Hester Cox is a fell running printmaker based in North Yorkshire.
Hester Cox is full-time printmaker specialising in collagraphs, a printmaking process in which materials are applied to a rigid substrate such as paperboard or wood. "There is a lovely mix of careful planning and serendipity when you make collagraph prints." However, she is interested in all aspects of printmaking and often combines other processes such as linocut, photopolymer, drypoint and monotype to create one richly coloured and textured print. Cox is most often inspired by the natural landscape and gets many of her ideas during fells runs across the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria. We sat down with her to find out more.
what is your design background?
I have a BA (Hons) Illustration from Harrow School of Art & Design. My first professional commission was a linocut for the 1996 Friends of the Earth calendar. After a few illustration jobs, I realised that I just wanted to make prints and sell them so I worked in a shop to save up for an etching press and then worked part time as an assistant librarian in a dance college in order to spend the rest of the week making prints. I did that until a big life change in 2004 when I went off travelling around the world. I came back in 2006 and settled down to make a go of it as a full-time artist. Ten years later and I am quite a well-established printmaker, I am a member of a studio in Sweden and I co-founded a printmakers’ networking group, Printmakers Circle. I also teach printmaking workshops to adults and children.
What do you love most about your craft?
There is a lovely mix of careful planning and serendipity when you make collagraph prints. The plate making is a craft in its own right and you are only limited by your imagination and what materials you can physically get through the press. You can also change the look of an image so much when you are inking and wiping the plates. It involves a lot of methodical planning but the final ‘reveal’ is so exciting. You lift the paper from the plate and there is always an element of wonder.
how would you describe your work and the processes that you use?
I make prints that are most often inspired by nature and the landscape although I also enjoy doing artists residencies and working on projects. For example, I made a body of work inspired by the Vale of York Viking Treasure Hoard as part of an Extending Practice Award from Chrysalis Arts. I describe myself as a printmaker as opposed to an artist because I have chosen to make all of my images by using print in some shape or form. Collagraph is my favourite method and I’ve developed my techniques over 22 years so I feel that it is the one that I can really push and experiment with. I often use more than one plate to create my prints and layer up the colours and textures to make the image richer. I’m far more open to using multiple techniques in my work these days too and I’ve been experimenting with some new techniques where I can combine my more atmospheric reduction monotype techniques with photopolymer so I end up with a plate that I can repeat print but an image that looks like my monotypes.
What is your creative process?
I am often compelled to make prints based on something that I’ve seen when I’m out running or walking and I invariably have a camera with me so I will take a few photos for reference and to jog my memory. I mull over the idea for a while before I put pencil to paper. There have been occasions when it has taken years for an idea to become reality but I have loads of ideas all the time so it would be impossible to make them all. The ones that keep recurring are the ones that make it into prints.
I then sketch and play about with compositions. Sometimes I’ll use a mirror to help me to see what the plates will look like printed (the blocks print as a mirror image) and occasionally I’ll scan my sketches and flip them on the computer to help decide which way around to design my image. I sketch out the final design and transfer it to the cardboard using tracing paper so that it is automatically reversed. I start painting on textures using gesso, adhesives and pastes. All the textures created will print in varying ways with smooth areas printing a lighter tone than heavily textured areas. Sometimes I use collage materials such as textured papers or dried and pressed plants and I always use lots of cutting. I work onto mountboard, which means that I can score into the surface with a scalpel and peel away bits of the top paper layer to reveal a rougher surface beneath. This will print as a darker tone. When I’ve made my plate, I seal it using a shellac varnish so that it is durable and easy to clean. I often make base plates that I roll up with ink and print as blocks of colour and these will have the detail printed onto them. I dampen sheets of paper (Somerset from St. Cuthberts Mill) with a mister or in a water bath and then I blot it.
Meanwhile I cover the entire collagraph plate with ink, often creating blends on the plate, and I wipe it back with tarlatan scrim and pieces of tissue paper. The idea is that you polish off the excess ink just leaving a residue in the indentations of the plate. I then make a sandwich of the inked and wiped plate, the damp printing paper and two layers of acid-free tissue paper on either side. These are all layered up on the bed of my press. I lay the blankets of the etching press over the top of the ‘sandwich’ and wind the handle of my press to pass the whole lot through. The heavy metal cylinders squash everything together and the blankets help to press the paper into the indentations of the plate. Then I lift the blankets and tissue paper up and carefully peel away the paper from the plate…this is the best part…to reveal the finished print.
The last stage is to dry the print. I have learned that the best way for me is to tape the damp paper to a wooden board. As it dries the paper becomes beautifully flat and makes the print easy to frame. I usually print my collagraphs in batches of five or six at a time so I will go back and repeat the whole process. It can take anything from 15 minutes to an hour and a half to ink and wipe one printing plate depending on the size and the complexity of the image. Afterwards I have to clean everything and I do that using vegetable oil and rags so that there are no toxic chemicals or noxious fumes in my studio. That’s the bit that I don’t enjoy much but it is essential to preserve the longevity of the plates and to keep my workspace clean. Printmaking is a very messy process but you have to work in a clean and efficient way in order to prevent inky finger prints and damage to your work.
