Letterpress Love

Last August I applied for funding from the David Canter Trust, through the Devon Guild of Craftsmen to enable me to take a course at Hotbed Press. This award is made every other year, each time focusing on a different craft discipline. Last year was print, so I applied in August, and found out in December that I had been successful, and was able to pay the deposit on the Complete Letterpress Printer course! Originally I had wanted to take the Complete Printmaker course, but it was fully booked by the time I found out I got the funding, and I didn’t want to wait another year to start learning! The emphasis in my funding application was on sharing my knowledge with others, so over the past few months I have been thinking about how I can do this with letterpress, through demonstrations and workshops. I had read about Nick Hand and his Printing Bike project, and thought it was an amazing idea, to be a mobile print workshop! I thought I could do a slightly more localised version of this, get an Adana press and a trailer for my bike, and take letterpress to those less able to access print studios. I started to look at presses on ebay, just to get an idea of price and what was out there. Presses and type go for crazy prices, letterpress has seen such a resurgence in popularity lately that people are getting caught up in wild bidding wars. I was idly looking on instagram a couple of weeks ago and what popped up in my timeline, but an Adana 8×5 press for sale from a print studio in London! A SIGN! I swiftly emailed the director of the studio, and put in a offer. He got back to me with a counter offer, and said if I could come down to London the press was mine! So, in a characteristically hasty move, I took his offer and spent all my Christmas earnings before I’d even been to my first letterpress class. Sometimes you just have to take a risk, right?!

Well, luckily I absolutely LOVED my first taste of letterpress! Everything about it is so beautiful and sensory, from the smell of the ink to the clunk of the press. Elizabeth Willow is such a great teacher, incredibly knowledgeable and patient. It was so nice to hear everyone’s reasons for taking the course, too, and how important we all felt it was to carve out some time for ourselves, and have permission to explore a new technique thoroughly.

On Monday I travelled down to London to collect the press from Marcroy Smith at People of Print Studio. I was little nervous about how weighty the beast would be, I was armed with a £10 trolley from Clas Olhson, and a LOT of bungee cords. Marcroy was lovely, and helped me get it into a taxi. Wheeling it along was fine, but the less said about my stance on the escalators at Euston the better! Anyway, he’s all settled in at the Craft Centre now, and I’ve done my first test prints, using one of my linocuts and a precision mounting base in the chase. I don’t have any type yet, so if you, or anyone you know is selling some, let me know!


Adana 8x5

Adana 8×5 in his new home

letterpress print

Ride. Copper on black


I really think that a mobile press would be a most excellent thing, and will be setting up a Kickstarter to get funds for a trailer for my bike, and the accessories I’ll need to bring print to the people. I need a lot of type, ink, and paper! At the moment I’m trying to get a bit of interest going in the project, and put feelers out about the kind of rewards people would like, workshops, prints and that kind of thing, so get in touch if you have any feedback!

Art Battle Manchester

Back in March I took part in Art Battle at the Deaf Institute. The deal is that 10 artists each have 30 minutes to produce a piece of work in front of an audience. In January I must have gone a bit mad, as I thought this would be a good challenge. Cut to March, I was thinking more along the lines of, ‘how can I get out of this?’. I searched for the hero inside myself, and with support from my most loyal pewtersmith, Ella McIntosh, set out, armed with paper, pencils, ink and paint. I’d spent most of the day preparing, which may have been a bit of an error, as I wasn’t feeling particularly relaxed. I had been drawing 1920s women for a brief, and loved this image of Clara Bow in Rough House Rosie, and thought the idea of a tough boxing woman was ideal for art battlin’!

Rough House Rosie

It had sold out in a record time of about 4 hours, and I was going to have to draw in front of 200 people under strict time constraints. Shit. This is exactly the opposite of how I like to work, and in fact live my life. But, that’s why it’s a challenge, right?? The easels were set up in the middle of the dance floor, with many hot, hot spotlights glaring down. I was sweating already. There were 2 rounds of 5, luckily I was in the first round, so I could get it over with and sup down a beer!

