I can’t do faces. I’ve never been able to get a likeness of anyone that looks anything like them, or anybody. They go all Picasso.
Plus, being only mildly accomplished at printing – any attempt at trying to render someone’s likeness in this most tricky of artforms leaves me punching tables and throwing cats out the window.
So, when I stumble across someone who can actually do portraits in print, I flip out. As happened with the work of Leicester’s Jonathan Costall, who most definitely can. I asked him the usual questions with a vague hope that some of his skills might rub off on me.
As yet, they have not…
Hi Jonathan – can you remember your first impressions of doing linocut?
I can’t exactly remember the first linocut I printed. I’m pretty sure it was on a Foundation Art and Design course at De Montfort University – Kevin Holdaway must’ve been involved!
Are you trained at all in the arts?
For my sins, I did spend a long time at art school. I completed my Foundation and degree in Fine Art and then went onto do an MA in Printmaking at Wimbledon School of Art part time over two years, graduating in 2005.
Whilst studying my Ba I was more interested in screenprinting and for my MA I did more computer-based work. At the time it felt like a natural progression, I was interested in how new technology could be used in printmaking. So my traditional skills were left by the wayside for a while.
The most time spent focused on linocut in my degree was during an exchange to Holland in my second year. I was lucky enough to work with an excellent printer called Gustaf who taught me so much about printmaking. The way they teach art in Holland is different to England. They’re a lot more student-focused so it’s up to you to arrange your own tutorials in the skills you want to learn. This allowed me to receive lots of one-to-one tuition on printmaking whilst I was there. I think it was really the making of me as a printmaker.
I currently work as an Art Technician in a secondary school. I’m lucky to work in with some great people that have made good use of my skill set. In Year 7 all students do some printmaking (monoprint and screen printing), and they seem to enjoy it. Generally I find passing on some of the things I have learnt over the years about printing to be quite rewarding.
What currently influences your work?
Portraiture is the current focus of my work, which is something I’ve not really delved into before. For this body of work, I draw my influences from a wide variety of artists and mediums. I especially love the exuberant nature of German Expressionism printmaking, there are excellent examples in the permanent collect of their work at the Leicester New Walk Museum which has been a great resource for me.
I’m also a big fan of David Bull’s Youtube channel – he really knows his stuff when it comes to Japanese woodblock printmaking. He moved to Japan 30 years ago and has dedicated his life to the craft. I recommend watching his channel to any printmaker.
I also like the black and white photography of Daido Moriyama and Ed van der Elsken, there’s something so raw about the photographs they take, they have so much moody energy. That’s something which I try to capture in my work.
Your portraits are so striking – how do you get them so accurate?
I’ve got some fine carving tools which help me to get the detailed line work looking sharp. For me the line work is what holds the image together, because my mark making is quite expressive. It’s important to make sure it’s accurate.
I transfer the image to the block using tracing paper because I think it’s the best way to capture all the fine details. I then go over the tracing on the block in ball point pen and make any corrections. So, by the time I start cutting I’ve drawn and redrawn the image a couple of times already, so I think that is what makes the drawing accurate. Basically, practice and repetition.
Do you get those days when everything goes wrong?
Yes – the inking up goes wrong, or there’s uneven pressure because I’m burnishing using a spoon. But I try to embrace the finished print. It doesn’t always have to perfect. Like every other printmaker, I’m still trying to find the best ink, best paper, best roller – it’s an ongoing process.
How have sales been going?
Very, very slow so far. I feel a bit like a band which has critical acclaim but doesn’t sell many albums. I think I need to be a bit more proactive in approaching galleries/craft shops about stocking my work. I’ve only really started making work again just over a year ago now after a long break (I have two sons under the age of five who keep me busy!), so maybe it takes a while to get your name out there?
What’s your experience been of entering competitions?
So far I’ve been pretty lucky with open exhibitions that I’ve entered. My work was selected for the Midlands Printmaking Open in Nottingham last year and won two prizes. One of the prizes was to design a front cover for the LeftLion Magazine which is distributed all over Nottingham. I recently entered the Leicester Open and won a prize there as well from the Leicester Print Workshop for best print.
I do also enter competitions – mostly newsletters from arts organisations, I subscribe to as many as possible. Creative Leicestershire is a good one for me which is run by the local arts council. Curator Space is a good nation newsletter and website. Apart from that Twitter is also another resource for finding exhibition opportunities.
Do you always work in single colour?
When I did the front cover of the LeftLion Magazine I added colour to my black and white print in Photoshop. I felt it just needed some colour to give it a bit more depth.
I think there’s something classic about black and white. I don’t feel like I need to add any extra colour at the moment. I like to think my work is always evolving so I wouldn’t rule it out in the future.
What sort of printing set up do you have?
It’s pretty low tech, mostly I work at home on the kitchen table and burnish the prints by hand (which is a big reason I mostly work in a single colour). I’ve recently got a large gel roller, that’s really made life a lot easier when inking up.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve started work on a print of Esteban Cambiasso. But I think long term I would like to start taking my own photos of people to make prints of.