Savage Beauty – Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see this incredible show at the V&A this weekend, and have come away feeling it was the best exhibition I have ever seen to date. Rather than it being just about the costume, it was a wholly immersive theatrical experience that endeavoured to recreate the wonder of a McQueen fashion show.

Despite having already researched his work and read Watt’s 2012 biography of him1 in preparation for this project, it still felt unfamiliar and new. The staging of each room together with mood-setting music and lighting with elaborate sets made the exhibition feel like a permanent museum that took you on a journey. We were initially upset at not being allowed to sketch in the exhibition, but once we got in there I was glad as we were able to enjoy the experience in a holistic way, focussing in and out on detail with fluidity. I bought the book accompanying the exhibition2 to have a record of things such as materials used in each dress, but also because it features a lot about McQueen’s influences and sources for each piece. I always find it interesting and helpful to look at another artists’ way of working to inform my own practice.

The exhibition started in a stark white room, displaying pieces from his MA project Jack the Ripper and His Victims, Dante and an incredible piece of tailoring from It’s a Jungle Out There. From here we moved onto a dimly lit room with ceiling-high antiqued mirrors with large gothic gold frames and a huge ornate glass cabinet housing a selection of five pieces of mainly white and gold, whilst the rest of the pieces on display were black romantic gothic in style, some covered in jet beads, evocative of Whitby and Dracula. As I am focussing more on the individual pieces in my paper presentation, I will not repeat myself here.

We moved through one room with walls of moulded bones and skulls to look like an ancient mausoleum, and a domed screen in the low ceiling with a video of a model swimming in a McQueen dress. Part ossuary, part aquarium, the pieces on display were from It’s a Jungle Out There, a collection featuring taxidermy crocodile heads, hair, fur and leather. It made me think how things have changed since numerous supermodels would rather go naked…

One room entitled Cabinet of Curiosities was just that, floor to ceiling cabinets with open fronts on every wall with a selection of costume pieces, accessories and video playbacks of catwalk shows. In the centre of the room was the finale piece Look 79 from his show No 13, a cotton, synthetic tulle dress with a high leather belt around the upper chest on a wooden turntable. The dress had been sprayed in black and yellow paint by robots as it rotated, modelled in the show by Shalom Harlow, 1999. Eerie music played along with the click-clacking of a typewriter, whilst the dress rotated as if in a jewellery box. For me, some of these cabinets were too high to be able to appreciate the pieces properly, and it was frustrating to not be able to see details. I noted that in the Metropolitan show in New York, the cabinets were not stacked so high, and I presume that the dimensions of the rooms in the V&A forced this arrangement.

I bought a postcard of this central sprayed dress, the photo having been taken during the catwalk performance.  You can actually see some members the audience gasping, and I can imagine McQueen considering how precious people are about fashion. As he had said in interviews in the past “…at the end of the day they’re just clothes…they’re not going to cure cancer or AIDS…”.3 It’s not the only time that he had shown irreverence to his pieces on stage, his Bellmer La Poupée 1997 collection having been walked through a flooded runway, soaking the hems.

I was excited to see the actual set and performance of Kate Moss’s hologram ‘ghost’ that was the finale for The Widows of Culloden in 2006. Using Victorian techniques with mirrors and projectors, a three dimensional hologram of Kate Moss dancing was projected into the centre of the catwalk. We were also able to see a number of the collections together with the original video backdrops used in the shows. The final room was a stark bright futuristic setting, with a massive video used in his final completed show prior to his death ‘Plato’s Atlantis’. This was the most aesthetically challenging collection for me, which is strange as it has so much in common with pieces by one of my other chosen designer/artists Mary Katrantzou. In many ways, it feels as if her work has almost continued on where this collection left off, with her use of digital printing and architectural forms.

This show was as much a show case of Philip Treacy’s work. His hats and accessories were every bit as incredible as the main costumes and integral to the final looks. There was so much in this show to talk about and explore. I haven’t even touched on talking about the innovative use of materials ranging from shells, wood, latex, spray-on fabrics, or the combination of traditional oriental embroidery with the experimental in It’s Only a Game. I went to this exhibition with the intention of coming away with a clear idea of a piece to select for analytical focus, but it is going to be a challenge to select any one item apart from its collection, let alone apart from the whole body of work.




