Emily Sutton's Alphabet

Emily Sutton working at her desk

James Russell talks to Emily Sutton to find out more about her eleven year collaboration with the Penfold Press and the success of her Alphabet Series

Over the past decade Emily Sutton has become a well-known and much loved illustrator, artist and designer. In an age of computer-generated design, people admire her work not only for its lightness and good humour but also for the immense technical skill it displays. Despite working her socks off all this time Emily retains her innocent eye and willingness to go that bit further in the quest for perfection – attributes that shine through in the ongoing Alphabet series of screenprints she has created with Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press. I asked her recently about this lengthy collaboration… 

‘I’ve known Dan ever since I studied on the art foundation course at York College where Dan was a tutor,’ Emily explains. ‘We did our first screenprint together – The Silver Swan - for my first gallery show and started on the Alphabetseries a year or so later. As well as being a master of printmaking Dan is also a good friend and I always look forward to going to his studio and chatting about the films we’ve been watching and seeing his family who I’ve got to know well over the years. In more recent times my dog Mouse has also relished the experience and has chewed many paintbrushes...’ 

Although her commercial design work invariably involves working with others, when it comes to screen prints Emily has only ever collaborated with Dan. Screen printing is a technically demanding process, but their working relationship is more than simply artist/technician. A vital ingredient of the partnership is Dan’s own training as an artist.

‘What’s special about working with someone who also has an arts background in addition to being a highly skilled technician,’ says Emily, ‘is that I really trust and value his opinion on the aesthetics of an image. We’ll often discuss the composition or colour of a print at the sketch stage and depending on the image will have several conversations as it takes shape, sometimes making adjustments in colour or adding details. It’s so important to me that we’re on the same wavelength and as with all of the best collaborations I think that the finished product is richer as a result.’

While Dan is involved in the artistic process that precedes the making of each print, he has also taught Emily about screenprinting materials and techniques. This enables them to have a continuous dialogue as each print takes shape, which in turn helps them keep pushing the boundaries. 

‘As a result,’ says Emily, ‘I think that the complexity in the mark making and colour layering has developed throughout the series.’

She adds, ‘It’s been brilliant to work with someone who has such a range of technical expertise as well as an obsession with attention to detail that matches my own!’ 

Anyone who has been involved in a collaboration will recognise the truth of this statement. A close working relationship requires not only complete trust but also a shared sense of what can be – must be! – achieved. Like all good perfectionists both Dan and Emily are aware that the first proof is often no more than a first attempt.

‘Mostly it’s just a case of fine-tuning the colours,’ she explains, ‘or changing the order of the layering of separations (which can dramatically alter the overall tone and emphasis of the image). To take one example, L is for Lemon was a fairly complex composition, with a tiled floor and a coastal scene beyond, and I wanted to create a sense of depth and distance. In the first proof the image was looking rather flat and not as three dimensional as I’d hoped, so we added a couple of deeper colours to give more contrast in the foreground and some vertical details to the wall of the terrace on the left of the image. It was amazing how much of a difference it made. Working together made the problem-solving aspect much easier than trying to figure it out alone.’

When it comes down to it, though, the success of this decade-long collaboration relies on two things: Dan’s unwavering belief in Emily’s artistic abilities and her equally steadfast belief in his skills as a printmaker.

‘I’m normally a real control freak,’ she explains, ‘and find it very difficult to hand work over to designers, etc. So it’s testament to how much I trust Dan that I have no problem with letting him take over at the printing stage. As I said before, he is as much of a perfectionist as I am, whether in the selection of inks and paper stock or the printing process itself (something I’ve put to the test with some extremely complex colour registrations, often with up to 10 layers!) so I know that the finished print will always be exactly as we’ve planned it, and usually somehow better.’

