hedgerow how to look.  It is never an option to create a ‘accurate” copy of reality so the artist is presented with a problem to solve instead – how shall I do this? 

I use only three pfiel lino cutting tools; a large and small gouge, and one v shaped.  Again, I like restriction.  It forces me to problem-solve, and I find this is where creativity is at it’s richest.

The background needed to be a ‘rainbow roll’ in order to capture the atmospheric effects of a landscape; sky gently fading to white, and the green of the fields de-saturating to grey as they move towards the horizon.  Creating the right palette of tones blending evenly across the roller is almost as time-consuming as the carving process!

The first print was created and I initially called it “Winter on the A27” because that particular spot was still so important to me.

I had trudged up and down the hard shoulder photographing the hedgerow from different angles and had quite a collection of images stored on my computer, so I decided to develop the project.  I also felt it needed to exist in a large format to have the impact I had felt when photographing it.  Two more prints were designed; a companion piece of the same size, and a larger 30x40cm piece.

I continued to carve and print through the winter months of early 2021 finally bringing the series to a completion in March.

The last step will be to sign, edition and frames these prints ready for their new home in the Chalk Gallery, Lewes, which opens again on 15th April. 

It’s been a long project.  But it’s been worth it.

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Framing artwork

This week has found me busy framing work for the re-openning of the galleries in which I exhibit. After experimenting with various suppliers I have settled on as by far the best. I love the fact that due to their website, I have absolute control over the dimensions of the frame, the mount and the various colours and textures. When the frames arrive they are always well packaged (handy because I can re-use the packaging) and beautifully made.

As you can see from the video I take the final steps of positioning and framing the artwork myself.

It’s important to use good quality archival materials when framing an artwork so that no damage is done to the print over time. The tape used to secure the print in place is acid-free, as is the backing board. Then the back of the frame is sealed all around the edge with framers tape to prevent dust, insects or mould spores finding their way in.

Should look good for a while!