A Two-Way Thing: An Interview with Rick Amor
A page from the original interview in Imprint (Spring 1996 Volume 31 Number 3) featuring Rick Amor‘s Self-Portrait, 1995, drypoint, etching, 41.2 x 28.5 cm, ed. of 10.
‘I always had a vague suspicion of printmakers who made images that were satisfying technical exercises but had no heart in them.’
Imprint Spring 1996 Volume 31 Number 3.
Cover image: Hertha Kluge-Pott, Portrait of a Silent Personage, 1996, drypoint and chine collé, 64 x 89.5 cm, ed. of 6.
This interview was conducted by Gary Catalano in April 1996 and published in Imprint Spring 1996, Volume 31 Number 3.
Rick Amor was born at Frankston in 1948 and studied at both Caulfield Technical and the National Gallery schools between 1964 and 1968. He staged his first exhibition in 1974 and is represented by Niagara in Melbourne.
Amor’s prints, which form a significant part of his oeuvre, were surveyed in Selected Prints 1968–1991, a show which toured a number of Victorian and Tasmanian regional galleries in 1993 and 1994. The following text is an edited version of an interview recorded at the artist’s house in Alphington on April 23, 1996.
GC: Whenever we’ve talked about your printmaking in the past you’ve always insisted that you want to be regarded as a painter–printmaker. Can I ask you once again what you mean by this term?
RA: Well, I think the painter–printmaker uses printmaking as a way into paintings and his painting as a way into prints. Fred Williams used to base paintings on prints and prints on paintings. It’s a two-way thing. An idea developed in a print will, because of the nature of the medium, force an image in a certain way which maybe a painting wouldn’t have. Printmaking helps you to find another way into painting. And vice versa, the tonal range of painting can force you to be more subtle with your marks on the plate.
GC: Do you also mean by that term that you don’t want your prints to be seen in isolation from your paintings?
RA: Not generally. I mean, they are physically, but generally they should be seen as a follow-on, a starting point, or an end point.
GC: How common is it for a print to precede a painting of the same subject?
RA: It’s about fifty-fifty. Often I’ll base a print on a painting and then base a painting on that print.
GC: What kinds of print are best for this preparatory work?
RA: Etchings, I think. You can develop a tonal range and detail in etching …
GC: That’s comparable to those in a painting?
RA: In a way, yes … and mezzotints, too, because of their tonal range. Tones are important, I think. With woodcuts you haven’t got a lot of tonal range; you’ve just got black and white, so it’s a different problem.
GC: Okay. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t a detailed drawing be just as adequate as an etching?
RA: No, it’s not the same, because the mixture of metals and acid and ink seems to have its own qualities.
GC: So etching helps you to distil your conception of a painting?
RA: Yes. It renders it differently to a drawing, even to a pen and ink drawing, which superficially looks like an etching because of its hatching. The intervention of the materials makes all the difference.
GC: Can you think of a painting whose conception you had to alter in a significant way after you had produced a preparatory print?
RA: There’s a painting called The Telephones. I did a drawing first, then a print. Then I based a painting on the print, but because there were some areas in the painting I didn’t like I changed it and did another print based on that print. In the initial print there were certain things that were wrong with the perspective and the placement, which I only noticed when I made the first painting from it.
GC: So printmaking often serves to clarify your ideas for a painting?
RA: Yes. The reduced scale helps. It distils an image and forces you to be a bit broader and change your approach to an image.
GC: How thorough was your introduction to printmaking at the National Gallery School?
RA: Pretty thorough. Prior to that we did a bit at Caulfield Tech, but it was so basic that I hardly remember it. At the National Gallery School we did most forms of etching, except mezzotint. Murray Walker taught us. I’ve subsequently discovered that his method was the same that [Graham] Sutherland used; it comes from Samuel Palmer and involves a lot of scraping back and re-biting, so that you have a really rich look on the plate with a lot of cross-hatching and little white dots amongst all the darkness. Murray taught us that and I didn’t like it much at the time, but when I began to etch again in the late ‘80s I found it was more to my taste.
GC: What kind of printmaking did you enjoy most then?
RA: Oh, etching. I remember I fiddled about with silkscreen at home. I picked it up myself.
GC: Have you kept any of those silkscreens?
RA: No, but there’s some floating around the place. I used to draw on the silk, with glue or something. But silkscreens are pretty awful. They lack the artist’s touch and are so anonymous.
GC: I asked that question about what you enjoyed because when we look at your print oeuvre we find that until as recently as 1988 almost all of the prints you produced were relief prints. There’s a handful of etchings from your student years – and apparently no lithographs at all.
RA: Well, I couldn’t afford to do any etchings when I was young, because I didn’t have a press. Woodcuts and linocuts are easy to produce; I could do them at home and print them myself. When I began to etch again I could afford a press, so I bought one.