Art Battle Manchester

The stage is set


I’d prepared a pumping playlist of exactly 30 minutes to help me concentrate and block out any audience noises. Unfortunately the music and crowd were so loud I couldn’t really hear it, so it didn’t help much! My hands were shaking so much for the first 10 minutes that I messed up my pencil lines, the perspective was really off. I knew I was rushing, but the nerves had taken hold. I settled into more of a rhythm when I started to ink my lines. I realised my paintbrush was too small for the shading effect I wanted, but it was far too late to do anything about it, just had to persevere. People came right up to us as we were working, which was a bit disconcerting, but more so was the camera right in my face! Eek!

Art Battle Manchester

Battling it out

At the end of the 30 minutes I felt relieved that it was over! I wasn’t completely happy with how my painting turned out, but I don’t think I ever would be in half an hour. By the end of the evening I felt completely drained (I had also given blood 2 hours before the event started, oops). All the artworks were auctioned off, with half the money going to the artist, and half to Stretch charity, which was really nice. I was super happy that my painting sold! All in all it was a great experience, really nerve-wracking, but I got up there and pushed myself, met some lovely people, and made some money for charity. I think I would do live painting again, but maybe not under the 30 minute time constraint, it’s so hard to produce something in that time. I need to edit! If you are interested in attending an Art Battle, the next one is 9th July at Mantra Warehouse. It looks like a much bigger space, so I think there may still be tickets left for it. Massive thanks to John and Sophie for their amazing organising and for putting on such an ace event! If you have an interest in graffiti/street art generally, look out for some amazing work popping up around Manchester at the moment, as part of the Cities of Hope convention.

Rough House Rosie

My finished piece on the right

Art Battle Manchester

Concentration. Photo by John Banks Photography

Female Icon Portrait Workshop


Over the last year I have been getting more and more into drawing portraits. It’s so much fun, it makes me laugh a lot when I get faces a bit wrong and they end up looking like someone else (accidental Steve Wright instead of Jeff Goldblum was a highlight). I really wanted to get involved with 16 Days of Street Art Action in December, it’s a project about feminism which runs alongside the international campaign ‘16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women’.
During the campaign 16 pieces of street art created by 16 women from across the North West appeared in Manchester city centre depicting unsung female icons of past and present. Sadly, my chosen female icon, Frida Kahlo, had already been taken, so I didn’t get to paint a mural, but I did go along to the pen and ink workshop to make some little playing card sized portraits of top women Iris Apfel and Dolly Parton! If you’ve never heard of Iris Apfel, I urge you to watch the film about her, Iris, and also Fabulous Fashionistas. So inspiring! I really enjoyed the workshop, it was so nice to switch my brain off from stress and worry and sit with some lovely women making art. I am realising how important making art is to my mental health. The dotwork drawings are challenging and soothing to my frazzled brain. When I step back from them, I feel very calm.

British Ceramics Biennial

Back in November, Ella and I took a trip to Stoke to check out the British Ceramics Biennial. This dinner set by Katie Schwab was my absolute favourite, I love the naive forms and the pop of mustard behind the monochrome. Lots of beautiful work there. I also really enjoyed the mesmeric Geysers by Caroline Tattersall. So glad I managed to catch this, my aim for this year is to get out and about to more exhibitions. Tomorrow: Bolton!

Therapeutic Thursdays

Last Thursday I went to Manchester Art Gallery to do some mindful mark-making. There were lots of free wellbeing workshops going on as part of World Mental Health Day. I am really interested in the shift in mood drawing can have on me. Being fully immersed and focused on one thing clears my mind and stops me from feeling anxious, especially when making repetitive dotwork drawings.


shell drawing



Agnes Martin at Tate Modern

I took a trip down to London at the weekend to visit some very good friends, and also to catch the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern. I’m so glad I went, it was incredible and so inspiring.

Agnes Martin Tate Modern

Friendship, by Agnes Martin. Gold leaf and gesso on canvas.

The themes behind her work were really moving: spirituality, her struggle with mental health and the need to have time and space to create (or not).

It was a wonderful weekend, I am feeling full of positivity and motivation.


A photo posted by Nell Smith (@iamnell) on