Interview with printmaker Penelope Kearley

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It was a first for local artist Penelope Kearley when she exhibited some of her hand printed images in this year’s Severn Vale Arts Trail. Although art has always been a presence in her life, including a period spent studying it at college, until recently her pieces had been purely for her own pleasure.

Penelope is a printmaker, in mezzotint and drypoint etching, creating prints of animals, insects, flowers and seeds, and also abstract designs.

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She first stumbled across the ancient art of mezzotint printing online. “I saw a picture on a website and I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before’. I looked into it, bought some plates online, had a go and absolutely loved it”.

She also took an etching course at the Folk House in Bristol, where students would roll their prints through an enormous Victorian printing press.

In the days when she used to commute to London for work, many of her works were sketched during the long journeys. Once she has a design, it is transferred to a printing plate. For mezzotint, this is a roughly textured copper plate, onto which the image is smoothed with a bevel. The ink clings to the rough untouched area, and the design itself remains white.

Conversely, in drypoint etching, a design is scratched into a smooth surface. When the ink is applied, it sinks into the scratches and is carefully wiped away from the surrounding area. When the print is pressed onto dampened paper, the ink from the etched image transfers, producing an image of black on white.

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The inking itself has to be done with the utmost care, making sure it is smoothed away from the image, leaving just a slight patina in places. Penelope has her own printing press now, a smaller one than the hand-cranked Victorian one she used to use, which means she can produce all of her own prints.

For those wishing to give etching a try, she suggests that drypoint is a good place to start as it doesn’t involve the harsh acids that conventional etching requires. “You can do it on CDs, it’s a nice smooth surface. Scratch onto it, ink it and you need to press it with a press of some sort.”

She also recommends going on a course, both for the inspiration of seeing what other people are creating, as well as to learn the basic techniques.

She currently has several new prints that she started work on in spare moments during the exhibition that she will be trial printing soon. “It was nice having that dedicated time where I was just sat there and I could just etch to my heart’s content with no interruptions. There were people coming in to view the work, which wasn’t an interruption, but it was just nice having that time to work on new plates.”

Following her success on the Art Trail, Penelope would like to exhibit again one day and maybe create some of her beautifully detailed prints to illustrate a children’s book, something for which they would be perfectly suited. She’s experimenting with watercolouring her images, and it will be exciting to watch how her pieces develop.

Published in BS35 Local, September 2015