Women artists I love

A number of my favourite artists happen to be women as well so I thought I would write a post about them and their work. As always, there might be a bit of a bias towards the depiction of birds in the work I’ve chosen, but I’m sure my dear reader will understand!

I have known this Mary Fedden pencil drawing of a cuckoo for a long time. The quality of the pencil marks, the use of space in the drawing and the composition conjure up something both dynamic and understated.

mary fedden cuckoo drawing

Mary Fedden is most certainly an artist who works with her own set of shapes, often distorting the reality of things. Her birds tend to be chunkier than in reality and often inhabit simplifed worlds of mark and shape.

mary fedden bird

After visiting Orkney for the first time this summer I have been enjoying looking through Sylvia Wishart – a study, published by the Pier Arts Centre. Wishart’s work has a strong sense of place, a sensitive use of colour and an other-worldly quality to it. For many years her work developed in an abstract direction, although always remaining derived from the  landscape and history of the areas of Orkney she lived in.

In the following two quotes Wishart describes how a momentary occurrence proved the beginning of a significant body of work for her and a change of direction:

‘About twelve years ago a friend dropped in when I was out and with a felt tip pen drew on the window, amongst other things, a bird. This for the first time made me consciously look at the window, as well as through it and led to a series of paintings including this bird. I never washed it off, it just faded away. And ever since, that has led to a fascination with images found on the window pane, beyond and behind, leading inevitably to that ambiguity of space that has always held me.’

sylvia wishart, reflections

‘I had come back to ‘appearances’, after a long period of simplifying or ‘abstracting’. Now when three starlings alight on the fence I just draw them and I’m never sure if they are in the house or outside it, because there’s a blackbird at the back window and he’s been projected onto the front! All endlessly intriguing!’

Sylvia Wishart, etching

It is always informative reading how ideas for subjects begin. I like in this story how Wishart not only finds a new subject matter to grapple with – the reflected window – but also finds herself returning to observational work. It is notable that by returning to observing reality she makes probably her most bizarre and strange series of pieces.

As Philip Guston says: ‘The visible world…is abstract and mysterious enough. I don’t think one needs to depart from it in order to make art’.

Kiki Smith is an artist who is interested in the human body, mythology and the natural world. Her depictions of birds often contain strange narratives. Despite trawling the net I was unable to find much information about where either of the images below derived from.  They are beautifully delicate and intriguing works – Smith has a particular love of drawing fur, feathers and hair which often feature in her drawn work.

kiki smith birds

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The following two paintings are both titled Sandpipers in Alnmouth and are by Winifred Nicholson. Both works contain a strong sense of a moment captured; although the birds are quite clumsily described, the geometric shapes they make give a strong sense of movement and lightness to them. The dynamic movement of the flock is offset by the stillness of the scene beyond – the well-balanced composition along with the limited palette of colours provide a sense of tranquility.

sandpipers flock, winifred nicholson

It is interesting that the artist produced two paintings of the same image – I wonder if the top one might have been painted on the spot or as a study for the second one which seems more designed (I prefer the top one for its feeling of immediacy).

Sandpipers, Alnmouth 1933 by Winifred Nicholson 1893-1981
And finally, a couple of paintings by Mary Newcomb, an artist who always brings a fresh point of view to things. Her work contains a great sense of colour and design, along with a lightness of touch and a poetic vision of the world.

mary newcomb, a hedge in november

This first painting is called A hedge in November and is a work I have been familiar with for a while. Every time I look at it I am astounded by how Newcomb has managed to capture such a strong sense of a wintery hedge through such unrepresentational means. In the berry tree on the left, the strong colours in the stems against the grey background contrast intensely with the heavy black forms of the berries. The beautifully silhouetted thorn branches on the right side of the canvas add to the  form of the hedge and give a sense of space to the piece.

mary newcomb, collared doves lifted by light

This painting, entitled Collared doves lifted by light, is new to me. My interpretation of the image is these are two doves on a blue-painted bird bath surrounded by red flowers. Once again there is a beautiful combination of abstract colour and form plus that noticing of an insignificant moment, which has been transformed into something beautiful, intriguing and fragile under the expert eye of Newcomb.

