Printmaker Emma Higgins creates linoprints from her little cottage studio near the sea in south Devon. With such beautiful surroundings, it’s no surprise that she takes much of her subject matter straight from her doorstop, with beaches and boats featuring regularly in her work. The coast has influenced her colour palette too: combinations of sea blues and sandy hues with a grey familiar to anyone who lives under English skies run through her prints. We talk to Emma about her work, her studio and a very special tree…
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I live in South Devon with my husband Joe in a little cottage that used to be a stable for my great grandad’s horse. We are just a short walk away from two beautiful beaches. When I’m not printing, I’m a primary school teacher. I started lino printing about four years ago when I made some invitations for my hen party. I opened a Folksy shop about a year after that and I haven’t looked back since.
How would you describe your work?
Living near the coast, the majority of my lino prints have a seaside influence. I try to make them look fresh and simple and I only make prints that I would be happy to display in my own home. More recently I’ve felt like I’m starting to develop more of a recognisable style. I’m repeating colours and techniques to make small sets of prints that could go together in a room, rather than making one-off stand-alone designs. Blues and greys seem to be a recurring theme in my prints – two colours that I always return to without consciously realising.
Did you always want to be a printmaker?
It’s inevitable that I’ve ended up selling things that I’ve made myself. As a child my dad was a mural maker, he also made signs and big display props for carnivals, fairs and shops. He was self- employed, working from home so it was normal for the house to be full of weird and wonderful creations. At university, I studied textile design for two years as part of a teaching degree. I’ve been a primary school teacher for the last 16 years, changing to part-time work just three years ago to enable me to spend more time on my printing. I’ve tried many different arts and crafts myself over the years but nothing has appealed to me as much as lino printing. I love everything about making and selling prints – I’m 38 now but I wish I’d discovered it years ago!
What is it about working with lino, as opposed to other printing techniques, that appeals to you?
Cutting through soft lino and rolling on ink to make a print is so therapeutic, I can lose myself for hours and often do! I love the fact that even if I have an image planned in my head or in a sketch book, I never know what it’s going to look like until I’ve actually printed it. I get such a buzz from peeling back the paper to reveal the finished print for the first time.
Can you explain the lino-printing process, and the different stages involved in a multi-colour print?
Essentially, the principle of lino printing is the same as potato printing! I use sharp tools to cut the design into a piece of lino. I have to think carefully, because the image I cut into the lino will be reversed when printed. Next, I apply ink to the lino with a roller, before placing it on to paper. I rub over the back of the paper with an old wooden spoon to make sure all the ink has been transferred before peeling back the paper to reveal the new print!
To make a multi-colour print, I print one colour at a time, going from light to dark, letting the ink dry in between each colour. I always start by cutting away the lino in any areas of my finished design that I want to stay white, then I print the whole lino plate in the lightest colour. Next, I cut away any part that I want to remain in the lightest colour and print exactly over the top in a slightly darker colour. I then cut away the parts of the lino that I want to stay slightly darker and then print exactly over the top again using an even darker colour. I continue in this way until I’ve added all the colours I want to and I’m happy that the print is finished. This method of printing is called a ‘reduction print’. The lino plate can never be used again and so prints made in this way are always limited editions.
Have you ever made a cut too far?
It is easy to make mistakes and I had a few hairy moments in the early days. It happens less and less these days (thankfully!) I always cut away from me because the tools I use are so sharp. I use an old wooden bench hook to stop the piece of lino from slipping while I cut it.
Are there any other printing methods you’d like to try?
I’ve taught myself to lino print from reading books and watching YouTube tutorials. I would love to have some proper tuition in the near future and I have my eye on some local printmaking courses. As well as improving my lino printing, I’d love to try making collagraphs and screen prints. I recently bought a Gocco printer, which is magical little self-contained Japanese screen-printing system. I’m really keen to develop my Gocco printing, as the process is just as exciting as the finished result!
Are there artists or periods that have influenced your work?
My favourite printmaker is Angie Lewin, I first saw her work in an exhibition in Bath and I was fascinated. Her woodcuts are so small and beautiful and the detail in them is just amazing. She always gets the colours and composition just right, her work is so inspiring, I am totally in awe of her as you can tell!
Where else do you draw your inspiration?
Last year, my husband and I spent four months travelling around New Zealand and then across America from west to east, visiting 26 states. All the time we were away I kept my sketchbook by my side. By the time we came home, I was bursting with inspiration and ideas for new prints. I was absolutely itching to get printing again. I found some fantastic art shops in the States too and bought so much lino and other art supplies that I had to get rid of some clothes and shoes to fit it all in my suitcase!
Can you describe your studio?
My little studio is my favourite place in the house. I’d describe it as small, bright, pretty and functional. The walls are painted white, pinned with pictures and cuttings that inspire me. I’m a bit of a Womble at heart – the bookcase and shelves were from a junk shop and I found my chair in a skip! The only new addition is the large glass topped trestle table which is perfect for rolling out and mixing my inks on.
What three tools could you not live without?
I have one particular sharp tool that I use for cutting lino. It’s supposed to be used for wood carving but I find that I use it more than any other tool as it allows me to cut quite fine detail. I also couldn’t be without my trusty old wooden spoon which I use to press on the back of prints to make sure all of the ink has transferred from the lino to the paper. I’ve used it so much that the wood is smooth now and is wearing away! Although it’s not strictly essential, I have to mention another favourite tool, which is a quirky gadget I found online that allows me to squeeze every last drop of ink from my printing ink tubes. I love using it, it’s so much fun!
How do you spend your working days?
On a typical printing day I start with a bracing walk along the local beaches. My phone is full to the brim with photos that I take on these walks, I can’t help myself! I’m surrounded by printing inspiration and a good beach walk clears my head and gets me in the right frame of mind for the day ahead. My next priority is always to package up any orders from the previous day and take them straight to the little post office down the road. It’s very important to me that my prints arrive quickly and in perfect condition, so a lot of care and attention goes into packing up each print. Most days I also spend time ordering new supplies, keeping my accounts up to date, emailing customers, organising prints ready for exhibitions and craft fairs, mounting prints, researching new places to sell and tinkering with the descriptions in my Folksy shop. I also devote time every day to online promotion, which I was a bit sceptical about to begin with, but now I know it works. Being a night owl, I usually wait until later in the day to actually begin cutting lino or printing as my best work happens in the evenings and at night. I often carry on working late into the night as printing doesn’t feel like work as I enjoy it so much.
What are a few of your favourite things?
I’m lucky enough to own a woodcut by Angie Lewin, my favourite printmaker. It has pride of place in our lounge and I often stare at it for ages wondering what she had to do to get so good at printing! Another favourite thing is a large ‘Medlar’ tree in the garden where we live. It dates from 1867 and has a preservation order on it. In the spring it has beautiful large white flowers and in the autumn, big juicy medlar fruits ready for wine and jam making! My late grandad used to live in another nearby house overlooking the medlar tree and he remembers looking out at it as a small boy during the First World War. He even wrote and published a novel called The Medlar Tree so you can see why I am so sentimental about it!
Following on from your travels across New Zealand and America, where in the world would you like to go next?
As a child I was transfixed by the stories of my Great Aunty Betty who had travelled to South America for an expedition to meet a tribe of Amazonian Indians. I have always secretly wanted to follow in her footsteps… if only I was brave enough!