I’ve always admired people who can chuck it all in and move from place to place, to travel, see what happens – and I’ve also always been a fan of A Tribe Called Quest.
Bear with me.
So imagine my joy when I discovered the prints of ex-pat Warren Crawford, trading as Mexile and now based in Mexico City, who has made some of the most arresting portrait linocuts of hip-hop stars (and more) that I’ve seen.
An accomplished designer and writer, he explains in this interview how he has an open minded view of travel – but a steadfast determination when it comes to the arts. Lino is his obsession at the moment, and thankfully it shows no signs of abating, so his answers are some of the most involved I’ve ever received. See what you think…
Hi Warren – can you remember your first impressions of linocut?
At secondary school in Hutton, Lancashire, I was in the art block in every free moment. I’ve always been attracted to the arts and was never without a paperback and a pencil in my pocket… a habit I carry with me in my 40s.
I was lucky enough to have great teachers who influenced me greatly in those formative years. I still owe one of them a novel. I was an atheist even as a child, so was given special dispensation to escape RE classes and spend that time drawing. My best friend was my biggest competitor, and we’ve recently got back in touch – he’s still drawing and writing, too.
I can recall doing linocut in the first or second year but, unfortunately, we didn’t go into any depth with it. We touched on it all very briefly. All I remember are the bleeding fingers of a few friends who didn’t listen to the teacher.
Are you trained at all in the arts?
I’m a web designer and have worked freelance for a large number of agencies. I studied Interior and Graphic Design at University in the late 80s and early 90s, but was kicked out as I happily went off the rails during the Acid House years in the North West.
I did a part time Graphic Design degree in Manchester after moving to Leeds with my girlfriend. She was a fashion designer and, seeing her working at home when I came home after a dusty day as a van driver made me think about the opportunity I’d squandered. When I popped in to see the head of Interior Design, Joan Campion, on my way to the interview she said “Oh, you’re back, then?” I’ll be forever grateful to my boss at Parceline in Leeds too, who gave me a day off a week to go back to Uni. I count myself lucky.
My first two friends in Mexico work in animation. One of their colleagues went and did a linocut course. I saw his work online and asked where he’d done it? I went and did the same weekend course at Zoveck studios, was hooked, and started looking for somewhere to continue my education. After a lapse of a few months, I went to meet Humberto Valdez at his studio in Tlalpan, an hour and 22 Metrobús stations away from where I live. It’s a trek. But he said I was welcome to come and print, and I’ve been there ever since.
What’s influencing your work these days?
I’m influenced by anything and everything. As a designer, you never switch off, you notice the details in all you see. You listen to everything, too – sound and music influence me. I DJ and make electronic music (though I gave that up years ago) and am walking around with tracks playing in my head constantly. Music is a constant companion when I’m drawing or carving lino.
Lino and woodcut artists who inspire me are the great Leopoldo Mendez, and contemporary artists Humberto Valdez and Irving Herrera. I work with Valdez, and have several of Herrera’s pieces on my walls. It’s their portraits that got me hooked on this. Neil Shigley’s portraits of the homeless are stunning. I love his process.
As far as other artist influences – Klimt for his portraits and themes, Egon Schiele for his drawings, Jenny Saville for her interpretation of the human form, Degas for the light. I love Terrick Williams, too.
How did you end up in Mexico?
I visited Barcelona a lot in the early part of the last decade, and felt at home. In 2008 I set off on a world trip, disillusioned with life in London. I intended to learn Spanish and move to Spain. But, after a few further trips in South and Central America, where I also became a diving instructor, I met two Mexicans in El Salvador who showed me their capital on my second stay in Mexico. Mexico City grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. Six years later, I’m still here. I owe the country, and those two friends, a lot. But Spain is on the cards in the next few years. Maybe Valencia. But you never know… a lot can happen in a year, and I hear that Salma Hayek is single again…
There’s a good print heritage there…
There’s a huge tradition of print in Mexico. Posada, Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins etc. The centres seem to be Oaxaca, Zacatecas and México DF. There is a huge rivalry between the two former states; sometimes bitter, depending on which artist you talk to and how many drinks they’ve had.
Do you get days when everything goes wrong with a print?
Not so much in the printing part, but sometimes in the carving phase. I’m learning to make subtler marks and improve my midtones. My earlier prints could look a bit flat when I’d put too much light across the design. I’ve learned to change things and make decisions based on the best contrast for the design: not necessarily being faithful to a photograph.
