A Devon artist captures the sharp outlines of leafless trees in his striking linocut prints
An ancient oak wood sits in a valley on the edge of Dartmoor. Mist drifts down from the moors and hangs in the top of the trees. Their leafless, stark winter silhouettes are the inspiration behind artist Richard Shimell’s evocative prints.
“I like their many curving, complex branches,” he says.“I am attracted to trees for both their simplicity and their complexity. The shapes in winter are hugely complex and interesting. You could lose yourself staring at one, but a silhouette doesn’t have to involve tone. That means I can cut something which is simple, in that sense.’
Richard spends time walking on the moor and in the surrounding woods. While he walks, he photographs views and trees that catch his eye. Returning home, he checks the images. “I need to have lots of images in order to find one that I like and which will work as a silhouette,” he says.
Content and configuration
The pictures he eventually selects are the ones that stand out for their composition and shape. One photograph that attracted him depicts two hawthorn trees. One has fallen over and is supported by the second. This in turn is being pushed into the lower tree by the prevailing wind. “There are two things going on here, as the wind direction is going one way and the fallen tree the other,” he says. “This creates a sense of balance or tension between the two. It’s difficult not to anthropomorphise them, as the two trees are an obvious metaphor for someone supporting someone else, co-existing with them, but still being separate.”
When planning a print, he also takes the negative space into account. “You want to have nice blank areas of empty space to balance the areas of detail,” he explains.
A former journalist, Richard only took up printmaking when he moved to Devon in 2010. A chance visit to a local printmaker’s studio inspired him to find out more about linocut printing. He joined the Dartington workshop. “I found printmaking very difficult to begin with. But it was a way of expressing myself that I had been waiting for, so I just kept going,” he says. He did find that a long-held interest in photography helped him with the composition of his prints.
Once a photograph has been chosen, he makes a sketch of it on paper. “I always do a sketch to make the image mine,” he says. He sometimes sketches in pencil, but prefers working in charcoal. “I have a tendency to be too precise, but charcoal makes me freer as it moves so easily and you can smudge it.” The sketching process lets him see how effectively the photograph will work as a print. He edits out details such as houses, simplifies forms, and experiments with tones.
Once the sketch is right, he copies it exactly in pencil onto a panel of vinyl. The vinyl is 2mm thick and has a smooth surface. It is the same size as the intended print, as it will eventually become the printing plate or block. Most of the prints are in the region of 15-18in wide by 12in high (40-50cm x 30cm).
From flooring to print
When Richard first began printing he worked with lino, but now prefers to use offcuts of vinyl flooring. “Working with vinyl is the same principle as working with lino, but it’s much easier to define detail in vinyl, as it’s a harder material,” he says. This is important, as precise detail and crisp lines are a key part of his work. The vinyl comes from offcuts of material normally used for flooring in institutions such as schools and hospitals. “I like the fact that it’s such a mundane material and that I am able to recycle something that people don’t want any more,” he says.
Cutting the pattern can take up to a month, but it is the part of the process he enjoys the most. “I love the cutting. I get into a rhythm or flow and then I can do it for hours and hours. At the end I feel relaxed and fulfilled,” he says. Cuts are made along the drawn pencil lines. They remove all the vinyl except those areas which will form the finished image. These untouched, raised sections will be inked to form the pattern on the print. This method of printmaking is called relief or block printing.
To cut away the surface, Richard uses wood-cutting tools. These are steel blades, roughly 5-6in (12-15cm) in length, with rounded wooden handles designed for holding in the palm of the hand. The blades vary in shape and size, with some having a V-shaped profile and others more being U-shaped. Because of the detail, he uses the smallest tools he can find, some as narrow as 1mm across. The wooden handle held in his palm, he pushes the blade gently into the vinyl. His other hand acts as a brake, or to guide the movement. The work is so intricate that a magnifying lamp is needed to help him achieve the neat, precise outlines he requires.
Recently, Richard started working with wood-engraving tools as well. These enable more texture to be created than the wood-cutting tools. “I can achieve more variety with the engraving tools,” he says. “They allow me to make thin or patterned marks on the vinyl, which will show up in white.” His plates are now cut using a combination of both types of tool. “What I do is a kind of hybrid between a linocut and a wood engraving. I use the linocut technique for the tree and the wood-engraving tool for the landscape. This opens up a lot more opportunities to depict a tree in the landscape.”
When the plate is finished, Richard is finally ready to start printing. He uses a modern Hawthorn press, printing on to Somerset 250gsm paper, made from cotton rag. This is an etching press, with a bed approximately 47in long by 21in wide (120 x 54cm).
Most of the tree silhouettes use two plates. The first is a plain vinyl plate used to create the background colour. Richard pours oil-based, washable Caligo ink onto a glass slab, using it to coat a hand-held spindle roller. When it is evenly covered with ink, he rolls it over the plate three or four times. The ink-covered plate is then put on the printer with a sheet of paper carefully positioned on top. The plate and paper are wound through the printer rollers, the process transferring the colour to the paper.
The background colours may be graduated to give the effect of a winter’s sky at twilight. Colours fade from a deep blue to a subtle primrose yellow. Richard achieves this by colouring the first plain plate with a blend of inks. He places three different colours, dark blue, pale blue and yellow, in bands along the glass plate. The roller is pushed through the colours, Richard moving it slightly across the bands to mix the colours. When the roller is evenly covered, he coats the plate with the ink and then uses the inked plate to print a coloured background.
When the background is finished, the image of the actual tree can be printed. The inking process is repeated, but this time black ink is used to coat the plate cut with the tree image. The ink sticks to the raised surface, while the cut-away areas are left uncoloured. Richard places the paper printed with the background colour on top of the black inked plate before rolling the two through the printer. The result is a dramatic black silhouette against a gently coloured sky.
“I love doing this,’” says Richard. “It is fantastic and hugely exciting when you are printing something new and you first lift up the paper and see what you’ve printed.”
Linocut is relief printing, a method of transferring an image onto paper using a plate, or block, with a pattern cut into it. The background is cut away leaving a raised image on the surface which is then inked. The recessed background remains untouched. The plate is then pressed onto paper, in the process transferring the inked pattern onto the surface of the paper.
The earliest form of relief printing was woodblock printing. This was carried out for centuries. Then, in the early 1900s, artists realised they could replace the traditional woodblock with a new, softer material called linoleum – lino. This had been invented in 1855. Made out of solidified linseed oil, it was intended as a flooring material. Artists discovered that it was much easier to work than wood, as it was softer to cut and had no awkward grain.
The new technique was taken up by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Picasso produced his first linocut in 1939, going on to use the technique more in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was popularised in Britain after the Grosvenor School of Modern Art opened in London in 1925. Here, students were taught linocut classes by the artist Claude Flight. Today, linocut is often taught in schools as an accessible introduction to printmaking.
Linocut printing can be used in several ways. The simplest method is to print in one colour using one plate. However, more colours can be introduced by using more plates. Each different plate is cut with a different pattern which can then be covered with a different colour ink. For example, a bowl of fruit could be printed with three plates. The first could depict the bowl itself in blue, the second, apples in green and the third, a bunch of yellow bananas.
A more complex method of making a multi-coloured print is by using the linocut reduction method. This is when one single plate is used to create a print with a series of progressive cuttings, inkings and printings. The disadvantage of this method is that, as the plate is gradually cut away, more and more of it is destroyed. This means it cannot be re-used. However, using the same plate for each printing means that the problems involved in exactly matching the paper to the plate, or registration, are avoided.
Contact: www.richardshimell.co.uk Print prices from £50
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Jeremy Walker