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Behind the print: "A Swoop of Summer Swallows"

Whether he is walking, sketching, or on his surfboard waiting for the next wave, Tim Mitchell is always looking out for wildlife. His keen eye for detail, character and movement makes the birds in his etchings seem to be about to fly off the paper. Find out the story behind Tim's recent print of swallows, and some of the challenges he faced trying to capture the baking heat of summer in ink.

Blue swallows fly over yellow and green wheat fields, etching by Tim Mitchell
"A Swoop of Summer Swallows", aquatint etching by Tim Mitchell

Why did you decide to make this print?

I have been spending a good deal of time at the Stodmarsh Nature Reserve close to Canterbury in Kent over the last 18 months. This reserve has the largest reed bed in the south-east of England and has a rich variety of wildlife, hosting a range of specialised birds. It is a sanctuary for migrating birds such as swallows and house martins, as well as its many local inhabitants. To get to the reserve in summer, my walk takes me through the baking hot wheat fields and I just love the view of the long, undulating hills stretching off into the distance. It is a place I find I can draw a lot of inspiration and ideas from. This print had been playing in my head for some time before it made its way onto the plate.

Artist Tim Mitchell sits in his studio at a desk, surrounded by his prints and framed pictures on the wall. Canary Wharf is in the background through a window.
Tim Mitchell in his studio

What do swallows mean to you personally? I know a lot of people look out for the first swifts and swallows as the sign that summer has arrived, and the birds travel such a long way to get here.

About a third of my year is spent in Northern Portugal, where we have a house in the mountains. As I drive down to the coast to surf, the swallows are prolific along the country roads. They race and flit, chasing insects just metres in front of the car. I love watching closely for that slight and very small pause in their turns before they dart off again.

Oddly enough, they are also frequent visitors as I sit out in the ocean on my surfboard waiting for waves. They dart in and out from the shoreline, so I’m able to get a brilliant front-row seat for close observation. But it is not only the swallows I get to closely observe – with the changing seasons, the plovers, gannets, skuas, pied oystercatchers and swifts, to name but a few, become my surfing companions.

A lot of your work focuses on birds that you have observed in their natural habitat, often locally to you. What is it about birds that you find so interesting, both personally and as a subject for art?

I think it is that the quiet places that I love to go to, to be in, also just happen to be filled with wildlife, and birds in particular. I don’t know who can claim it first, them or me, but we seem to be able to share the space equitably. I have found that, with patience and returning to these places often, I am able to get close to study the finer details of the birds and with time learn their particular characteristics.

A proof of a brown etching of a small Dunnock bird is propped up against a cardboard box. Etching by Tim Mitchell
"Little Dunnock", aquatint etching by Tim Mitchell

You often work in black and white or one colour. What made you want to make "A Swoop of Summer Swallows" more colourful? Did that present any extra challenges?

When I first printed the plate, it was with orient blue, which I did rather like but it felt a little too cold. I wanted to try to capture that feeling of summer heat in the fields, so I began to experiment with how to do this. My first attempts with chine collé were not too successful, nor where the greens I tried putting into the fields.

A metal plate covered in blue ink, lying on some newspaper
Inking the plate up with blue ink
An etching in blue ink showing swallows swooping over a wheat field
"A Swoop of Summer Swallows" printed in blue ink only

Blue swallows fly over green wheat fields, trial etching by Tim Mitchell
A version with green fields

A trial version of Tim's swallows etching printed in blue ink with tissue paper used to add a brown colour to the fields
Chine collé version (thin paper is used to add colour)

As this is a one-plate colour etching, the difficulty is that the plate is made of zinc metal. Using colour on zinc plates, especially yellow inks, poses a problem in the fact that after applying the ink, as you begin to wipe it for printing, it starts to react with the plate and a chemical reaction takes place which can make the yellow start to go grey. I have found the way around this is by very slow and careful wiping, which is a challenge, along with the Indian yellow ink being the stickiest ink I know of. I hope to be able to avoid this problem in the future by using multiple plates.

The final version of "A Swoop of Summer Swallows", with blue swallows flying over gold and green fields and hills in the background. Etching by Tim Mitchell
The final version of "A Swoop of Summer Swallows"

What are you working on at the moment?

I have a couple of multi-plate etchings on the go at the moment as I experiment with using steel as the backing colour plate, as steel is very good to use with colour inks. It is still early days, but I am hoping I shall make more progress in the coming months.

I have also recently completed a couple of magpie studies: “Five for Silver” and “Six for Gossip”. Sitting in the garden watching the antics of the magpies, along with numerous sketches, taught me so much about these birds.

Six black and white magpies in various positions sit on a fence, etching by Tim Mitchell
"Six for Gossip", aquatint etching by Tim Mitchell

Tim’s featured artist show runs at Greenwich Printmakers until June 25 and his beautifully observed etchings are available in the gallery and our online shop all year round. For more information, visit his artist’s page and his website.

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