  1. Watt J 2012 Alexander McQueen: Fashion Visionary London: Goodman
  2. Wilcox C (ed) 2015 Alexander McQueen London: V&A publishing
  3. FT: The Incredible Life and Tragic Death of Alexander McQueen PREVIEW



Collagraphs Revisited

Feedback for my last project was that the final images were too abstract to fulfill the brief for a representational collagraph, and I have therefore revisited this project for assessment. I really enjoyed working with the wood glue and tile adhesive grout in my initial experiments, and decide to work mainly in this medium for this plate. Living where we do, the sea is an ever present influence, and I spent some time during dog walks taking photographs of the beach. During a recent holiday to Anglesey I also spent time on a monochrome sketchbook, including looking at ripples and patterns in the sand formed by the tides.

I made this painting of a generic beach scene based on these contemplations. I used heavy body white acrylic medium to build up some texture on the sand, and dilute ink washes with water soluble metallic pastel over the top. I also printed some gold acrylic with a small eraser to indicate texture.

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The collagraph plate was based on mount board sealed with Modpodge. I made some fine texture in the area for the sky at this early sealing stage. Dried split teabags were glued in place with Modpodge, and the sea drawn quickly with wood glue, directly from its squeezy bottle. A fine layer of tile grout/adhesive was mixed with PVA and manipulated with a pointed palette knife to create the ripples in the sand. I then used a rhinestone in a metal setting from a Christmas decoration to impress rough marks in the foreground. After 48 hours drying time, I then sealed the plate with acrylic varnish on the front and back. This was left for several days before printing commenced. I also admit that I did not intend to end up with a reversed image of the original sketch design!

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I remained mindful of the other criticism that I hadn’t really been very adventurous in the inking of my previous collagraphs, and having looked at the work of other artists at Dorset art weeks, I approached the inking more like a monoprint. I used a brush initially to really work the ink into every recess on the plate in lighter tones, and wiped excess away in the style of intaglio printmaking. I rolled deeper tones lightly over the relief elements, and used a combination of brushstrokes and cloth wiping to create the clouds in the sky. I stippled white ink at the shore line, and dabbed black ink in the foreground to heighten the contrast on the rough textures. The dark areas here also helped keep the composition together balancing with the buildings in black. I printed on a warm cream paper to help give the feel of a warm day. As I am using Caligo inks, I dampened the paper and blotted it rather than leaving to soak.

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In printing different versions from the same plate, I thought it would be interesting to paint a sunset scene with lights from the shoreline reflecting on the sea. I kept the majority of the plate in a very deep violet, with the bright yellows and reds concentrated at the horizon and backlighting the buildings. I inked up in a similar way to previously, by working the ink into the plate with a brush, wiping and rolling a slight tonal shift over the relief. Having inked the plate in violet, I wiped away the areas I wanted in other colours with a detergent wipe. I selectively inked with a brush, working from light areas into dark. I worked in this way for two prints, first on grey paper and allowing more mixing of colours, forming a dirty green in places, and then on the cream paper, with less mixing. Each have their own merits, but I will be only submitting one. On balance, I thing the grey print is the stronger of the two.

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I experimented with printing on a naturally dyed ‘leather paper’ purchased in India.I  The paper is very strong, and has deep creases in it. I soaked it for a little and stretched some of these creases out. The dye didn’t run as much as I had feared, and the paper had a slightly slimy feel when wet. I have not been able to determine what sort of leather the paper is manufactured from. As the paper was wetter, the ink marks were more indistinct, and the creases in the paper also obliterated some of the marks. The lack of contrast between the paper and the violet added to this. The yellows however stood out wonderfully, and the marks from the wood glue worked really well. The overall feeling was more like a night scene as darker details are obliterated, and the focus is on the glints of light reflected on the ripples of the sea.

