Oxfordshire-based printmaker Gerry Coles didn't have the best start to her linocut experience, but with perseverance, she discovered an art form she was passionate about, and good at!
Discover how Gerry, a creative youngster, trod a different path after school, but discovered the artistic practice she now loves on a visit to Bath.
Gerry Coles at CreativityFound.co.uk
Clubhouse: @clairewaitebrown and Creativity Found Connect club
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In this episode, I meet Gerry Coles an Oxfordshire based linocut printmaker. I chatted with Gerry in her conservatory studio, surrounded by her sketches, gouges, inks, plates, rollers and prints hanging up to dry. Let's discover how Gerry was found h r creativity. Hi, Gerry. Hello. Hi. So your new found art form is printmaking. Can you tell me briefly what it is you do and how you currently channel your creativity? I am a printmaker, and my speciality is linocut. It's something I've found in the last four or five years never did it at school, or some people tell me now they had dabbled at school, but I didn't. And the linocuts I make are floral usually flowers, animals, trees, birds, that sort of thing. Very nature based. And very colourful. I use water based inks, but they're big block bold colours. And I have fallen in love with the process of making. I love the fact that when I make a print, I can make several so I have ones that I can then sell if I wish to or giveaway. It's just a magical artform, and I love it. Absolutely love it. Fabulous. So as you've just mentioned, you discovered this as an adult. So we'll talk more about that later. Where you arty as a child? Yes, yeah, I was. I always liked drawing, painting, I was always with a pencil in my hand sketching bits and pieces. Just just really enjoyed it. And I guess the sort of the practice of doing it a lot made me better. I was one of those kids who was reasonably good at drawing. And I think I remember my dad coming home from work, he worked in an office, with a big box of computer paper, when computer paper was a thing, with the holes punched down the side, it was all perforated and joined up and it was fed into the computer, with a big box of it. So this, you know, heavy box. And although it wasn't very good quality paper, that is just reams and reams of this paper. So I could draw to my heart's content. And if it didn't go well, I could throw it away and have another go. Another go. So I, I just, I had the opportunity to draw as much as I liked. And I did I did, I took that opportunity. And then going forward on I did art O-level. And because I'm old enough to, I did on O-level. And you know, I was good at it. And I enjoyed it. But it it just wasn't something that was presented to me as something that was a career. I probably put it in the category of hobby type things. I mean, I did go to university, and I'm trying to remember whether I actually considered doing art or not, and I don't, I don't think I really did. And I don't think I don't think it's the school's fault for not sort of pushing art. I just think I don't think the school pushed anything particular. I remember the Career Service not being fabulous at that time. I just I just think I didn't know anyone who was an artist. I certainly didn't know anyone who was successful. Working, paying the bills artists. So I think if you don't ever see someone doing something you don't really consider it. Now, here's the thing. I mean, I guess, I mean, obviously, the art teachers were working in the art area, but I didn't really want to be a teacher to secondary school children. So, you know, I just, it was never really a consideration of going into art at that stage in my life. No. You carried on and went into a career doing something else. sciency I think. Well, I went into environmental health, I did a sort of sciency degree I did biology and food science, trained in environmental health, did that for a few years. Then met my husband, had children, and at that point, sort of made the decision to come out of that. Various sort of lifestyle reasons. My husband had a building company, it needed someone to do the books and the admin, and it was a stay at home job. So that suited me, I could do that. And then look after the children which meant I didn't have to be out of the house. So it absolutely suited us down to the ground, which is what I then did. And various other things along the way, we've got a smallholding and we still have and I was looking after sheep and pigs and chickens and various things which kept me very busy, but none of which were to do with art at all. I understand that the creative juices were still bubbling under the surface at that time. Oh, gosh, yeah. I mean, if p ople ask me, I'm say I love art , I love to do whatever I can. nd I mean, I've dabbled in th ngs over the years, I very much ike fabrics and sewing I've done patchwork, you know, va ious fabric crafts. And also w en my children started school, used to love going in and ringing in a bag of materials o bringing in a glitter and my ardboard and doing various thing with them. And I used to be kn wn