“How do you turn a rough experiment into a finished print?”

Students often ask me how I arrive at a finished print and also want advice on how they can turn initial experiments into finished prints themselves.

There are probably as many stories behind finished prints as there are actual prints, and I am sure you will have stories of your own once you think about how your favourite print came into being. 

Here is the story of creating the ‘Midwinter Solstice’ print, I thought it was a good example as I started with no plan, just a spark of an experiment, and through allowing the creative process to unfold a new print was born!

“Midwinter Solstice”

I was sorting out the rusty drawer in the studio where old cutting mats end up forgotten and buried under newer ones. Clearing it out seemed like a good idea (or a diversion?)  I discovered this poor old thing that had certainly seen good service and bore the incidental knife marks made by different creative people over the years.

The old cutting mat, rescued
The old cutting mat, rescued

In my clearing up mode I actually put the old mat in the bin, but it kept catching my eye. Eventually I gave in and rescued it, dusted it off and gave it some fresh attention.

Inspiration from life and other artists 

Well used cutting boards have always fascinated me; you can read a history in their surface marks. As I communed with the rescued cutting mat I remembered seeing some lovely prints from the worn surface of old kitchen chopping boards at Northern Print in Newcastle (sorry can’t remember the artist, but the images have stayed with me). I also became captivated by the gutting boards fixed along a pier, each one bearing the scars of the fish that had been caught there. Here are my holiday photos!

Fish gutting boards on an American pier
Fish gutting boards on an American pier

A ready-made printing plate

the first print from the cutting mat
the first print from the cutting mat

The mat is flat – it could go through the press, it has a potentially interesting surface to hold ink – why am I throwing it away?

Needless to say that was the end of the good intentions and clearing the drawer out.

With no more preparation, I inked it up as intaglio. The result was underwhelming; little tonal contrast, and lots of what computer programmers call ‘noise’. However I still felt there was potential there.

If in doubt try heating it up

A few prints later and the plate was still not performing; I thought heating it up might open up the cuts so they could hold more ink.

The cutting mat after heating
The cutting mat after heating

Using a heat gun, the cuts did start to open up, but even more interestingly the rough surface of the mat became smooth and shiny.

A test print was certainly promising – the smooth patches wiped clean of ink, this brought light areas into the image and the wider cuts became more distinct.

Test prints showing before and after heating
Test prints showing the mat before and after heating

I have no plan

You may be familiar with this state of mind – I’ve sneaked out of clearing up so am feeling quite free and a bit naughty. I think I may be onto something with the old cutting mat and am now working with a sense of purpose but no idea of what may happen next. I love it when this occurs, for me this is ‘flow’ and is one of the things and that keeps me coming back for more. It is important to have no plan, and to be open to all possibilities. It is doubly fun when you can do it with other people as happens quite often on the courses I run in my studio.

Pace yourself

This creative state doesn’t last forever – usually I find it dissipates into indecision and a fading enthusiasm, signs that a cup of tea and a break is needed.

I had the cutting mat plate by me in the studio with the test prints for several weeks, waiting for the right time to continue with it. These pauses in the process are essential. Things mull around in your sub-conscious, gently fermenting until its time for more action.

More heat needed

A proper paint-stripping gun produced more heat than the craft model and this was my next move; the intense heat brought the surface of the mat up to a bright shine and really defined the cuts. The heat distorted the mat so it no longer laid flat. 

A relief print from the cutting mat
A relief print from the cutting mat

The distortions meant that relief printing with a roller looked very patchy and I decided to stick with intaglio.

Investing time and activity with the mat meant that I was getting to know it as a printing plate, this process takes time, and it’s a bit like making a new friend.

A plan starts to form

The prints were looking better, but still lacked something. I’d fixed on Payne’s Grey as the right colour. Chine collee sprang into mind, and after a few experiments with different papers I decided this was the way to go.

Prints with chine collee
Prints with chine collee

Meaning emerges

This activity took place in November 2019, along with Brexit, a general election, climate emergency and dark winter days. There’s nothing good to say about any of that.

The cuts seemed appropriately angry, but I didn’t want a totally hopeless image. The idea of the approaching winter solstice, and the return of the sun from behind the dark lines felt right. The lines could be read as painful cuts or dark winter branches. 

This delicious moment of synthesis when everything comes together is immensely satisfying. If you trust your creative process it can feel as though the idea already exists and you are just catching up with it.

Overprinting the plate
Overprinting the plate

Choosing papers 

I prepared the chine collee paper with gold and orange acrylic paint to make it glow like the sun. The printing paper is a rough thick Somerset, as I felt the cutting mat needed something strong to contain it.


A single print looked delicate and didn’t seem to have the energy I wanted so I turned the plate through 180 degrees and over printed it. This made a dark tangle of lines that partially obscured the sun. Just right. After printing an edition of 4 I felt I had reached the end of this particular trip. 

Midwinter Solstice, the finished print
Midwinter Solstice, the finished print

 Meeting the new print

‘Midwinter solstice’ took its time gestating and coming to life. Its meaning arrived through a process of practical activity, noticing things, trying stuff, rejecting some ideas and choosing others.

I suggest you actively suspend the urge to control and plan a finished result. If you allow things to emerge out of playful experiments creating a print becomes a life enhancing adventure.

One of the messages in this story is that it takes time for a print to arrive, there were lots of ‘failed’ prints along the way, blind alleys and moments of wondering ‘is it worth it?’ I am happy that the answer was yes.

There are infinite ways of bringing a new print into the world; this is the story of a single one.  Now I am thinking about other prints I have known, and I’d love to hear your print creation stories too.