ONES TO WATCH / CHARLOTTE WHISTON
In the fourth instalment of our Ones To Watch series, we talk to emerging artist Charlotte Whiston about her love affair with all things silkscreen. With their geometric forms, intriguing colour palettes and architectural spaces, her prints explore the fertile ground between two dimensions and three...
When the time came for Charlotte to create something for her MA degree show at Central Saint Martins, she took on a completely new challenge. With a little help from CSM's print technicians, she made a vast, 2m x 1.4m silkscreen print comprising seventeen layers. It was too large for any of the traditional printing beds, so she had to improvise – pulling together a group of large tables and, in the absence of a vacuum, kneeling on the edges of the paper to make sure it didn't move. We've long been interested in the physicality of printmaking processes, but Charlotte's work on Doubt takes the biscuit – a Herculean task, reflecting her steely determination and eagerness to experiment. Her practice continues to evolve, producing a body of work that is consistently engaging. We caught up with Charlotte a few weeks back to find out more.
A Novel Property? – 9-layer silkscreen print (29cm x 42cm / edition of 20)
Look Up Were you interested in art from an early age and if so, where did you find inspiration? Can you also remind how you fell under the printmaking spell?
Charlotte Whiston I didn't pick up a squeegee until my MA at CSM, but art has always been in me. I started drawing when I was very young. Throughout school and my BA, drawing was my main method of making art; so much so that I developed crepitus in my right shoulder. No pain, no gain! As a kid I was drawn to Renaissance paintings and drawings; I remember seeing them for the first time in the National Gallery and being blown away. Today, my work seldom incorporates drawing and, with the exception of Doubt, doesn't resemble Renaissance imagery. Nevertheless, they're two fundamental aspects that have helped to shape my practice.
LU You did an Illustration and Visual Communications degree at the University of Westminster – what made you choose that course?
CW My foundation course gave me some clarity about what I wanted to do and how I was going to do it: so I chose to study Illustration at Westminster University. Drawing laid the foundations of my work, so I thought it made sense to study Illustration. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure what the course encompassed, but I knew it would allow me to draw and develop my way of working.
Chair Drawing – pencil on paper (29cm x 21cm)
LU Did the course meet your expectations in that respect?
CW At the time, I was intent on my work looking a certain way; if I'm honest, I was a bit closed-minded in the beginning. In the final year my work came into its own, both conceptually and visually, which I'm sure was down to my use of photomontage. I have a keen eye for composition, so I liked what you could achieve with photomontage and collage: how I could deliver a message visually through found images, and through the considered placement of those images. In my final year at Westminster my work responded to ideas about the 'mind-body problem' – in a nutshell, the ‘problem’ that stems from the world of material things relating to mental things. There's a danger that the work might become diagrammatical and clinical… That's okay in small doses, but I had to really put my thinking cap on, to help express these ideas in a novel, creative and genuinely interesting way. Ideas that form the philosophy of mind can appear quite surreal and abstract... My work took on elements of surrealism and geometric abstraction to reflect the nature of the problems and ideas within the 'philosophy of mind'. My work has changed considerably since graduating from Westminster, but it was there that my interest in geometric abstraction began, and it came to play a significant role in my practice.
Reduced Interior – 3-layer silkscreen print (29cm x 42cm / edition of 10)
LU You went on to do a Masters in Art and Science at Central Saint Martin's, which sounds fascinating. Can you tell me about the course, and the role played by printmaking?
CW I knew about the Art and Science course at CSM for a while, and throughout my time at Westminster I'd set my heart on getting a place. It seemed like the ideal next step for my practice, given my interest in conceptual scientific/philosophical image making. The course investigates the creative relationships between art and science and how to communicate them – which leaves the door fairly wide open. The course takes people with a background in the arts and/or sciences, which makes for an interesting studio environment. The focus of my final project focused on the reductive mind and emergence theory – in another nutshell, where a property exists only of the whole, and not of the parts that make it up. I felt that this ‘problem’ within the philosophy of mind lent itself to visual interpretation, and particularly relevant to geometric abstraction – given the reductive nature of emergence theory. At CSM I learned about the practical uses that geometric abstraction can fulfil. It can be used as a tool to depict forms existing within the external world, but it can also be used to express ideas metaphorically. I would go so far as saying that geometric abstraction can tell us more about the external world than representative art can, but that's for another time.
