Peter Luty creates linocuts, etchings and watercolours that are an artistic interpretation and a recording of a building at a particular point in time. He braved the Fleet Street traffic and security officers to sketch and photograph the Daily Express Building so he could make this linocut. Peter tells us how he developed the idea, how he gets those clean, crisp shapes, and what he thinks of London’s evolving skyline.
What was it about the Daily Express building that made you want to make a print about it?
I’m very interested in Art Deco. I like the stylishness of it. It represents a bridge between the more flamboyant styles of the past and the stripped-down look of modern architecture.
The Daily Express Building is a very good example of this, almost ‘modern’ but retaining some more decorative features, like the curved corners and the stepping back on the upper storeys. I think it’s a very stylish building.
(Click the arrow on the right of the image to scroll through Peter's initial sketches and see how he developed his idea for the "Daily Express Building" print)
What do you think your former career as an architect brings to your work?
I have an analytical eye for style and detail, and I look at buildings differently from other artists. My drawings, paintings and prints of buildings explore their structural and constructional qualities as well as their decorative effect.
Did you do the sketches on location or did you take photos and draw from them later?
Both. I couldn’t draw in the middle of Fleet Street, I’d have been mown down! I did some sketches for character and setting and took quite a lot of photographs – some while dashing on and off the road, in between the buses.
I was warned off photographing in the lane next to the Daily Express Building (now owned by Goldman Sachs) by security because it’s private property. I think they thought I was a professional photographer.
Being warned off has happened before. I was stopped by police once while I was photographing Art Deco factories on the Great West Road. I obviously looked like a suspicious character. “Can I ask what you’re doing, Sir?” “Yes, I’m photographing these wonderful buildings. I’ve been doing it all day, I’ve hundreds of photos of them. Would you like to see them all?” “No, Sir, that’ll be fine”. There’s no point in getting cross, it makes the situation worse.
I’ve been stopped by security in Paddington Basin from photographing Thomas Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge (private property, apparently), asked what I was doing when I was videoing ships passing through the Thames Barrier (terrorist risk, apparently) and best of all, told I couldn’t photograph Inspector Montalbano (a fictional Sicilian detective, for those who don’t know) as an episode was being filmed, despite lots of people photographing him with their mobile phones. I had my DSLR camera with a long lens, and must have been mistaken for a paparazzo.
You do both etchings and linocuts of buildings. What made you choose linocut rather than etching for the Daily Express Building print? How do you decide which technique to use?
Linocutting was perfect for the hard lines of the Daily Express Building. Etching is often better for older buildings. I decide depending on the building, my feelings about it, its condition and various other matters.
I did do an etching of another Deco building, the Carlton Cinema, because I wanted to hand-colour it to show a number of coloured tiles on the façade. The condition of the building was very poor, lending itself to the softer, greyer quality of etchings.
The Daily Express Building has sharp details, has recently been beautifully restored, and is mostly black and white. Linocutting was perfect for it.
Reflections seem to be an important element in this print. How did your portrayal of them develop from your initial sketches?
It’s trial and error, really. I knew I wanted to show the reflections. I consider them an integral part of the façade, the design of the building. You see reflections of the sky and of the older, more decorative buildings opposite. They’re very important.
I started off with one approach to the reflections, but it wasn’t working out and I spent quite a long time refining what I wanted to do. The reflections had to be graphic to suit the building and the linocut, but also sufficiently realistic for people to understand them as reflections.
You’ve played with a few ideas about buses and taxis going past in your sketches. What made you want to include vehicles?
I think it was risking my life diving into Fleet Street! The new Heatherwick bus has an Art Deco quality, so I thought it suited the building. When I was in Fleet Street, there was a constant stream of them going past. It was difficult to see the building for them at times. I was also struck by the reflections in the curved windows of the buses being very similar to those on the curved glass of the building. The colour of the buses also made a nice contrast to the black and white and grey building and balanced the blue sky.
Do you always do a colour technical drawing before you start on the lino?
Yes, I do a technical drawing for all my building paintings and prints. It ensures the proportions, perspective and architectural details, however simplified, are accurate. My work is partly interpretative, but it is also an accurate recording of the building at the time. I’m not sure a builder could build from it, though – I do sometimes omit things for artistic reasons.
I sometimes show a building as an architectural elevation, like the Deco Hotel, Galle (linocut) or the Hoover Building (linocut), and sometimes, like the Daily Express Building, it’s shown in perspective. I use a hybrid type of perspective; the verticals remain vertical while the horizontals angle away. For those in the know, it’s a sort of loose isometric projection. It’s not done strictly according to the rules for drawing perspectives. I tend to modify the projection a bit in order to make it look right.
How did you get into printmaking?
I’ve always painted and drawn. I studied the history of English architecture for A-level art. We used to draw plans and elevations of cathedrals, churches and stately homes – I’m still doing it 55 years later.
I found linocutting allowed me to simplify buildings and bring out their inherent qualities rather than get too bogged down in detail (although I still do that sort of detailed watercolour as well). I’m largely self-taught as a linocutter, although I did read books and talk to others about the technique.
I started cutting out in MDF because I had some kicking around. My first MDF print, years ago, was "Staithes Harbour", which is still available in the gallery. My "Millennium Bridge & St Paul’s" is also printed from MDF. The edges tend to break away slightly when you cut MDF, which gives a particular quality to the print, and is perhaps more suited to older buildings rather than crisp ones like the Daily Express Building.
Buildings must be challenging to tackle in lino because any slip with the tools could ruin the block, especially when cutting the straight lines. What is your strategy for dealing with that?
I use artist’s lino, which is a bit softer than commercial lino. I also mount my lino sheets on an MDF backing board. This allows me to hold the block and control things a little better. I have a set of small chisels made from sharpened watchmaker’s screwdrivers, which I use to cut the square corners. I tend to do that first so when I run the gouge along the line of a window, say, the internal corner comes away cleanly. I do the same thing on the external corners as well. There were an awful lot of internal and external corners on the Daily Express Building.
What do you look for in a building when you’re looking for print ideas?
It’s very difficult to describe. I just know when I see the building. Sometimes the building comes first – I really like the building and then decide how I should represent it, whether that’s in lino, etching or watercolour – but once or twice I’ve decided to do a series of particular prints and then researched which buildings might be suitable. I’ve never depicted a building I don’t like.
The London skyline has changed dramatically in recent years. Are there any buildings you have a particular affection for, or any that you particularly dislike?
There are many I like and have made artwork about – the Lloyd’s Building by Richard Rogers (drawing), the Gherkin by Norman Foster (watercolour), the Shard by Renzo Piano (lino), the Whitechapel Idea Store by David Adjaye (watercolour).
Of the older buildings, I like what I call ‘London Baroque’ – buildings by Wren (St Paul’s, MDF cut, and St Benet, Paul’s Wharf, watercolour), Hawksmoor (St Alfege, Greenwich, etching, and St Mary Woolnoth, watercolour, currently in production), and Thomas Archer (St Paul’s, Deptford, watercolour).
Of those I don’t like, there are nondescript buildings popping up all the time. It’s a bit depressing. 20 Fenchurch Street (‘The Walkie-Talkie’) by Rafael Viñoly is not nondescript, but it's far from being a favourite!
Peter Luty has a special exhibition of his work in the Greenwich Printmakers gallery as our featured artist until August 23. You can see more of Peter’s work on his website, www.peterluty.com.