As always it is both nourishing and uplifting to see the work of other artists – I hope you have enjoyed this insight into some of the people who inspire me.

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The joy of sketch

I use sketchbooks as a starting point for nearly all my work. Drawing nourishes my ideas and practice. Looking at the sketchbooks of other artists can provide a way in to understanding their work, drawing is often transformative, allowing us to look and see afresh. This post combines images of my sketches, with those of others which inspire me and a couple of inspiring quotes about what drawing means.

I have sessions of drawing and consider it important to make studies to develop one’s awareness to inner perception, collecting shapes that become my shapes. I attempt to seek out sculptural, architectural and linear qualities…always to study the function of forms and formations, drawing with simplicity. I get at the real essence of things which can be as miraculous as anything devised by the imagination Wilhelmina Barns Graham

The above quote sums up beautifully how drawing is, and should be, an entirely personal means of expression. I like the idea of collecting ‘my shapes’ through drawing, here are some of Hokusai’s ‘shapes’:

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Sketches of cranes by Hokusai

The following sketchbook image is by British landscape painter John Constable, it is an unusual image for Constable with its air of mystery and underlying narrative.

John Constable Sketchbook page
Sketchbook page, John Constable

If you haven’t spent time looking at Monet’s sketch books I would recommend it – many of his quick sketches describe complex space and form with energy and economy.

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Sketchbook page, Claude Monet

This image, by British painter Mary Newcomb, is one I return to again and again. It is so simple and yet so deeply felt.

Mary Newcombe Lonely flight
Lonely Flight by Mary Newcombe

Scottish artist Barbara Rae uses colour and paint in her sketchbooks to recreate landscapes which verge on abstraction and provide a starting point for her large scale paintings and vibrant prints.Image

Barbara Rae, sketchbook page

This sketch of the sea by Mondrian has an amazing quality to it which pre-empts his later grid paintings.

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Piet Mondrian, the sea, sketch

I have a facsimile of one of Samuel Palmer’s sketchbooks which contains this bizarre image of a donkey which I love!

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Samuel Palmer, Donkey sketch

This is a quote by John Berger from his essay on drawing which can be read in full here.

FOR THE ARTIST DRAWING IS DISCOVERY. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true. It is the actual art of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations. It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking. A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see. Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it: the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become. Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical. Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you. John Berger

And a few of my recent sketchbook pages to end:

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Hen amongst tulips, 2014

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Stacks at St Abbs, 2014

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Wobbly dipper drawing, 2014

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Cumbrian spring, 2014

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View across Duddingston Loch sketch, 2014

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Heroic Herons

A short post today, inspired by time spent watching a preening grey heron this weekend on the Water of Leith. After sitting down to draw the bird, I would thoroughly recommend ‘heron-watching’ as a way to spend some quality time. The way in which they can morph from stumpy, mango-bodied birds to tall, snake-like creatures is incredible. The particular bird that I was watching must have been an adult in breeding plumage as the decorative feathers which hang from its front were very prominent. I have since learnt that heron’s beaks turn from yellow to partly reddish during the breeding season – I’ll be looking out for that from now on.

This is a page from my sketchbook – the drawing (hopefully) gives a sense of the preening movement  of the birds and you can see my attempt to capture the long feathers which it was trying to reach under with its beak. .

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I was able to make a few sketchy drawings which turned into this painting in progress at the studio: Image

It felt very satisfying to immediately spend some time translating what I had just seen into colours and forms on the paper. Watch this space to see how the piece develops.

And to finish, some more heron images for you, firstly a sheet of egret sketches by Italian 15th century artist, Pisanello.

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The birds strong features lend themselves very well to this book cover by the mid-twentieth century artists Clifford and Rosemary Ellis:

the heron, c and r ellis

A bold charcoal drawing by Greg Poole, which really captures something of the gangly strength of the heron:

mull - heron & otter

And finally an old drawing of mine which went on to inspire my Night Heron screen print:

arran sketchbook page heron

 

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Combining Techniques

I recently taught a one-day workshop at Leith School of Art showing students how to combine two different printmaking techniques – collagraph and monotype. Those of you who know me and my work will be aware that I am pretty familiar with the art of monotype but collagraph is not something I have explored much. I deliberately decided to run this workshop as I was keen to try collagraph for myself and thought it would provide a good incentive – it did!

