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The Bluebell Cuckoo

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

Last spring, late April, I had one of those magic walks that stay in your mind. I was up in the valley under Craig y Cilau. Along the path there is an amazing and less known bluebell wood. The trees here are shorter and more stunted because of the colder, higher conditions. The bluebells are a few weeks later than in the wood on the other side of the Usk valley here in Crickhowell/Llangattock.

I've been making some watercolour paintings of the fallen trees in the woods left from the storms during the winter, and I was up on the hillside with my camera and paints. I can't remember hearing a cuckoo in this area for a while, maybe years. Cuckoos are usually difficult to see, even when they are making so much noise. Which is surprising, as they are also quite big birds, sometimes taken for birds of prey with that grey barred plumage.

As I walked the cuckoo was keeping ahead of me and as careful as I was to move quietly, it kept just ahead and out of sight. Eventually I got to the place I'd planned to work and set up my board and paints to start blocking in the elements of a new composition. The bluebells around the fallen trees near to the enormous birch tree that is up on a slope away from the path. There's much more about this and some other tree paintings in an earlier blog post, 'Trees up top'.

Here is the painting in watercolour, pen and pencil that resulted from the visit. Fallen trees in bluebell wood. 75x30cm.

So, of course, that is when the cuckoo decided to make a flypast! I just had to add the bird to the painting.

I sometimes get asked whether I prefer painting or printmaking and how they relate to each other in my work. This is a good example of how the two can influence each other. The idea started from the colours of the woods that day, the purple blues and the fresh greens. Stuck in my memory is the barred light and dark of the cuckoo plumage as it flashed past. The grey makes a good contrast to the bright colours.

It has taken a while to get the composition right, above is the acrylic painting I make to help me organise where the tones are. I'm quite pleased with how the movement of the bird is echoed in the way the picture plane is divided up into sweeping sections. The way I have painted and drawn the leaves in the original painting has fed into how they are used as a pattern in the print. I've been quite free in rolling up the lino with the set tones of bluebell blue and green, so once again it is a varied edition. This is shown by the V.E after the edition number on each of the prints.

My studio and press during the brief moment each year that it's slightly tidy (open studios in May/June).

I'm really pleased with the colours in this print. My last few prints have used lots of ochres and golds and it's nice to break away a bit. Especially when it seems to work.

Btw, bluebells in the sunlight look a pinker purple than those in the shade.

I planned in the design that this was to be a 5 layer reduction print and I've managed to stick to that. 6 is usually as far as I'd go. I think you start to lose too much of that interesting graphic quality after that.

The edition is of 35 plus 2 proofs. Not too bad because I only started out with 40. I usually have a lot more casualties.

I had a small problem registering the image as I built up the layers. When you start printing the first layer there is a lot of the lino still intact (it is only the white sections cut away), so The press has to be set at a higher pressure than for the later layers when there is less lino. Too much pressure makes the ink squidge out. This means there is a small difference in how much the paper is dragged/stretched as it goes through the press between the first and last layers. For the earlier layers I've finished the print by hand with a Slama press where the print was a little light, for the later layers I'm been very sparing with the inking up.

I think I'm getting the hang of the new press. It's all getting a bit more accurate (note to self... don't get over confident!;)

Great fun printing in the studio in 40 degree heat, here's Parker telling me it's too hot to work

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