IN THE CONVERSATION
WITH MARTIN RIDGWELL RE
Tell me about your artistic education…
I was just one of those kids who was always found in the corner scribbling away - and copying. I was always copying pictures from children's books and comics, first Disney then Look-In. It was always assumed by my teachers that I would go to art college and I rather regret being pigeon holed at such an early age, looking back it all seems rather sadly predestined, I don't really remember making any conscious decisions to go to art school, I just kind of went along with it all until one morning to my horror I woke up in Bradford Art College.
When did you start printmaking and why?
I was introduced to printmaking at Bradford. The BA was some weird course where you had to do a bit of something from all the different processes, painting, sculpture etc., it was a bit of a mess really but we had a great printmaking department run by Alan Marks who was (aside from being a gifted printmaker himself) a very inspiring teacher
The themes of narrative and storytelling are clear in your prints - tell me about your inspirations…
The first visual works that I recognised as 'art' were book illustrations. I would spend hours studying and copying those black and white line drawings, John Tenniel's Alice, Thomas Henry's William or Ardizzone's Little Tim. Even now I still feel a stronger sense of attachment to those illustrators than I do to any 'fine artist'. They taught me the importance of composition and how to create character and mood by just using line, the kind of stuff that these artists would have been taught as a matter of course, but skills that are very rarely passed on anymore. It’s interesting that you point out narrative and storytelling, as I've just explained, story book illustrators were my earliest influences. I very much see myself as a story teller, but I try not to impose my own narrative on the image, it's important that it's left ambiguous enough for the viewer to wade in and find their own story. Where artists find their inspiration is always a bit of a mystery, however I truly believe that artists throughout their lifetime are only concerned with a very small number of subjects, and that these motifs are already ingrained within their subconscious before they have even reached adulthood. As an adult nothing can quite have such a strong emotive effect on your imagination as those events or discoveries you make as a child or adolescent.
One of your first jobs was as a cartoonist for the comic strip, The On Ones, are there elements of this early work that you have carried with you throughout your career?
I can see that there are links between the cartoons and my prints, content wise they're very similar, themes of urban alienation certainly. It centred on a group of twentysomething friends, who were all quite self-absorbed and borderline unpleasant personalities, but I enjoyed doing it, and at the time I thought they were really funny, but looking back I see they were actually rather dark and depressing. I've always thought it was something I would go back to, maybe not as a strip, but perhaps as a graphic novel or similar.
Why did you apply to join the RE and how has it affected your career?
I sort of sneaked in through the back door. After completing my MA in Printmaking at Camberwell a friend gave me the details of the Gwen May Student Award. I may have been slightly blasé when I applied, but as soon as got in I realised how lucky I'd been to have won the award, and what a great opportunity it would be for me as an artist to be a part of the RE. So I took my two years as a Student Member very seriously, sending in work for all the exhibitions and attending all the private views and introducing myself to other Members, which must have helped when I did apply for Associate Membership as the council were by that time aware of my work and commitment. When later on I was asked (along with Bren Unwin and then later Louise Hayward) to manage the Student Award, I would always advise the winners to do the same. Being in the RE means that you have a presence in in a distinguished London Gallery, so obviously that alone is going to have a positive effect on your career. In 2013, however, I began working as a print technician for Lazarides Editions, I decided that I needed to put my practise on hold whilst I got to grips with a quite a demanding job, but what was originally meant to be a twelve month break very quickly turned into three years! However, recently I have started to create my own work again.
What is it about black and white printing that you are drawn to? Have you considered using colour in your work more regularly?
I don’t know why I only work in black and white - that's just how it is. When I'm starting a new work I begin by creating the original images as finished pencil drawings, so from the start I'm visualising the image in black and white. In my work, I think introducing colour to my etchings wouldn't add anything to the image, in fact I think it would be a distraction. Once I add colour to an image it feels as though I am recording a scene as I see it and maybe it prevents the viewer from seeing what they want to see? My use of black and white probably stems from childhood, we didn't have a colour TV till I was 17 so all the images I saw that moved me on some level were all black and white, even those that were originally made in colour. Originally in film and television, black and white was used to represent a truthful depiction of reality whether in a fictional film or documentary, while colour was used for fantasy, and on some level I still think like that.
How has taking time out of your practice (and working in a more technical/commercial role) affected your return to creating your own work?
I feel like I've learnt an awful lot in the last three years, especially working closely with Master Printer Peter Bennett. One thing I've learnt is that there are people out there who know so much about printmaking, it’s intimidating. People like Bennett understand that printmaking is a skill, like learning to drive a car - anyone can do it, but to do it well is to anticipate a problem and know how to solve it. Master printers and print technicians are the unsung heroes of our world; they know so much about printing and know how to apply it in producing work for other artists. I certainly think the role of Editioners and Studio Technicians should be celebrated more. A lot of our Members teach printmaking or are studio technicians or work as studio print Editioners. To do a full day’s work and then go home to produce your own work is, I think, a real achievement. Unless you're lucky enough not to have to take on a full time job or several part time jobs as most artists have to do to survive, it's very hard to be an artist in London, so hats off to all those who are struggling to get by in this city, simply because they have a need to express themselves through their art.
What are you working on at the moment?
I don’t want to talk too much about my latest project as it's early days yet, but at present it concerns an all-male community who all wear Aran knitwear and live in the countryside in the early seventies. They are humanity’s last defence against an alien invasion, but like I said it's early days yet...!