This week on Meet the Printmaker, we meet John Watson of John Watson Linocuts who gives a marvellously witty interview about his experiences as a printmaker and has some excellent words of wisdom for new printmakers.
Please introduce yourself and what kind of prints you create...
Hello I’m John and I make linocuts. Eh… that’s about it.
How long have you been a printmaker? Is it a full-time career for you or a lovely hobby? If you are a full-time printmaker, what does a typical day for you look like?
Well, I’m pretty ancient so I count the time I’ve been printmaking in decades rather than years otherwise it takes too long. I attended art college back in the day and then went into teaching and after that started an online art education business with some friends which is still my part-time day job (it’s grown somewhat so I have been able to take a little bit of a step back). But all along I’ve always exhibited and sold prints, so it’s been more than a hobby but less than a livelihood. I don’t know where that leaves me – it’s a bit like those competitions that say they are open to ‘emerging and established’ artists and I never can work that out. After all these years I surely can’t still be emerging, can I? And emerging from what? Obscurity, presumably. But I’m certainly not established, so I must be semi-obscure at best. Maybe they should have a competition which is only open to semi-obscure artists… sorry I digress.
What was the spark that first got you hooked on printmaking? What is it about your medium that draws you in each day?
Over the years I tried just about every medium, from oil painting to decorating blown eggs (I kid you not) in an increasingly desperate effort to find something that worked for me and it was only printmaking that did. And linocut works best of all – it’s a medium I feel comfortable with. I like linocut too because it’s a democratic medium; accessible to all. The equipment and materials are not expensive, and it only needs a little space on a table. If you use lightweight papers, then you can print with a wooden spoon (which I did for years). Also, it doesn’t have a club or society (not that I know of anyway) to set down any rules and regulations. I don’t know what it is about people, but it seems as soon as any art or craft is established, they feel the need to rush off and form a club, and no sooner have they done that, than it’s become a Society, or even worse, a Royal Society, and they have presidents (who when they fade away become past presidents – PPs; not sure I’d want to be one of those…) and secretaries, and – horror of horrors – a Committee! And they have rules to make sure those practicing whatever it is are doing it properly, and they hold elections to make sure only the right sort of people get to join. It’s beyond me.
What inspires you? What or who would you say your biggest influences are?
People mostly – I think of myself mainly as a figurative artist. But also literature, music and cinema. Late 19th and early to mid-20th century illustration, and printmaking from the first half of the 20th century are influences. But other printmakers on IG have been a huge influence; there are so many wonderful artists whose work I really admire. It would be invidious to single out a few; they will know who they are from my likes and comments. I owe them a particular debt of gratitude.
If you could give some advice to new printmakers, what would be your most useful tips for beginners?
Buy the best tools and materials you can afford. You don’t need lots. I work with only three cutting tools (not that that’s necessarily a recommendation) but having quality tools and using good paper and inks will make a difference to your work. The words ‘student quality’ are to be avoided… I have a friend who prints his wood engravings on stock cartridge paper and gets disappointed with the results, and I’m thinking, really? (I once gave him some nice Japanese paper but I know he’s gone back to the cartridge pad). Also, be yourself as far as possible. ”Comparison is the thief of joy” said Theodore Roosevelt and he was bang on the money. There’s lots to learn from looking at others’ work but if you start measuring yourself against them, it can be not only counter productive but downright destructive – believe me, I’ve been there.
What do your prints say about you? How do you want people to feel when they look at your prints?
I’m not sure to be honest. That I value craft? I do think striving to be excellent at what you do is a good thing. What I’d like people to feel is pleasure, which can take many forms. There is so much in this world to make us feel bad; if I can make people feel good – if only for a few moments – then that makes me happy and proud.
Are your prints influenced by external events (social, political) or do you prefer your work to remain neutral?
That’s an interesting one. I am greatly affected by social events, in particular by injustice in any shape or form. In the past I felt an obligation to bring this into my work, but over time I came to realise that I am not shaped to do that; that it requires particular talents which I lack. My work in that vein was simply not good, which hardly helped the causes I espoused. I now understand that there are many ways to make a difference, and producing work which is merely pleasing, or hopefully sometimes brings pleasure and joy, is a worthwhile thing in itself.
Do you have a favourite part of the printmaking process? What brings you the most joy?
Pulling a decent print gives me most joy, but it’s a struggle so it’s not so much tears of joy as tears of relief. Probably carving; once I can be fairly sure from proofing that it’s going in the right direction that is. At that stage I can relax and concentrate on interpreting the design as well as I can.
How do you print? Do you have access to a studio or are you a home printmaker?
Home. I print in a small studio space using an X-cut press. It’s brilliant (thank you @flintkat for the heads up) but limited to A4, so I’ve bought a larger press from @theportableprintingpressco but need to sort out my room before I set it up.
Every day feels like a school day when you're a printmaker and failure is not talked about too much online.. what would you say is the most challenging part of printmaking?
I’ve learnt to work through failure; truth is I have had more of them than successes. This used to get me down but now I know it’s part of the process and take it in my stride (well… maybe a few sweary words). If a block doesn’t turn out the way I want I’ll either try again (max. 3 times) or move on to the next design.
What is your next big printmaking challenge? Do you have a plan for the next 12 months or do you take each day as it comes?
A bit of both. I have a few commissions in hand (one of which I’m way behind with) but the immediate plan is to build up the stock in the shop. I’d also like to produce a book of cuts, which of course these days with self-publishing is so much easier than it used to be. That’s this year’s big project.
Where can people find out more about you and your prints?
What is your favourite print (of your own)?
Mermaid Reading by Moonlight. Years ago our daughter was obsessed by Disney’s The Little Mermaid. My wife made her a mermaid costume and she used to writhe about on the floor while we watched it (again and again – I still know all the songs) so it has a special place in my heart.
Music/podcasts when you're creating or silence?
Silence. I love music but find it hard to work with it on as I can’t just leave it as background noise.
Printing press or by hand?
Press these days mostly.
If you could meet any artist (alive or dead), who would it be?
Toulouse-Lautrec. If he’s down at the Moulin Rouge then Théophile Steinlen (I know – that’s cheating).
One word to sum up your style?