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Behind the print: "Thrown Shadows"

Bethany Marett’s prints explore the effect of light on the body and quiet moments of beauty in interior environments. She explains how she made “Thrown Shadows”, a large-scale reduction woodcut.

A woman lies on a bed holding a notebook, with crisscrossing light and shadow playing over her. Reduction woodcut by Bethany Marett
"Thrown Shadows", reduction woodcut by Bethany Marett

Why did you decide to make “Thrown Shadows”? 

I wanted to challenge myself to make larger, more ambitious work that would push my practice in a new direction, so I made a series of three large-scale reduction woodcuts – “Thrown Shadows”, “Lamplight” and “Sunroom”.

I began making colourful reduction woodcuts during lockdown, when I had the time, space and opportunity to hone a new technique. The theme of isolated figures going about their lives within interiors is one that stayed with me. In particular, light and its impact upon the body, a method of tracking time during endless days, became a focal point of my work.

I continued this idea in these large-scale woodcuts, which I made when I was artist in residence at St Edward’s School in Oxford in 2021-2022 and was able to work bigger using the school’s art facilities.

Artist Bethany Marett carves a wooden block with a sharp gouge tool. She is smiling and surrounded by wood shavings
Bethany Marett carving a reduction woodblock

The colours are beautifully subtle. How did you come up with them? Is this a favourite kind of palette? I like how it gives the impression of the bright light. 

I did want the palette to be quite subtle. I find myself being drawn to purples and pinks and reds, and perhaps they complement the flesh tones of the figures. I don’t really plan how the colours will turn out when I start the print, but as I often use either myself or friends and family to model for me, I do think I am drawn to colours that suit them.

A reduction woodcut of a girl in a red dress reading while sitting on her bed. A lamp casts a glow from her left side.
"Lamplight", reduction woodcut by Bethany Marett

How do you decide how to pose the people in your work? It looks very natural. Is it something you observe and then think you want to capture it in a print? Or do you notice the light and then place the people so it plays over them?

Thanks, it’s always important to me that my models are comfortable and appear as if in a natural state and not posed. It’s a combination of both, actually – “Thrown Shadows” is a lampshade I own which throws these beautifully complex shadows all over the room and I just noticed how interesting and abstract they were, so I set up a photoshoot underneath it. For “Lamplight” and “Sunroom”, I knew I wanted to use these particular models and found a suitable setting in their own space, so it reflected who they are too.  

An exhibition of Bethany Marett's woodblock and etching prints at Greenwich Printmakers
Bethany Marett's featured artist show at Greenwich Printmakers

Why do you like reduction woodcut as a medium? What were some of the challenges of making this print?

I really enjoy working with wood, with it being a natural material, however the size of the blocks and number of layers of colour did present many challenges. I register the blocks by eye and this is a bit harder when you can’t see each corner at once. Likewise, carving, inking up and printing each block would take hours and hours, and was quite a physically demanding task.

The quantity of ink that is layered upon the paper meant drying times increased between each layer: “Thrown Shadows” is eight layers, “Lamplight” is seven, and “Sunroom” is ten – I just had to keep adding more! I sometimes applied multiple colours to each layer, and all were hand-finished too, adding to the uniqueness of each print.

I often display the prints with the leftover woodblock so that the viewer gains an insight into the process of how they are made. With it being a reduction process, all that we can see is the very last layer that was printed. Maybe that’s my teacher side showing, but I do feel like this adds interest for the viewer, allowing them a peek into how the work has been made.

Artist Bethany Marett adds finishing touches by hand to her "Sunroom" reduction woodcut print
Bethany Marett hand-finishing "Sunroom"

How do you keep track of all the layers of colours and carving? 

I generally make the decisions as I go along. I always work from light to dark, and just go from there. As the work takes shape, I mix colours that feel right, and you have to consider how the colours blend and layer on top of each other, and the opacity of each one as to how it will look when it’s printed. I’ll undoubtedly have a couple of prints that don’t pass my quality control, so can use those to test different colours on. 

Two different versions of Bethany Marett's "Thrown Shadows" reduction woodcut print - one with darker colours added
Working on colour combinations for "Thrown Shadows"

You also work in other mediums, such as sculpture, don’t you? Does printmaking cross over with them or do you see them as quite separate?

The school has a brilliant ceramic studio, which I enjoyed using during my residency, and I experimented with printing the block into clay, and saved up all my wood carvings with the hope of making an ash glaze which I can apply to some of my ceramic works. I love the idea that the woodblock, where so much time, energy and care was paid when making the piece, also has a life after the prints are finished and its ‘use’ becomes redundant. I documented the process in a film I made, using clips taken while making these works.

Watch Bethany working on her "Sunroom" reduction woodcut in her short film below:

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am getting back into working in etching, photo-gravure and intaglio processes. I am now an art and ceramics teacher at the school and helped establish an etching studio there, which the sixth-formers use once I’ve taught them my etching module as part of the A Level and IB Art courses. It’s a largely non-toxic process, and Ling Chiu, another member of Greenwich Printmakers, was so helpful in sharing some of her research and expertise into non-toxic printmaking with me when setting it up. I’ve made a couple of new etchings for this exhibition using the facilities at the school – “Pleated” and “Poole’s Cavern”, and have loved rediscovering aquatint. Sharing the excitement of my pupils discovering printmaking is so exciting and has meant I’ve gone back to the area of print I initially started in. Etching, although again a process of layering and planning to some extent, feels more immediate in that you don’t have to print the whole edition all at once, which can be quite an onerous task! It also feels a lot more experimental as I have the effect of the etching solution working on my metal plate, and with this chemical intervention, you don’t have as much control over the finished result as you do with relief.

Bethany’s featured artist show runs at Greenwich Printmakers until April 23 and her beautiful prints are available in our gallery and in our online shop all year round. For more information, see her artist’s page and her website.

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