Guiseppe, monotype by Helen Breach

FEATURE

Incredibly dark and incredibly light

“When I’m sitting in a ballet rehearsal I don’t have access to a table or any printing things so I have to make the monoprints from sketches when I get home. There’s a lot of bodies, there’s a lot of faces, a lot of movement.”


Artist:Helen Breach


HAUSPRINT: Bodies and colour seem to be the foundation of your artistic practice. What’s your background?

Helen Breach: I went to a School of Architecture but I always drew. If I draw a plan still I use my drawing board and draw old-fashioned architectural drawings. I’ve been self-employed as a chartered designer for 30 odd years now.

HP: That’s interesting as an architect, because there’s something about people inhabiting spaces. Who would you say are your inspirations?

Helen: Aubrey Beardsley was such an influence when I was younger, because I absolutely just loved the black and white and his compositions which are so dramatic. Another influence is Kathe Kollwitz who I think is possibly one of the most emotional drawers and artists imaginable. I went to Berlin and I went to her house and saw all her work, a lot of it was still on the stones so she really influenced me to try and find out how to do stone lithography, which I just love. It’s like with Beardsley, with incredibly dark areas against incredibly light areas.

I do like Stanley William Hayter’s work. He did a lot of drawing and he founded Atelier 17 in Paris and then in New York. He used lines and colours in the most amazing ways. 

Another influence has always been Joan Miró because of his colours, because of his symbols, and because they’re all based on real things but they don’t look real. There is one called ‘Woman and birds in a landscape’ and I find he’s an artist who makes me think. He challenges my perception of everyday things.

HP: The landscape around you must also play a part in what you are drawn to?

Helen: Norfolk, where I live, is a big influence on what I do because I live in wonderful countryside. The priory is just at the back of the house and so I pop out and draw it and then come back and paint it. I also made an etching of it which I think is a lovely process, but difficult. I do like the details you can get in etchings though I’m looking at my print now and thinking it should be blacker and it should be lighter.

HP: How do you use print alongside your life drawings?

Helen: I’ve been life drawing for a long time and I do a lot of it. I’ve always liked the discipline of life drawing as I think life and people always end up coming into everything. 

I often come down to London to the London Drawing sessions because they do theatrical drawing sessions with brilliant models. Even during COVID and the lockdowns London Drawing recorded their sessions online and had some amazing life models. I also organise life drawing in Castle Acre so I don’t have to travel, so I organise them at home and have people come to the Castle Acre instead.

Helen Breach: life drawings

In my work there’s pastel and charcoal, and oil on paper, which is quite a runny consistency.  I also cut up life drawings from different models, that I cut up to make one picture, to try and transfer it to stone, trying to learn stone lithography, to get the blacks and the whites and the lights and the shades from a life drawing.

I’ve also made monoprints from life drawing sessions. In one there was a model who had the most incredible long hair – she was literally pulling her hair from her head and stretching at the same time – so it’s just very quick working with a plain ink on an acrylic sheet, just putting it on and rubbing it out. It’s very exciting I think, doing monoprints like that. At live streaming sessions you might have only one out of the whole day which is worthwhile but still.

Helen Breach: Long hair, monoprint

HP: Apart from the life classes, do you draw from people regularly?

Helen: When the ballet companies come into town I go to the Theatre Royal in Norwich, to the ballet rehearsals. They let me sit in rehearsals and just draw. Afterwards I make drypoints on acrylic sheet from a lot of sketchings or monotypes, just experimenting with colours and shapes, when I get back home. When I’m sitting in rehearsals I don’t have access to a table or any printing things so I have to do these from sketches when I get home. I’ve had a couple of solo exhibitions which have been based on rehearsals and performances at the West Acre theatre. I think looking back at my work there’s a lot of bodies, there’s a lot of faces, a lot of movement. I like experimenting with lots of different textures and colours and collage.

Helen Breach, drypoints

HP: What are your drawings like that lead to your prints? Do they have the figures moving in them or are you drawing what you’re remembering?

