A woodcutter's cabin

In our fourth digital issue, we asked printmaker Robin Mackenzie to create a map of a travelling craftsperson's journey building a boat along the River Ouse in East Sussex. Robin tells us more about his unique method of illustrating, his grandmother's old cabin and his inspirational banjo...

Illustration: Robin Mackenzie

Illustration: Robin Mackenzie

Tell us about your unique method of illustrating. What's your process?

The process always begins with the story. I read through the piece, whether it be a song, poem, editorial piece, and sketch out little thumbnails while I'm reading. Certain parts of a narrative have greater visual potential than others so I focus on these and develop the thumbnails further into a series of rough sketches.  

Then I choose my favourite and draw it out in pencil on to a wooden block. Some printmakers trace their drawing onto the block but I prefer to draw it on freehand from my sketch – I think tracing can look a bit laboured and lose the freshness of the original sketch. I then go over the pencil with a permanent marker so I can then darken the block with a thin layer of writing ink. I do this so that when I am engraving I can see the balance of contrast more clearly as any cuts I make will show the white wood under the dark surface.

Once the block is darkened, I begin engraving.  This is my favourite part of the process as I love the sound of the tools cutting through the wood and seeing my design take shape on the block. 

When I think I have finished the design I take a proof print (sometimes I then need to make minor adjustments to the contrast and forms) and then when I'm totally happy I print the edition.

Why do you love illustrating with wood engravings?

I love that it allows me to work with my hands and forces me to commit to design decisions. There is no undo button and if I make a mistake I have to start again. 

Tell us about your workshop. 

It's a beautiful garden cabin that my grandmother used to work in – she was a stencil artist and lino cutter so it is wonderful to work in the same space she did. The walls are covered with mementos and objects she collected so I am surrounded by inspiration for my work. It is a lovely space to sit and ponder ideas for prints – quite often I'm tinkling on the banjo while doing so!  

What's your favourite snack to fuel an afternoon's illustrating?

Definitely a flat white coffee and a piece of fruit cake.  I really need to cut down on the coffee – don't buy an espresso machine.

What's on your bedside table?

My alarm clock, which endeavours to get me up on time everyday and my current favourite read The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

Robin is a printmaker and illustrator specialising in linocuts and wood engraving. His work is inspired by all things folk, in particular the traditional music of the Appalachian mountains.

You can see his beautiful illustrations in our Journeywoman feature in iPad issue 4, available to download now.