Pochoir Printing: Colour and the Textual Sphere

Pip Osmond-Williams

There is a photograph taken at a pochoir workshop in Lyon, 1930. A few people hold eyes with the camera but mostly they stare down at hands holding straight-edged knives poised above their designs, the long tables on which they work overflowing with materials. It is remarkable how captured moments can somehow echo through time. At our workshop in Edinburgh, February 2020, long tables are similarly covered by our chaos. Paintbrushes and scalpels, pots of pink and blue, loose alien shapes cut from the card: the swinging tail of a lowercase ‘g’, the half-moon crescent from an uppercase ‘B’. As in the original picture, workshop participants peer down at their work, teeth biting lips in concentration. The studio in which we are working (Jane Hyslop’s – artist and lecturer at the Edinburgh College of Art and our pochoir mentor) could be mistaken for the one photographed ninety years ago. But the Lyon workshop was captured on film in black and white, making it hard to imagine the vivid, block colours with which the artists would have been working. This is where, in my mind’s eye, the two workshops diverge: if I am to remember only one thing from our day spent at the ECA, it is colour. Our workshop is named ‘Blue & Green’, the collective title of two short sketches written by Virginia Woolf that we will  be using to explore the relationship between image and text, but there is no limit to colour in the studio. Throughout the day we mix dozens of different shades: thick, sticky butterscotch yellow reduced to pale banana flesh; cherry and white blended into pink lemonade; reds and blues swirled together to create the colours of bell heather, rosebay willowherb, indigo. In Jane’s studio, we become les coloristes.

Pochoir became popular as a form of fashion illustration in nineteenth-century Europe, with Paris at the heart of it all. The intensive labour required – intricate stencils created by the découpeur, the careful application of soft gouache by the coloristes through use of many different brushes and methods – meant that it fell out of favour as an illustrative technique, but many artists from the Modernist period became interested in how pochoir merged painting with printing and the ways in which colour could be brought into the textual sphere. One of my interests as an academic and poet is the collaborative world of word and image in concrete poetry and how their overlap urges further significance to poetic meaning. In our workshop we will not be creating images out of text, as in concrete poetry, but rather using the text as a basis on which to create images through colour. I wonder if this will achieve the silences and spaces that preoccupy concrete poetry and, indeed, modernist literature. How does colour feed into those spaces?

In the studio, pochoir is introduced to us as a collaborative effort – each table is asked to create an image of a parakeet or whale, with each person given a specific section to stencil: a wing, a ripple of  a wave, a teardrop. We are, on the whole, a room of strangers but as we begin choosing our stencil shapes, discussing how different colours will look when layered on top of one another, we are not singular artists but a collective group, represented in the work we create. On their own, the keyhole-eye and triangular beak I stencil and cut for our parakeet would be meaningless floating shapes on a page. As the final touch to our table’s creation, I have given sight and taste to our multi-coloured Frankenstinian bird.

While the stencils are given to us ready-made for the parakeet and whale, the design aspect of our ‘Blue & Green’ pochoir print is our own. What comes out of people’s imaginations depends on the artistic direction they wish to take. One participant responds to the colours and images of the two short stories, with tidal pools of soft blue followed by leaf-like feathers of a parakeet merging at the bottom of the page into a fishtail. Another seems preoccupied with representing literary notions of space, their copy of ‘Blue & Green’ overlaid with large pink and orange prints of a full stop and a comma. One of the most visually striking images is of two hands in silhouette, reaching for the text, seemingly trying to hold it into place and subsequently erasing it.

For my ‘Blue’ page, I cut out moons with a scalpel. It seems appropriate to offer a moon and all its tidal energies to a story consumed by water. At the top of the page and the start of the story, I paint a small pale orb, its unthreatening presence mirroring the sea-monster who appears almost comic, ‘snub-nosed’ with ‘blunt nostrils’ through which he sprays columns of water. The story continues and darker elements appear: the blue closes over the monster and ‘blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat’, the final line of the story I leave whole. I layer paint onto a thick blue moon with a dark underbelly, which completely covers parts of the text. Through erasure, the blue moon creates space in Woolf’s text, further unsettling its meaning. We never find out why the cathedral’s different, what keeps it faint blue.

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