as the go-to lady for coming in and helping make stuff. here was a couple of diffe ent incidents happened whil I was at my children's schoo . The first one was, th y had a popup art show. As all t e artworks were hung, and I was ort of looking around it. It ort of dawned on me that there w s some very, very good work and here was some less good work. ut it just dawned on me that these were ordinary people comin in, you know, people like e, were just doing art, but still doing it, not just talkin about it or doing stuff with t e kids and the Pritt stick a d the glitter. They're actual y doing it and bring it in. I fe t quite cross. Because I thou ht you used to do that Gerry, y u know what's wrong with you? Why don't you still do it? Yeah, you fiddling around w th the sticks. Just anyway. S that that was the thing I do remember actually been quite c oss with myself that I sort of l t this go. Yeah. And the other t ing was, it was completely sep rately in our code coming in w o's doing cards and Christmas bits and pieces of the children. And one of the teacher said to me, Oh, I bet you do s me lovely stuff at home, don't y u Gerry when you're not messing about with the children? And I s rt of thought, No, I don't, yo know, and it that really daw ed on me that I just I just stop ed I don't really do anything f r myself that I would call prop r art in inverted commas. Ye h. And I just think they say it's kind of things started to aybe turn the wheels in my mi d that, you know, kick up the ackside Come on, you used to re lly enjoy this? Yeah, that sort f was the was the feeling. Presumably that was a bit of an impetus for change. I don't know if the change happened right there. But what generally did change, to allow you to allow yourself to start producing do you think, yeah, I think you're right, it didn't, it didn't change straightaway. And I certainly wasn't consciously looking around. Okay, I need to find something I can do. I need to find an art form because I don't think things work like that, do they? So what changed so so my children got older, they needed less input. I was sort of approaching 50 probably like lots of people thinking and I need to perhaps do something that's a bit more for me, you know, brilliant kind of, you know, not stop helping everybody else because you know, my family, do still come first but maybe you need to just think I need to I need to put something back. For me, anyway, yes. So it didn't happen overnight. So I had probably a little bit more time on my hands. It was like my children were more self sufficient. They were doing their own things needing less input from me. And this probably just about coincided with my visit to Bath, and we visited the Victoria Gallery. And they had an exhibition on of printmaking. And it was I didn't know it at the time I, I do linocut now, but it was actually woodcuts, but it's still the same relief, kind of, the same relief printing. So it's a very similar form. Anyway, so I walk around this exhibition, and I was absolutely blown away by these these woodcuts. Just as I just look at this, yeah. You know, it was something like, Oh, it was it was amazing. Yeah, it really was a kind of lightbulb moment, and you don't have that very many times in life. Do you. This kind of I love this. I love this. Which then quickly sort of moved on to I want to try this. And they say no, because I thought well, I you know, I am arty, I can probably have a go and do this. I probably can. So yeah, so I thought well, I'll have a go ordered a linocut kit kit off Amazon. Because I thought you need more equipment for woodcut, woodcut's slightly more involved. We know lino you can buy very cheaply, very easily. I thought, well, I'll make a start. I'll do that and see see how I get on. So I've got this 20 quid kit from Amazon had a go. I had a really small piece about sort of, about the size of a tissue box. That sort of size. Yeah, I had to go. And I was really crap. So I thought, okay, okay, so I was wrong. It's not for me. So anyway, so I just thought, Okay, nevermind been 20 quid down the drai, no problem, put it away. And I think it was about another year on for various, not very exciting reasons. I got it out again. And I thought, do you know I'll have another go, because maybe I didn't quite give it the proper go first time. And this time, I thought, well, I know what I'll do. I'll, I'll copy the design that comes on the pack, because it shows you what to do. I'll copy that rather than trying to do my own thing. I'll, I'll copy what it says. So I did, I used the little gouges. Another lino and did what it said to do. And I kind it fell into place in my head. Okay. Oh, I get it. Oh, right. Okay. Because I'd been treating the gouges like a pencil and trying to draw outlines. And it just, for some reason it hadn't occurred to me, that wasn't quite the way you approached it. Yeah, I need to sort of carve in light and dark. You need to carve away and it, but this time, so following following in good example. I saw. I see. I see. Okay, yep. Got it. Right. So after that, there was no stopping me. I just, I just kept going. I think I