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The Printmaker, Richard Shimell

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.