Choose your own “Old English” adventure

Oh. My. Goodness…

At University I fell head over heals in love with Old and Middle English.

My supervisor had a map on his wall which was titled thus: “The Dark Ages Good Old Days”. I thought this was the most perfect way to sum up such a fascinating era.

I loved the sounds of the words, the illuminations in the manuscripts, the amazing art objects. All of it just amazed and delighted me.

And in another of those “many worlds colliding” ways, I don’t think I could love this beautifully made “Choose Your Own Adventure” way to translate and solve Old English Riddle 57 any more.

The Making of… ‘Red’

A linocut relief print of a red squirrel standing up and facing the viewer with his tail up behind him and his forelegs almost touching on his abdomen.

Inspiration

Alas I have only ever seen a Red Squirrel in a captive breeding population but these plucky little mammals have made a comeback in Scotland thanks to some fantastic conservation projects and an increasing Pine Marten population. It is thought that since Grey Squirrels spend more time on the ground than the native reds they are more likely to come into contact with the martens, with a lower population of greys as a result.

The red squirrel eats seeds, nuts, berries and although they will cache food they are not as good as their grey counterparts at remembering where they put it… so they may also be responsible for planting a good few conifers.

That wonderful bushy tail helps the red squirrel to balance and move around in the branches as well as when jumping from one tree to another. It may also help keep the animal warm while it sleeps.

Red squirrels moult twice a year; a thinner summer coat is replaced by a thicker winter-ready coat in autumn. This is also the time for longer ear tufts, naturally!

Design

Those ear tufts definitely had to feature and that tail was going to be fun to carve!

I alter the design as I work on the plate. The squirrel itself changed the most during the course of making the plate. As you can see, it started out rather dark.

Original graphite drawing of a pheasant

The arrows on the linoleum floor tiles show which side of the tile should be laid facing up (the one without arrows) and they don't affect the prints at all.

The graphite drawing in reverse on a linoleum tile

I decided I wanted the pine to be slightly abstracted, so while I was cutting I decided to outline the needles which would in turn be all white. This creates a gentle juxtaposition between the bold, graphic pine fronds (a throwback to my days illustrating books) and the much more naturalistic cutting of the squirrel.

Lino tile with a pheasant design mid-way through cutting. All the negative space in the grasses has been cut away

Once the squirrel and pine were all outlined and I had established the outside of the tail, it was time to focus on the way the hair on the body falls over muscles and limbs.

It never ceases to amaze me that it is possible to describe a 3D sculpted form in a 2D medium, especially one like relief cutting where you must rely on either the presence or absence of ink... The absences in the tail were a lot of fun to carve!

Finished plate of the red squirrel carved and ready for the test print

And here's the plate before its very first inking for a test print. Typically I am very conservative with how much I carve away before I test a print. Once it’s gone, it’s gone in relief printing, so it can take many test prints removing a hair here or adding some more negative space there until I arrive at a final design for the plate.

If you need this winter-coated, ear-tufted red squirrel in your life, hurry over to its gallery page as there are only 30 hand-pulled prints in this edition!

The Making of… ‘The Prize’

A linocut relief print of a brown trout leaping from stylised water towards a may fly. The trout's mouth is open and splashes and drops show dynamic movement, even in a static print

Inspiration

When I was very young I found a male Pheasant tail feather. This was duly carried home with much care and became one of the most prized parts of my growing collection of nature finds. Every walk in the countryside seemed to be accompanied by the sound of a cock Pheasant crowing to attract more hens to his harem or let other males know he was there and he meant business. “Chuuuur-kuk!”

Their natural fear of humans means it is rare to get close enough to a Pheasant to admire the cock birds’ iridescent blue-green heads, white neck ring and bright red wattles. These, together with the pale coloured hooked beak, ought to make them look somewhat regal, but I find their ear tufts give them a charmingly comical look.

Ours was one of the pockets of the country where Pheasants have naturalised, though with many “escaping” from shoots over the years it is hard to tell which birds were bred for sport and which by wild parents. All the same, one truly memorable day we found a Pheasant nest in last year’s bracken under a hedge. A shallow bowl, not two inches deep, lined with grass and filled with eleven smooth, pale olive green eggs, still warm; the hen wasn’t far away so we retreated to watch and she returned, checked the eggs were as she left them and settled down to brood.