made Christmas cards for everyone that year with with lino. Everyone said, oh, different doing linow now? So it was it was good. It was very good. And then started to just work a bit bigger, and do a bit more and a bit more. And then of course, you know, you suddenly realise that the tools you're working with are not very exciting, and you need to just upgrade a bit, you know, and gradually buy a bit more interesting inks. And it's it's very, it's very easy hobby to get into, because you can start very basic, but actually, you know, you do need a bit of the good kit helps. Yeah, it's like anything. Yeah, no, the sort of the better quality kit. Yeah, does help you on your way. So yeah, it was very good. So with kit in mind, tell me a bit more about your process of working and how you've kind of developed or honed your craft over the last, not very many, years. The tools are the main thing that allow you to carve better really, really good sharp tools allow you to, you know, make very decisive lines. And then the other side of that is the lino, and I've started off in in a pack that I got for 20 quid, was some sort of horrible, very rubbery, it's soft-cut lino, and it's rubbery, you can cut in and you get a sort of a tail left that you've got to sort of then clean off. So I've since then moved on to Japanese vinyl, which is what I nearly always use at the moment. So that's not the traditional people think about lino and there's a grey backing, it's not that that I traditionally use I use the Japanese vinyl which I find is a good a really good texture is slightly slippery on the top but it carves nicely and it holds the image very well. So so that that's sort of thing you know, finding, working through finding the lino that works best for me was important, the good tools, and also upgrading from the ink. I initially used to use a finer quality of runnier ink. That's the one I stuck with all the way along and I'm very happy with the ink I use. It's a water-based ink but I have dabbled in oil-based ink. I'm not a huge fan of the oil-based. I prefer to go back to my my water-based Yeah, but also the other thing I've needed to do is to look at how I treat subjects for linocut. Because the type of linocut I do I try to pare down an image so that it's sort of in a basic form so that it's not in if you're doing a painting you try and maybe include all the tones if you're doing sort of a brown butterfly, you'd include all sorts of Yeah, so maybe 17 different browns to do the different tones and sort of grade them. In lineocut the way I work I try and see how few colours I can actually do something in 3hile it's still being rendered and recognisable as what it is. Wow. So I'm always thinking how how can I pare that down? How can I use fewer colours? It sounds a bit strange but it's the way I like to work to really kind of because each colour is a different different layer. Yeah, yeah. So I mean some people don't, some people do very very painterly linocuts. There's a lady who taught me the the method that I use called Alexandra Buckle or she her very recent work is is very painterly image and she does you know beautiful grades of colour and you would have a job to tell it wasn't a painting her linocuts. I'm sort of veering in slightly the other direction that I just want, I really like linocuts that look like linocuts. I like to see some of the working lines that are very characteristic of the linocut. And I just like I like them to look sort of blocky big areas of colour. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, I know what you mean. It's very hard to be good at talking about, but that's because you do it. Yeah, I don't verbalise. Yeah, that's cool. Yeah, that's how I try and work. Yeah. With the red kites screeching overhead, and just before the rain came down, I asked Gerry, where she got her inspiration. I start with photographs. I am out and about, I live right in the countryside. I'm out and about all the time with the dogs. I nearly always got my phone which has a camera on it with me. So I'm always looking for shapes, light, shadows. I love plants. I love plants. I love gardening. I love flowers, particularly natural forms, seed heads, you name it, I love anything that's natural. So then I've got this sort of stream of photos on my phone and I'll have all of the things you know i do i work quite closely with the seasons. So if if, you know, we're in autumn now so I will be trying to think an autumn print would be lovely. I mean the one, the print I've just done. It's some autumn seedheads. So you know I think it's quite nice to work closely with each season because yeah, if you're sort of putting stuff up on Instagram, people don't really want to see snow drops in August, you know, which is what I've just done. But I will gloss over that. Anyway, so yeah, it's quite nice to be to be seasonal. So So once I've got all these photos on my phone then it's coming up with a composition. That is hard. I struggle with it. But I find, you've got to work to get a good composition, because it's quite easy to sort of just say, oh, I'll do a poppy seed head in the middle of