But what about the series itself? The alphabet has long been a favourite subject for graphic artists, but it’s unusual for the journey from A to Z to take quite so long. When this artistic adventure began Emily was just starting out on her career, while Dan had only recently launched the Penfold Press. With each letter their lives have changed and careers evolved. In fact the prints themselves have had an impact on other areas of their work.

‘Aesthetically, the series is by necessity more graphic than some of my other work,’ Emily agrees, ‘and definitely was instrumental in me becoming more adventurous in my use of colour. There’s something about the process of printing, making the drawings in a single colour - usually black - then finalising the colour choices afterwards and seeing how they layer up and overlap, which allowed me to develop my colour sense in a focused way separate from my drawing and linework.’

This focus on graphic art came naturally to Emily though. After all she has spent years admiring 20th century artists and designers like Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden and Barbara Jones – all of whom shared her lightness of touch and love of invention.

‘As soon as I saw their illustrations, designs, paintings and prints I was immediately struck by their playfulness and warmth,’ she says. ‘It’s so appealing to me to see work that looks like it was created with great enjoyment and I often refer back to my many books when in need of inspiration. I admire how ambitious their work was and how inventive, particularly considering that they worked by hand. I’m not particularly skilled when it comes to computers so it’s reassuring to see that the ability to use photoshop and an iPad drawing programme isn’t essential!

‘I love hand lettering,’ Emily continues, ‘and my biggest inspiration is Barnett Freedman. I’m also very into old packaging and ephemera from the Victorian era all the way up to more recent times. Old shop signs too… It all feeds into my lettering. I enjoy matching the style of lettering to the subject of the print; for example the Victorian picture book typography for K is for Kittens and Knitting reflects the equally  storybook theme of the image. I’ve also occasionally incorporated the lettering into the subject matter itself, like the lit up lettering in the city skyline of N is for Night or the blocky letters cut out of the thatch in R is for Rose.

Only making two or three Alphabet prints a year means Emily is able to return refreshed and inspired for each new letter. She also has time to come up with new ideas and approaches, while keeping in her mind the flow and flavour of the series as a whole.

‘I do try and consider the sequence of the images in the series,’ she explains, ‘and to vary the subject matter from print to print. There are a few which work as pairs, in particular M is for Magic and N is for Night with their darker, more dramatic palette. Generally, though, I enjoy creating a contrast with each new image. With a few letters I knew long in advance what I wanted to do image-wise (L is for Lemon; K is for Kittens and Knitting; Q is for Quince) and some were more of a spontaneous choice (N is for Night; P is for Pantomime).’

Listening to Emily talk about her work it’s pretty clear that she loves what she does. Like her illustrious predecessors she would rather be making work – rough location drawings in a sketchbook, a design for a book jacket, a watercolour, a preparatory sketch for a screen print – than anything else.

‘I’m someone that always needs to be doing,’ she admits, ‘and I feel my most peaceful when absorbed in the creative process. I hope this comes across in my work… I’ve certainly experienced the darker aspects of life but choose to keep my work as a happy refuge, which perhaps is reflected in its slightly nostalgic quality and choice of subject matter. I try to vary the projects that I take on so that I never feel stuck in a rut – I like to balance my individual work for exhibitions and more collaborative projects with my illustration work. I know how lucky I am to make my living doing what I love and feel excited pretty much every day to get to my desk.

‘On a purely practical level I’ve always found that making time for direct observational drawing - and keeping sketchbooks - allows me to keep a freshness to my image making. There’s an immediacy and confidence with those disciplines that I personally find hugely beneficial and it informs and feeds into all of my finished work, sometimes right away and occasionally further down the line in unexpected ways.’

What does the rest of the Alphabet series hold in store? I can’t wait to find out…
James Russell is an art historian and curator. His exhibitions include Ravilious and Edward Bawden, both at Dulwich Picture Gallery. His book The Lost Watercolours of Edward Bawden (Mainstone Press) was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. This article was originally published in Uppercase Magazine Issue No 48. To find out more check out www.uppercasemagazine.com