LU And it was at CSM where you began to explore the creative potential of printmaking, and silkscreen printing in particular…
CW I knew CSM was right for me when I had my induction to silkscreen printing. To say I love printmaking would be an understatement. I don't want to sound corny but… it felt like I’d found my purpose in life, making my work in this utterly satisfying way. It fits perfectly with the aesthetic of my work. Screenprinting lends itself well to the application of geometric abstraction and collaged halftone imagery, both of which play integral roles in my practice. It also lends itself to methodical workers such as myself – for me, silkscreen printing is 99% prep. Throughout my MA, I spent most of my time in the printmaking studios, learning the process of silkscreen print to a high level, for which I have to thank Mus Mehmet, Paul Dewis and Becky Price – the exceptional printmaking technicians at CSM.
LU For your degree show at CSM you created Doubt – a vast one-off seventeen layer silkscreen print. Why did you decide to go so large and complex, and what challenges did you encounter along the way?
CW It felt like quite a masochistic exercise… Making this print was probably the most difficult and anxiety/stress–inducing experience that I've chosen to put myself through. Having said that, it was also the most satisfying thing that I've ever done or made and I wouldn't change it for anything. I asked Mus, the screenprinting technician, if he wouldn't mind giving up his life for 4-5 weeks to help me with the mammoth task of printing the work in the studio, he kindly agreed. Neither of us realised the amount of work and time necessary to pull it off. Each individual layer, of which there were 17, had to create a seemingly seamless image, and as the print includes both a figurative element and geometric forms, this was an extremely hard task. I wanted to go big, because I knew that if I could print it well, it would be more than worth the agony. I was confident that the image would work on a large scale: I hoped it would be striking due to its size, aesthetic, and the screen printing method I used. The print measures 2 x 1.4 metres, which meant we had to print it on a table, without suction, as opposed to a printing bed; therein lies the first problem. Other problems we encountered were making sure the work was safe and out of harm's way at all times – we were using the communal student tables to print on which we pushed together. Some parts of the image were very awkward to print. There were a lot of sore knees as we had to kneel on the edges of the screen to hold it in place with every new layer we applied. To ensure I had at least one print at the end of the process we printed five, each with individual colour combinations. I knew they wouldn't all make the final cut – we lost two in the end.
Doubt – 17-layer silkscreen print (200cm x 140cm / edition of 1)
CW The screen had to be washed after each layer was applied, as opposed to printing the same layer multiple times... So that's five individual prints, each comprising 17 layers, meaning the screens had to be cleaned and dried 85 times. We had to do this because we were registering the print by eye, looking at the screen/stencil through a magnifying glass to see where to connect the layers. We had to make minor alterations to the work, including changing the background from a solid yellow block (my initial plan), to yellow lines. Printing a block of colour so large without a vacuum causes the screen to stick to the paper after printing, resulting in uneven colour. As is turns out I’m really happy with the outcome of the yellow lines – it makes for a more subtle colour. Without a doubt (pardon the pun), this work was the hardest, most challenging thing I have undertaken, and by far the most rewarding. Now I know the problems and constraints of working to this scale, I'd really like to work large again at some point.
To see Charlotte's video on 'The Making of Doubt', scroll down to the end of this post.
LU What is it about the silkscreen process that inspires you?
CW I put equal importance and emphasis on the conception of an idea and its printing. I take the printing side of things quite seriously. For me, it’s a process that requires a methodical approach, which suits my character well. The sense of satisfaction that comes from screenprinting (especially when it's going well) is immense. Achieving clean, tight registration on a multiple layered image, or a colour blend that turns out better than you thought, that's what it's all about for me. I’m inspired by this sense of satisfaction, but it's not always guaranteed… As other printmakers know, it can be a frustrating process if you're up against it – it's what draws me to the process. I’ve been told that I like to make life difficult for myself in the print room, but I feel that it's also when my best work is made.
LU How do you plan to explore the process in new and more adventurous ways?
CW I would like to experiment more with elements of the printed image that lift off the surface of the page, to see how this alters the perception of a two dimensional work. I've started to do this in Walter’s Office with Lifted Planes. I also want to experiment more with colour blending. Subtle colour blends can work so well, but they can be tricky. I was quite happy with the colour blends in my edition Slack. I want to develop this technique, and have the confidence to use it multiple times within an image. It might sound obvious but I want to become a better printmaker.
Slack – 9/11-layer silkscreen print (32cm x 44cm / edition of 20)
LU What's your approach to colour?
CW I choose colours when I'm printing. I might have a vague idea of colours beforehand, but it’s really a suck it and see approach. Testing what colours work when I’m set up and ready to print is my way of working. I won't be intent on using a specific colour – if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. A colour might work well in my head, in Photoshop or in a sketchbook, but it might not work well when it's printed. That's why I tend not to make colour decisions until the time of printing. Some colours have taken me a lot of time to get right – I'll test them and test them until they feel right, and I have a swatch sketchbook, which helps. If I make an edition I always print the work in varied colour combinations. I suppose I'm hedging my bets... Having variations puts me more at ease whilst printing.