GC: How do you go about producing an etching? Do you make a separate drawing beforehand, or do you draw directly on the plate?
RA: Sometimes I do, if I’m feeling bold and daring. (Smiles) But normally I draw, with compressed charcoal, on a piece of paper with a rectangle the same size as the plate marked on it. Then I put that face down on a plate with the resin ground on it and put it through the press so that the charcoal is pressed on the plate. Then I start to draw over that.
GC: Can you think of some etchings in which you drew directly on the plate?
RA: There’s lots. Normally I do my self-portraits straight on a plate. The prints that are meant to be rougher and a bit lighter … I just scribble them on a plate, because that’s the look I want. But I’m a bit more careful with the ones I intend to use as ideas for paintings, because I want to develop the idea with a bit more caution and care.
GC: There were a lot of very good relief prints produced in Melbourne in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Did you find yourself being influenced by any of that work when you were producing your linocuts and woodcuts, or were you always more interested in the woodcuts of Munch and some of the German Expressionists?
RA: Oh no. I was a big fan of Counihan, of course. He would have been the only one locally that I had much knowledge of. I didn’t know anything about the ‘20s and ‘30s until more recently; I mean, I’d seen them reproduced, but they weren’t an influence.
It was Counihan’s way of drawing with the lino that I found interesting, the way he cut shapes out. I’ve lost a lot of interest in his work, but when I was younger I thought it was terrific – especially those early linocuts of the miners. They’re very direct and daring in their cut.
GC: Which one of your woodcuts satisfies you the most?
RA: (Long pause) None of them really. The one of Andrew Southall isn’t bad … and I suppose the one of the runner [Runner, 1984] is pretty good. But there isn’t a lot that I really like all that much. I always think of doing them again and doing them better.
GC: You haven’t done any recently, have you?
RA: No, I sort of lost interest. But just recently I thought I’d like to do some more. I was thinking, too, about New York. I’m just speculating, but it could be good to do a series of woodcuts based on the drawings I’ll make there, because it would force me to be economical with the image. That’s one option I’ve thought of.
GC: Won’t you be painting in New York?
RA: Just gouaches and watercolours, that sort of thing.
GC: You produced a lot of posters and cartoons for the labour movement in the ‘70s. Do you think that work has influenced your printmaking in any way?
RA: At the time I saw things in that social realist manner. I’ve got woodcuts about the police and being on the dole and that sort of thing, but they were the ‘70s and I grew away from that in the end. I’ve kept examples of those things because they reflect the time, but I wouldn’t do that sort of thing anymore. It just seems a bit overstated.
GC: Were those woodcuts you referred to conceived as works of art or as illustrations?
RA: Both. They were meant to illustrate the iniquities of society and to be aesthetically pleasing, but I tend to think the message got in the way of the aesthetics.
GC: Your 1986 exhibition at Niagara was composed exclusively of woodcuts. Was that your idea, or did your dealer suggest it?
RA: I think it was my idea. I’d had a burst of activity doing woodcuts, so I was probably thinking it would be a nice show to have. It was a good show, too; I was pleased with it.
GC: What sort of response did it get?
It might be good to do a show of woodcuts again at some stage. I’ve done about half a dozen based on a series of drawings I did in England in 1985 which are in a folio, and it might be good to show them one day.
GC: In some of your woodcuts it looks as though you’ve tried to down play the kind of dramatic impact to which the medium lends itself by introducing a bit of tonal variety. I’m thinking of the shallow cutting in parts of Runner and the sandpapered area in Gardens (1988).
RA: I didn’t want to be Käthe Kollwitz all my life with heavy black and white; I wanted to be Gauguin for a while. (Laughs) In the prints he made in Tahiti he used sandpaper and all sorts of things and hand-printed them, so you have much lighter pressure in some parts and get a much more subtle print. I’d never really liked the fact that lino was just black and white. The sandpaper and files are another way of varying the surface and making it subtle enough to hold the viewer’s attention.
GC: They also make the image slightly more mysterious.
RA: Yes. The accidental aspect of it is important, too. You make marks that you can’t always control.
GC: Even if you take into account the economic considerations you mentioned earlier, don’t you find it strange that you waited until 1988 before you took up etching again?
RA: I doubt I would have done it if I hadn’t been asked to contribute to the Murray-Smith portfolio [Port Jackson Press, 1988] and probably would have gone on making woodcuts. I had this feeling that I didn’t really like etching, which in my mind was this rather laborious method I’d been taught at art school. And I always had a vague suspicion of printmakers who made images that were satisfying technical exercises but had no heart in them.
I like things with a bit of heart. Often prints will be technically wonderful, but you think: why did he bother doing it? I determined to etch the simplest way I could – no aquatint, none of that business – and just draw on the plate. It’s the drawing that’s important to me … not the fancy biting but the mark-making.
GC: How long did it take you before you began to feel comfortable with the medium?
