Richard Shimell is an artist and printmaker, based near Ashburton in Devon. Drawing inspiration from the stunning Dartmoor landscape on his doorstep, his intricate, graphic prints are a visual delight. He also uses his prints to make beautiful hand bound books and his work is available to buy online and through a number of independent shops and galleries.
Richard, in your former life you were a journalist so can you tell us a bit about how you ended up becoming a printmaker? What drew you towards the medium in particular? Was it something you always had an interest in or a happy accident that you discovered it?
I’ve always liked prints. I bought a few before I really even knew what they were. I was working as a freelance journalist and researcher, but had lost some work and had time on my hands, as well as the backup of a partner with a proper job.
I found the workshop where I learned to print by chance. I’d been to visit an artist who makes linocuts - Elizabeth Rashleigh, who was taking part in Devon Open Studios. She showed me the process of making her prints: drawing, transferring the drawing to the lino, carving it and printing it on her beautiful old Albion press. I was really caught by the process, so my ears pricked up a few weeks later when my neighbour said she was going to a workshop to learn printmaking.
I called Michael Honnor, the man who ran the workshop at Dartington, and arranged a visit. I told him I had no art background and would need loads of help. I was lucky because Michael is committed to the idea of his workshop being an educational one, so was happy to take me on. It was incredibly difficult for me as I’m not a great student and I was in a room with a mix of people, from me who knew nothing to people who made their living from printmaking. For some reason I was determined to master it and just kept going.
There's an incredible level of precision involved in your work, could you talk us through the process of producing a plate ready for printing? How long would it usually take you?
It takes me ages to get to the point where I’m ready to print something. Ages and ages! I have to find an image I like - either via a photo or a sketch or a combination of both, then I have to draw it again, quickly, without too much detail, to work out the composition. I scan the drawing, reverse it and print it out. Then I cut a piece of the vinyl flooring I use in place of lino, sand and clean it, and draw the design on to it in full detail, scaled up from my drawing using a grid system. I use pens and soft pencils. For one of my tree portraits, the drawing takes quite a few days.
Once I’m sort of happy with it, I spray it with a layer of acrylic varnish to protect the drawing as I carve, then set to with my linocutting tools, cutting away the negative spaces to leave the drawing in relief. I edit as I go, starting in the right hand bottom corner and working round. If I make a mistake I simply redraw the branch I accidentally cut through. The cutting takes anything from two weeks to a month, working perhaps on average about five hours a day, although I’ve never timed it, so I’m probably underestimating!
Once I’ve finished I roll ink on the plate and print it to see what I have. Although I reversed the drawing, it’s always a shock to see it print out that way round, as I’ve got to know it intimately over the weeks. It’s such a shock I have to set it aside for a while to get used to it. I put it on a shelf in the kitchen, so I can forget it’s there and catch sight of it afresh, seeing it as a new thing rather than a wrong-way-round version of the plate. I then edit a little more, sometimes removing areas to give more gaps and searching out the little bits I meant to remove but didn’t.
Eeek....you must be incredibly patient to be able to spend that amount of time on it! By the time it's ready to be printed do you have a clear idea of the colour scheme or is that a process of experimentation? How do you know when you've got it 'right'?
Lots of people comment on how patient they think I must be, but it’s not like that for me. Some parts of the process require patience, such as drawing the design on to the plate to be cut, but I enjoy the cutting itself. It’s fairly straightforward, as I’ve made most the decisions in the drawing and just need to edit a little as I go, and I can listen to the radio or even half-watch TV. I get a clear view of my progress as each cut reveals a lighter layer of the vinyl beneath the surface, so it’s satisfying to see the image emerging. It’s a long process which is productive and relatively easy.
Deciding which colours to use as a background the main event tree is annoying! I tend to like the same colours - a blend of ultramarine blue down to a peachy yellow. But I can’t have all my prints looking the same, so have to try others. I usually like them less. I spend ages trying out new colours, then often reject them. The whole background also has to be really light, otherwise there isn’t enough contrast with the black tree.
My next project is to try more complicated backgrounds by using monoprints - painting with rollers and wiping parts away. If it works it might give me a more detailed skyscape.
You clearly draw a lot of inspiration from the landscape around you, but who/what else inspires you in your printmaking?
I look at the landscape and the sky all the time and when I get an idea I write it down on a bit of paper, then usually lose it! I also follow lots of printmakers and get ideas from them - sometimes just tiny things which spark off a thought process which sometimes ends up with a plan.
You also use your prints to make beautiful handmade books. Can you tell us a bit about how you got into that? Was it a separate interest from the printmaking or did you see it as a alternative way of using the prints you'd produced?
I took up bookmaking simply to have something else to sell, but found I liked making something you could hold and use, and I liked the process of making, cutting, sewing, gluing.
I started by going to a one-day workshop run by the late Joanna Radford, then followed it up with a term with bookbinder Mary Bartlett at Dartington. Using sections of reject prints on the covers was a satisfying way of emptying a drawer-full of prints not good enough to sell but which I couldn’t just throw away. As I made more books I started to print some extras every time I printed a plate, specifically to go on the books. I make two kinds of book - a traditional hardback or casebound book and a pamphlet style binding.
Brilliant thank you Richard! You can see a selection of Richard’s work, along with details of how and where to buy his gorgeous prints at www.richardshimell.co.uk