We’re big fans of Alice Macleod’s beautiful hand-crafted prints. So when the local Arts Centre, An Lanntair asked us to interview a local artist, we immediately thought of her. LOOM’s top dog, head honcho and all-round multitasker Pearse O’Halloran met Alice and here’s a transcript of their conversation;
Pearse: How did you get into printmaking?
Alice: Well….I did a college course down in Norwich before I went to uni, so that was my first introduction to printmaking; and I did fine art at university where you choose what medium you want to do. The print studio was just the loveliest place in the whole university so I loved just hanging out there; and I just kind of loved it from there, and just carried on with it. After that I used to do quite a lot even when I left university; just for me though.
P. I do remember that; lino cutting is very meditative and my college course in graphic design was very computer-based, so when we did have printmaking classes, I would have the loveliest afternoons.
A. It’s a nice atmosphere isn’t it?
P. Yes, a very welcome break from the screen. I do understand how you could fall in love with it..
Before you went full time as a creative; what were you doing before that. Can you describe that transition, especially going from a full time job to freelance creative; I know myself from my experience it’s a daunting thing to do. It’s quite a leap of faith- how was it for you?
A. Well, I was a primary teacher down South and I loved it, but it’s just so data driven that I just couldn’t cope with it anymore, and because of the way the terms work, you come to a natural end in the summer anyway. I was either going to move to a different school or I was going to quit altogether. My parents chose that time of the year to sell the house up here; the house I grew up in- so I thought well maybe I should buy that and move back home! A natural conclusion, so I gave up teaching after the summer term and I had that time to just experiment a little bit.
I think that the biggest worry when you give up your actual job to do something self employed- you have to know that you can do it every day, because I would call myself quite a flakey person, I would think oh yeah I can do this; but then give up after a few months. I had that time to experiment, to make sure I would actually keep doing it everyday.
P. Yeah, so I have had similar transition…I was working as a Postman after the agency I worked with folded. I turned to this post office job just to pay the bills, and I was like ‘Oh No I want to be a freelance graphic designer!’. I do remember just having these deluded ambitions; in the evening I would do my design work, but I was so wrecked with the day job that I started to drift further and further away until I was realising ‘I’m actually just becoming a postal worker?!’. I was just falling asleep on my mac every evening and not getting any design work done.
A. I can definitely relate to that.
P. It made no financial sense when I did just hand in my notice, but you know that fear; it is a motivating factor. So yeah it’s a scary thing but at the same time I think if that’s really what you love and enjoy, you should pursue it fully. ‘Leap and the net will find you’ is the phrase that comes to mind.
A. I think it’s mentally tough, you get to think you’re not in the right profession and I just decided I would rather be poor and happy.
P. In terms of living in Norwich and then coming up here to live in the Outer Hebrides, it’s a massive transition in terms of scenery! Did that affect you work?
A. I think since I grew up here, my work is always had that look to it anyway. When I was in university I remember my project for the end of term was based on Light houses from the Western Isles, so it’s actually always been there, it’s not changed too much.
P. So you never actually moved away from the Hebrides in an artistic sense?
A. No, it’s kind of all fallen into place now, it’s always been there.
P. How about the actual process? You work from your own sketches, but do you ever have a master plan how a final piece will look when you start?
A. I would say I’m not as methodical as most artists, I tend to have an idea and then I’ll sketch and work around it until the idea is right. I have a base plan for what I’d like to do. I’d love to say I’m one of these really outdoor artists always outside with the sketchbook in nature- but a lot of the time I’m sitting on the couch in front of the telly, just doodling.
P. Yes, it’s true. You kind of build up a mental back catalogue of images - once you’ve sketched things repeatedly you don’t need to be exactly sitting there in front of the flowers, or whatever it is. Similarly there’s certain icons and graphic assets that I’ve done so many times I can make from thin air without referencing any images or relying on stock libraries.
Do you ever take photographs of the things you want to draw?
A. I do, a lot of what I do is about memory or about sound. What I’m working on just now is a print to do with the sounds of this time of year (Spring). The specific sounds of skylarks in our croft behind the house where we live, so I wanted to reflect that kind of feeling that you get from being outside at this time of the year, so it’s not necessarily something I need to go and look at essentially. I know what is around at this time of the year, it’s to do with my memories of growing up
P. So you’re dipping into what you remember when you heard these things for the first time.
A. Some of it’s not accurate, or exactly what’s flowering at that time of year; It’s my kind of memory of what that looked like
P. You work with lino-cuts mostly, is that right?
A. I do, yes and a bit of mixed media. I think lino is the most cost efficient, I’d love to do more screen printing, but you need a lot of equipment and things. So mostly lino.
P. What kind of Lino do you use? I briefly did a course and I was using Japanese vinyl….If you were going to recommend materials, what would you think?
A. It depends what your doing..The vinyl you mentioned, that’s brilliant. I use that for anything up to A3 size. I’m doing some really big prints at the moment and you can use traditional lino for that, as you can get it in really big rolls. If I’m doing a pattern I’ll use something called soft cut, it’s really flexible and bendy- so if your printing on to fabric, it’s just a lot easier than with traditional lino. If you're doing a big print, definitely just the normal lino.
