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Behind the print: “Summer Light” and “Night Walk, Blackheath”

Lucy Ward's atmospheric landscapes explore how changes in light or weather can make us react differently to a familiar scene, and her dramatic shadows create a feeling of suspense. She compares her sunny "Summer Light" aquatint with her dark "Night Walk, Blackheath" drypoint series and explains why she used different techniques for them.

An aquatint print of a woodland path by a lake with shadows
"Summer Light", aquatint by Lucy Ward

Why did you decide to make “Summer Light”?

I started going back to Thames-Side Print Studio in July and I was so happy to be back – I’d been working at home or in my own studio since the pandemic started, so it had been more than a year since I’d been there and I’d really missed it. I was looking through my photos for ideas and this image grabbed me because I liked the balance of light and shadow and the movement in the leaves. When I finished the final print, I realised it captured the sense of excitement, happiness and peace I felt going back to the print studio, and it was the same feeling I get when I’m walking in a beautiful woodland. It was strange to make a connection between those places, but I think it comes down to being somewhere that makes you happy.

Left: The zinc plate during the sugar lift process, where Camp Coffee is painted on the metal surface. A thin layer of varnish is poured over the plate and allowed to dry. When submerged in hot water, the sugary marks will "lift" the varnish above them. Right: Any areas covered with varnish are protected from the acid, so the areas that were not painted with the sugar that lifted off will print white. Aquatint powder is melted on to the plate and then the plate is put in acid for various times, with varnish painted on between steps to stop the acid biting further, creating different tones when the plate is printed. This is the plate early on in that process.

Is "Summer Light" based on a real place? Do you make sketches or take photographs?

Yes it is a real place, although as with all my prints, I made quite a few changes as I was working on the plate. I like to use my photos as a reference and rely more on my memory and emotions to create the image on the plate. I’m not really interested in making it an exact representation of the original place. It’s more a reflection of my feelings. "Summer Light" is based on a path by a loch in Scotland, but it’s more that the photo suited my mood at the time.

Aquatint print of stone steps in a woodland in Scotland
"Sun-lined Steps", aquatint by Lucy Ward

You often use strong lighting and areas of shadow in your work. Is that something you’re particularly interested in?

I studied film at university and I think that approach to lighting is something that I’m really drawn to. I’m fascinated by our susceptibility to stories and imagination when our senses are influenced by light or weather, and I try to create that feeling in my prints. Somewhere that is very familiar, where you might walk every day, can suddenly feel very strange in the dark, or at dawn, or if the fog rolls in. You become aware of different senses and possibilities you would never consider in a rational moment. You feel more connected to your environment, but not in control of it. It’s a rare feeling in our busy, technologically advanced world.

Aquatint print of mist rolling in over trees in Ecola State Park
"Towards the Forest", aquatint by Lucy Ward

I also like to create a sense of suspense and stillness in my landscapes, and I think lighting is key to that. If you present an empty stage, complete with dramatic lighting, there’s a natural tendency to expect something to happen on it. I aim to show somewhere a few seconds before someone steps into the frame or an event takes place. Or maybe it shows the scene just after someone left. I love the idea that it might encourage viewers to imagine stories around the prints I make.

Drypoint print showing a path in Blackheath at night
"Night Walk, Blackheath I", drypoint with gouache by Lucy Ward

While “Summer Light” is representative of much of your aquatint work, it’s interesting to see the development towards nocturnal scenes with your “Night Walk” drypoint series. What made you decide to do this?

Drypoint print of a streetlight and shadows on Blackheath
"Night Walk, Blackheath II", drypoint with gouache by Lucy Ward

I’d been thinking about doing some night prints for a while, and then when we went into lockdown in spring 2020, night-time walks became my only experience outside my flat for several months. Blackheath is beautiful at night, with all the old-fashioned street lights, and there were stories all around us, like the guy who sang pop songs to someone on a video call every night, or the older couple who had taken cushions, flasks and binoculars to the middle of the heath to stargaze. But there were also other figures, barely seen silhouettes in the distant darkness, visible only by the glow of a cigarette. And all of it was lit like a film set, with pools of light and shadows, punctuated by the red dots of passing cars and cranes. I knew right away I wanted to make a series of prints about that experience. Night Walk, Blackheath I, II and III are actually different points on the same walk, getting progressively darker as it gets later in the evening.