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More Butterfly Prints

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First off, I completed the second of the ‘framed butterflies’ prints, with chine colle butterfly leaves. Looking back at the blue print, I have decided to present the image with just two layers rather than three as the registration really was too far off. Partly for this reason, and partly because I loved how vibrant this picture was after the second layer, I have decided to do the same for this print. Some of the marks on the picture frames here were made with a soldering iron, and I think it has worked really well. If I were to rework it, I would make the clearing cuts on the large frame all in the same direction so as not to detract from the butterflies. The collage pieces didn’t quite match up with the cut marks, but I didn’t think that this mattered in the subject context.

Overall, given the technical difficulty of the prints, I was really happy with the final prints, and I feel that the design is strong. I was pleased that I have also been able to demonstrate a variety of cutting marks and use of the soldering iron.

Across the four prints, I wanted to demonstrate a narrative of butterfly collecting, so decided to use the other two prints to firstly portray the insects in among meadow flowers, as I usually enjoy seeing them; and secondly caught in a jar before mounting. I made a quick cut using a softcut alternative to lino in order to try out a design idea, and experimented with chine colle. I had done some preliminary work in my sketchbook on the best material to use for the collage, and ended up working with the same as for the print above. I also thought this helped keeping the four prints loosely together.

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I printed quite a few versions of these test prints, altering the shape of the chine colle pieces, but somehow I felt it wasn’t really working as I had hoped. I thought back to a page of overlapping butterflies in my sketchbook, and placed butterfly silhouettes on the plate in offset positions, overlapping the printed ones. I originally used solid silhouettes, then repeated the exercise with crudely cut lacy versions. This was much more appealling, and I felt it interesting enough to incorporate into the final work.

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I made a few composition sketches of how this idea could sit within a monoprint of a meadow. I made a few test monoprints, starting with a number of different flowers and the grasses painted. This was simpliflied to the most consistently successful marks only, which depicted poppies. The grass also looked really messy, and was replaced by collage wide strips of handmade green tissue paper. The collaged butterflies in blue also became confluent, and I cut these from a single sheet of tissue paper with a scalpel. I’m not sure if this can still be considered as chine colle, but I have also used monoprint in the final piece.

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Next, I worked on how the linocut butterflies would look, a made one with all cut marks, and one with a large proportion of marks made with a pyrography tool. The entire lower half of the wings on the red butterfly were marked in this way with a mixture of different toolheads. This was my favorite of the two, and I felt the veiny marks were particularly successful.

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I made a cut of three butterflies to use on the final print, and tried to leave some clearing marks around the insects inked to convey movement. I planned the exact composition before cutting by printing individual butterflies onto tracing paper laid over the cut shapes.

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The light has unfortunately caught the iridescent cutting in this photo, but you get the impression of how the final print looks. 2014-06-28 18.36.02

For the last print of butterflies in a jar, I decided to combine a lino print of a jar with a monoprint of the butterflies. I thought that this would help to portray the hard solid glass jar with the delicate flitting insects within. I thought that backdrawing would be the most appropriate way of doing this, as the lines needed to be strong in order to sit harmoniously with the linocut print. I had considered using partially sheer chine colle over the monoprint to mimic light catching the jar, partially obscuring the contents, but decided that this was not necessary. I had two attempts at cutting the jar, using a sketch in my sketchbook of a Kilner jar as a reference. I also practiced the backdrawing using various colours in a rainbow rolled fashion. I initially used contrasting colours, and then worked with various shades of blue. I thought that this worked well in creating the illusion of light and shade on the jar. I played with different thicknesses of ink on the plate until I arrived at the optimum shading on the print.

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Of all four prints, this was the simplest in terms of execution, but I think the end result is strong. I am happy that the characteristics of the subject have been portrayed in the way I intended in my selection of printing technique, marks and tones.


Dorset Art Weeks

We currently have Dorset Arts Weeks underway locally, and I have been getting to as many exhibitions and speaking to as many artists as I can. I am aiming to put on my own exhibition in 2015 and have looking particularly at how work is displayed, marketed and priced. In my journeys I have also picked up a lot of practical printing tips from printmakers such as Liz Somerville, who produces large hand painted linoprints with a final print layer over the top. We had a long chat about creating depth in landscapes, and her influences which include Eastern European woodcuts. I also got advice on landscapes and creating depth from oil painter Caz Scott, as this is something I struggle with. I have met and had specific advice on collagraphs and monoprints from Sarah Ross-Thompson, Genevieve Lavers, and Robin Moorcroft.  One huge thing that I think will improve my work greatly is seeing how monoprinting techniques can be used in inking up a plate, be it a collagraph or lino cut. I will definitely keep this all in mind when reworking my representational collagraph.

