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Back in November, Marc Donaldson of The&Partnership agency got in touch with me about an exciting project for the Japanese car manufacturers, Lexus.

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The brief was to highlight the deep beauty of making something by hand, looking at the physical knowledge and near super-human skills honed over a lifetime of practice, and link it to the use of AI and digital manufacture. Essentially, it was a reminder that despite the inexorable increase in the digital world, ultimately it is humans who have a lifetime of knowledge who are still in charge.

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They had already commissioned a gorgeous film on the subject, called Takumi. This film follows several artisan makers talking about their craft and displaying their skills. Takumi is the Japanese word for artisan, a term earned for exceptional skill achieved after 60,000 hours on the job.

Marc’s vision was to create a Japanese woodblock poster from cherry wood that would use hand printing to embed traditional pigments into hand made paper, based on a design which he had created in the computer.

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I have to say that while I trained in Japan in Japanese woodblock, and printed large prints for several years, I found this commission extremely challenging…

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Japanese woodblock technique relies on a harmonious combination of humidity, speed and response to simple changes in the basic materials. The wood absorbs paint, and then releases it to damp paper. Too much ink, too wet paper, too much pressure, and the paper bleeds; too little, too slow, too much glue and the paper is patchy.

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Photo by Feng Ho

However, the air pressure, sunlight, temperature, the number of previous printings, the absorbency of the wood, how much glue is used, the number of brushstrokes and humidity in the brushes, the consistency of paint, the speed of brushing, the precise way the paint sits in or on the wood, all these factors vary second by second, hour by hour.

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Photo by Eoin O’Flynn

The colour had to be coaxed onto the page, like a dance of wills.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I have to admit, my first 50 prints were a disaster. It took a lot of determination to keep going, as each print took an hour, so it was days and weeks before I’d made a passable layer of colour. Having made linocuts for the past few years, it was a shock to be a beginner at a technique again.

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I had to learn how to ink up generously on the block with an almost foamy layer of ink, without leaving a drop of ink anywhere near my table, in order to keep the edges of the paper clean when they were placed face down.

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I made my own homemade recipe for ink, combining gum arabic with nikawa and pure pigment, a blend of graphtol red and ruby red, and added a tiny drop of sumi ink to help the colour depth.

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I learned to hold my elbows out a certain way to fix the edges of the paper on the registration marks accurately, and how to trust that registration mark when each poster needed two or three printings to achieve the required depth of colour. Every now and then, the registration would be out by a fraction of a millimetre, and the print would fail.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I learned that a lovely intense colour field would leak through the damp paper in the last stage and mark other areas, so I developed a way of protecting the paper with a spare sheet of newsprint to stop this from happening for the final layer of ink.

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As this technique needed solid day light and it was during the winter months that I was printing, I’d skip lunches to maximise the hours of printing. I rigged up the ceiling light to a scaffolding to give myself a bit of light boost. There were no short cuts. I didn’t get faster. I had to keep moving, at a slow pace, and enjoy the process.

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I learned to relax and enjoy the meditative brush strokes and listened to quite a few absorbing but calming podcasts to keep my mind occupied and body in the flow.

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Photo by Feng Ho

After a mere 100 hours on the job, I cannot call myself a Takumi by any stretch of the imagination, but have a renewed respect for the masters of the field!

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Back in January I was asked to give a demo of Japanese Woodblock printing at the British museum for the Hokusai show, “Beyond the Great Wave” (which celebrates the artist in the last three decades of his life). Hokusai Prep 7It was a great excuse to spend a lot of time poring over Hokusai’s huge output. I began to admire his unerring brushstroke, and radical, often humorous compositions. Hokusai Prep 8

I’d promised to make a Hokusai-inspired work for the demo, but how I could even start to make a comparable rendition of modern day London? I thought briefly about depicting Whitechapel with cycle couriers: let’s face it, this is probably the closest equivalent to the Tokkaido, or a distant view of St Paul’s in the rain instead of Mount Fuji. Hmmm… I was stuck.

Hokusai Prep 11So I decided I’d look closer at the place where he is now being shown, the British Museum. This place is a veritable temple to the arts, with ionic columns lining the walkway up to the main central hall, and the most beautiful shimmering glass dome that brings a soft brightness to the courtyard inside.

Hokusai Prep 12We look at iconic images, like Monet’s Haystacks, Chagall’s Flying Lovers and Hokusai’s Wave, and the world is subsequently and irretrievably coloured by having seen them. These images are unforgettable, inspiring, desired and thus overused and parodied. At the same time, we like to place ourselves in the picture. Is it selfiegenic? Where do I exist in relation to this?

Hokusai Prep 6The prints I designed are about Hokusai becoming part of my identity: I can hide behind him, and he represents some of what I aspire to be (not caring about much apart from making paintings every day, with a factory of workers transforming them to prints, and hoping to live to 110…)

Hokusai Prep 3Hokusai Prep 4Hokusai Prep 5The demo on 5th June was a very exciting event. We set up in a hall full of of Greek marble sculptures, surrounded by sinuous sea lions and against a backdrop of three headless female dancers in revealing dresses.

Hokusai 01It was really echoey and a bit dark, so they put in some spotlights.

Hokusai 1I was incredibly lucky that my students from the last Japanese woodblock class (in East London Printmakers in May) were very keen to come help out for the evening, as there were loads of customers!

Hokusai 3I talked about the fundamentals of Japanese woodblock printing, showed how to print a three colour print, and then the public had a go at printing a mystery five colour print. Hokusai 2There was one colour and block per table and they had to take a piece of damp paper and print it, then move around the room. Students helped supervise and guide how much water, glue and ink to put on the blocks. Hokusai 4It was busy and chaotic but thrilling to see the results.

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The British Museum show is highly recommended. It’s on til 13 Aug, with a change over of prints in early July (3–6). For more information please see

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/hokusai.aspx

I’m running a course in Japanese woodblock printing in East London Printmakers this Autumn, For more information please see https://www.eastlondonprintmakers.co.uk/course/japanese-woodblock-2/

Hokusai Prep 13Finally, if you’d like to buy one of the prints, please get in touch!

 

IMG_9539Last week, The Royal Mint held a party to celebrate the Chinese New Year 2016 and the new Lunar Monkey coin at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

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This tiny linocut I made in Italy in the Summer of 2014 has become a gigantic poster!IMG_9541

There was champagne…IMG_9597

…and classical Chinese music playing.IMG_9702

IMG_9583I gave a talk about the process of designing this coin, inspired by Rhesus Monkeys and their cheeky tricksIMG_9620

The one kilogram solid gold coin was on display. The edition size is eight, and seven have sold already, at a handsome price of £42,500 each.IMG_9587IMG_9584

Here are some of the engraving tools, the dies and the polishing sticks used by the master crafts people at The Royal Mint.IMG_9580

It was great to share the event with my mum…IMG_9745…some happy Year of the Monkey customers…

… and old and new friends!

IMG_7607There is more information on the series at The Royal Mint website.

http://www.royalmint.com/features/lunar-series

http://www.royalmint.com/our-coins/events/lunar-year-of-the-monkey-2016

The Royal Mint have been working on a promotional video for the lunar year of the sheep coin. Here I am talking about sheep and printing linocuts in East London Printmakers a couple of weeks ago… Was great to watch and learn from Adam Millbank of www.jonesmillbank.com who deftly ran around the studio filming on two cameras, switching lenses, juggling lights, timing answers to account for the noisy train line that passes overhead every minute, and dispensing giant chocolate buttons to keep the whole team happy throughout the day. I think you can see the effect of the chocolate at the end!

Link to video here