You describe yourself as a "Fell Running printmaKer - how do these two complement each other?
I live in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and I can see one of the ‘three peaks’, Penyghent, from my studio. I love being outdoors and have grown up with a mother who is a doctor of zoology and an ecologist so it is through her that I’ve developed my love of natural history. Running is the perfect antidote to the solitary and sedentary life of an artist and when you run in the hills and in places people rarely go to, you see all sorts of wonderful wildlife. I am inspired by how the look of the landscape alters with changes in the weather and exhilarated when I glimpse a rare bird or animal. I want to share those often-overlooked details, the chance encounters or the transient things that people soon forget. I find the act of running is not only meditative and useful for clearing my head but it also helps me with problem solving. If I am working out a new design, I may well mull it over as I am running along and I often find that by the time I’m back in the studio, I know exactly what to do and how to do it.
how do your surroundings and local community affect your work?
Since I moved to this area almost two years ago, I have developed a deep connection with the landscape that I’ve never had with a place before. It is a continuous source of inspiration and I am currently developing some totally new work based on my love of collecting natural objects and using maps. I’m gradually getting to know people here but instead of the creative community that I was part of in Masham (my previous home), I tend to mainly chat to farmers and socialise with other fell runners so I am learning all sorts of new things about the landscape. I am still very much involved with what is happening back in Masham and have some wonderful friends there so I have the best of both worlds.
WHAT do you love most about sharing your craft with others?
I have worked with people aged 4 to 94! I really enjoy seeing someone, who thought that they couldn’t draw or were not artistic, lifting their first print and being so excited by what they’ve accomplished. Teaching is so varied and some people just want to make a nice picture to take home whilst others get so inspired that they continue to make prints years later. I enjoy the contact, discussing techniques and ideas and sharing new things that I’ve learned myself. It helps me to develop my own practice and I think it is important to pass on the skills that I’ve learned.
WHich printmakers do you admire?
There are so many that it is hard to know where to start! Katherine Jones is a contemporary printmaker whose work is unlike anyone else’s. She is a keen experimenter who often uses collagraph and invariably combines various techniques in one image. Her images are a beautiful mix of dreamlike imagery and realism and they positively glow from the way she uses colour and layering. I recently invited her to give a demonstration of her printmaking when I was asked to co-ordinate the activities program for Chrysalis Arts ‘Connections North: Mirror Images’ project. She is a lovely person, very generous with her knowledge, and she has some fascinating techniques.
I also love the prints of Björn Bredstrom who was a founder member of Ålgården Studios in West Sweden. I went on a month long artists’ residency there and I have since become a member. I was fortunate to meet Björn before his death a few years ago. He was always really busy but still found time for everyone and his prints were beautiful. I saw the retrospective exhibition of his work and fell in love with the way he depicts forests. When I am at the studio in Sweden, I spend a part of every day running or walking in the forests and he grew up there so he knew them intimately. He managed to depict the atmosphere of the place in such a minimal and expressive way and I dream of being able to do that one day.
What does success look like to you?
Success for me is to spend my days knowing that every hour I am working is related to my art and helps me to continue living a life that I love. It comes from hard work and determination but also a leap of faith. You have to believe in what you do and it’s when people buy my prints and, contact me to tell me why they feel so strongly about them, that I feel I’m doing something right! My prints sell pretty well now and I can divide my time between making saleable work and experimenting and developing ideas that might lead to bigger and more contemporary projects.
Which women do you admire and why?
There are a lot of very inspiring women out there but I think I would like to concentrate on the women close to home as they have a much more direct effect on my life. My mum always wanted to be an artist but was told she couldn’t and she was also told that she wasn’t clever enough for university so she ended up working in an area that she wasn’t really interested in. However, her lifelong love of natural history meant that she got involved in lots of conservation groups and she eventually took the plunge aged 40 and did a degree in Zoology. Despite being a mature student and having to balance raising three daughters with study, she was awarded the highest mark in her year and she went on to get a doctorate. It was a brave thing to do and it made me believe that if you want to do something enough then you should just do it. She worked as an ecological consultant until her retirement and now she lives in Cornwall and is so busy with all her different interests. She has passed on her love of natural history and her determination to me. I am one of three sisters and we are all very driven and independent women. My sister, Emma Durnford, has started a business as a photographer and is making a real success of it, even winning national competitions, and my younger sister Sophie manages to balance raising my mum’s only grandchild with a full-time demanding job.
Cover photo by Jo Denison Photography
This film was made by Paul Harris, a professional photographer and film maker, who filmed and interviewed Hester throughout 2014 as she prepared for her exhibition at Inspired By..., the Moors National Park Centre gallery in Danby. The exhibition was called New Ground and featured Hester's prints and the work of ceramicist Charlotte Morrison.