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Behind the print: "A Parliament of Owls"

Steve Edwards brings his marvellous series of owl prints to Greenwich Printmakers for his featured artist show, which runs until August 28. He talks about his fascination with these charismatic birds, being in the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition, and how etching plays an important role in some of his linocut prints.

A lonesome barn owl reduction linocut print by Steve Edwards
"Lonesome Owl", reduction linocut by Steve Edwards

What do you call your owl series?

I use the traditional collective noun: ‘a parliament of owls’. I used this the first time I decided to show only owls in my 2017 featured artist exhibition at Greenwich Printmakers.

Why owls? What is it that you like about them?

As a kid, I loved birds (still do). I was given the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds by my parents in November 1969, which I still have. It has a fabulous owl on the cover. Also, at junior school, I was once called a “wise old owl” by the school bully, which I have never forgotten! Over the years, I have liked the myths that owls represent in many different cultures. It’s not difficult to embrace their weird head-turning, their night activities, their brutal nature and perfect predatory design for killing their prey. Also, they are cute.

Transfixed owl with musical notes, linocut by Steve Edwards
"Owl Transfixed II", reduction linocut by Steve Edwards

Your owls are very characterful and expressive. How does that develop? Do you start off thinking what mood you want the owl to have, or is it something that is quite spontaneous?

Mostly spontaneous. I do sketches in pencil or ink, or monoprints, and then decide which images I want to turn into linocuts. I try to mimic the original mark-making/spontaneity in the process.

Owl drawing with eyebrow raised, linocut by Steve Edwards
"Sceptical Owl", linocut by Steve Edwards

'Sceptical Owl’ got into the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition this year, didn’t it? How was that experience?

‘Sceptical Owl’ came about from a sketch I made about 20 years ago. This has been the first time I have got into the RA Summer Exhibition, and it’s been quite an experience. I really enjoyed the artists' Varnishing Day, where you go into the exhibition for the first time and see where your work has been placed. My owl is high up, as he should be, looking down sceptically.

Expressive linocut print of an owl by Steve Edwards
"Sweet Suffolk Owl", etched and cut lino, by Steve Edwards

The owls are in different styles and you’ve used different techniques for them (collagraph, reduction linocut, etched lino, some colour, some black and white etc). But they are all linked by looser mark-marking and a sense of personality. How do you decide which technique to use?

The owls have been creative breaks from other work and themes that I produce. And if I want to practice a different technique to my normal multi-block lino, I go with an owl to experiment with that technique. I try to add an uncontrolled element to all my work, as I like that sense of freedom and randomness combined with control, and the owls take me in that direction.

You’re interested in some of the art and carvings in old buildings, particularly churches and pews. Is that where the owls started from?

I love coming across owls and all sorts of imagery in old buildings and medieval manuscripts. To me, humans have not really changed right from our beginnings. So seeing a medieval owl looking at me in an old building or church connects me to that sense of human imagination, projection and creativity, which has been in us since cave paintings.

Southbank, London, city skyline, sunset, linocut, by Steve Edwards
"Southbank - Sunset", etched and cut lino, by Steve Edwards

The owls are quite different from your landscape work. How do they relate to that? Is it quite freeing to work on the more whimsical owls for a while instead of recognisable skylines, where structures have to be in particular places?

My landscapes do tend to be more focused on achieving a place/time, but a big part of the landscapes for me is also the sky, the light, maybe water, the weather and the atmosphere. In other words, the man-made in the elemental. So the owls are nature too, but you’re right, I can be freer and more whimsical with them. And they can have more individual and widespread emotions perhaps than a cityscape or landscape.

Sunset at Greenwich, city skyline, linocut by Steve Edwards
"Greenwich Sunset II", etched and cut lino, by Steve Edwards

You use etched lino in some of your prints. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I began my printmaking journey as an etcher, then after eight years I switched to linocut. But because of all the etching, I was intrigued by the etched lino process, which helps me to mix the uncontrolled with the controlled. The process can be unpredictable, just like nature. So I can start to build up layers of sky, but the outcome is what it is, and in some images the sky can become strange and captivating in its oddness, which I like, especially in conjunction with the cut cityscape.

What are the owls discussing when they are all together?


Colourful abstract owl linocut by Steve Edwards
"Abstract Owl", multi-block lino, by Steve Edwards

What are you working on at the moment?

I am printing the ‘Sceptical Owl’ edition and then I’ll be finishing a new multi-block etched lino print depicting trees, called "Three", which I started a couple of months ago.

Steve's featured artist show runs at Greenwich Printmakers until August 28 and his wonderful linocuts - both owls and landscapes - are available at the gallery and in our online shop all year round. For more information, visit his artist's page and his website.


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