Flying Heads with Straw Hats


I've drawn a lot of inspiration from prints, especially Goya’s work, which I have been returning to again and again for years. Creating prints on the other hand is something that has always alluded me. In many ways printmaking is the exact opposite to the way I paint. Being mindful of timing and doing things in an orderly way is a necessary evil and really not my strong point so when I decided to create some prints that I could then paint into I knew I needed someone to help me. I asked Johnny Bugler who is an artist based at the Cork Printmakers and he agreed to work with me to produce a set of etchings. 

The early stage of the process is the most familiar, it’s just drawing with different materials but even there are already great opportunities for things to go wrong and for unforeseen marks to appear on the plate. The weekend before meeting Johnny I went scavenging for objects to draw into the metal plate. I found an old ink fountain pen with a broken nib which created a delicate triple line and taped some iron wool taped to the tips of chopsticks which worked liked soft grey shading Sharpies.

When I met Johnny at the Printmakers studio I started by simply drawing on paper. It's a great way to relax especially if you’re treading water with no real idea of what to do. I scribbled away while listening to the soundtrack of "Big Little Lies”, letting out anything that wanted to show up. After a while I started on the plates with thin tight lines and soon realised I needed to loosen it up a bit so I tried the broken fountain pen, which made short oriental marks and the woolly chopsticks for a softer shading quality. I could have gone on for ages trying more and more objects for mark making but I only had a couple of afternoons to finish a plate.

Working with Johnny was brilliant. He obviously really knows his stuff and was very generous with his knowledge. We soon realised that the marks I wanted on my plates were the ones people tended to avoid; scratches, thumbprints and foule-bite but he helped me to allow the work to move where it wanted to. In a way we ended up working backwards to try and create some accidental studio DNA. I dragged the plate on the gravel outside the studio and got some aggressive marks on top of the line drawing. The next day I left my tools at home, so I used a knife sharpening stone and an electric drill to mark the plate. The marks from the stone gave a real intensity to the flying head in the image. The drill was more erratic with a technical daintiness when it slipped.

In printmaking time draws the lines for you and expands the essence of the marks you make by hand. Minutes matter. I was really struck how different that is from painting which speaks in words of weeks. With a painting you could nearly go away fishing or plaster a wall while waiting for it to dry. Etching is like baking a cake you can walk away to read the paper but once the cake is burnt you have to start from scratch. After playing around for a while we decided on a 50 minutes acid bath.

Johnny showed me a medium called Straw-Hat Varnish. It is used to block the acid from biting the plate in an area you made a mistake or where you don’t want it getting any darker. I was a bit too heavy handed on a dense linier area so I used the straw-hat medium to draw a light motif into it, like drawing on a dark surface with a pale colour. It seems endless what you can do with a single plate and you could keep pulling and pushing the image for months. I would love to work with two or three plates at some point but this time I focused on one single colour. 

The first proofs were black but in the end I decided on Burnt Umber. I want to use this particular blue I got in Italy to paint onto them and Burnt Umber suits that blue better. The narrative in this print is of flying heads crashing into earth. I am thinking of more "mechanically engineered pollen” to paint on top.

I played around with this idea earlier this year when I reworked printing proofs I did in Cill Rialaig in 2007. This new series will eventually be the same single Burnt Umber etching, each hand painted differently. I made 22 prints with Johnny but I will lose some through pushing them too far and I am aiming for a set of 12 in the end. I might call the series "Flying Heads And Mechanical Pollen 1-12" or "A Soft Landing With Mechanical Pollen” or maybe "Gravel Burns And Robot Pollen”…we’ll see