As part of art weeks, Hugh Dunford Wood has opened his home for an exhibition including other big names such as Karina Gill, who is often seen in the pages of Craft magazine. Hugh trained at Ruskin School of Art in the 1970’s, was artist in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Globe Theatre, and has exhibited internationally. He currently has a number of strings to his artistic bow, painting portraits, producing home furnishings from linocuts including cushions and wallpapers, and most excitingly for me – collages including linocut prints. He calls these prints Collino prints. These are prints on scraps of various papers, combined with ink rolled directly onto the base paper, and some lino prints directly onto the base paper. There is a narrative element to the images, but rather than a linear storyline, they represent more of a poem, a moment. I haven’t reproduced an example here, so as to avoid any copyright problems, but I have provided a link to his work above.

I am thinking of incorporating the idea of collino prints into my butterfly theme for my final project.

Butterfly Collecting

I decided to develop the sketch of a butterfly collection in frames for my final prints. The first major decision was to divide the design in two halves. I did this mainly for reasons of scale, in order to enable more detail in the frames and insects. I wanted to produce linocuts using an A4 sized piece of lino placed within an A3 frame. My initial working drawings were drawn in pen, and coloured as I tested colour ideas on the side of the paper.

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It seems that the bast way to achieve these designs is by reduction linocut combined with chine colle. In the blue design, the collage will be used in the negative areas between the frames; and in the red design, selected butterfly wings will be collaged in blue. I wanted at least one of the designs to be in blues as one of the prominent species of butterfly in Dorset is the Chalkhill Blue. In the second print, I again wanted to suggest the Chalkhill blue with the collage, and the warmer palette was chosen to contrast with the first design. In my sketchbook I did more work on colour, and how to prepare the tissue paper for collage. I also did a small test linocut to see how much detail I could achieve in the design. I used a soldering iron to make the marks on the moth wings in the centre. The cutting tool is in the photo for scale. I have set myself a huge technical challenge for these prints!

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This is the blue print after the second print layer. You will notice that the image is reversed. I did this as I was already giving myself a lot to think about, and the design would work equally well in mirror form. I was initially very disappointed with the registration, but think I am being hard on myself. The problem was with a combination of a frayed and uneven lino edge, the decal of the paper and my decision to use a jig of mountboard L-shapes in one corner for the lino and paper. There was room for error in both the block and the paper. I am also having a few issues with ink. I’m not sure if it is the temperature in my studio, or the use of prussian blue, but the ink is rather stiff and giving patchier results. This is not helped by using Somerset Satin 300g rather than the lighter and smoother Japanese Simli papers I prefer for lino.

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These are separate proof prints of the 2nd and 3rd layers combined, and the 3rd layer on it’s own. I would like to print a few copies of the final layer either combined with a monoprint, or painted by hand.

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This is one of the prints with the final layer. Of all the version I printed, all of them were misregistered. This is the best of the bunch. Again, I was initially upset that it hadn’t turned out exactly as hoped, but the more I look at it I don’t mind this. The butterflies almost look like they are fluttering and about to take off. I have embraced the misregistering and made a few more prints with deliberate movement with some interesting results. I have left one print without the third layer.

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Themed Sketchbook for Final Project

The brief for the final project is to produce a series of four prints, of at least A3 size including the borders, based on a theme. I have chosen butterflies, inspired by my local area. I have a hut on Portland Bill close to a butterfly and moth conservation area, and we are getting to the time of year when my eyes will be constantly on the lookout as I walk. A friend has also given me a collection of ephemera used by an entomologist in the 1950s, together with a couple of beautiful lunar moths.

As a starting point, my preferred approach is to start with a themed sketchbook. I start by researching the work of other artists, and general sketches based loosely around the theme before formulating my ideas into more of a plan. A few pages of my little book are dedicated to Warhol, Hirst, Escher and Whistler. Damien Hirst is well known for using butterflies in a number of works, and he has also collaborated with Alexander McQueen on a redesign of his skull scarves as anniversary limited editions. I won’t go too much into the details of my research here, as I have already written in my sketchbook, and don’t want to duplicate work. I have also looked at vintage cocktail trays, which were decorated with real butterfly wings arranged under glass.

