Above: David Fairbairn, AutoPortrait No. 20, 2017, etching and drypoint, 33 x 28 cm (image) 76 x 56 cm (paper)
David Fairbairn discusses his work selected in the 2017 PCA Print Commission.
Q: What is your relationship to printmaking and how did you develop this interest?
DF: I studied for a BA Hons in Painting and Printmaking at the West Surrey College of Art in the UK during the 1970s, followed by further study at the Royal Academy Schools in London. It was at that time that I developed a lifelong interest in printmaking although back then it was all about the silkscreen print.
However it wasn’t until I emigrated to Sydney in 1981 that I returned to printmaking, but this time I explored the more immediate graphic potential of relief prints, particularly lino and woodcuts. I also collaborated extensively with Suzanne Archer, the painter and later my wife, on a series of figurative relief prints cut in situ around Sydney both plein air and domestic interiors. This culminated in a touring survey show of our prints in 2000 entitled Hand over Hand 1982-2000 hosted by Campbelltown Arts Centre.
What survives of my early work in the UK demonstrates an early struggle with formal hard-edged abstraction inspired in part by the British artist Michael Moon and the Americans Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. The impact of making figuratively inspired prints on my arrival in Australia prompted a major shift in my own practice towards a more figurative mode of expression particularly with portraiture.
The impact of many post-war British and European artists that I had looked at during my time in the UK including Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach and Alberto Giacometti (with their intense and gestural mark-making) were significant influences on my subsequent work.
By 1995 I was a fully committed figurative painter who also made a lot of drawings, so by that time I made the decision to concentrate more fully on my drawing practice. Initially these drawings were fairly straightforward charcoal and pastel works that over time involved more mixed media including a return to paint.
By 1999 I started to explore the etching process as this clearly complimented and enhanced my drawing practice with its reliance and emphasis on a predominately linear approach to constructing the image. By 2008 I was able to set up a printmaking workshop in the studio with my own press that has allowed me to work independently and in tandem with my drawing practice. This has resulted in more ambitious large-scale copper etchings.
Q: How did you approach your submission for the PCA Print Commission 2017?
DF: I made my first self-portrait copper etching in 2003. This has continued on to this day with Auto-Portrait No 20 the most recent work in that ongoing series which was successfully submitted for this year’s Print Commission 2017. I was also included in the 2012 Print Commission with another self-portrait.
As I work directly onto the copper plates from my sitters, sometimes it is more convenient to use myself as the model in the absence of my regular subjects.
Q: What are some of the foundation ideas that have guided the creation of the visual content of the work you submitted?
DF: Most of my sitters are generally people I know well, with a preference for older faces and sometimes the infirm. I am committed to the exploration of the human physiognomy, a study of mood and character.
The artist/sitter relationship is paramount. The length of time spent with the subject, the day-to-day stopping and starting of a work as the series develops over time, even the subtle daily differences that exist in both subject and artist are factors that contribute to the interpretation of the work.
Ideas embodied in the work include contours, mapping and landscape. Think of the head as something you walk across.
Q: How does it relate to your broader body of work?
DF: As my major large-scale portraits rely essentially on a linear construction this reinforces the underlying abstraction in the mark-making. This is also something that I continue to explore in the etchings. An analogy would be to consider a building without cladding, an open-ended skeletal structure. In this way my portraits have had the skin stripped back so you can metaphorically enter into the head.
Q: What were some of the technical challenges involved?
DF: With printmaking there is the delayed reaction between making the drawing on the copper plate and the final outcome. The mirror image is also a challenge. However, with the etching process I am interested in the unexpected transformative qualities of the etched copper line that is a result of the plate being immersed in the ferric chloride. The quality of the corrosive line is quite different to a drawn line on paper using charcoal or pastel. As I am seeking a more experimental and personal approach rather than being constrained by traditional methods, the challenge is how best to harness all these unpredictable factors inherent in my process. I also adopt some of my drawing processes of erasure and rebuilding in the plates, using sanding discs and power tools on occasion, which provides its own particular problems to overcome.
Q: What other projects are you working on?
DF: My current ongoing project is entitled Drawn to Print a travelling exhibition of my large-scale drawings, 210 x 183cms (2010-17) and recently completed large-scale copper etchings 120 x 106 cm (2015-17). The intention behind this body of work entailed revisiting some of my previous subjects, which had already been explored in a series of large-scale mixed media drawings and make a new series of large-scale copper etchings based on these sitters. In this way the differences inherent in both mediums could be observed. These were first shown in April 2017 at Tweed Regional Gallery.
Prints can be ordered at www.printcouncil.org.au
Drawn to Print is showing at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery 20 October-3 December, Orange Regional Gallery 17 February-1 April 2018, Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery 13 July-8 September 2018.
Prints can be ordered at www.printcouncil.org.au