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'Swimming in Stars',a nightime otter print

Updated: Mar 18

Sometimes the river Usk can be a torrent.  There have been several bad floods in the area over recent years, especially in the winter after some heavy rain but it can also have a much gentler mood, calm and still, almost as still as the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal that runs behind the little hamlet where my studio/cottage is on the hillside near Llangattock.  It’s a steep slog up the lane to the towpath but then a nice flat walk.  The surface of the water can be so still, like a mirror, reflecting the sky.

The local otters are sometimes seen on the canal but much more often in the river. They can use the smaller streams that come down the hillside to travel between the two and remain unseen.

Four print design set around the river Usk, 'Usk Otter', 'Otter Moon', 'Usk Trout' and 'Kingfisher, Evening Rain'.

I’ve wanted to make another otter print for a while, the last two have been quite a success. I ended up fascinated by the poetic idea of an otter swimming in the reflected stars and Milky Way of the night sky. Incidentally, Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) is only the fifth destination in the world to be granted international dark sky reserve status.

Occasionally I get the idea for a print as an image, the composition falls into place in my mind and it’s then a case of getting that idea down on to the paper. This design has been a bit more of a slog.

The reality of the scene would probably be a lot more chaotic. The reflections and refractions of the stars and the otter’s body would make the whole thing very confusing. After several false starts, I’ve gone for a totally imagined and very simplified approach to the design. There are lots of curves and ellipses that I hope help to give the print movement and some 3D depth.

I make a painting using blue acrylic to sort out the design and to organise the tones of the image. I tend to cut and print working my way from the light to the dark tones. I then scan and print out the design reversed ready to transfer to the lino using graphite paper. The extra two pins on the registration board toward the bottom at the sides, plus the top three are used to register the design to the lino (so the design has 5 pins around it) because it is the most crucial thing to get right.

I started with 55 sheets of my usual favourite paper, some very nice Somerset satin from St Cuthberts Mill. The reduction process involves successive rounds of cutting and printing from a single sheet of lino overprinting onto each sheet until the design is finished. It’s a process that is very difficult to describe but I’ve found most people can understand, if they actually try it out for themselves (maybe I’m just not good at explaining!o). Registration is very important. That means getting the paper and lino lined up exactly in the same place every time. I use a system of pins and tabs to ensure the registration is as accurate as possible. I find this is the best system for me to use to get fairly consistent result on the Gunning press; it’s a multiprint/etching press. The lino is stuck with PVA wood glue to a MDF registration board and the metal pins are taped to this. The ‘pin end’ always goes through the press first.  That black sheet that goes between the back of the print and the roller of the press is a sheet of baking Teflon (‘cos it’s slippy!). I wouldn’t use etching blankets because that would affect the registration between layers of printing by distorting the paper.

Here's a one minute mix video mix of some of the stages of making this print.

To cut the stars you can either twist a cutting tool/gouge, I find a ‘u’ shaped one works best, or as I often do, use a power drill. I find it’s best to be patient when using the drill. Too fast a speed and to much pressure can break up the lino and make a raised ridge around the edge of the hole. I found that a new Phillips screwdriving bit is great for making the holes larger.

There are 6 layers of printing for this design. Too many and I feel you start to lose the graphic quality of the image. I’m not a great fan of the prints that have 20+ layers and are really just based on a photograph, although I can appreciate the skill involved.

I use Cranfield Safewash relief ink most of the time but sometimes I mix in their traditional ink because of a difference in the colours available. They do mix together and I’ve never found it a problem. I believe the Safewash inks are based on a modified Linseed oil, that makes it possible to clean up with soap and water. The addition of traditional linseed oil means that I have to clean up with either a safe solvent or Wonder Wipes (surprisingly effective).

Only a few prints have ended up in the log burner! Sometimes I turn the rejected one into greetings cards but there will only be a few from this edition.

There are 45 signed and editioned prints of ‘Swimming in Stars’ plus 5 artist’s proofs.  I’ve added the usual ‘V.E’ because there is a bit of variability in them. I’m a bit free with the rolling up of each colour and can’t hold back from a bit of experimentation. It does, however, mean that each print is slightly different and unique. It also means I then have to list them individually in my shop. At least this lets a potential buyer see the exact print they will get but it does mean a lot more photography!

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Your work is amazing ! Where can prints be bought?

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Thank you, that is most kind. I hope you found my blog post interesting. My shop is attached to this website. Through the menu at the top.


So remarkable! Immeasurable artistry and patience! Just gorgeous.

Replying to

Thank you for your kind comment. I hope you found my blog interesting.

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