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Behind the print: “Colour Garden” series

Janet Wilson’s prints are inspired by nature and landscapes she has a personal connection to, sometimes incorporating materials collected from those places. She explains how she made her delicate “Colour Garden” series, using real plants collected at home in summer 2020 to evoke her experience of that lockdown period.

Colourful etching of leaf, physalis, allium, honesty.
"Colour Garden II", etching by Janet Wilson. Left to right - leaf, physalis, allium, honesty

You often make work about the natural world and particular places that you have a connection with. Did you gather these plants from somewhere special to you? Why did you decide to make this series of prints?

I often make work about particular places which are important to me. I like to make prints using materials, such as dried plants and seed heads, that grow in those places. During the first summer of the Covid lockdown in 2020, I wasn’t able to travel anywhere and spent an enormous amount of time at home in my garden. I started making a series of prints called “Garden Ghosts” with flowers from my garden.

I liked the idea of using plants after they have flowered. They are still beautiful and contain seeds as a means of regeneration and making new life. This felt like an important metaphor during that strange time when no one really knew what the future held.

Etching press and copper plate, printmaking
The copper plate on the etching press

Are these soft ground etchings? Why did you choose that technique?

These are soft ground etchings, which meant that I was able to incorporate the plants themselves into the making of the plate. In this process, a soft, acid-resistant wax (called a soft ground) is rolled on to a copper plate in an even layer. The plants are laid on to the soft ground, and then the whole plate is covered with paper to protect the blankets and passed through the etching press at a reduced pressure. When the plants are removed, they lift the ground off the plate, leaving an incredibly detailed image behind. The plate is then etched in a bath of ferric acid. Where the ground has lifted, the acid bites that design into the copper plate. The plate is then inked, covered with damp etching paper and passed through the press again to produce the final print.

Colourful etching of plants: physalis, hydrangea, honesty, hydrangea, allium
"Colour Garden", etching by Janet Wilson. Left to right: physalis, hydrangea, honesty, hydrangea, allium

It has quite a dream-like quality. Is that something you were aiming for?

I’m pleased you feel these have a dream-like quality. Lockdown in my garden felt like a very unreal time, with none of the usual London traffic noise and no planes flying overhead. Like everyone else, I was really aware of the quiet around us and the sound of the birdsong in the garden.

Etching of plants: physalis, hydrangea, honesty, hydrangea, allium
"Garden Ghosts II", etching by Janet Wilson

How did you make the colour choices? Is it something quite spontaneous, or was it something you planned out beforehand? What do these colours mean to you?

The first “Garden Ghost” prints were inked in burnt umber on white paper, which highlighted the lovely, intricate nature of the plants.

The next print was “Summer Ghosts”, a bright monoprint combined with the etching plate, which was about that first hot, sunny lockdown summer.

The “Colour Garden” prints followed. The colours relate roughly to the flowers of the etched plants.

The blends between and around the colours are really delicate and beautiful. How did you achieve that?

They were inked ‘à la poupée’ – one colour at a time was applied to the plate with a ball of scrim (a type of fabric used to apply and remove ink from etching plates). The separate colours were blended together with scrim so you get that effect, and then the plate was printed on the etching press. The video above shows some highlights of the process, but it takes a lot longer than it looks in the video!

Etching of a plant seed head
"Sparkler", etching by Janet Wilson

You also have some collagraph prints in your featured artist show, don’t you?

Yes, “Poppy” is a collagraph print – again based on the beautiful poppies that grow in my garden.

Black and white collagraph print of a poppy
"Poppy", collagraph by Janet Wilson

This collagraph plate was made from a drawing on a piece of mountboard. Dark areas in the drawing were created by lifting off the surface of the mountboard with a scalpel, revealing the furry texture below. The whole plate was then covered with yacht varnish to protect the plate and to make it very hard. The plate was then inked in exactly the same way as a metal etching plate and passed through the etching press. This technique gives a lovely embossed print.

Close-up etching print of a conch shell
"Conch/Red", etching by Janet Wilson

And you collect other materials to inspire your prints, as well?

Yes, and “Conch/Red” is a good example of that. It is an etching made from a drawing of the inside of a conch shell. I love shells and have always collected them. I made this plate a long time ago and it is something of a good luck charm of mine.

What are you working on at the moment?

My next project is to make a series of prints about Greenwich Park. I’ve lived near the park for many years, first in Greenwich and now in Blackheath. It is another place that I love and with which I feel a real connection.

Janet’s featured artist show runs at Greenwich Printmakers from February 21-March 13, and her beautiful prints are available at the gallery all year round. For more information, see her artist’s page.


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