Pressure, surface, tension: Kyla Cresswell, Emma Kitson and Kim Lowe
An interview with Kyla Cresswell, Emma Kitson and Kim Lowe, who are showing their print-based work in the exhibition Ko Murihiku Tōku Whaea | Southern Mother at Te Atamira from 6 August – 14 September 2022.
Each of the artists showing work in the exhibition Ko Murihiku Tōku Whaea have connections to Murihiku – the great Southern Mother in the far south of Te Wahi Pounamu, the South Island of Aotearoa | New Zealand. The works in this show have been inspired by this whakapapa as well as the natural ecologies of the southern regions. I asked the artists a few questions about their creative practice and motivations behind their work.
- Louise Garrett, arts and culture coordinator
LG: Tell me about your early training as an artist. What first attracted you to the printmaking?
KC: I think printmaking is a bit special: pressure, surface, tension, viscosity, paper – all play a part in how the image comes out. It is a bit of art and a bit of science and I love the fact there are boundaries within which to execute a type of print – but these can be played with too. It’s all a big experiment and an exercise in refinement. Honing skills, perfecting technique. Transferring drawings, marks, texture from one surface to another is just fun.
I was reflecting on what was essentially my first print recently –a transfer of the ink from a Donald Duck comic onto a piece of silly putty when I was about 10. I was thrilled! What magic! I am still delighted by the ‘reveal’ of the image with every print to this day.
I took art in high school and what really sparked my passion for printmaking was my 5th form art teacher, Mr Matla. He was enthusiastic and we had access to great resources. I did my first etchings and aquatints then and developed my own black-and-white photographs in the darkroom (access to printmaking at high school or younger is so important!). This led me to apply to the Otago School of Art where I did a 4-year Bachelor Degree in Fine Art majoring in printmaking taught by Marilynn Webb and Chris deJong. There I was encouraged to explore a wide range of printing processes and mark making. Marilynn promoted developing a very individual approach to image making and high standards with the process. It opened the door to connecting with the print world. After art school, travelling enabled me to work up close with prints in galleries, to learn Japanese Mokuhanga from a master carver in Kyūshuū, Japan, visit international print galleries, join print studios (and do workshops) in the north of England and Montreal, Canada, as well as attend the magnificent Edinburgh Printmakers Summer School.
I was attracted to printmaking by the practice of following steps in order to gain a result, the scope of techniques available and the fact a print is so handmade. I enjoy the community of printmaking and the endless possibilities!
EK: Like most people I was introduced to printmaking at high school. I admired the expressionist artists and their reductive and emotive approach. About this time I was also introduced to political print works from various revolutionary movements. One of the things I like most about printmaking is its accessible nature. Printmaking is an easy way to make multiple images which reduces the cost to the buyer. Paper works are able to be sent around the world easily and my works end up in places all around the world. Printmaking is a quick medium to learn, however, it takes a lifetime to master.
KL: I came to printmaking at Otago Art School. I transferred from painting in 2nd year because I found staring at a blank canvas too confronting. I loved the process of working in negatives and mirror images, and the indirect process means you’re never really sure of the result until the print is peeled off the plate. There are lots of accidents that can happen throughout the process and I liked having to work with the unknown. I've since realised that printing, working on paper is a part of my Chinese whakapapa. The process is centuries if not older.
LG: Describe some of the technical aspects significant to your own style of printmaking. What are the challenges of print as a medium?
KC: I work mostly with intaglio, which means from below the plate surface. The ‘plate’ is usually a flat sheet of copper. Every now and then I give my hands a break (kind of) and do some woodblock with which I like to carve the wood to make embossing and debossing. Mezzotint, one of my preferred intaglio processes was first developed in the 17th century. It is very labour intensive. I draw the image out of a finely textured plate (like peaked sandpaper) by burnishing smooth the surfaces I want to be a light tone. When it is ready to print, the plate has highly polished areas that will print white and textured areas as well as a dark luscious black, plus all the in-betweens. It takes weeks of working on a plate, proofing it, making adjustments, more plate work until it is just right. I also really enjoy drypoint for the direct quality of the line and I love making areas of texture and tone with different tools. I like colour but I’m often drawn to monochromatic imagery for the drama of the contrast!