P. I think I would start very small…I’m not going to decorate the house just yet, though you never know! Cheaper than buying fancy wallpaper.
A. Well we were thinking of making some wallpaper for our house, so I’ll let you know how it goes.
P. Send me a few rolls!...Maybe we can get back to the pattern process, because I know that gets very technical when you’re trying to match things up. So, how do you ensure accuracy?
A. It’s tricky, I only actually learnt how do patterns last year, but it is quite addictive. I’ll use a 6x6inch block.. and when I make the pattern I collect lots and lots of little drawings scale them to size using a light box to trace. Then you can do it without a computer by cutting them out making sure the repeat works. You have to be very patent. By all means use Adobe Illustrator if you want to be precise.
P. Printing on fabrics; are there certain fabrics that are easier to work with?
A. Yes smoother fabrics work better. Anything with more fibre is going to get stuck to the plate. Anything like calico works really well, as it’s a tight weave. Some of the linens work really well. I would start with something not too expensive, if you’re going to have a go. Old pillows and sheets, things like that.
P. One of the burning issues for most artists is how to get money for this kind of work?
P. How are you finding it in terms of selling your work? .. I know you’ve got an Etsy shop, and I’ve seen some of your prints in here (An Lanntair).. How do you keep on top of that?
A. I have actually only just started selling online, and it has been a bit slow. I find local outlets sell quite a bit better, I have sold quite a few in the shop in An Lanntair. I am going to put some of my print works into galleries as well. I do get commissions quite often, for more illustrative work, 2 album covers..
You might be asked to do something that’s not really what you do ..You have to stick to your brand.
P. I’m almost 100% on brief based work and every so often I get round to doing these nice projects for myself… I like to have some ‘play time’ for myself to develop my craft.
A. When you’re doing client based work as an artist, you have to have your definitive look. When somebody comes to you, they’ll have a clear idea about what they want. If I’m honest I prefer just working on what I want to do myself…
It’s actually really hard to find your what our work looks like, because you’ve obviously got lots of different influences as an artist- and it can get a bit jumbled, but you have to have your specific look that’s why people go to you, but it’s quite hard to develop that.
P. How long did that take you to find your style?
A. (laughs) I’m still developing it, yeah I think you do have to stick to it though…It’s hard. I mean quite often you’ll have your friends or family asking ‘Can you just do this for so and so’s wedding?’ …I’m OK…but.. Then you’ll get asked to do this really specific thing from Pinterest, and I’m like ‘…er, no!’.
P. If you’re being asked to do Wedding invites, would you enjoy making lettering? Which is nearer my field…?
A. I love trying different things, I think sometimes that’s a problem..I get bored quite easily so I’ll always be jumping around between different things. I think sometimes it’s better to limit yourself so your not getting a bit clogged up..So stick to what you’re good at!
P. There’s this artist Jessica Hische. I first noticed her work when she made a series of book covers for Penguin and they were basically just one Capital letter and I really wanted to learn how to do that. I’ve taken one of her courses and I’m still really struggling, and it’s like I realised maybe some people have this technique for lettering. I’ve still got a good eye for what makes good type but creating it is a different skill entirely.
A. It’s hard when you see somebody’s work you really admire you want to replicate that in some way…
P. Yes you’re trying to aim for as high a quality as she is, and I’m not near her level- but at the same time I know I’ve boosted my own expertise…It’s all a learning curve, and building up that confidence as well. Finding your style is an evolving process.
You teach some classes in An Lanntair as well?
A. Yes I teach some Saturday art clubs with children, school clubs and some adult courses as well.
P. I really enjoy the evening classes here, I try and get on them as much as I can. Are you surprised by some of the creative output you see?
A. I’m honestly always fascinated by how many great artists there are about
P. Yeah, it’s a little bit intimidating! I had a class like that. It was a poster design workshop and I was like: ‘Next time can we not book people who are younger and more talented than am Please!?’ ‘Cause it’s getting quite disheartening when someone half your age is coming up with something much better stuff!
A. I completely sympathise.. I did a screenprinting course and Gill Thompson who’s a printmaker here, and her work was fantastic so much better than all the examples I was doing; and I was like: Do you want to teach this! Yes it’s amazing and humbling.
P. Yes, I had Laura Maynard who just had the exhibition here, I remember she was on that Poster Design course and at the time she had her work hanging in the gallery in a previous show.. and I was like ‘you’ve got a painting up in the gallery and you’re going to sit here for two hours and listen to ME teach YOU!?’
A. The thing with artists is that, you know I would still go along to a lino cutting course even though I know how to do it. It focuses your mind, even though you already know how to do it, it’s good to have that space
P. Yeah, cross pollination. I’m always interested in other people, their different techniques, I’ll pick up things, or maybe it’ll be ‘I’ve been doing it wrong for years!’
A. lot of people are self taught that way.
P. It was really interesting watching Laura (Maynard) take on the course. Because she’s a fine artist, she was coming up with a fine art responses to these Graphic Design briefs. It gave me a different perspective on how to approach things. I love the work that she did.
A. There’s always something for everyone and there’s always something on.