limited edition prints from posters

Following the success of my four posters for London Transport Museum, currently on the network of London underground stations I have been asked by Michael, the commissioner to edition the designs as screen prints. I jumped at the opportunity, and embraced the task!

This has been an interesting challenge because although the artwork for the posters was made using paper cutouts, one great joy of digital print production means you don’t have to separate each colour to print; CMYK does it’s thing. However, screen printing requires far more consideration of the order of colour on each of the layers as well as registration – the accuracy of each colour layer when printing. Overprinting can result in muddy colours if not fully considered. For the editions of prints I made some artwork adjustments on Adobe Illustrator enabling me to create the positive artwork for each of the four colours in each print, ready to expose photographically on the screens. You can see in my composite image, top right, the black print on acetates which are the screen positives, that I used to expose the images.

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I love mixing colours to match my references and I take pride in not using colours straight from the pot, but to always see the nuance of hues. I make colours darker using purples and greens, rarely black. I used the final posters to get the right colours, and daylight is always essential. Ink and paper surfaces always give different qualities to contend with too. The final colours are certainly rather bright! Screen printing on paper is also very different to screen printing on fabric, so you have to get your head around the differences including remembering to flood your screen (pulling a layer of ink across) between each print, and using the vacuum on the print bed (to hold the paper firm).

However tired I am, when I am printing I am absorbed in the process – rarely noticing hours passing, and missing the need to feed. This is a good thing as my week as been ridiculously busy on all sides. Printing requires systematic thinking, and at least one clean hand. Preparing screens, mixing colours and registering each colour on the acetate first all needs to be organised. I love it when I’m in the rhythm of editioning.

A deadline to hand the first print from each edition to the commissioner this weekend focused the mind, and when trimmed, signed and wrapped I was really proud of the prints. I was even more pleased when I met up with Michael to give them to him. He appeared to be joyfully moved by the results – holding one print up to the fellow coffee drinkers in pride… phew! They are off to be framed and auctioned at a London Transport Museum event at the Victoria and Albert Museum later this week.

This whole project has taken so many months (years) to come good, but throughout the process I have felt trusted by Michael to do what I do best. He has great confidence in his choice of designers spanning the years, and allows us to get on with the job without interfering with the outcome. His twenty plus years of commissioning poster designers has led him to influence the direction of graphic artwork on London underground, creating the archive for the future through the choice of creative hands and minds, but not by telling the designers what to do. It takes trust and judgement on his part, but in turn I think I’ve created my best work yet. In the many conversations over these years I’ve had with Michael he listens, he wants to hear my opinion on things; we have good discussions – he knows about a lot of things. He also often gets carried away with future ideas and possibilities – I like that, we should all get excited by ideas. Thanks Michael!

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poster proud

Every designer is likely to have a goal or two, a particular ambition to aim for. Last week I reached one of mine… I have designed posters for London Underground. They are up on the system as I write. I’ve been bursting to share the prospect that this may happen for several years, and now it’s real!

The underground poster archive at London Transport Museum is full of great examples of graphic design, with work by my heroes such as Edward McKnight Kauffer and Abram Games. These designers have inspired me in my quest to explore visual communication through print and pattern for as long as I can remember and now my design work is on the network hopefully catching the eyes of commuters in London, as theirs did.

I was pleased to be given the brief of ‘Parks and Gardens’ and was keen to move the visual qualities on from my Plot to Plate collection of kitchen gardens and parterres, although you may recognise in poster 3, ‘Community Gardens’ some of my motifs from that time. I have continued to play with elevations and perspective, while giving a polite nod to one of the other poster giants, Tom Purvis, whose poster I’ve had on a wall in our home for more than a decade, enjoying it every day. His series for LNER, ‘East Coast Joys’ appears to be made from cut out paper, the picture is made from flat colour in bold shapes. Having used this method for my commission for the Barbican last year I was keen to explore this again. You can see in my first cutout sequence I did begin to connect each poster to the next, as Tom Purvis had in his 6 LNER posters but I found this limited the scope for each poster composition in this instance.