As far as challenges go, so many steps have to go right to make a successful print. It can take a lot of time and access to presses and materials can be hard and expensive. The size of works – unless printed by hand – is dictated by the size of the etching press, the litho stone, the screen, the photopolymer plate… The process can be challenging too and it is great to have others to troubleshoot with. There is a really lively print ecosystem worldwide and the support of galleries in showing prints and helping people understand their part in the art world is so vital. I wish New Zealand had more print collective studio/gallery arrangements, as these are such an exciting place for sharing knowledge and creating community. I loved my time at l’Atelier Circulaire, Northern Print and Edinburgh Printmakers and learnt so much.
EK: I enjoy relief printmaking using lino and mdf. The act of carving can be very cathartic. I have recently been experimenting with screen printing or seriograhy. I was looking for a way to use whenua earth pigments (shout out to the Kauae Raro collective). After a lot of research and experimentation I have finally got to a place where I am happy with the results. I love the translucent effects that can be achieved, especially when using watercolour pigments. I love the juxtaposition of the sharp contrast of relief printing with the soft translucency of seriography.
KL: There is a hierarchy, especially in New Zealand, where print is well down the ladder. This is not so overseas where printmaking has long traditions. There is a lack of understanding of the technical aspects and the various forms of printmaking.
I usually work in relief either with laser cut or hand carved plates but lately I have been acid etching and making the most of the great print workshop at Ara (Te Pukenga, but previously Christchurch Polytech). Acid etching uses a metal plate and a wax ground that is then smoked (over a candle) to harden it. Fine lines can be drawn into the plate with a needle. When exposed to the acid, thin lines are etched out of the metal. This is what holds the ink (a form of intaglio printing).
LG: How does research inform your practice? What kind of thinking goes in to making a new work or project?
KC: I work in areas that interest me, so I am always reading around my topic. The Hidden Life of Trees book has lately been a great inspiration for the sense of connectedness in nature. Magazine articles, visits to museums, books on printmaking technique, films, environmental reports, printmaking magazines, online lectures in printmaking, maps, historical documents, talking with other artists, sometimes creative workshops in other mediums all inform what I do. Visually, I research my imagery mostly through taking photographs – these become like a visual diary that I then draw my preparatory sketches from. My work is grounded in place. Many times I have an image in my head that I feel really needs to be made. Pushing my techniques and improving is important to me. Exploring ways to make the image. I also like to think about the connection between the image and the process – considering what the process lends to the image. For example, the loose, dark contrasting lines of drypoint in the treescapes that represent the bank of exotic trees against snow near Athol. Or the ‘traces’ of a tree on paper when it is embossed and the echo of this in loss in the landscape. I reflect on challenges faced by the natural environment, focusing on nature’s tenacity and resilience.
Art enables the opportunity to turn a spotlight on an issue, for me, I want to draw attention to things overlooked. The unsung tenacious manuka stand, the scrub and tussock, the alpine plants that reward closer inspection. If we notice something, we have the chance to see the importance of that plant in an ecosystem and the overall connectedness of the ‘unviable’ land, the ‘rough blocks’ the places of ‘no significant ecological value’. Yes, there is value in slowing down, looking closer and recognising their importance. In taking care.
EK: I have a huge backlog of native animals that I want to print so inspiration is never lacking. For each new species I look at the habitat and scientific anatomy drawings. Then I draw, simplifying as I go. Once I’m happy with the drawing I transfer it to a block for carving. I usually don’t know what the composition will be until I have printed the block. Then I play with the proof prints. I can then build other layers around them. I have been researching kowhaiwhai and taniko designs so that I can incorporate them in my work. I learn a lot through drawing. A large part of my practice involves drawing and redrawing and then drawing with chisels or knives.
KL: My main research when undertaking a Masters in Fine Arts was exploring early Chinese design forms, symbol and motif. I’m more relaxed with my research lately, being directed by nature but Chinese Taoist philosophy still comes into it. The process directs me as well, there is so much to learn about intaglio and etching that with each new plate I am often trying out new methods.
LG: Does the process of printmaking in any way determine how you imagine the world?
KC: I see printmaking potential all the time in the world, like the shape of bare trees in winter or a tangle of matagouri that would translate well into the scratchy burr of a drypoint line and all the energy that that has. I see lines and surfaces, textures to replicate and colours that inspire. In a visual sense I think I am often chasing light and line. Light effects; light on water, backlit hill lines, the fall of a shadow in an embossing. I see nature making stark lines with tree trunks or softly graduated light effects and I want to capture that.
Generally, my work is grounded in place and parallel to that I’m often quite technique driven, I will consider my imagery and find a printmaking process that will enhance or complement it.