the picture. That's it in a black background. Great. But that's not hugely interesting. So you've got to work to make, make sure you've got, you know, maybe three seed heads, are they lined up? Are they asymmetrical? And then what's going to be in the foreground? Is it going to be semi realistic in like a hedgerow setting? Are you just going to focus on so always sort of things you've got to you've got to come up with an answer for. So I'm not I'm not sort of somebody who just takes a picture of a setting and think right, I'll paint everything that is in that photograph, I'm making my own composition all the time. It is quite, it's, it's challenging. And, and also, I am somebody that wants to rush that stage. Because I don't, I don't enjoy it. I need to enjoy it more. Because it makes the whole thing work if it's good. So I need to I do need to, so I would just I would just get out the pencils I draw, I know what size print I'm going to make, usually. You know what things so I've got the size, the piece of lino, I usually draw around it in pencil on my bit of rough paper. And I'm thinking, right, that's my composition that I need to fill in that rectangle. And I draw it right out to the right size. And I keep drawing and rubbing out drawing, rubbing out adding bits in until I'm happy with that composition. And then I will trace it back because then it has to be flipped to go on the lino. Okay, it doesn't you don't always have to I mean, I because nobody's going to say oh that poppy seed head is the wrong way round, because clearly it doesn't make a difference. Yeah, but if it was writing, it would, yes, you know, it would make a difference. Or if it was a familiar landmark, it would probably make a difference. So so you know with most of my work, it really wouldn't matter whether it was flipped backwards on Yeah. But it's something to bear in mind. Yeah. So yeah. So transfer it onto the lino, and then I'm ready to start the exciting bit, which is the carving because obviously you have to have that drawing because you can't rub out when you're carving the lino No, so that It's an unforgiving process. You, you there isn't? There's you've got to be definite, no, it's not for wimps. back No. So you I mean, it comes to you started exhibiting and selling work and have been practice the sort of the holding the tools and being careful with the tools. You know, not letting them slip away from you. That's that's, you know, sometimes it can happen. Sometimes it still does. Sometimes I cut out a bit and I think oh, flip, you know, but usually you can reatively disguise it or tu n it into something else. Yea , you can you can usually ther are ways around it. You know it's not it's nothing's nothin 's at the end of the day. It's nly lino. You know, nothing's irreplaceable. So you an usually work around it. So mean, I'm, I will, I will nor ally make not one or two errors And usually, if I take you ba k through all my linocuts I hav ever made, I can I can poi t out all the mistakes in all o them. Yeah, but most people wo ldn't notice them. Becaus they're not looking for th m. Yeah, you know, so and I don t point invited to join the Oxford Art Society? Yeah. All of which must have boosted your confidence. Yeah, it was. The huge joy with printmaking is that you make more than one thing so you, you know, you have your linocut plate, and you may have 10 copies of something you may have 100. I mean I don't, I don't work like that. I usually make editions probably 10/15 so you've got these 10/15 copies to sell to give away to do what to prop the table up with, so I very quickly thought I could enter a little local art show. So what I did was I I Googled all the local town names and put art after them so I did Watlington art Thame ART, loads of results came up and most people will find that most towns have an art show. Most bigger towns, you know, even if it's something a little pop up show in a school like I was talking about and most of them Don't have a selection process. So you just self select. And if you think your work is good enough, you go on. Yeah. Now I remember one of the first ones I did. I had my work framed and everything looks nice in its frame. Turned up and my stuff's about sort of A4 size. You can imagine me turning up with these couple of things in the back of my car and saw these big beardy blokes coming in with enormous oil paintings. I suddenly thought what am I thinking? What were you thinking Gerry, stupid woman. These beautiful great big oil paintings. And there's me, here's my little tiny lineocut. But it hung and I sold something. And I just thought, you know, it's a validation of what I do, people, some people are prepared to pay money for what I do. And at that point, it wasn't it wasn't a huge amount. Yes, it wasn't. But it was a lovely validation that somebody liked what I did and was prepared to put their hand in their pocket. And as I've since learned not to be intimidated by the big blokes with huge oil paintings. Because you just say, well, there's something out, you know, there's something for everyone. You know, that huge, fantastic oil painting won't