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I began by gathering lots of imagery by making drawings and taking photographs and considered four different approaches to parks in London, one for each of the posters, from traditional activities such as rowing, to pitch & putt and the formal model boating lake. I wanted to create nostalgic content combined with a contemporary aesthetic. I remembered a hot day rowing on the Serpentine with a friend, I thought of many visits to Brockwell Park and all the different aspects of the ‘rooms’ it has within it. Greenwich was also an obvious one, Clapham Common and Hampstead Heath too. The posters represent lots of different aspects of parks, not four specific ones, and only one suggests a particular skyline looking across at the city.

Once the initial ideas were set I began to cut out the posters as general compositions, as well as single details / motifs to add. I combine both traditional drawing skills and digital manipulation in my practice, and this is how I worked here, scanning in paper drawings (cutouts) and subsequently working in Adobe Illustrator for final compositions / print artwork. I was able to make changes as required, including colour and motif placement options.

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As a designer I’ve always loved working across different surfaces and products, working with the industry experts in order to learn the best approaches and pitfalls of each context. Posters are large, but someone may look at it for less than a second… it needs to grab attention without being noisy. Large areas of pale colour might encourage graffiti… edges are as important as the centre, and so on. For people who have known my work for many years the look of the posters might not surprise, but my more recent work has been much more graphic, and understated so maybe some of you may not see these as so clearly of my handwriting. Let me know what you think!

Once I was told the posters were going up I had to go and find one. Luckily I was in London for the Design Festival so with wide-open eyes I took to the system and eventually found my first one at Embankment. I’m not sure I can put in to words what that felt like – I wanted to point and shout they were mine! The ticket barrier chap kindly took a picture of me alongside ‘playing a round’. Later that day I came across two more at Euston, and friends have let me know their sightings too!

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Design projects can take a long time to get to fruition, it is not unusual for years to pass. This can be frustrating when you want to shout out and tell everyone what you’ve been doing in the studio each week. I am always mindful of what I can share on social media, respecting my clients who might want to have control over a specific product launch. Now the posters are up I’m delighted and proud to shout about it… let me know if you see one on your travels!

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You can also buy them from the London Transport Museum shop.

Pattern appreciation at the Whitworth

The Barbara Brown exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester is really worth catching, especially if you like patterns.
The layout of the gallery enables an overview; the broad visual statement of the textiles designed by Barbara Brown during the 1960s and 1970s, to be seen straight away and makes for a striking sight. Large-scale pattern in different colour-ways jostle for attention and yet the small gatherings of textile designs within the gallery also create more local dialogue for consideration. The repeats are large, not in the Marimekko sense but larger than we often see, taking the full width of the fabric to do the talking. Seeing the textile lengths on exhibition really shows off the bold rhythms of each pattern.

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The designs on show demonstrate a variety of motif units across the fabric, some halved, some quartered, others full width. The corner of the gallery most impressive in my opinion was the monochrome series that really pushed her design prowess forward. Although strong graphic statements, these are far from flat patterns. The curves in Ikebana (below left) and Automation (below, third from right), both from 1970, differ in how they control and divide the space, toying with depth and dimensions. There is a sense of sci-fi and computer generated environments across this mono-chrome series. Escher should also get a mention as the optical illusions on the architectural scale appear to pay homage to him too.

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I have my favourites, but I really want to highlight the breadth of pattern compositions here. The design statements include many geometrics with cubes, columns and dots. There are stripes, spots, architectural themes and florals. I see more than a hint of Op Art, Psychedelia and modernism across the printed fabrics, some more than others, but the designs appear experts at communicating the populist aesthetic of those years.

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As a teaching aid for textile design, this exhibition does rather well. Design students can understand the potential to grow large repeats rather than stop at small ‘plonk – plonk’ designs we see far too much of – maybe a result of designing on computer screens. Designers need to understand that even domestic interiors can cope with so much more than a motif 10cm in diameter. Brown’s shapes are also not always contained by outlines, and this presents bold, solid shapes that hold their own. Colour statements include monochrome and full-on colour including oranges and blues. There is a sense of the colour palette dating the patterns but the combinations communicate bravery. The monochrome designs have a very formal spirit, and although different in style do remind me of some of the black and white, large classical columns Timney Fowler print designs of the 1980s.