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A shot of the workshop showing a student’s workspace with a variety of prints on the go

There are a number of different methods of making a collagraph, most of them involve collaging onto a surface to create a layered, textured plate which you ink up and then print. At Leith School of Art we use a multi-layer board called collagraph card which allows you to cut into it to reveal a mid layer and a deeper layer. This means you can cut away as you would with lino cut or wood engraving but you can incorporate mid-tones into your design and also exploit the quality of the card by creating torn edges or drawing into the surface of the card with biro. I like working in this way before rolling the ink onto the surface of the plate to produce the image.

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Cutting the design

Below is my plate finished, varnished and inked up ready to be printed using the beautiful Columbian press belonging to Leith School of Art:

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Plate on Columbian press bed

The Columbian press was first invented in 1813 by a Philadelphian mechanic and used to print entire newspaper pages with one effortless pull of the handle. In 1860 an Edinburgh firm called Ritchie and Sons started manufacturing these presses, the Leith School of Art model was made by them – so this particular press hasn’t travelled far in it’s life!

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I love this eagle detail, what a glorious bird. I was excited to have the opportunity to use the Columbian press, you can find out more about the history of it here.

And from one glorious bird to two -the oystercatcher and the curlew. I have been working with the image of these two birds since making this sketch in November 2013. And here is the image as a card cut print combined with monotype:

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This was just a test piece but I was pleased with the effect of the graphic image of the card cut combined with the looser, softer colour of the monotype. 

Whilst researching for the workshop I looked at a lot of prints by English printmaker Robert Tavener. Although he mostly worked with lithography and lino cut the way in which he combined shapes of colour with a more graphic monochrome design is very inspiring:

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“Boat and Nets” by Robert Tavener, thanks to St Judes Gallery for the image: http://www.stjudesgallery.co.uk/artists/r_tavener/tavener_boatandnets.htm

This quote by Tavener is very useful for anyone interested in printmaking:

“In the diverse and complex world of artists’ prints, I have tried to keep three or perhaps four qualities paramount. These are design, colour, draughtsmanship, together with an awareness of the disciplines of autographic printmaking. A lithograph should not be a reproduction of anything else, but must exemplify the textures and qualities inherent in stone and plate; a block print should demonstrate by its “cutty” qualities the resistance of wood and lino to the gouge, the knife and the graver. It should not imitate drawing or painting, and the printed image is the Original”

For more information and to see more examples of Tavener’s work have a look at his page on the website for Emma Mason: British prints. They have also produced a beautiful book of his work which is well worth a browse.

Screen print and monotype combined
I have been meaning to explore the possibility of combining screen print and monotype together for some time. As they are my two main printmaking practices it seemed an obvious choice for me. I stayed with the image of the curlew and oystercatcher for these prints, expanding the context to capture a sense of looking across the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh from Aberdour, which is where the initial drawings were made.  Here is a brief visual diary of the process.

The first three layers were created as a screen print, leaving a simple design ready to take the final monotype layer (apologies for the poor quality image – it is the only one I have).

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Here is my monotype plate, ready to be inked up with a map underneath it so I know where I have to rub away the ink to reveal the drawing.

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Once again apologies for the poor quality of this image – too many reflective surfaces! This is the plate, it is initially inked up all over in one colour as a starting point for drawing into.

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My monotype plate, placed on top of the screen printed image and ready to go through the press:

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The final prints:

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I made three versions of the image – in each the screen printed layers remain the same but the drawn monotype layer is different each time.

And finally for now, a print by an artist whose work I like a lot and who is a master in the art of combining print techniques, mainly screen print with lino cut, Angela Harding:

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The humble dunnock…

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I recently completed a sunlit dunnock screen print, after watching and drawing a pair of these beautiful but unassuming birds one cold, clear January day in Holyrood park. This prompted me to look into these birds, which have been under-represented in the history of art, their beautiful blue eggs being the main source of interest to artists it seems:Image

 A dunnock nest and eggs, coloured wood engraving produced for Reverend Morris’ book of British birds nests and eggs. I like the way the egg hovers above the nest in this image.
 