RA: I still don’t. I have periods when I don’t etch for a long time, and when I take it up again I more or less have got to start again. I rack my brains: How do I do this? How do I do that? So it’s a thing that you accumulate knowledge about, but it’s pretty slow … or it is with me anyway.
GC: Do you prefer to work on copper or zinc plates?
RA: Oh copper, just because it looks nice. I like its rich colour, and I like to see the plates lying around the studio.
GC: Do you go in for retroussage?
RA: Yes. Sometimes I wipe the plate with scrim and then put chalk or whiting on the heel of my hand and clean up all the excess ink, but at other times I stop at the stage of the scrim and leave a bit of plate tone on the plate.
GC: So you do manipulate the plate as much as you can?
RA: Well, sometimes I do … and at other times I don’t. I remember Hopper saying to use the blackest ink and the whitest paper and just wipe it clean and print it. Maybe I should be a bit more like him … less effete. (Laughs) But it depends on what’s happening on the plate.
I don’t do editions that are exactly the same. I’ll have some plates hand-wiped and some left a bit dirty with the plate tone. It’s never going to be exactly the same, so it may as well be a little different.
GC: Have you ever thought of producing some sort of ground etchings?
RA: I have actually. I should do more with it, because it’s a nice way to do things. Often I’ve sketched ideas in a soft ground and then worked over the top with normal etching.
GC: What works were they?
RA: Oh, there’s quite a large self-portrait in which I’m drawing myself drawing myself. That started off as a drypoint, then I worked over it with a soft ground, then with etching, and then with drypoint again.
GC: You love Whistler’s work, but you’ve never tried to emulate his way of making a print.
RA: Well, these days I’ve thought of doing so, because everyone does these enormous prints with sugar lift and tons of ink. It’d be nice to do a little silvery plate which is just touched with a line, just breathed on the plate, as an antidote to all that seriousness.
RA: It’s just that it’s an easy way to get a bit of tone. Often you’ll see a print with aquatint, and if you take the aquatint off it just falls apart a bit. The drawing won’t sustain it. To me the drawing is very important. I feel a little bit reserved about technical help. It’s ridiculous and illogical, but it’s the way I feel about it. I just like the line. (Smiles)
GC: Perhaps you haven’t found the subject matter which makes it really necessary.
RA: Well, I seem to be able to do okay without it. If I need to have a tonal picture I’ll do a mezzotint, which is really tonal and much more subtle than aquatint in its gradations.
GC: What led you to take up mezzotint in 1990? Surely that wasn’t accidental also.
RA: Well, it seemed to suit the sort of work I was doing. I mean, you associate mezzotints with romantic imagery and landscape. Both Turner and Constable had their works editioned in mezzotint prints.
GC: It seems the right medium for you in so many ways. Having to work from dark to light is a perfect metaphor of the way in which you recover incidents and experiences from the darkness of time.
RA: That’s one way of reading it. The black is so black and mysterious that it’s irresistible as a method of working.
GC: Are you also attracted by the arduousness of it all, the fact that you have to spend so much time on them?
RA: Oh no, I hate all that.
GC: But you don’t like art to be made easy, do you?
RA: Well no, but I’m not going to grind my own paint or weave my own canvas, am I? (General laughter) The aesthetic decisions should be hard, not the practical ones. They should be made easy.
GC: Mezzotints also lend themselves to that slightly ominous or menacing quality that you like your works to have.
RA: Yes, it’s perfect. There’s a tendency in modern mezzotint for it to be a demonstration of technical finesse, so people do bunches of artichokes and asparagus and all sorts of weird and unusual things, but I rather like to do what I do with it. You know, nocturnal scenes.
GC: So which of your mezzotints particularly pleases you?
RA: There’s two – The Sighting and Tokyo at Night. If I could get the plates prepared for me I’d do more mezzotints. I’m working on a plate at the moment and I do a pass with the rocker every couple of days or once a week or whatever.
GC: You’ve produced a few limited edition books and folios over the years. Have you plans to do any more in the future?
RA: I like to do those sorts of things, but the market for the artist’s book in Australia is pretty small. It’s a real shame, because they’re great things and wonderful to have. I’ve seen computer generated things and whatnot in books, but you want to see beautiful drawings and typography. You want an aesthetic experience. I always think about doing them, but the opportunities are so small that, you know, you do them for love.
Rick Amor has been exhibiting regularly since 1974. He is also founder of The Rick Amor Print Prize – ‘a celebration of excellence and diversity in the field of Printmaking’. The 2015 finalists exhibition is currently on display at Montsalvat.
 For an illustration of Runner, see Selected Prints 1968–1991 (exhibition catalogue, 1993), cat. No. 8.
 Amor’s woodcut of John Perceval is reproduced on the cover of Overland, no. 103, 1986.
 See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 13.
 See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 16.
 See Selected Prints 1968–1991, cat no. 42.