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Barbara Brown was working in a very different time, and artwork was not created in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Hand drawing full-scale repeats gives you a very different relationship with pattern compositions. Some designs appear not to show signs of drawing, but others do, almost standing out for doing so – particularly Sweet Briar, 1959 (above left).

The exhibition was dominated by the printed fabric lengths but a couple of later knitted pieces offered an insight in to the designer’s creative career progression, and reminded me of the direction Lucienne Day took with her silk mosaics, making a clear distinction away from the commercial print designs. The juxtaposition of some small ceramic pieces next to fabric lengths offered an interesting pause for thought too. Would you have matching china and curtains? Maybe not, but the patterns held their own at both scales and on the different surfaces.

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This is one of those examples of why you need to see exhibitions in the flesh, and not rely on the computer or phone screen to do the job. Seeing Barbara Browns patterns are eye-catching on a small screen, but they are far more impressive in this setting.

The exhibition is on show until January 2018 (and they always have several interesting things on at the same time – and I can recommend the cafe!)

http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/currentexhibitions/barbarabrown/

patterns: printed or not

My go-to process is print, therefore the majority of my commercial projects have included print outcomes, whether that is a commissioned limited edition print, wallpaper or my patterns available on Formica’s laminate. I design as a printer; thinking of layers of colour / texture / pattern, that build in stages.

I knew early on that paint brushes are not really my friends, not unless they have to be, not compared to a print roller. When I was introduced to printing I vividly remember learning mono-printing in particular. I fell in love with the excitement of the hidden surface. I love the detachment, the indirect nature of printmaking, whether it be a lino block or litho plate, they offer a space away from the actual mark making that creates the image.

I’ve been spending the last few weeks writing lots of words with my academic hat on about my design practice in relation to my teaching practice, and this has made me think about how I learn, as well as how I teach. My design practice experience is so integrated in my teaching practice, they work so well together. I can be in a business meeting learning about an industrial print consideration I didn’t know about for a specific product and immediately I’m thinking of how I can feed that knowledge in to a module on the BA programme I lead. In my mind it makes perfect sense for academics to be practitioners too, albeit with lots of juggling!

I love to learn, whether a process, a way to see in order to draw, or a new context to place work, I am excited about finding things out. It was this mindset that got me making rugs, to challenge my skills, and to test myself with another process that works with pattern, but with very different thinking. There has been much written about the need to play, but as designers it is so important that we take time to explore, to develop our thinking. This keeps ideas moving, and the sense of creativity at the forefront. I’m also fascinated how my patterns work across surfaces / materials, requiring consideration of colour matching, scale of motifs, line weight etc. and this expertise is learned as I work with manufacturers of different materials and products, and visit trade shows across the design sectors. Don’t get me started on brands that just print their patterns on every surface that sits still for long enough… my students hear this rant often enough!

I shall continue to explore, learn, design and teach… just after I’ve finished writing this next batch of academic words…

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Images from my ‘Threads’ collection (L-R:) Latch-hook rug, original lino print: Twill, and the same design on window film from The Window Film Company.

time and sketchbook time

At the moment I’m juggling lots of different projects; one has been years (really!) in the making, another much quicker, straightforward and some more ‘surprise’ projects. They all have different requirements of my time, and in each week there may be a telephone call to a manufacturer to discuss things with, an email exchange between a client and myself to clarify details of a brief, or a call to a stylist / marketing team to plan a scheme for the future with, and the usual trade show sales team call! This all takes time, and different skills to manage.

A different skill altogether is to maintain a practice that, at the heart of it, seeks to challenge, engage and inspire the creative self that was the reason I set off in this direction at the start, twenty years ago. The sketchbook is the place I go back to, the safe place I can explore those ideas in, old and new, that keeps the journey going, the continuum that is my creative practice. Ideas do evolve over time, and the sketchbooks are testaments to the ongoing inquiry that may lend itself to something commercial in due course, but is not the reason I do the drawing in the first place.

