The Making of… ‘The Brace’

A linocut relief print of a pair of ducks. The duck is resting in front of the drake who is behind her with a slightly quizzical tilt to his head. They are resting in a bed of flowering daisies, grass and plantain leaves.

Inspiration

A highlight of any trip to a place where there is water when you are young is feeding the Ducks… and so it was for me. My favourite park had a large lake and there you could feed the Ducks, Geese, Swans and Gulls whatever delicacy you brought them.

They loved sweetcorn, peas, oats, seeds or rice. These could be thrown into the water for them to squabble over or, if you were very brave, offered on a flat, out-held hand. There is nothing quite like the feel of a wide, flat duck’s beak in your hand as it gobbles up peas!

On one such outing, I learned that ducks use the serrated edges of the beaks—called “pecten”—not only like a comb as they preen oil into their feathers to keep them buoyant, but also to filter food from the water that is squirted out while they are feeding underwater. They have further finer filters inside the beak, but you can only see those if one opens its beak to “Quack” near enough for you to see it!

A pair of Ducks is monogamous, though usually only for a year. The duck does all of the brooding and rearing while the drake moults his handsome iridescent and flight feathers and looks more like a duck until autumn when he moults back out of his “eclipse plumage” and into his breeding finery once again.

Design

This print evolved quite a bit as I worked on it. As always it started with a drawing. This brace of Mallards—the drake in his breeding plumage, his head glossy green, his chest brown with hints of purple—resting in the early daisies have not yet nested.

A linoleum tile with a reversed design traced onto it, showing some cutting of the design on the right hand side.

While I was at University, I studied Old and Middle English and was delighted to learn that name of one of my favourite little flowers, the much petal-plucked and chained “daisy”, comes from the Anglo-Saxon “dæges eage” which means “day’s eye” because the flowers close at night and open again as the sun rises.

Once I transferred the design to the lino, I had to decide how the daisies and grasses in the foreground would interact. All of the daisy petals would be white (of course!) as they are in real life and their stems would be too, while some of the grass would be white and some outlined. Originally the plantain leaf veins were thin and almost dashed like a “lost and found” line in a traditional oil painting.

A linoleum printing plate ready for the first test print.

I remove less rather than more as I cut a design as you can’t put back white space that you’ve carved away. I love this aspect of cutting a design; it adds a frisson on excitement as all could be altered with every pass of the gouge, but it can be nerve wracking, too, when you’re near the end of a design!

A flat wooden spoon being used to burnish the reverse of a piece of paper to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper.

Once I’ve made a test print, I’ll put the print up in the studio and look at it really closely. Sometimes I’ll annotate it with what needs to be changed before taking my gouges to the plate once more to make sure everything looks just right before I print the final edition.

A linoleum printing plate with remedial cut marks in progress before the final edition can br printed.

If you need this lovely pair of loved-up ducks in your life head over to their gallery page as there are only 25 hand-pulled prints in this edition!

The Making of… Louise Barr, Printmaker

Snowdrops growing through a carpet of beech leaves. The flowers are backlit by low hazy sun.

I am an artist printmaker specialising in animals and the natural world. As a child, I spent a lot of time out in the countryside watching the ever-changing cast of characters who appeared as the seasons changed.

Spring meant observing hedgerows very closely: Snowdrops' nodding heads beneath meant Daffodils and longer days were on the way. Once the Blackthorn had flowered on bare branches; next came the Hawthorn, but only once its "cuckoo's bread and cheese" leaves had opened. These ancient hedgerows were soon filled with the cacophony of Sparrows conversing at the top of their voices. Spring also meant the arrival of lambs in the ancient orchard next to the house. One memorable year, a "sock lamb" hand-reared by the farmer took a shine to Louise and would wait for her to arrive home from school. They would solemnly eat a snack of toast and marmalade together while she told him about her day. (She's never been able to eat lamb since...!) Primroses appearing in the ancient hedges on dog walks were cause for great celebration, there's just something about the sight of a Primrose... This celebration was matched only by the joyous sight—and smell—of a Bluebell wood under a blue sky filled with sun and clouds scudding in the wind. The seasons were on the turn.

A close-up of Hawthorn flowers and buds. The flowers are in strong full sun coming from above and the pink pollen-covered anthers are casting shadows on the white petals.

Summer started with birdsong, the arrival of Cuckoos and Chiffchaffs both with their wonderfully easy to remember songs, next came the Dog Roses, the House Martins and finally it was always a magical, heart-filling day when the first "Scree! Scree! Scree!" heralded the arrival of the Swifts returning from their African winter holiday. Swifts meant long summer holidays were nigh! These were largely spent outdoors finding Foxgloves, Butterflies, Moths, Hedgehogs and, if you were really lucky, a mother with her hoglets, trailing behind her in a straggly line in the dusk. Bats feasting in the warmer air were another treat as the evenings stretched ever later and Barn Owls flickered in and out of vision in the gloaming. Picnics reached by tractor, fishing for Minnows with jam jars and watching Bees feast on Teasels.

A willow tree backlit by early morning autumn sun. The tree stands next to a river which reflects the cloudy sunrise through a slight haze over the surface of the water.

Autumn covered the land gently, softly, almost imperceptibly. As the days began to shorten, the Swifts gathered in huge numbers, their agile flight and daredevil insect chases taking on a new urgency, "We must leave, the nights are chilling, the warm winds of Africa are calling us, but we will be back." And just like that, one day they would be gone. The wistful regret at their leaving would soon be forgotten, though, because the Blackberries were ripe and so we joined the birds, Badgers, Foxes and Harvest Mice in their purple-stained annual feast. The Ivy flowers in the hedgerows were abuzz with the insects while the Robins began their songs again to re-establish their winter territories. Conkers, much-prized for playground battles, mixed with beech mast and acorns as the leaves changed colour, turning the world yellow, orange and red. Fields filled with straw bales that threw ever-longer shadows and Fireworks Night meant building a bonfire as the afternoon turned to dark thanks to the clocks going back.

Snowdrops growing through a carpet of beech leaves. The flowers are backlit by low hazy sun.

And soon enough, the land was covered not in autumnal dew, but ground frost that turned the grass into a million tiny diamonds on a crisp sunny morning. Hoare frost was even better, ice-dusting the whole landscape into a wonderland that tinkled in a gentle breeze. Redwings arrived and were confused with Fieldfares, and while they feasted on the Rowan berries and windfall apples, Long-Tailed Tits bustled about in their troupes, peeping their excitement at some exciting find in the garden. Just as winter felt it would go on forever, the evenings started a little later and mornings a little earlier. Starlings flocked together, resident birds joining with winter migrants in ever larger murmurations, their swirling, tumbling, seething mass a bedtime story for birds and little birders alike.

And so the seasons turned again. And again.