And of course Thomas Bewick can always be relied upon to produce a stunning print of a British bird – here is his lovely dunnock print, with a snowy rural backdrop:

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British nature poet, John Clare, has written a poem about the arrival of spring featuring a dunnock which he calls a ‘hedge sparrow’. 

Spring

Pale sun beams gleam
That nurtur a few flowers
Pile wort and daisey and a sprig o’ green
On white thorn bushes
In the leaf strewn hedge

These harbingers
Tell spring is coming fast
And these the schoolboy marks
And wastes an hour from school
Agen the old pasture hedge

Cropping the daisey
And the pile wort flowers
Pleased with the Spring and all he looks upon
He opes his spelling book
And hides her blossoms there

Shadows fall dark
Like black in the pale Sun
And lye the bleak day long
Like black stock under hedges
And bare wind rocked trees

Tis chill but pleasant
In the hedge bottom lined
With brown seer leaves the last
Year littered there and left
Mopes the hedge Sparrow

With trembling wings and cheeps
Its welcome to pale sunbeams
Creeping through and further on
Made of green moss
The nest and green blue eggs are seen

All token spring and every day
Green and more green hedges and close
And every where appears
Still tis but March
But still that March is Spring

John Clare

Dunnocks are often associated with sparrows, visually this makes sense, but it is a misnomer as dunnocks are actually part of the accentor family, ground dwelling birds found across Europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accentor.

Some more recent responses to the dunnock now, firstly this lovely fabric version by illustrator Emily Sutton:

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And the always inspiring and beautifully observed work of Matt Underwood, a Japanese woodblock print of a dunnock amongst aconites:

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Finally – some of the sketches and stages of my latest print.

Firstly a coloured pencil sketch used to make a scale-drawing of the image and to start to work out the colour combinations I want:

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Two layers printed:

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Four colours printed:

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And the finished print:

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2013: The year in review

Looking across the Forth,

Looking across the Forth, mixed media field sketch

It has been a busy year with lots of uplifting events to spur me on as an artist. My mission continues to be to appreciate nature and the natural world more myself and celebrate its wonder and diversity in my work.

2013 saw me: working more on sustained pieces out in the field, going bigger, collaborating with a poet and developing and pushing my work in new directions.

My highlight of the year was attending the Natural Eye Exhibition, the annual Society of Wildlife Artists exhibition at the Mall Galleries. I was lucky enough to have five pieces accepted for the show, which was opened by none other than David Attenborough. I was delighted to be there for the opening, which gave me an opportunity to see the diverse range of work on display and meet some really warm, enthusiastic people involved in the Society and the show (including Carry Ackroyd and Robert Gillmor – two fantastic wildlife printmakers). Much of the work I presented had been completed on the Bass Rock during the Seabird Drawing courses of 2013 and 2012 and many of the people who I met on the course were there in person or represented on the walls of the Mall Galleries.

In the excitement I failed to take any images of my work on the walls but I did manage this shot of David Attenborough (I did feel a bit like a groupy, but when will I have that opportunity again?):

david attenboroughAnd many thanks to Jo Dungey for this shot of my Nesting Bass Rock gull in the Exhibition:

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I managed to squeeze in a visit to the wonderful Paul Klee exhibition at Tate Modern during my hectic day in London, I love his work which is endlessly surprising and uplifting. Here is a great quote of his:

‘Formerly we used to represent things which were visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities.’

And a fantastic light-filled image by this wonderful artist:

paul klee making visible exhibitionI was also lucky enough to be in the company of some inspiring people this year.

During August I spent an enlightening evening listening to Mark Cocker talk about his new book, Birds and People at the Scottish Ornithologists Club Headquarters, Waterston House in Aberlady. I first came across his sensitively observed book Crow Country which I would highly recommend and Birds Britannica (which he editted) is a book I return to again and again when I’m researching a bird. Birds and People is a huge tome, a collaboration with wildlife photographer David Tipling, it presents a sociological history of birds across the world and is a beautiful book to possess.