The worst thing that has happened so far was during a month I stayed at La Ceiba, a print studio in a beautiful old Hacienda near Coatepec, Veracruz. I was working on an A3 two-colour reduction print of a local woman. Using two needles on bolsa wood sticks and registration holes, I was working on the second colour when I realised that I’d cut away the top registration point after printing the first colour. It was 4am and I’d foolishly continued working despite being exhausted after starting at 8am. I guessed to within millimetres of where it had been, but only one print of twelve came out perfect. I almost wept with frustration. I’d also made an error in using damp paper for the first colour, so it was harder to align it again for the second. It was a painful lesson, but that print taught me a lot about preparation and patience. I think patience is the hardest thing to learn in printmaking.
I think your prints of faces are some of your most arresting – how do you get them so lifelike, yet fun?
I usually take a photograph and adjust it in Photoshop – high contrast, posterise etc. Then I’ll print that and transfer it to the lino using thinner and the printing press. You get a rough image on there as a guide. It’s not perfect, but helps me with proportion. I’m trying to I prove my portrait skills with life drawing classes and exercises such as 50 drawings in four hours. And the Andrew Loomis books are fantastic. It feels like cheating to use a transfer but, while I’m improving my skills as a draughtsman, I want to focus on the marks I make as far as linocut goes. Even Humberto Valdez uses a projector when marking out his designs, so I don’t feel too bad.
How have sales been going for you? I know some people struggle with it, myself included, but do you have a good grasp of it?
I wish! It’s been very slow. I found Etsy to be a waste of time. Artfinder and Saatchiare are supposed to be better. I was told I was selling my work too cheaply in the beginning. It’s that bizarre conundrum of if something is too cheap then people won’t think it’s art. Maybe I should stick a couple of zeros on the end of each price. A lot of it is just as much luck and exposure as it is talent – I’ve seen plenty of exhibitions of selling artists here and thought, really?
I’ve sold to friends and their acquaintances in the main. And one restaurant I go to a lot gave me credit at their place for a print, so I was paid in fish tacos and ceviche. But you can live on that, no?
Money doesn’t motivate me at all. If I could have a tiny house near the sea, and a garden studio, surviving on print sales, that would do for me. What does motivate me is people hanging something I’ve done on their wall, and appreciating it. And wondering where one of my prints might hang in a hundred years, when someone buys it in a flea market in Amsterdam, or takes it home after clearing the house of an old Mexican who has no living relatives. That fascinates me.
What sort of printing set up do you have?
I draw and carve at home, where the light is good on my small terrace. It’s sunny until 4pm at this time of year, and then the heavens open. So mid afternoon I head off to the workshop in Tlalpan, south of the city. There are two presses there, one of them huge.
Do you always work in single colours?
At the moment, yes. I like the stark look of a single colour. But with multicolour prints, you can get away with less detail. It’s something I’ll move on to. There are lots of things that can go wrong, as happened in Veracruz. And it scares me, especially on a reduction print.
But the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given in my design career is that “It’s good to be scared.” So I’ll jump in at some point. Just dipping my toe in the water right now. The second best bit of advice was “You’re only as good as your last piece of work.” I’m improving with each print and, as long as you learn from each piece of work, it’s a success.
I’m very self-critical, and immediately see things I would do differently if I could Ctrl Z on a linocut. But you can’t, so I learn and move on. And we mainly see these faults as we created the work. Others just appreciate the whole. Learn, improve and move on.
What are you working on at the moment?
The human face fascinates me, so I think I’ll always do portraiture. Sometimes I can drift out of a conversation with friends in a dimly lit bar because I’m looking at how light creates the form of the face, how shadows change with movement, and I’m studying details of their faces without listening to what they’re saying. But they’re used to being examined by now.
I’ve been doing a few portraits of hip hop artists. I grew up with that music, Electro and Kraftwerk. But they don’t seem to be selling. I want to find a commercial niche to supplement the stuff I want to do for myself.
I have a few female friends who want me to work on nudes with them, and one of them has a yoga studio where we can set up lights to get some strong contrast. I think images of these may sell better than Flavor Flav and Big Daddy Kane….
I enjoy making portraits of older people too. The lines and stories in their faces transfix me. I’m working on a whole series of them, looking around for subjects at the moment. It’s part of a bigger project I have in mind as a parting gift to Mexico, should I decide to move on next year. I feel that I owe this country a lot. She’s changed my life – taken me away from digital and back into art, made me some solid friends and helped me become bilingual. It would be nice to leave a legacy, however small. The project is under wraps right now, I don’t want to give too much away. But it will take the best part of a year, so I’d better get cracking…