With a little pin

In printmaking, when you talk about registration what you mean is being able, by various means, to put your inked surface and your substrate (usually paper) together in exactly the same position a number of times. Usually this is because you want to print multiple colours or tones.

It’s one of the difficult things about printmaking (along with visualising in reverse, colour layering and not stabbing your own hands with honed steel blades), and I have grappled with it for years. I’m practically allergic to straight lines anyway, which in painting is never much of a problem if you have enough masking tape. In printing, where you work upside down and back to front and effectively blind once the paper goes down, if you can’t line things up straight in advance a lot of attempts are going in the bin.

It’s a problem as old as multicolour printing (of which there are examples from China in three colours dated to before 220AD) and so there are a whole range of techniques and set ups which you can use to register correctly. I have tried a few and never had much luck, managing only two or three colours and with only a handful of not-especially accurate prints to show for it. Even after I’d mostly managed to get my head around the other problems (and got a big box of plasters), registration remained the hardest nut to crack.

But then someone recommended Ternes Burton pins, a pair of thin steel plates with flat-topped studs, designed to hold old celluloid animation cells in place, and they work like a charm. Although it does mean extra time preparing paper before I can start printing (you have to get each sheet set up with little plastic tabs that fit over the pins) and it’s not always easy to get the tabs off afterwards without tearing the paper, you very quickly forget that registration could ever be a problem. The paper just goes right where you want it, time after time. Six colour layers into a print edition where I’d normally have expected to toss out half of them along the way, only two are on the scrapheap, one because a mask slipped and the ink went in the wrong place and the other because it fell down on the floor when the ink was wet and got clogged with dust. Those few pounds worth of metal and plastic are better than magic, better than skill: something that works.


The beechwood stood on top of a hill, above a village at the edge of town, a stiff, steep walk up a narrow banked road. At the top were a couple of dirt clearings where you could park, an ancient church and graveyard (getting funeral processions up there must have been hard work), and a high mesh fence along the boundary of a golf course.

Not many plants grow under beech trees, so the floor of the wood was mostly drifts of last year’s leaves and twigs. In Autumn a riot of fungi appeared, from big grey brackets that sprouted on dead trees like gargoyles to the cheery fairytale death threats of scarlet fly agarics. It was best in summer, cool and quiet on the hottest day, for all that you’d be scratching a hundred flybites by the evening. There were a couple of vague trails but it was surprisingly easy to get lost in, and you could usually hear someone in the distance yelling for a dog that had dived into the brambles after a rabbit or muntjac deer, or just taken off up a track as some genetic wolf-memory kicked in. Rickety dens of sticks and rope-and-branch swings would appear in the summer, as would clandestine firepits (often with beer cans).

It was different things to different people: somewhere to tire the children or the dogs, ride a bike, pick blackberries or chestnuts, walk off a hangover, have a picnic or a party or a row. A place for solitude and adventure, assignations and foraging, exercise and peril, a familiar territory but just wild enough to tickle your hindbrain with primitive unease even in the daylight and properly creepy at night. It was full of life the way few other habitats are, most of it rustling out of sight. But none of this mattered in the face of the other thing the beechwood was: a crop. One autumn afternoon, after forty years of adventures, we got to the top of the hill and the acres of trees had gone, the bare earth churned like a battlefield, a place familiar for my whole life vanquished in a week or two by money and heavy machinery.

The next year, hundreds of saplings in plastic sleeves went into the ground, and the woods will one day stand tall there again, although not in my lifetime. At least the timber is still valuable enough to entice the landowner into replanting, and the site too awkward for housing or warehouses, unlike other woods which will only ever return when the concrete that replaced them crumbles into dereliction.

Hero for rent

I am cutting lino, which I’ve left too long – it is right on the edge of being too hard and brittle to work, so I have to sit on it every twenty minutes or so to warm it up and make it more pliable, and I have to keep stopping to sharpen the gouges. In between trying not to stab myself or fog up the magnifier, I’m wondering if the whole process is just increasing the amount of stuff that’s going to end up in the bin. But I’m trying a couple of technical approaches which might be useful if they work, and there isn’t much to lose either way, so I keep chipping away in the odd hour here and there, chasing the idea of progress. I want to make some reduction prints with at least four or five layers of colour, and key to that is getting better at registration, so this is practicing technique. Other than that it has no point at all, so if any of them turn out OK, they can go in a folder – and if not (with this sort of work, much more likely) they usually get turned into collage or something in an attempt to not waste the paper.

I’ve not even tried to get anything lined up in terms of exhibitions or workshops this year, even the thought is exhausting. Making stuff yes, filling in endless supplicatory forms and sending them off with fees, not so much. So, ignoring the fact that he’s talking about work that was, in fact, commissioned), I take heart from Jimmy Grashow’s film: there is something heroic in making something nobody wants. Time to dig out the cape…