LU What kind of inks do you tend to use?
CW I have used other types of inks – like solvents – but I prefer water based inks. I like their consistency; I feel like I have a lot of control when I'm printing with them.
Yellow Sticks – 4-layer silkscreen print (26cm x 40cm / edition of 10)
LU While looking through your prints we talked about the influence of architecture, architectural photography, and the way your work explores space and perspective. What is it about architecture and interior space that inspires you?
CW I was drawn to incorporating imagery of architecture and interiors when I began my BA; when I started using photomontage. My work was responding to ideas within the philosophy of mind and I was using this imagery to depict a visual metaphor responding to questions about the material mind. I realised that this imagery suited the message I sought to depict visually, so I continued to collect imagery of this ilk, mostly from books and magazines – a favourite of mine is 20th Century Architecture. My work continues to reference themes of space and architectural imagery, due to my interest in the ambiguity of space within two dimensional artworks. The process of translating a three dimensional image/interior/space onto something two dimensional enables me to explore the ways in which we read the image, and the space within that image. Sometimes I do something as simple as turning a found image upside down, adding forms that fit with the idea and composition of the piece – like Falling Blocks and Yellow Sticks. A space or interior can be the glue that holds other components together; the way one reads an image is dependent on how all of the components work together. For example the red blocks in Falling Blocks wouldn't look like they were falling, if it wasn't for the architectural space.
Falling Blocks – 3-layer silkscreen print (59cm x 84cm / edition of 2)
LU Many of the prints you showed me explore an intriguing middle ground between geometric abstraction and more familiar, figurative motifs – from statues and architectural interiors to industrial, almost mechanised elements and super simple shapes. Some prints recall the angular, pared back dynamism of Constructivism. In your work, are you partially exploring our place in the modern world – how we interact with spaces, architecture, machinery, the urban landscape and so on?
CW Constructivism is my greatest inspiration and my work echoes the core ideas of the movement. I don't adhere to the entire Constructivist ideology – some ideas are a bit far reaching for me and sometimes contradictory. However, there are many ideas that resonate with me; more than any other artistic movement. The practical uses of artistic visual reduction is a major theme in my work. I often combine two different print processes in an image: one being a photographic halftone and the other a simple shape/s in spot colour, like in Abstracted Views. I am seeking to explore form and tension in a reduced way through my use of geometric abstraction, describing the very least of what we can be sure exists in the external world. We know that three dimensional objects exist, but we cannot be quite as certain of the colour, texture, and weight of a given object.
Abstracted Views ii – 2/4-layer silkscreen print (50cm x 32cm / edition of 20)
CW I’m also interested in optical differentiation on a picture surface, which was employed in many two dimensional Constructivist works. This is when two squares, for example, can be perceived differently even when they are identical, depending on their orientation or compositional context. One square might appear static, while the other appears in motion, which in turn generates a sense of space. Often I’m pushing to express a notion within my work by means of geometric abstraction, utilising only the necessary components needed to express that notion. In Slack I wanted to show in simple forms the notions of slackness and tautness, without realistic representation. Geometric abstraction can often perform the task of describing a notion to the viewer better than a realistic representation; that's what I work towards achieving in my work.
LU Apart from lifting planes on prints like Walters Office…, have you considered translating your images into three dimensions – either by layering printed elements collage style, or moving into more sculptural realms?
CW Yes, I’m planning to step into three dimensional work at some point: it seems like the natural progression for my work. I had ambitions to tie it a go on my MA, but time got in the way. I’m not quite sure how I want to do it, but I like the idea of working with wood, so that'll probably be my starting point. Watch this space.
Walter's Office With Lifted Planes – 4-layer silkscreen print (58cm x 80cm / edition of 3)
LU What projects are you working on at the moment, and what plans do you have for the future of your creative practice?
CW At the moment I’m working on something very different to my normal manner of working, in terms of the concept. The work isn't inspired by external references but my own feeling about a personal situation. It may sound vague, but I don’t want to give too much away. I’m hoping to have the edition completed before christmas. In terms of next steps, I’m going to continue on my path of silkscreen printmaking. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I have so much still to learn… It feels like a nice place to be.
To watch Charlotte's 'The Making of Doubt' video, click here
Charlotte Whiston prints on Rise Art
Charlotte Whiston on Instagram
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