Behind the print: "Cuttings from Athens"

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Ruairi Fallon McGuigan explores memories, his Belfast roots and the domestic environment in his prints and paintings. His experience of living in alternative spaces has made him interested in what makes a home when you’re often on the move, and how objects become a record of places, events and people. He explains how he made his reduction woodcut "Cuttings from Athens", which pays tribute to a friend and her rented flat, and how it feels to get into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2020.

"Cuttings from Athens", reduction woodcut by Ruairi Fallon McGuigan

Why did you decide to make "Cuttings from Athens"?

I’ve been living in alternative spaces in London for the last few years, and I’ve developed a huge interest in the domestic environments we live in. As I made more work about the subject and explored my own situation – living in studios, caravans and derelict buildings – I also became interested in the antithesis of that: the everyday, rented flat in London. My friends’ more normalised, but equally interesting, domestic existences.

This print depicts my friend Eleni, sitting in her flat of eight years. Her life has progressed since uni, her plants have grown, but it’s still the same flat, with the same slouched sofas.

I wanted to create a series of portraits examining individuals in their own unique domestic situations.

Her flat has also played a part in my life in London. I did my first tattoo there and got many myself, and I also lived there for a month. So it was nice to document a moment of that space, especially considering that she moved out this week.

Plants are a recurring motif in your work. What do they represent to you?

There a few different reasons for this, I suppose. Aside from loving plants and having a vast collection myself – including lots that were collected as tiny cuttings on various travels and have been nurtured up into the larger plants that often feature in my work – I’m interested in their function in the domestic space. Plants can bring any space to life and make a mundane place exciting. We own these plants, and when we leave, they can come too.

Plants are intrinsically connected to light – you examine where light falls in a space and work a room around the plants.

There's also an environmental element. We try to grow a lot of our own veg, propagate plants and have a better understanding of seasonal food in the UK – what we can grow ourselves. I created a large greenhouse installation with my friends Ali Glover and Henry Burns for the Art Licks festival last year.

So I suppose the simple answer is that they're quite a big part of my life and it’s natural that they end up inspiring elements of my work, or at least being used as motifs within it.

In London, at my age, we are always on the move. A home isn’t the space you are currently occupying, but more the objects and plants you furnish it with. We bring the same objects from one house to the next, recreating it again and again. I suppose these objects create a sense of belonging or stability in our lives.

The preparatory painting for "Cuttings from Athens"

It’s a complex reduction woodcut. It must take a lot of planning to get that subtlety of shadow and highlights. How did you prepare your ideas and make the print?

My prints have become more complex over time as I get to grips with the woodcut process. I learn with each print I make, experimenting a little more each time.

I create a preparatory pencil drawing first, which is usually my guide. For this piece, because of the complex leaves, light and shadows, I created a full-colour acrylic painting as a guide to figure out all the colouring beforehand. This is the first time I’ve done this, and it is definitely a lot more work, but I think it was worth it and it’s an approach I'll take again in the future.

I also create the illusion of more layers than there are by monoprinting within each printed layer. I carefully ink up different shapes using guiding marks drawn on my inking table. The isolation gets easier with each layer as I cut more away and reveal more detail in the block.

I never plan the number of layers, I just keep on working through the print until I’m happy or excited by the results. This is often earlier than you would think.

Monoprinted block for Ruairi's reduction woodcut "Flux", which creates the illusion of more layers of colour
"Flux", reduction woodcut by Ruairi Fallon McGuigan

It looks like you use an almost pointillistic approach to convey shape and shadows in some areas.

I do use an etching needle to create a pointillist effect. I actually stumbled upon this by accident. I often used woodblocks that have been sitting around the studio for my prints. They