We catch up with new Greenwich Printmaker Julian Davies to find out about his reduction linocuts, which combine bright colours, recurring patterns and a playful sense of humour. He explains how his abstract prints are influenced by Japanese Zen gardens, Kandinsky and Frank Zappa.
How did you get into printmaking?
I was introduced to the various printmaking methods at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and decided I wanted to specialise in it. There was something about the process and discipline of the medium that appealed to me and the way I work. I also did a Master’s degree at Newcastle University, which was an enjoyable two years of virtually no interference from any tutors, and almost having the print workshop to myself.
Your often use recurring shapes and patterns in your abstract prints, and they're also influenced by landscapes. How did you decide to explore ideas in that way?
My work started to become more abstract towards the end of my time at Gray’s, but it had been based in landscape beforehand, and I definitely wanted to have a base to work from rather than abstraction for abstraction’s sake. There was certainly an influence from the St Ives School at that time, as well as Kandinsky and the Blue Rider group. This led me to introducing elements from maps while I was working on my Master’s – from Ordnance Survey maps especially – the only proviso being that the parts of the maps I was using had to have some significance to me.
Now I use a visual language of recurring patterns and themes, which are mostly connected with trips to Japan. There are quite a number of Zen garden references in my work if you know what to look for.
Why do you like to use bold colours?
Colour is hugely important to me, and the artists I admire tend to use bold colours – Matisse, Heron, Kandinsky, McLean – so their influence has undoubtedly crept into my work. I want it to be bold and fun, so the choice of colour and how it interacts with the forms is a part of the process. I do occasionally use a more subtle palette, but it’s never too long before I return to the bolder colours. Print can be a monochromatic medium, which can be striking, but even when I specifically cut a block to produce a black and white image, I’m always thinking about how I can introduce some colour to it.
What is it about linocut that made you want to focus on it?
I really enjoy the physicality of it, ‘drawing’ with chisels, creating an image as much by what’s removed as what remains. I also love the immediacy of the process – there's no messing about with it, no second chances once areas are cut away – and I can make bold, striking images.
It wasn’t until my final year at Gray’s that I fully immersed myself in the world of relief prints – the ideas I’d been working on at the time just seemed to lend themselves to it. I’d made the occasional linocut, but up until then I’d been making etchings and screenprints. But once I started focusing on relief prints, there was no going back. At that point I was making large-scale woodcuts, with collaged elements to add some colour. When I was at Newcastle, I taught myself the reduction method, which allowed me to move away from monochrome into the world of colour. There was quite a bit of trial and error involved, but once I’d got my head around the process of working backwards, it was reduction printing all the way and this has been my preferred working method ever since.
You’re a painter as well. Does that influence your printmaking?
I’d describe myself as a printmaker first and a painter second, but the two definitely influence each other. There’s something of a struggle between the urge to paint in a looser fashion compared to the harder-edged nature of my print images, so it can be difficult to get the balance between the two. There’s been a cross-pollination of ideas. Patterns and shapes which first appeared in one then go on to appear in the other.
What is your working practice like?
I try and avoid sketchbooks as far as possible because I want to keep a spontaneity to my ideas, which for me personally would be lost if I was coming up with endless studies. There may occasionally be a rough pencil sketch for an idea, but more often than not I’ll work out the idea directly on to the lino. I take a lot of photos and I’m always looking for interesting patterns and different angles on things that can then feed into the work. I’ll often be seen taking photos of the ground, or odd angles, rather than just the touristy shot.
You have fantastic titles for your prints. Where do you get the ideas for them? There seems to be a musical influence on some of them too.
The titles are often suggested by what’s going on in the image – "Ghost Octopus Gets the Blues" is a good example of this. When I started working on that block, the image was the other way around, so it was a white loop, but when I saw the block upside down, I could see an abstract octopus. This gave me the idea to use blues for the work, which then gave me the title. Hopefully the titles will bring a smile to the viewer and make them think.
Titling is a difficult process and sometimes it can take a while to come up with something that I deem suitable, while other times the title comes quickly while the work is on the go. There is a musical influence there, which may have subconsciously crept in – although as I listen to heavy metal, some probably wouldn’t describe it as music in the first place!
Some of your prints have a great sense of humour – "Count Dracula’s Beach House" springs to mind. Is playfulness something you actively try to pursue in printmaking?
I do try and bring a playfulness to the work whenever possible. Abstract art can be quite serious, even pompous, especially when it comes to titles and themes, and that’s a particular route I don’t want to go down. I think that I can take the work seriously while also giving it a humorous side, which is something that’s been influenced by the likes of Alan Davie and Frank Zappa.
You seem to be incredibly prolific, with many prints and paintings and new ones appearing all the time. What drives you?
I do sometimes think that I should slow down a bit, but I just like to keep busy. I guess that what drives me most is that the next piece will be better than the last one. I’m always striving for that. I also worked full-time for quite a number of years, so I can remember when there wasn’t time to create anything and I’ve got the bit between my teeth to get as much done as possible while I have the time.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been concentrating on the painting side of things during lockdown, but I’m starting to turn my thoughts back to making more linocuts again. As usual, I have quite a number of works on the go and more planned to join them.
Julian’s reduction linocut prints are now available at the Greenwich Printmakers gallery at 1a Greenwich Market, London, SE10 9HZ. You can see more of his work on his artist’s page here.