Chances are, if you live in London you’ll have seen one of Paul Catherall’s prints. Certainly indebted to classic transport posters from artists like Tom Purvis and Tom Eckersley, they pull the city – or renderings of it at least – into the modern age, kicking and screaming with their bold but retro colour schemes and stark, occasionally brutalist forms.
They’re bloody magic.
But what gets me about them is they’re never in awe of their subjects. The buildings Paul depicts in his prints are clearly iconic, but they exist in frames and settings that make them interesting – fascinating even – once more. They feel refreshed and fizzy again, not picture postcard cliché perfect.
And that’s before you get to the perfection of the techniques behind them. There’s a precision and glorious flatness to the end results that puts them almost in another dimension, hyper real yet reassuringly old school. This comes from Paul’s choice of colour, his compositional skill – all those tools which only touches of real genius can make appear easy.
He’s right about ready to show a collection at the For Art’s Sake gallery in Ealing (details towards the end), so it seemed a good time to approach him for a quick chat.
Paul’s also got loads of other things going on – enough to make an amateur printer explode with envy. So here you go, please try not to burst while reading…
When did you first attempt printing?
My first go at a linocut was during my illustration degree at Leicester Poly in the late 80s. I was quite pleased with the result, but technically it was a bit of a mess… it was a pub scene with lots of people and I didn’t have a lot of patience in those days – that’s something I’ve since learned!
You mention that mid 20th Century posters influence you – what kind of thing?
I love the posters that Tom Purvis designed for various rail companies and for Austin Reed, and Tom Eckersley produced brilliant designs for Transport for London and the Post Office. I’m the very proud owner of one, which my wife bought me for my birthday a few years ago and which now hangs in my children’s room.
Frank Newbould and Edward McKnight Kauffer are other big favourites. I particularly love Newbould’s poster of Scarborough Castle, commissioned by LNER. It’s the graphic nature of the composition and the bold yet muted palette – it’s got the perfect balance between light and dark.
What other art influences your prints?
The American illustrator Michael Schwab, who created a wonderful set of posters for the Golden Gate National Parks. I first came across his work when I was visiting San Francisco in 1998, and it basically motivated me to go off and try my own set of linocuts of London. Until then I’d been working in acrylic paint for my illustration work.
I’m also influenced by Edward Wadsworth’s woodblock prints, particularly his semi-abstract views of Yorkshire towns. My early influences at college included Paul Cezanne – his paintings seem constructed rather than painterly and that methodical approach appealed to me. Also William Nicholson, and I love Paul Nash’s landscapes and paintings from the World Wars.
Your prints appear simple at first, but there’s a lot going on – is there a struggle to keep them from getting busy?
Yes! Getting the balance right is always the hardest part of creating the prints. I definitely believe in ‘less is more’ – but sometimes the prints need a few extras to either ping the colours or to add a tonal layer.
The prints that are four colours or less with simple compositions are always the most time-consuming initially – one thing wrong and the whole balance is gone. I had a period for a few years where the prints were becoming more complex, but part of that was to keep evolving and to not rely on a formula.
Your colour palette is very ‘retro’, for want of a better word – presumably this takes a lot of trial and error?
I used to refer to it as a 50s/60s palette so that term’s fine! I love the colour saturation you get in films from that era, and the colours in 1960s mod suits and shirts. The colours nearly always just come to me when sketching the composition – some will always be associated with certain buildings in my head. So the National Theatre with magenta, Tate Modern with pink and so on. I don’t really know why.
So while there’s a certain degree of trial and error at the initial stage, they are mentally mapped out already. Nowadays I usually produce little gouache visuals before I get printed, just to test the colours. In the early days I’d have them in my head and set about printing a whole edition of 40 over several weeks without knowing the finished result until the final colour was added. It made the last few days a bit stressful!
What’s your printing set up like?
I print at Artichoke Print Workshop in Brixton and have since 2001, so I share the space with whoever’s there on the day. It makes for a nice social college-like set-up, but you can get your head down and work when you need to. The press is a KB lightweight etching press that works well for lino but is unfortunately not made anymore. I do all the pondering, sketching and carving at home – that’s really where the hard work’s done.
What kind of edition sizes do you run to?
Quite a variation, from five up to 125. It depends on deadlines, how much time I’ve got and if I think I can sell ‘em!
You’ve worked for some big name clients – how did this come about?
The longest lasting relationship has been with TFL. The wonderful Michael Walton, TFL’s art guru (head of trading and art co-ordinator) came to an early exhibition I held in Clapham around 2001, was really enthusiastic about the prints and commissioned the first one, which was of the then relatively new Tate Modern.
I currently have a set of four posters that combine to make one view up at various Tube stations, which was my latest commission for the TFL #londonisopen campaign.
Other commissions came about from my illustration background, so I have an agent who promotes to advertising agencies and design companies. A few have come about from exhibiting solo at the Oxo Gallery in London – the Southbank Centre noticed my work there and over the years commissioned editions of the Royal Festival Hall and Hayward Gallery. Basically just getting my stuff out there.
Do you think you’d reflect any city you lived in, or can you never see yourself outside of London?
I’m sure wherever you live influences your work, but I certainly headed straight for London as soon as I graduated. Places where I felt at home were the South Bank and the Brunswick Centre – quite deserted in the late 80s/early 90s. I always thought Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre looked quite homely rather than hideous – which most people thought! I came to realise over the years that theses places reminded me of my childhood growing up in Coventry.
I honestly can’t imagine living anywhere else. My wife’s from London so it’s home to her, and my two kids like being here. I think it’s knowing there’s the opportunity to do so much on your doorstep even if you don’t use it. I occasionally daydream about having a studio in the countryside and going for long walks, but really it’s just a daydream – London is home. I’ve branched outside London occasionally in terms of prints – with New York, Paris and Brighton – and I’d like to find the time to do some English landscapes. One day!
How do you approach organising your exhibitions – any tips?
It’s stressful but it’s basically about lots of forward planning. It’s quite boring, but a monthly planner helps – a tick list that you can work through. I think the first solo show makes you feel quite ‘naked’ – you’re basically saying, “look what I can do!” and hoping people will like it…
- Obviously, work with whatever you have and don’t think ‘what if I’d done this or that?’
- Don’t fret about stuff you haven’t got time to do.
- Remember that if you think it looks right then hopefully most other people will too.
- Basically, whatever time you have to prepare you will fill – with so many different promotion avenues nowadays you can almost never stop.
I wish I could take my own advice though!
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a couple of prints of the Art Deco Hoover Building done specifically for an exhibition in Ealing, and I’m working on a set of Brutalist prints – my favourite subject matter – to showcase at an exhibition at Eames Fine Art in Bermondsey in November.
What’s coming up next?
My solo show at For Arts Sake from April 28th – 21st May. I’m also showing at the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy 4th – 7th May with Eames Fine Art and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. There’s Eames Fine Art in November and I’m planning a big solo show again at the Oxo in April or May next year.