A few weeks later we saw another hen with twelve stripy chicks still in tow. Amazingly they can fly only two weeks after hatching so these flightless little ones were pretty young, still. The hen was hard to make out against the landscape with her mottled plumage and it was only when the chicks moved that we could see them at all.

Design

I liked the idea of a showing a pheasant in the offseason, the summer grasses just starting to go to seed—a prize for the hens in his harem.

In a previous life I was a graphic designer and this sensibility informs my printmaking. The grasses would need to be very bold and graphic, some positive and some negative where they were placed in front of the pheasant. This also meant all the gaps between the grass—the negative space in the design—would need to be cut away.

Original graphite drawing of a pheasant

I alter the design as I work on the plate, so this drawing is a little different from the finished print at the top of the post.

The graphite drawing in reverse on a linoleum tile

Once I transfer the drawing to the lino tile, that helps me see things I didn't see before the drawing was reversed. And so the design evolves: as I cut more material away, I re-draw, and reconsider.

Lino tile with a pheasant design mid-way through cutting. All the negative space in the grasses has been cut away

Here's the design mid-way through cutting. All the negative space in the grasses has been cut away, no mean feat with the 0.5mm U gouge given to me by the friend who started me on my linocutting journey! Though as this was my second print I had bought a set of cheap linocutting tools to clear the material from the outside of the plate. Doing all that with a teeny gouge really would have taken me forever.

I took some of the loose grasses away from the bottom of the plate in a later stage.

Finished plate ready to print

And here's the plate before its very first inking for a test print. I carved more material away, especially on the head but as you can only take material away, it’s good to err on the side of caution.

If you would like to buy one of the hand-pulled prints from this edition of just 30, thank you! Please head over to the gallery page.

The Making of… ‘The Catch’

A linocut relief print of a brown trout leaping from stylised water towards a may fly. The trout's mouth is open and splashes and drops show dynamic movement, even in a static print

Inspiration

When I was very young we lived near a fishery. Some of my favourite walks took us around the big lake which was bordered by a long rhododendron alley on one side and overhanging beeches and willows on the other.

I loved to feel the air change passing through the tunnel of rhododendrons. The air was stiller in the dense shade and cooler, even in the height of summer. Even the smell of the air changed as the tunnel captured the unique scent of the waterlogged soil into which the rhodies pushed their eager roots. The sound changed, too, from the soft muffle of earth-bound steps to the rubbery metallic tang of wellington boots tramping over duckboards with their carpets of chicken-wire to aid grip.

Leaving the tunnel behind and making towards the head of the lake which was fed by a river, the soil changed; its texture became sandy and very satisfying for writing words in with a finger or a stick. Turning, the whole of the lake was visible all the way down to the road bridge over the waterfall leading to the lower lake.

When there was a breeze, the wind would pick at the top of the water, making hundreds of wavelets that ran away towards the fall, but on a still day the water would be mirror-calm, waiting.

One such calm spring day, from the side of the lake overhung with trees, I first saw the spectacle of Brown Trout leaping from the water to catch the bounty of the Mayfly hatch.

A drawing of a brown trout on a lino tile

Design

Originally, I planned to make this print as a testament to those who fished the lake from the banks and boats, as eager to catch a trout, as the trout were to catch the bounty of flies, who in turn were intent on displaying and breeding. The trout would be under the water and the fly attached to a leader.

But, as so often happens (in fishing as in drawing), as I continued sketching, the trout started to jump for the fly and the design for the print took shape.

Lino tile showing arrows

Process

Many printers use battleship grey linoleum. I learnt using an offcut of a linoleum flooring tile and a gouge donated by a friend.

Since then all my prints are cut from the same flooring tile because I have found that it holds even the finest of details and can withstand hours of being rubbed by hand with a baren to create an edition.

Finished plate ready to print

The same friend who donated the gouge and lino offcut also donated ink and a mostly unused pack of Japanese washi paper to the cause. I’m not sure either of us foresaw that this generous gift would lead to me finding a medium that allows me capture how I feel about a subject with lines and gaps and ink and paper, but there isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not glad for lovely friends!

Finished plate ready to print, inking up for the first time is always an exciting moment!

If you would like to buy one of these prints, be quick as there are only 24 in the 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.