Helen: I am drawing figures because I usually go to rehearsals over several sessions before the first night, so they do repeat themselves. So for instance, the chorus I would see every time I go, doing a particular scene, so I get an idea and I can build up a sketch from seeing a scene several times. I do tend to draw quite large when I’m there so I’ve got a bigger freedom of movement and then I’m trying to get that down to a smaller scale to make prints. The monotypes are quite small, about 13 x 18cm.

HP: What other print techniques do you use?

Helen: Lithography was what I really wanted to do but over the years I’ve tried different types of printing including Japanese wood block which I did on several layers of ply. I found that quite a difficult process that needs a lot of patience but you could use nice colours with it. I’m not very neat but it was great fun to do. Linocuts are fun. I always carry a sketchbook around with me and I find that simple faces are always interesting to capture. I made a linocut of a guy smoking on a train station platform that I like. I always come back to faces, movement, bodies.

HP: How has your work changed over time?

Helen: I think possibly as you become more mature you look at things in different ways. I think the work changes because I want to try different things. It’s about exploring in greater depth and perhaps becoming more abstract about everything. Even even though I seem to be restricting myself subconsciously to people, I’ve actually done quite a few bird things as well.

During the COVID lockdowns I worked on a sculpture for Raveningham Sculpture Park which is in Norfolk. It was quite a relief to be able to get out in the fresh air and from this big bird sculpture I made some bird prints. I’s one of the joys of printing that once you start you really don’t know, unless you are terribly organised, how you’re going to finish. I made a series of birds in different situations, different colours, doing different things – a couple had little bits of collage on them – and some are happy, some are sad, and some are just plodding along. 

Helen Breach: Retweet, mixed media, Raveningham Sculpture Park


Group discussion

Audience: Do you ever think about enlarging the prints?

Helen: I think I’d like to do them bigger. What I need are bigger sheets to work on and then I would probably print bigger. 

HP: That would certainly be possible because you’re using techniques which are very hand printed. It’d be really nice to use some of those printing techniques on a litho stone so that you made permanent marks but which were printed in this way, as you’re making these composites with printed marks.

Helen: It would be quite exciting to put them all together because you can’t be totally prescriptive about what you’re doing.

Audience: How was it making prints of dancers when all the theatres were closed during COVID?

Helen: I think it was partly wishful thinking – if I make enough pictures of theatres then it’s going to happen.

HP: It’s an interesting thought though isn’t it, that idea of just showing what you know we’re missing. There’s a ‘the show must go on’ feel.

Audience: When we look at the chorus stage left there’s so much action and kind of continuing movement and dance. 

HP: There’s a lot of emotion in those drawings of the birds. The heads are really quite dark, and the life drawing figures are very expressive but they also feel quite dark to me. 

Audience: You can have benign dark or you could have a really terrifying dark. I think that as a group the birds might be sad and wistful and slightly wounded and apologetic but also individualistic and enchanting, so we see a different side to Helen. The portraits are really extraordinarily passionate and anguished at times, so there’s a huge range. There’s also this emerging greater confidence in the use of colour so the print of the chorus reminded me very much of Robert Delaunay meets Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2) by Marcel Duchamp.

Audience: What l like is the way you use the textures of the different print techniques. Like the etching of the priory was really good I thought, because it’s a ruin, and you can really tell it’s a ruin. And then you got the other textures in other prints but you know a ruin is raw, and then in the theatrical prints in terms of the floodlights and movement you’ve got different print processes that lend themselves to the subject. I also like the fact that you cut up your life drawings and then look at how they come together, it’s brilliant. 

HP: Those chopped up shapes become quite sinister in lots of ways but from those starting points of those different coloured drawings I think that print works really well.

Helen: When I’m life drawing I do sometimes just use colours for the models. I also like recycling so these are all gouache drawings but once I chop them up they can become something else – I like the method. 

Audience: Most people wouldn’t have the nerve to cut up a life drawing.

Helen: It’s probably because I do quite a lot of them. Some I like to keep but otherwise I’ve got a lot that deserves cutting up. I definitely need to do some more litho. I would like to try doing some colour on them as well – another process on top. Oh someday soon!

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