Behind the print: "When We Could Touch"

Sally McKay captures fleeting moments and the moving figure in her flowing, dynamic prints, often working from her sketches made watching dance rehearsals. During the pandemic, Sally has been experimenting with different processes to bring spontaneity to her prints inspired by her drawings from the past. She talks about her evolving practice as her featured artist show – and our Greenwich Printmakers gallery – reopens after lockdown.

"When We Could Touch", monoprint by Sally McKay

You’ve been working on a new style of print recently. How has your practice changed?

The monoprints I’m making now are all from sketches pre-2020. Previously, I would work from drawings made live during dance rehearsals and improvisations – quick, spontaneous, intimate. These would form the basis of my etchings, capturing fleeting movements through the intaglio process using sugar lift, aquatint and spitbite.

Although I’ve been invited to join and draw Zoom rehearsals, I haven’t felt inspired to take the sketches made from the screen further, so I’m working from older drawings.

I’ve changed my process from etching to monoprinting, which feels like an appropriate personal response to the pandemic: immediate, spontaneous, somatic, nothing laboured, of the moment, but also reflective, a way of breathing life back into moments from the past.

Sally printing her etching "Communion"

Why did you decide to make your “When We Could Touch” series?

I began by looking at images I’d made of two figures in physical contact. The absence of touch has been such a huge and damaging side effect of this virus.

For the first version of “When We Could Touch”, I returned to a favourite charcoal drawing made 15 years ago during a rehearsal with Candoco Dance Company.

I’ve made several versions since, each from a different drawing pre-2020. I work with the sketch next to me. Each monoprint is a ‘first take’ and unique. The challenge to retain spontaneity and flow is still there – that’s always been my challenge.

"We Are Miles Apart", monoprint by Sally McKay

How do you capture movement in dance rehearsals when it’s happening so quickly?

I immerse myself in the performance and almost participate through the action of drawing: I allow the drawing to unfold and flow, work very fast, stay sharp and alert. Be aware of everything, movement, rhythm, light, shadow, tension and release.

"I Will Spin Gold From Straw", etching by Sally McKay

What’s your history with dance? You studied Fine Art and Dance at Goldsmiths, didn’t you?

Yes, I was at Goldsmiths in the 1980s. It was alive with creativity. Art, dance and drama students often collaborated on wild and extraordinary projects, so it has always felt right for me to collaborate with other creatives. At that time, Laban was next door to Goldsmiths in an old church, and we shared dance tutors. The incredible Gill Clarke taught me throughout my three years. I still practice one of her warm-ups and hear the counts from her calm voice in my head as I move. Printmaking became increasingly important to me – my tutor Howard Jeffs encouraged me to extend my studies, and I stayed on after graduating taking a post-grad diploma to concentrate on this medium. After leaving Goldsmiths, I worked commercially for 15 years as a senior designer and art editor in film and publishing. I would go to sculpture classes to work with clay in the evenings because I missed the tactile process. Eventually I took my MA Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School and I began to work with dance and physical theatre companies, responding to the movement through live drawings and life-size wire sculpture.

Do you dance yourself?

Only in the kitchen.