Going through a pile of old papers, I came across two unfinished scraperboard pictures of wasps. I'd completely forgotten about them; not surprising, as I must have abandoned them about fifteen years ago. As far as I can recall, these are the only two forays into that medium I have ever made.
I used to be an admirer of woodcuts and wood engravings; as I write this, I am sitting beneath three framed Clare Leighton engravings -- pages from The Farmer's Year -- that I rescued from a secondhand book shop. My recollection is that I thought scraperboard might be a way of getting to the attractively crisp end result of engraving without going through the tedious and messy process of actual printmaking, something I know a little about.
For years, I used to make linocuts and woodcuts. When I was about 17 I actually dared to venture into the premises of printmaking suppliers T.N. Lawrence, when it was still located up an external staircase in Bleeding Heart Yard in London. Old man Lawrence was notorious for chasing away anyone he didn't like. Luckily, he did like the cut of my jib, and helped me choose some wood-engraving tools. However, much as I enjoyed cutting away bits of lino and plank, the process of working up the ink on an old mirror with a roller, inking up the block, and taking an impression on paper (using the back of a spoon in the absence of a press) -- not to mention subsequently cleaning up the whole inky lot -- was a messy business and not really suited to a two-bedroom council flat. My mother would despair when ink found its way into the crazed enamel of our kitchen sink.
Two-colour linocut, 1979
I kept up the printmaking into early adult life, though, and later on I thought etching might be worth a try, so signed up for evening classes. I managed a few completed test-pieces -- all featuring wasps -- before deciding that this elaborately ceremonial "intaglio" process elevated the fussiness of printmaking to the pitch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, if not beyond, and gave it up. It's no wonder that most "name" artists employ a specialist studio to do the actual skilled, repetitive, dirty work of making editioned prints for them to sign and number. It's one of the guilty secrets of art. Making some nice marks into a wax-covered sheet of metal is one thing; etching it in a tray of acid to just the right degree of "bite", then inking it, wiping off just the right amount of ink, and then experimentally adjusting the blankets in the press to find just the right pressure to yield a perfect impression on a carefully pre-soaked sheet of (very expensive) paper is quite another. However, in the process of exploring etching I did discover the darkroom, which is another story.
But why ... wasps? Why, indeed. If only I could have developed a more popular obsession -- oh, I don't know, people, maybe, or even bees -- then I might have got a more encouraging reaction than "huh..." to my efforts, and gone on to produce the hundreds of prints -- those famous 10,000 hours -- that form the bedrock of real accomplishment. After all, people have built whole careers out of making linocuts of bloody hares for greetings cards. But wasps just don't have that irresistible combination of mystic folksiness and prick-eared cuteness going on for them.
As it is, I don't think I've made a print of any sort -- other than photographs -- since I turned 30 in 1984, though my recent efforts at digital collage might be seen as a return to that earlier impulse. But no wasps this time! Although.... Those scraperboards are just waiting to be incorporated into something new. It would be a shame to waste them.
Addendum 8/7/15: I suddenly remembered one possible influence on my focus on wasps. A book that shaped me more than most was The Albemarle Book of Modern Verse, an O-Level set text that included many worthwhile poems, as well as some astonishing but memorable rubbish. An example of the latter contained these lines, much of which I can recite to this day:
There's not a rhyme to wasp in English tongue.
Poor wasp, unloved, unsung!
Only the homely proverb celebrates
These little dragons of the summer day
That each man hates.
'Wasps haunt the honey-pot,' they say,
Or 'Put your hand into a wasps' nest,' thus
Neatly condensing all report for us
By sharp experience into wisdom stung,
As is the proverb's way.
Of many a man it might be said
No one loved him till he was dead,
But of a wasp not even then
As it is said of many men.
Vita Sackville-West, The Garden