Stef Will

Stef Will

• 26 November 2021

Welcome to the dungeon

Last week, I spent another day in the printmaking studios at Uni. While many artists hate the dirty mess of printmaking, it turns out that I really love it. Admittedly, for anybody who knows me that must sound rather unlikely, given my preference for tidy, uncluttered, minimalist spaces and my dislike for dirty objects and situations. For example, yesterday I quietly recoiled when somebody passed me their phone and on touching the screen, I felt palpable grime (if you read this and it was you, sorry, no offence, I love you!). And more than 15 years later, I still shudder remembering the ‘dirty play area’ in my oldest son’s day nursery (water, sand, mud, paint, you name it…). He must have been 3 or 4 years old at the time and absolutely revelled in it. For my part, I found it hard to watch without giving in to the insistent urge to interfere by wiping his hands or face … or shoes or hair or clothes (at the same time silently thanking the universe for the opportunity for him to explore this at nursery, rather than at home…).

And printmaking certainly is not a neat, clean, controlled art activity like, say small-scale drawing. It’s an intense experience, all-encompassing, challenging, unclean and sweeping. You can’t just pause, because your telephone rings, and decide to continue tomorrow – you will most likely spend the whole day in printmaking ‘camp’. You need to go all in – or go home.

One inevitably ends up sweaty, wet, exhausted, and covered in paint, from permanent speckles of colour in clothing – even underneath the apron (one of my summer dresses now has a hug red stain in the right groin area that looks like I had a feminine hygiene accident…) to paint under the fingernails that takes days of repeated handwashing to gradually come off. The printmaking process is also very physical, from pressure-cleaning screens in grubby wet-rooms to carrying buckets of water back and forth, endlessly lifting and lowering huge panels, dragging around oversized squeegees covered in paint, and of course cleaning, cleaning and cleaning again. All this, taken together with the fact that some of the printmaking rooms must by nature be window-less darkrooms (in order to avoid accidentally exposing the light-sensitively covered screens prematurely), makes a potent experience and environment. Welcome to the printmaking dungeons.

At the same time, one needs to be concentrated, meticulous and precise at all times. Because after a day of focussed work in filthy vaults, one expects to end up with clean, crisp prints on flawless snow-white paper. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes – it’s magic.