As a process, printmaking is so multi-technique and through all the different types of printmaking there are an array of ways to make marks, build up imagery, transfer ink and the process lends a lot to the resulting image. For example, the desirable qualities of a mezzotint are the dark, velvety blacks. I enjoy the process of working on a copper mezzotint plate and burnishing the copper to a smooth reflective state. It is a really slow process and a bit like a meditation, there is lots of time to think about the image and ‘be’ in that place.
EK: I would say the practice of printmaking has taught me a lot and helps me to balance myself. It teaches patience and finding beauty in imperfections. I like to think of editions of prints as whānau, siblings: alike but slightly different.
KL: I do tend to see things in terms of line and colour separations or tonal variations. I like the macro.
Who or what are some of the key influences or inspirations for your creative practice?
KC: The landscape, the light and seasons changing. The repetition of moving through landscape and there being subtle changes each time. A sense of urgency to ‘capture’ a place. I’ve long been drawn to the flatness of 18th and 19th century Japanese woodcuts, the large areas and graduations of colour as well as the seasonal scroll paintings, celebrating nature and incorporating delicate lines. I saw Whistler’s drypoints about 20 years ago and they left a great impression. I love the work of Kiki Smith – her intaglio works are incredible and oh to be able to work with master printers at Crown Point Press! I also enjoy the freedom and contrast of the works of Shikō Munakata who was an amazingly skilled Japanese woodcut artist, who, due to sight issues, could only see a part of his composition at a time as he worked on it. Elizabeth Blackadder for her flower studies. ElisabethCummings for her loose lines. A workshop with Stuart Duffin years ago really unleashed my interest in mezzotint. I get quite inspired by printmaking magazine articles (Imprint, Printmaking Today, Pressing Matters) on new or unfamiliar processes which usually leads me to ask: ‘What would that lend to my imagery and mark making?’ I am an avid listener of the podcast ‘Hello Print Friend’ which I find inspiring in terms of connecting the print community, sparking ‘what if’ ideas, highlighting projects, exhibitions and workshops that I would like to engage with.
EK: My tuakana, Dr. Jane Kitson, has always inspired me through her love and research of mahika kai and taonga species. I have to thank her for giving me access to cultural harvesting practices.
My daughter, her birth, gave me a reason to make art again, to create a Māori space for her to grow up in. Through her, I discovered a love of making art with children. Their intuitive approach to artmaking is inspiring.
Paemanu Ngāi Tahu Contemporary Artists for making me feel like I belong and inspiring me to represent my Kaitahutanga in my artwork and of course Kim and Kyla who have been incredibly supportive of my print work and whose print practice continues to inspire me.
KL: Currently, I’m looking at etching techniques so looking at [NZ printmakers] Denise Copland and Barry Cleavin but also the European masters who all developed different methods of etching and re-etching to build up the darkness of the plate; Dürer, Rembrandt and Callot.
LG: What is your dream project?
KC: A residency somewhere in nature, maybe even in the snow, followed by an intensive printing session in an awesome studio where I can try lots of new techniques and take lots of risks with technicians on hand for advice! Followed by a show where I have pushed out of the frame and be able to transform a space. It would also be fun to work on a collaborative project, oh and to do some lithography again.
EK: My work has been getting bigger lately. I enjoy making something big from many smaller parts. I would love to work more with community art projects, especially with Kāi Tahu runaka. I dream of going to the Tītī and Whenua Hou islands [off Stewart Island], and creating an exhibition based on those experiences.
KL: An interactive installation based on the I Ching with chords that when pulled reveal a printed reading/image. It would be great to collaborate with some animators and/or coders.
Definitions of some print-related terms:
Intaglio: Any printmaking technique in which the image is produced by incising into the printing plate – the incised line or area holds the ink and creates the image.
Etching: Printmaking technique that uses chemical action (acid) to produce incised lines in a metal printing plate (traditionally copper) which then hold the applied ink and form the image.
Drypoint: A printmaking process in which a design is drawn on a plate with a sharp, pointed needle-like instrument.
Mezzotint: A print made from an engraved copper or steel plate, the surface of which has been scraped and polished to give areas of shade and light respectively. The technique was much used in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries for the reproduction of paintings.
Seriography or silk-screen printing: A print made using a stencil process in which an image or design is superimposed on a very fine mesh screen and printing ink is squeegeed onto the printing surface through the area of the screen that is not covered by the stencil.
The exhibition Ko Murihiku Tōku Whaea was kindly supported by: