Manual Labour: A Return to Form
Posted on September 05, 2013 by Justine | 0 comments
The most common question I am asked about my work is “How do you cut your images and letters?” It may seem like a bit of a ridiculous question- but it isn’t. My answer, which often surprises people, is that I use scissors and a scalpel. “No lasercutting?” is the next query. My answer is- no. Scissors (the largest pair I can find, actually) and a scalpel- that’s it. The answer again makes people ponder- and stare at the letters and motifs again, more closely. Yes, some of the motifs are very tricky- look at the horse image for example- and to cut a succession of little horses in a pretty similar fashion is extremely tricky, and rather frustrating at times too, I can tell you. Yes, yes, I know all about lasercutting. My Perspex alphabets that I use to trace out my letters are lasercut. I wouldn’t thoughtlessly eschew all forms of technology simply because I am in praise of manual labour, rather I use technology to complement the hand crafted nature of my work. It does mean, of course, that I have to be extremely careful and meticulous in measuring, tracing and cutting my motifs and letters- but it’s part of the process, part of the design. And, more importantly, part of the craft. I’ve made mistakes- hundreds of them! But, over the years, one learns, and I suppose, an apt way of putting it, for a person who uses scores of idioms in her work, is “More haste less speed”. I really have learned the hard way, and had a few tears and tantrums along the way too.
We want things quickly these days- however haste in production, simply to achieve large print runs, or numerous papercut pictures, can ultimately devalue each piece. Every single image I cut is unique: no matter that I may have cut one hundred hearts from the Marazion area in Cornwall over the years, or thirty thistles from Edinburgh, or numerous “Howdy”s from discarded cowboy annuals: they are all different, each one, because each has been cut manually (and of course, cut from original paper material, thereby ensuring each piece is unique). And as for the print runs: each linocut is handprinted (good for the muscles, that’s for sure) therefore each has its own subtle shades, shape and feel. It was essential too, that the new line of screen prints retain a hand made feel: hence the linocut image being used and the aesthetics of that artistic process retained. And of course, the fact the editions are finite: again, I don’t want a swarm of ampersands or a glut of jellies (great collective nouns there) to invade the universe. Yes, the editions are large and there are a variety of colourways to choose from: but once they’re over, that’s it. I’m going to be printing other motifs soon too: the toothy Baleen needs a bit of the limelight, and the little jam jar could do with a giant form too: I want the range to be constantly changing, and growing, and to embrace the unpredictability that the whim of a design choice can bring.
I think we will return to pieces of design and art with a manual focus: I adore digital design, in certain forms: again, I would not ever dismiss a design choice simply because it has gone through a digital or mechanical process: but what I do feel is that we are in danger of casting aside manual design and real paper formats, in a desperate bid to seem contemporary, knowledgeable and ahead of the design game. Far too often design choices are made simply because a gaggle of self appointed media mavens has deemed a certain production method, or motif, or on-trend colour (how it pains me to actually write that phrase) to be the current style icon or celebrated art form. And, sadly, thousands of people, in a worryingly frantic manner, determined to appear ahead of their peers and neighbours and colleagues and internet friends & followers, adopt the maven’s choices. It’s like The Emperor’s New Clothes, a bit: and, as with so many trends, and new forms of design, we may well wake up and realise that all is not what it seems: we have been ever so slightly tricked. We should've stayed true to ourselves.
So, I go with what I like. I design what makes me happy, using processes that I feel, not to be too melodramatic, honour the medium used. And every time I look at the flat colours and simple lines of the screen prints and linocuts, I’m reminded of the words of one of my favourite designers, a man in praise of manual labour, flat colours and beautiful patterns: “Don’t think too much of style.”