appeal to everyone. Yeah, my linocuts won't appeal to everyone. But, you know, there's room for us all, you know, so yeah. It did feel a bit like imposter syndrome, like, Who am I to be bringing my . . . who am I to be thinking I can sell art, you know, you silly woman . You can your little scratchy lineocuts. But as I said, there's room for everyone. So that was so I've been doing those I've been doing local shows quite often. I googled the Oxford Art and I came across the Oxford Art Society. If you have pictures that are accepted for two consecutive of their shows, you may be invited to join. And I was invited to join, which was a huge, huge, amazing thing. It was wonderful. You know, very, very flattering, and, and so I'm a member now and, of course, because of the stupid COVID situation. We've everything's been not very good at the moment yet. But you know, ongoing, there will be shows and there will be exhibitions, and it's all very good. Yes. Speaking of ongoing, what are your plans for the future near or far? The Oxford Art Society I've just heard their autumn exhibition is going to be online. So I'm just waiting to hear details of how that will actually materialise. Yeah, like a lot of things things are going online. next spring. I'm hoping fingers crossed to the taking part again, in Oxfordshire Artweeks, which is Oxfordshire's big, big arts festival. I've done it for three years now two years with a group in Chalgrove which was lovely exhibiting with a group. There was pottery, woodwork, all sorts of things. It was lovely. But next year's 2021, I am hoping to do a solo exhibition for artweeks, which will be very exciting. Because it's sort of the first time I've felt I've got enough of a body of work to be exhibiting by myself. Hopefully, at home here. We'll see how that pans out. You know, who knows where we're going to be in May next year? Absolutely. Everything's uncertain, isn't it? Unfortunately, yeah. But that's that's one of the hopes. And of course, I shall throw this in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is a long term dream of mine. The lady who taught me our art, they taught me the linocut that I do Alexandra Buckle she has exhibited at the Royal Academy on more than one occasion. She managed to get one of her very first linocuts in she ever did which of course gave me huge hope for my small offerings and I've entered several times and never been lucky. But it's one of those things that I think is on my to do list that one day I will get something in the summer exhibition. It's an it's one of the world's biggest open exhibitions. Anyone can enter, for a fee. And you know, you get selected and then you go and hang. I've had one one of my linocuts got through the initial search. That was last year, but this year nothing so we'll see. Let's see that would be a good brilliant thing to put on my CV. Yeah, I could. I could. I could retire happy if that happens. Let's see. Anyway. Oh, There are many many podcasts out there,it's difficult to know where to start. So for each episode, I asked my guests for their recommendations. You're welcome . One of my favourite podcasts is the Fortunately podcast which is Fi Glover and Jane Garvey, two middle-aged women, wittering, I think they would describe it as wittering on about life. They interview people every week now on a Friday, that's just very, very, very entertaining. Very, very light for humorous. So that's Fortunately, and the other, I like a bit of true crime. Another another podcast I like is the Missing Cryptoqueen, which is all about cryptocurrency and intrigue and it sounds I don't think that's my sort of thing. But it's brilliant. I would really, really ask you to have a listen, the Missing Cryptoqueen on BBC Sounds. It's really interesting. Fascinating. Oh, brilliant. Brilliant. Good one. Oh, thank you, Gerry. It's been really, really lovely to hear everything and to talk to you. hear about you and your newfound creative outlet. So how can other people find you and find your work? The best place is probably my website. www.GerryColesprints.co.uk. So from there, you'll be able to see all the other links to my stuff I have. I have an Etsy shop, which is also Gerry Coles Prints on Instagram or Facebook. But if you go to my website that will give you all the links to everything else. Brilliant. And you're working on a calendar. I am. Yeah. Last year I did a calendar for 2020 which was well received. Just recently, this is where the snowdrop in August came in. I've been doing I have I got flowers for every month I was missing something for February, missing something for Christmas. So in August, I was working on my snowdrops and it's now September and I'm working on the Christmas wreath for December. And after that it will go to the printers and should be ready by mid October. So yeah, if you'd like a calendar, go and check out my website. It'll be on there. Oh, brilliant. Gerry, thank you so much. It's been lovely to visit your studio, and chat and lovely to chat with you. It's been nice. It's nice to tell somebody all about all about what I do. Brilliant. Thank you ever so much. Thank you.