Developing print ideas

I’ve been making pictures for as long as I can remember, and have wrestled with the process and results for just as long.

Like most painters I have spells of doubt and discontent about what I do. Gaps in capability, hindrances to the work I’d like to produce will always arise, but are rarely insurmountable. Getting there can be a hard road.

Early sketchbook work on the Cherhill Horse view. Working out the picture balance for both tone and content

Recently I have tried to re-balance the equation between a print’s development and its production. It would be usual to start the process with a rough sketch, an idea, a thread, a spark that has enough life to light the future it might fulfill. The sustaining life of the idea, the sketch or the handwritten note is as important as the work put into the final, finished piece.

So I have decided to give more life-support to an idea’s earliest days, by nurturing and reworking it in different forms and at different scales before committing to a final print design.

I began with my latest print of Cherhill Down in Wiltshire in the usual way, with pencil and gouache sketches – all at roughly the same size as the intended final print.

I moved on to working up the design large scale in soft pastel, a far cry from the sharp lines and tonal difference of a black and white relief print, and many times the size of the final piece.

The rough pastel sketch, at the point of its abandonment

Scale aside, I am working in colour, and rapidly. This permits me an intuitive response to the idea, and helps me capture feelings and atmosphere as much as the raw physicality of the view. While responding a golden sky at sunrise I am wondering to myself how I’ll represent this in just two tones. At the same time, I am in the moment of learning about the view and the image I am making.

The large, full-colour pastel is destined to be screwed up and discarded. It is a sketch, it will have problems, but it will have served its purpose in helping me devise future responses to the subject.

Adapting for print

With the subject examined through one or more sketches, I begin to paint it using pens and gouache. For this print a gouache sketch was created in my current sketchbook, and then repainted directly on the lino block. Gouache is remarkable medium for print development, every misstep can be overpainted. Over a period of a few days the lino block was amended until it roughly resembled what the final print ought to be. But from experience this is rarely the end of the design process.

Cutting commences in the ‘safest’ areas – those parts of the design that’re most satisfyingly resolved. Right up until the final cut is made I might make redrawings on the block in black or white gouache.

The completed gouache-painted block, cutting about to begin

With this print proofing, making changes and re-proofing took a couple of days. Some missteps required the block to be patched and recut. Eventually an endpoint is reached, where the design lives up to (or gets very close to) the original concept and the developmental work that preceded it. The large pastel sketches can now be discarded.

Where next

The process was very satisfying on this print, so I am developing new subjects using the same techniques. I remain mindful of the possibilities of other approaches, but for now large scale drawing for small prints is proving both reliable and rewarding.

Latest large scale study for a new print