Working on the copper plate for "Night Walk, Blackheath I". Lucy uses a variety of tools to get different marks.

You use the aquatint process in a lot of your prints, but you’ve used drypoint for the “Night Walk” series. Was this for a reason? Do you find the mark-making of different processes lend themselves better to some prints than others?

Drypoint print of a lake and streetlight in Blackheath
"Night Walk, Blackheath III", drypoint with gouache by Lucy Ward

I really like the painterly quality of aquatint and I think it helps with some scenes – particularly very detailed ones – to have quite a lot of process between me and the final image. The plate goes through a journey that’s both technical and instinctive, which I love. But I also really like the sketchy, slight fuzzy quality of drypoint, which I think works really well for half-seen landscapes. It’s like how your eyes make out things in low light. In the case of the “Night Walk” series, it was also a practical consideration because it was something I could work on at home during lockdown. But I think I still would have chosen drypoint for them anyway. I like working on the copper plate directly using lots of different tools – sandpaper, wire brushes, drypoint needles, burnishers – so I get a variety of different textures. I love Edward Hopper’s “Night Shadows” and “Night in the Park” etchings and it’s closer to that kind of feel than my usual aquatint work, but I find when I do hard ground etchings, I end up with very distinct lines and I wanted something softer than that.

The little bright spots of colour are lovely in the “Night Walk” series, pulling the viewer’s attention to the print and building curiosity as to what might be going on that we can't see. How do you put these in? Is it part of the print process?

The lights are all burnished out of the drypoint marks on the plate. I clean each light spot individually with a thin cotton bud dusted with magnesium carbonate just before I print the inked plate, and then once the print is dry, the red spots are added to some of those burnished lights in gouache afterwards. I did try different ways of inking the red spots on the plate but none of them had the vibrancy of the gouache. The only other way I could think to do it would be to do it as two plates, and it would have been really difficult to get the registration exact when the red spots are so tiny. Sometimes the simplest way is the best, as much as I like a complex process.

Aquatint print of a winding path through trees
"Trailing Shadows", aquatint by Lucy Ward

Do you ever work directly onto the plate while outside, or have you been tempted to do so? How would this affect the result?

I take a lot of photos and sometimes make sketches but I often don’t know what I want to make prints of until I look at them later. Sometimes a photo I’ve taken will jump out at me as soon as I get back home, and sometimes it might be something I connect with years later. I am really interested to see what difference it would make to work on a plate on location, though. I recently did a fantastic collagraph course with Katherine Jones at the Art Academy and she mentioned that collagraph is great for starting outside because you’re working on mount board so you can take a whole bag of plates, they’re light, cheap and easy to draw on, and you could do loads of sketches directly on them and then take them back to work on in the studio. So I’m keen to try that. I could try drypoint outside but it takes me a long time, so I suspect I wouldn’t get very far before I had to go home.

Drypoint print of Loch Garten in Scotland
"Loch Garten", drypoint by Lucy Ward

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m interested in combining collagraph with etching or drypoint to bring more colour into my work, so I have a few things to do with that – all very experimental, at this stage. I loved the Félix Vallotton exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2019 and I’ve had some ideas in mind since then, but they really need colour to work, and I like the tonal effects you can get with collagraph and carborundum. I do love the simplicity of a black and white print too though so I have some more aquatint landscapes planned. And I haven’t finished the “Night Walk” series quite yet. We’ve got into the habit of going on night-time walks as well as day-time ones now, so I have plenty of material, both around Blackheath and further afield.

Lucy's featured artist show runs at the Greenwich Printmakers gallery from August 30-September 19, and her atmospheric prints are available there all year round. For more information, visit her website.

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