Having looked at lots of images of tessellated butterflies by Hirst and Escher, I started arranging diecut butterflies on coloured paper. I tried a less rigid design using colours from a Hirst piece.

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The waste paper was looking just as interesting as the butterfly shapes, which led to this page arranged with tissue paper. It has started to look like a woven fabric – a design that I may wish to develop in another module.

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A church in the nearby village of Moreton has etched glass windows by Whistler. One is a memorial to a war pilot, and has butterflies prominent in the design.  This is a sketch of detail from that window.

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Having drawn this negative image in pencil, I then drew a positive pencil image, and a number of other sketches in various media.

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I took inspiration from various sources including the aforementioned collection, stamps and grocers collectors cards.

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Thinking more about butterfly collecting, I made this sketch.

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Amongst the grocers cards, I found a picture of a ‘map’ butterfly. I had an idea incorporating the map of the fields where my hut is situated. It is quite often that you see artworks with butterflies cut from maps. Perhaps an unusual paper for chine colle or a base paper?

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This page was thinking more about chine colle possibilities. It is a pleasing looking page in itself, with echoes back to Warhol.

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I saw a blouse with a heavily patterned design of overlapping butterflies that inspired this page.

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There are lots of ideas here that could take me in a number of different directions.

Project 14 – Chine colle and Linocuts

I experimented with various papers and glues in combination with my elephant linocut. For the glue, I tried using diluted PVA painted on glass thinly and transferred onto the pieces before applying to the lino. I found this made the paper rather wet and fragile to handle. Nori rice paste with a little water used in a similar fashion was more successful as it was less wet. I also experimented with display mount spray glue and Pritt stick. The spray tended to dry quickly as I was preparing the plate, and gave less evenly distributed glue on small pieces than the other glues. Pritt stick was the easiest to use as it could be dabbed on thinly and stayed sticky throughout the process. With all techniques I found that it was necessary to use tweezers to handle the papers, and they tended to curl as they were glued and transferred. It was tricky getting the piece to glue completely flatly in areas of negative space in the relief print.  I think I swore quite a bit during this project, and at times thought that it would be easier to prepare the ground with collage pieces , and print once the pieces were glued in place. The problem would however be in the registration which would likely be tricky.

These are the two most successful prints in the series. The first is using gold coloured tissue paper on Somerset Satin, and the second is torn pieces of handmade rag papers with pieces of gold leaf in them onto Rives paper. I initially tried using collage in a more precise way to pick out various areas of the print, but the results were disappointing. In particular the marks in the fabric on the elephants back were lost if a dark tone was used beneath them. There are problem areas in the bottom print where the torn edges of the chine colle were tricky to print on without patchy results. Despite this, due  to the textural nature of the handmade paper and gold pieces, I think the overall print is successful. I also like the burnt sienna ink with the colour of the Rives paper and the gold pieces.

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Next I experimented more with varieties of papers to collage into the print including candy wrappers, foil, newsprint, sheet music, tissue and gold metallic leaf. The metal leaf was a nightmare to use as it tended to fall apart on handling after it was glued. If I did manage to get it onto the inked plate, it tended to stick more efficiently to the ink than to the paper, leaving unprinted blank patches on the print and a messy block to clean up. I tried to combat this by first gluing the leaf to red tissue paper and allowing it to dry, but this did not stop a similar thing from occuring again as the metal adhered to the ink.

There is a balance to be struck between how patterned the collaged pieces are compared to the detail of the print, and I am not sure if in some examples below the background is too prominent and distracting. It may be worth exploring knocking back the details as I would do in my sketch book by washing the papers with a thin white acrylic before using them. The thickness of the paper is also very important as there can be a slight halo effect around the colle pieces. For the prints incorporating candy wrappers and foil, I spent a long time experimenting with various colour combinations, and was influenced a fair amount by Matisse and his ‘Snail’ cut-out. His work has been on my mind as his exhibition at the Tate Modern is on this spring.

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