Updated: Feb 3
Sue Whitmore’s atmospheric “Dark Hedges” etchings use white lines to bring trees out of the black backgrounds, highlighting her expressive drawing and her love of dramatic landscapes. She talks about her artistic influences and how words and images have combined with her imagination throughout her career.
How did you get into printmaking?
It all started when I was about six and my father gave me a lino cutter and piece of lino to make my own Christmas card. I still design a card every year, all these decades later. More importantly, I was learning the language of relief printing. It was the magic of the white and black I found exciting.
I also fell in love with the illustrations in my childhood books: the woodcut vignettes at the beginning of the chapters, the fairy tales with Arthur Rackham trees, Rudyard Kipling's eccentric illustrations with his ‘Just So’ Stories. At the same time that my head was being filled with stories, poems and pictures, I began composing black and white photos with my Kodak Brownie camera.
Later, I discovered scraperboard, and then etching in my years at the Central School of Art. I studied art history, enjoying the work of Blake and Palmer, Michaelangelo, Surrealism, Wadsworth and Nash, not to mention Picasso and the then contemporary artists, Bacon and Freud, among other artists. I also love the graphic work of sculptor Henry Moore.
The drawn line is emphasised in a lot of your prints. Is that a thread that has always run through your work?
I have always turned to drawing for the expression of form, invention and ideas, but because I was a talented painter at Central my tutors tried to steer me away from graphics. In spite of this, graphics have always been my default medium! I love working from my imagination – image-making – and occasionally the challenge of working to a brief.
In the last decade, I have frequently worked with white lines to bring light on to black paper, like theatrical magic in the dark.
You worked in theatre design for a while, didn’t you?
Yes, I designed for the theatre for over a decade – again something rooted in childhood, and I see glimpses of this in my landscapes and my drawings of trees.
Trees seem to be a favourite subject. How do you decide which landscapes to choose?
I want my subjects to engage the viewer – landscapes that draw the viewer in. I'm particularly attracted to beech trees – the more gnarly and articulated the better. I go round Ireland and Scotland drawing ‘plein air’ from my mobile studio, a camper van. I started on the “The Dark Hedges” series in County Antrim before realising that those trees had appeared in “Game of Thrones”. My work was quickly disrupted by the arrival of coach-loads of fans!
I think many of my landscapes are in the Romantic/Neo-Romantic tradition, with more than a dash of surrealism. I'm particularly fond of (mostly) English artists and I like strange, atmospheric subjects as well. I'm always looking for interesting trees, particularly beeches.
How do you go about making your ‘white on black’ etchings? It’s very striking and unusual.
The white lines are the polished zinc of the plate – i.e. the ink is carefully cleaned off where I want white lines. I quite like the fact that it puzzles people how it's done.
And you’re also a published poet, aren’t you?
Yes, I make books of poems and drawings. The pictures in these books are standalone 'visual poems’, rather than illustrations.
Your work has such a strong sense of place and atmosphere. What advice do you give to your students about choosing a scene when you’re teaching landscape painting?
When I teach, I laugh at my advice to take your time before starting work, like a hen looking for somewhere to lay an egg. Perhaps that goes back to my Kodak Brownie camera when I was a child – though my father, an artist, always said it was ok to move a tree.
Sue’s featured artist exhibition is at Greenwich Printmakers until February 20 and her wonderful prints are available at the gallery all year round. For more information, see her artist’s page.