In my role of design lecturer I regularly explain the uses of a sketchbook, the hows and whys a designer may approach the mental and physical task of working in a sketchbook. Retro-filling the pages that have post-its in saying ‘research’ needing to be completed the day before a hand-in lacks rigour and purpose, a scrap-book mentality is not necessarily the best use of printer credits unless you really do look and reflect on the relationship between your work and someone else’s. Dare I say it, I enjoy the task of working on a new white page, and see the potential, not the fear. I don’t often share pages of my sketchbooks, but here’s one page from this week in the studio, having gathered new ‘material’ at the weekend, furthering my ideas for my Grasslines print series…

I say let’s celebrate the sketchbook, the real one with paper pages that doesn’t require likes, favourites of retweets to be justified, the one you do for you. Why / how do you use your sketchbook?

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yellows

I’ve always enjoyed working with colour; choosing combinations, mixing inks and matching colour. I am interested in how we relate colour to brands, how colour suggests quality, market levels, football teams, trends, and this week in particular political parties. Sometimes people say they do not really like colour – but what they often really mean is that they don’t like strong and vibrant colours, but in my mind bright colours are no more important than the whites on white; equally powerful if used well, just not so extrovert.

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I like seeing the way an inky grey sky makes fields of corn glow golden, and how the crepuscular blue sings out before the night sky takes over. Relationships that colours have can bring connotations, evoke distant memories and create moods. I remember a bag of hand-me-down clothes was excitedly torn open by my twin sister and I, hoping for fabulous new items to wear – in the eighties, when what was actually presented was everything brown and purple – from the previous decade. So disappointing!

Getting the right colour isn’t about a broad brush of red, it’s about seeing the nuances. You’ve only got to see a sale-rail to see the buyer got the shade of mustard a bit too green, or the pink too candy, and not blush. Any colour can vary hugely, our personal perception of colour not only is affected by the technicalities of sight, but also our own relationships with colour, built on past experiences. It took me a while to wear navy, having had to endure it for school for several years.

A friend described my ‘black’ screen prints for the Barbican, and I had to explain it was actually dark grey – it makes a considerable difference to the final result, but if both examples are not shown side by side most people would be none the wiser that the designer made a conscious decision to make a grey look not quite a black.

So here’s some yellow, photographed in Norfolk a few weeks ago. Enjoy, what ever it means to you!

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learning with archives

Recently I have been sharing joys from the fabulous archive of textile samples belonging to Birmingham City University’s library, some dating back from 1901. Myself and a colleague have been showing these treasures to our students, helping them to see their own learning as part of a history of design practices. In an age of the digital file it’s been fabulous to see how much interest these portfolios have generated with our students. It’s a tough call as we worry for the protection of these fragile items, and yet value being able to see and interact with them.

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Being able to turn the pages, and reveal the hundreds of printed swatches is really an exciting journey and the students really engaged with the quality and preciousness of the items. The fact that all the samples are beautifully hand mounted and labelled adds to the beauty and experience. The range of design compositions is considerable, and the detail stunning. Tiny little flecks of print; an anchor, a petal of a flower, or coral texture printed on fine cloth demonstrate quality of the day. We noted the generosity of many designs, and discussed commercial appeal and production methods available before screen printing and digital printing possibilities. Of course this is pertinent at this time of financial cuts in the support to local and national libraries and associated archives, and with arts and culture being sold to the nation as a rather nice hobby we just can’t afford at the moment.

Seeing things with our own eyes helps to engage with the subject, making things real, and adding value to the experience. I spent an extremely insightful day at London College of Communication’s Learning Through Objects event #UALOBL last month discussing this subject with fellow academics, researchers and archivists. Yes it’s easier to deliver another ppt to a large group of students, but sessions with objects and physical activity are the ones that are likely to make far more impression, and make the difference to learning we are aiming for.

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