Contemporary canal artists: the printmakers

From Japanese woodblock printmaking to cool, clean cuts in linoleum: meet the artists using our waterways as inspiration for very modern works of art

Images: Laura Boswell

 

When was the last time you looked at water? We mean, really looked at water. Despite its near-constant presence in waterways, many of us are guilty of giving it no more than a cursory glance as we stroll along a towpath or putter along in a narrowboat. Unless, that is, you are a landscape artist.

Printmaker Laura Boswell confesses that she recently spent hours upon hours observing the movement of water along the Grand Union Canal for her series of seven linocut prints. “[They all] have water as their background and I needed seven different ways of depicting the canal’s ripples, colour and movement,” she says. “I spent almost as much time as the local fishermen looking at the canal.”

Laura’s ‘water-watching’ obsession stemmed from a commission to create canal-inspired artwork with a Japanese twist for the Gyosei Art Trail – the site of a former Japanese school – that runs along part of the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes.

With numerous wildlife-rich walks along the canal, Laura turned to nature for inspiration: “I knew I wanted to work with the local birds and plants… and I tied that to the Japanese love of seasonality to create a series of images of the canal birds and plants through the seasons.”

Despite being trained in traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking, Laura opted to use linocut printing for the commission due to the medium’s more graphic quality – although the subtlety of her mark making and the muted colour palette oozes Japanese influences.

Today, Laura’s interpretation of the canal’s flora and fauna have been installed as seven large-scale enamel panels – all based on her original linocut prints – next to the Grand Union Canal where it passes under Dansteed Way. Along with highlighting the canal’s wildness, Laura hopes that her public artwork will remind people “to look around them at the wildlife and plants when they are walking the trail”.

The master of linocut
The British landscape has long been interpreted by artists using various mediums, but it was printmaker, illustrator and designer Edward Bawden (1903-89) – often acknowledged as ‘the master of linocut’ – who popularised the use of linocut through his bold prints depicting everyday life in mid-century England.

Printmaking covers a wide range of disciplines, but it is linocut – a form of relief printing that, at its simplest level, sees the artist cutaway areas of linoleum to produce a raised surface that can be inked and printed – that has become a favoured method for many contemporary artists, especially those creating artwork inspired by waterways. “Linocut is a very graphic and immediate medium [that makes] strong flat colours,” says canal artist and printmaker, Eric Gaskell. “I like both the physical quality of cutting the marks and the craft and process of printing.”

Eric first dabbled with linocut printing in the 1980s after leaving art college, although it wasn’t until 2001 that he turned his printmaker’s eye towards the canal network. He was drawn to canals within urban backdrops, and Birmingham’s vast network of canals feature heavily in his early prints. Over the years, however, his repertoire of canal art has expanded to include artwork from all over the network, many of which feature in his self-published book, Canal Linocuts, now in its fourth edition.

It is the graphic nature of the key elements that make up a canal environment – the patterns and textures of the swirling water, and the engineered structures of lock gates and bridges – that Eric believes suits the simple, bold style of linocut printing.

However, before the first cut is made in a piece of linoleum, Eric spends most of his time drawing. “[I] do spend a great deal of time drawing, both on location and then away from it,” he explains. “I prefer to spend as much time as I can looking at the scene… trying to work out the ways it can be interpreted”.

One place that he returns to constantly, due to its proximity to his home, is Hillmorton Locks on the Oxford Canal: “I think I’ve drawn practically every part… but I always return to try and capture the way the water moves and tumbles through the locks.”

Woodcuts of the Black Country
Peter Shread is a Midlands-based contemporary printmaker who produces artwork based on the canals in and around Birmingham and the Black Country using both linocut and woodcut (a relief printing method that uses wood rather than linoleum). “What I love about the canal network is that even in the centre of Birmingham you can step off the busy street onto the towpath and experience [a]… very stimulating visual world,” he explains.

A location that features heavily in Peter’s abstract prints is the spectacular Delph Locks – also known as Delph Nine or Nine Locks, although today there are only eight locks – on the Dudley No. 1 Canal. Using medium-density fibreboard (MDF) or plywood for his large colour woodcuts, Peter creates dramatic, geometric prints that juxtapose a canal’s man-made structures with its surrounding natural landscape.

For many people, linocut printing brings back memories of school art classes. But don’t let recollections of making Christmas cards using blunt tools and brittle linoleum stop you from learning – or relearning – this creative skill as an adult. Over the past decade there has been a resurgence of interest in printmaking in all its forms, resulting in numerous printmaking courses and open access workshops popping up throughout the UK. It’s certainly something to think about next time you find yourself staring into the water, and wondering how to capture those changing patterns and colours…

You can see more of Laura, Eric and Peter’s canal-inspired artwork on their websites: www.lauraboswell.co.uk, www.egdesign.co.uk and www.petershread.warwickallen.com. Discover more about the Canal & River Trust’s Arts of the Waterways programme on the website.