Colour was the first thing that struck me about printmaker Jeremy Speck’s work. You could say it smacked me in the face. It was bold, but somehow subtle too. And it seemed to come from a just forgotten era, but at the same time one that was much more classical than that. And that was before I even looked at all his dancing shapes.
Jeremy works largely in the abstract form (and I think I like these best), but he also covers still life, across both relief and screenprinting. What’s key is that he manages to be more than just a composite of a list of impressive influences, leading to works with a bounce of their own – they look fun, like the kind of prints you’d invite to a party.
In addition, he runs courses and exhibits regularly, and recently undertook a project to print a series of work on 20cm square boards. And I love nothing more than a self-imposed restrictive project, so I spoke to him about all this and more…
Hi Jeremy. Colour seems paramount in your prints, especially with the abstracts – so how much experimentation goes into this?
Hardly any really, as I tend to work instinctively when it comes to colour – which is why I probably end up using the same colours quite a lot. Weirdly, sometimes the colour is chosen because the ink is easier to work with (I love the ‘feel’ of yellow ochre when it’s rolled, so that turns up a lot). I do lean towards a mid-century palette, but I also seem to be quite fond of the 70s with oranges and yellows!
Can you remember when you first started printing?
The first linocut I ever made was on a printmaking evening course at Somerset College, about 12 years ago. It was of a lizard and I made the classic lino error of going around the whole image with the tool as if it was a pencil, creating the white line outline. When I teach the lino course at Double Elephant in Exeter I always keep this memory fresh as it’s the classic mistake people make if they’re used to drawing – don’t treat your tool as a pencil! Having said that, I now use the white line quite a bit, but now it’s deliberate!
Do you have any formal art training?
Not really. I did a short course at Northern Print Studios way back in the late 90s and then an evening course at Somerset College for a few weeks in about 2003. Other than that it’s been trial and error and studying other people’s work. In fact, when I run printmaking courses in linocutting I urge people to spend as much time as possible trying to figure out how other printmakers have made their work, how they achieved an effect or a mark.
Of course, Double Elephant Print Workshop, a members’ open access print workshop in Exeter, has been invaluable in providing access to equipment and a community of other printmakers. Without them I doubt I would have persevered, at least not on the scale I have!
Which print artists influence you?
The first ‘proper’ linocutter (as opposed to artists who dabbled in it) who fascinated me was Edward Bawden – more for his technical abilities than anything else. Of course, it’s hard not to be influenced by Angie Lewin and other contemporary linocutters, who are the inheritors of Bawden.
My favourite printmaker is actually Peter Green, whose relief and stencil abstracts are a joy, and we own more of his prints than anyone else. Another fantastic contemporary lino artist is Michael Kirkman, who seems to be influenced by Hockney and Bawden, but is wrestling the medium away from its sometime twee subject matter.
The artist I return to when I need to recharge my create batteries is Ben Nicholson as you can’t go wrong with circles and squares, although having just come back from the Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy I’m reacquainting myself with their prints through the superb book by David Acton – The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints.
What was the thinking behind the Twenty Twenty series?
Mostly it was practicality. I like my abstracts to be square, probably because that stops you seeing it as a landscape, and my home press is most efficient when printing at this size. They were mostly experimental, and I liked the idea that they were a series with nothing in common other than the size and the fact that they were abstracts. A couple worked really well as images but most didn’t, although the ones that sold best were the ones I didn’t think worked very well, so what do I know!
What wood do you use to print on?
Printing on wood is fun, but it has to be flat, so it tends to be plywood. Registration is also an issue, so my prints on wood tend to be monoprints where the plate and the wood are attached throughout the whole printing process. A couple of these are to my mind the best linocuts I’ve ever done, but I doubt anyone else would agree. There’s something about them being objects rather than pictures that really appeals, something Ben Nicholson also did, painting abstracts on boxes and pieces of wood.
How do you go about preparing for exhibitions?
I’m a bit rubbish at trying to get exhibitions – in fact, I rely on Open Studios and the odd art boot fair to sell work. Gallery commission makes selling prints at a reasonable price very difficult, also the logistics of getting work delivered and returned, then framing – all these things cost.
Can you tell me a little bit about your printing set up?
As mentioned, I mostly print at Double Elephant in Exeter as they have a beautiful Albion Press (purchased from the Slade) that’s always a thrill to use, as well as a range of rollers. However, most of my traditional lino landscapes and still life work is done on my home press in my ‘studio’ (a couple of old police cells in my house, which is an old police station). The advantage of this is that I can be a lot subtler with the pressure, the disadvantage is the restriction in size.
What inks/paper do you use?
I’m a big fan of Hosho paper, an affordable and very robust Japanese paper that gives a lovely warmth to the finished print. I also love Somerset as it takes the ink into the weave of the paper. Other than that I use good quality cartridge paper.
My ink is usually linseed oil-based as the colours are more robust, but it tends to be what you’re used to, printmakers are creatures of habit!
Do any man-made things ever inspire your prints?
Not directly, but I’ve become increasingly fascinated by texture and contrast since taking up printmaking. Everything I see is constantly being assessed for its suitability as a linocut or print. In other words, could it be rendered into shapes and restricted to three colours!
What other mediums do you work in?
I’ve recently become interested in screenprinting, which to my mind is the closest other medium to linocutting in that you are working with layering flat colours and shapes. I was becoming quite frustrated with my inability to make truly spontaneous marks with lino, and wanted to explore a more painterly approach to printmaking, so I turned to screenprinting. I can work faster and more intuitively using this medium, but it does lack the intimacies of carving a lino.
Would you urge anyone to have a go with linocutting?
I certainly would. In fact, I’d urge them to come on one of my courses! Actually, in all seriousness I would really encourage anyone who fancies having a go to locate your nearest print workshop and enrol on a course as you’ll not only learn valuable techniques but also a huge amount from the other course participants and workshop members. Printmaking’s not (just) about being stuck in your artist’s garret, it should also be about being part of a community of other printmakers.