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Interview with Andrew Carter

Andrew Carter is a printmaker who lives and works in East Dulwich. Having originally studied Fine Art, he graduated with distinction from the MA Printmaking degree at Camberwell College of Art. He has exhibited widely, most recently at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

You were previously a painter. What made you switch to printmaking?

I originally studied Fine Art Painting at Central St Martin’s and then much more recently did an MA in printmaking at Camberwell College of Art.

Circumstances played a part in this change. As a painter, I used to make a lot of big work and when we had children I started working more from home. That promoted a new, smaller scale of work. The catalyst was a series of limited edition books with poets that I made; the first with Jonathan Ward, the Head of English at Dulwich College. This got me into printmaking and led to me doing an MA in Fine Art Printmaking.

With paintings there is often a confusion that you are chasing something that is elusive. It can be hard to feel satisfied that a painting is ever finished. With printmaking I resolve a lot of things before I come to colour or even printing the blocks. Often the piece is totally resolved before I’ve printed it. Making prints has changed my approach to painting – I’ve become much more methodical and more specific about the shapes I’m working with.

Now you are fully established as a printmaker what do you think your painting background has brought to your printmaking?

Painting gave me a willingness to experiment with different ways of cutting and with scale as well and an interest in colour. Generally the prints I make are ideas for paintings. I’m working in quite a small space at the moment but I’m always thinking that one day lots of these things might become paintings again.

Where do your ideas come from and how do they develop?

My ideas come from different places. It’s to do with looking. There is a particular tree in Dulwich Park -a big oak tree – that I pass every day throughout the year.

I keep looking at it and I photograph it and I make quick drawings. Then eventually they arrive as an image, which I cut as a relief print.

The prints that I’ve been cutting are always made in reverse. I start with this image of a tree but actually what I’m cutting is the negative space; so I arrive at the tree through the slow process of cutting away the bit in between.

I’ve made work based on a beautiful piece of water on the Island of Iona in Scotland. Another piece is from an ancient olive tree in Umbria in Assisi… I’ve also made work using a tree from near Flatford Mill, near where John Constable drew and painted. I like the idea that this willow could possibly be a tree that Constable drew from and that those ancient pollarded willows have a history of being drawn and drawn and drawn.

My eyes are focused on particular things in different places. What I try to do is to bring these different elements together. One image might be from something I saw 10 years ago, or even 20 years ago, and then something might be from now. I want to be true to specific moments and shapes seen.

Can you describe how you combine the figurative elements with shape, colour and pattern?

My work is to do with looking at something organic and also looking at something geometric to do with flat colour.

Recently I have been making a series of prints with the Jealous Gallery, which I think are good examples of how I combine elements of observation, abstraction and design and juxtapose elements from different times and places. The geometric shapes are a contrast to the thing that I’m seeing but and are also the blocks before anything is cut away. In these I have started to use more luminous colour.

A lot of painters I’m inspired by are American minimalist geometric painters like Ellsworth Kelly and Brice Marden. I respond to abstract painters.

However, I’m also picking up on a very British tradition of printmaking from artists like Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. I suppose my work is trying to combine these two threads: a knowledge of American abstract painting and a very British figurative, illustrative quality. I respond to both equally. There is an eccentric Englishness in people like Edward Bawden that is absent in someone like Ellsworth Kelly. If I can combine these two conflicting ideas, which I feel that the work over the last 10 years has been doing, I’ll be really happy.

How do you combine photography and drawing as a way of recording information?

I’ve always made lots of drawings. I work on a drawing for a long time, and that’s about accumulating shapes. The subject matter is outside so I go outside to record things and then these drawings become about measuring and discovering how things fit together

I also use photography to record things, but I have an odd relationship with it. It is just another tool for drawing not an end in itself. I use photography as a way of selecting, making shapes static and seen from a single viewpoint. With all of the images I want to try and be as true as I can to the thing that I’ve seen. Many of the original drawings that I’ve been working on recently are tracings. They are scaled photographs that have been very carefully traced and then there is an editing in terms of what I leave in and what I leave out.

The forms that you are attracted to in nature, for example the trees, become abstract when you look at them in that kind of detail…

They become filigrees, silhouettes or just shapes in the end. The thing that I really love about them is that they create their own light. When you start cutting a pattern of negative shapes, they take on a luminosity of their own. They let light through the surface. Many of the prints that I’ve made are single colour blocks but I like to play against this by using flat pieces of colour.

In the end I want them to look like they have just happened quite simply.

I don’t really want them to be that figurative. I want them to become more abstract. I want them to work as shapes and objects.

Can you describe what techniques you use to make your prints?

I see them as block prints or relief prints – each block is cut as a positive/ negative pattern of marks – linocut printing, woodcut and some screen-printing.

I enjoy the tactile qualities of using materials the surface quality of the paper and using hand made blocks. It’s very much about the process of making something entirely by hand.

I like to experiment with different papers; Japanese paper has a lovely quality to it.

My process of working is very involved. A piece like ‘Constable Willow’, took 30 or 40 hours to cut. They can be time consuming in the way that they are made. It’s a bit like a piece of knitting. One very large block took me three months!

Before the cutting stage, there is the process of making a drawing, then a tracing. I paint the blocks white, and burnish the tracing on to the block so that it is reversed. At this stage I convert that into a brush drawing with ink and then I cut it. Once I’m cutting, there is still a lot of editing going on, playing around with what the shapes look like. This is my favourite part and it’s totally absorbing.

Can you talk about the Japanese influence in your work?

I admire the great skill that goes into Japanese woodcutting. I’m not interested in the look of lino, I’m more interested in the idea of reproducing a line or shape made in ink or as a collage that can be cut absolutely beautifully. The blocks are cut and printed from the initial hand drawn mark. If you look at any of the great Japanese printmakers like Hokusai or Utamaro, especially with Utamaro, what you see in their woodcuts is a beautifully cut facsimile of the original ink drawing. I want to be true to the mark that I have drawn so that final print is fluent – that’s how the Japanese printmakers have influenced my work. What I love about their work is that that the spontaneity of the original gesture or idea is made slowly. The original idea is revisited. It slows time down.

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