One of my favourite writers, Kathleen Jamie, visited my place of work, Leith School of Art for a talk about her first books of essays, Findings, with lots of insights into the creative process. This quote from Findings says it all:

‘This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis? – don’t be silly it’s just a weird heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen. You can do the organising and redrafting, the diagnosing and identifying later, but right now, just be open to it, see how it’s tilting nervously into the wind, try to see the colour, the unchancy shape – hold it in your head, bring it home intact.’

The best thing I saw at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year was George Monbiot talking about his new book, Feral. He is an inspiring speaker, clearly outlining a vision for a re-wilded Britain with mega-fauna roaming our wild spaces and re-balancing delicate eco-systems. Certainly some food for thought and some visually exciting ideas in there – have a look at this animation to get an idea of the premise of his book: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/video/2013/may/30/rewilding-animation-george-monbiot-video

The end of the year saw my work featuring in two great publications. I was delighted to have an image selected for the beautifully produced catalogue of the Natural Eye exhibition – my Herring Gull and Shag, Bass Rock drawing featured in a double page spread alongside the work of Greg Poole, Kim Atkinson and John Threlfall. And then, in mid-December, the brilliant book documenting the Ghosts of Gone Birds project arrived on my doorstep.

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I was delighted to see such a well put together book, with contributions by the writers Margaret Attwood and Tim Dee amongst many fantastic artists. This is the first time my work has featured in a published book and it was a great feeling that it was part of such a worthy and creative cause. The book is well worth a look, find it here: http://www.hive.co.uk/book/ghosts-of-gone-birds/17042787/

I will finish this post with some recent field sketches made on a trip to Aberdour – I’m hoping to develop these into prints so watch this space to see how they are transformed – and a happy and creative 2014 to everyone!

Resting curlew sketch

Resting curlew sketch

Group of waders sketch

Group of waders sketch

Curlew and oystercatcher sketch

Curlew and oystercatcher sketch

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The Living Goldcrest

As promised this post is about a goldcrest which is very much alive and bursting with colour – my latest addition to the British Birds screen print series in fact! Here is a photo essay of the making of the print.

First, working from sketches, I draw out the design:

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Working with coloured pencils, I attempt to separate the colours into disctinctive layers:

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I hand draw each separate colour layer in black on tracing paper using the original as a map. Here I have roughly lined each layer up, in the order I intend to print them, to give me an idea of how all the layers work together:

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At the workshop I prepare my screen by exposing the layers photographically to create open stencils on the mesh (I’ll have to explain that another time as I didn’t take any photos of this bit). Then I mix my first colour using Lascaux acrylic paint and screen paste (which extends the drying time):

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The screen gets attached to the bed, the squeegee is chosen, the ink is laid at the top of the stencil ready to be squeegee’d:

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Each colour is printed onto a sheet of acetate, taped into place on the bed, before starting to print the edition. This ensures that the layer is printed in the same place on the paper each time – VERY IMPORTANT!:

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And the first layer is complete, about thirty separate sheets of hand torn paper now contain the yellow layer. I constantly refer back to my drawing to ensure the colours are in keeping with the original idea:

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The second layer is a transparent pinky colour, it looks strong at the moment but as other colours are added they should balance it out:

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Here I am using the registration sheet to ensure the third layer, lime green, is printed in the right place:

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Once the paper is in the right place, the registration sheet is flicked back and I can put the screen down and print onto each sheet of paper:

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Next its time to mix the blue for the fourth layer, you can see the bit of paper in this shot where I test how the colours work together and their transparency levels:

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At this stage its getting quite exciting because I may almost be finished (sometimes when all the layers are printed the image doesn’t work and I have to make a few more layers to print), here is the print with five out of six layers printed:

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And here it is – the final print, 26 copies of it succesfully printed – phew!Image

Have a listen to this Tweet of the Day to hear the sound of this beautiful bird: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bkh4k

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