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The Mezzotints of Judith Rothchild

This interview is part of a series of interviews which we are conducting with contemporary artists represented by Emanuel von Baeyer – Cabinet, who use printmaking in their work. Each interview focuses on a particular printmaking technique for which the artist is known. It explores the challenges, experiences and sources of inspiration associated with working with that specific technique.

“The idea of mezzotint has always interested me, as the subject of all my work is the light.”
– Judith Rothchild

Judith Rothchild in her studio, Octon, France
Judith Rothchild in her studio, Octon, France

 

Interview with artist Judith Rothchild (JR) and her partner Mark Lintott (ML), prepared by Svetlana Sapozhnikova (Emanuel von Baeyer London).

 

Judith and Mark, since you work together and create together, how did you meet?
J.R.: Mark and I met in Vienna, in German classes for foreigners in 1973 and soon after settled in the south of France. We have always worked together as we bought a ruined house and there was plenty to do rebuilding it. Later, we screen printed posters for ourselves and then for other artists. Mark didn’t come from the world of design, but he was very good at laying out posters. The books started in 1997 when I learned mezzotinting.

Judith Rothchild and Mark Lintott in their workshop, Octon, France
Judith Rothchild and Mark Lintott in their workshop, Octon, France

How and when have you started printmaking?
J.R.: I think I have always been a printmaker. I made my first linocut at age twelve, I think. When I was 13, I had a commission from friends of my parents for a two-colour print and was paid $12. That was my first sale. As a teenager, I discovered reduction linocuts. At art school, I did quite a bit of etching and lithography and learned screen printing making posters against the Vietnam war in the cellar of the dorm. When we came to France, I principally worked in pastel, but we made very elaborate editions in screenprint after my pastels in anything up to 20 colours.

Judith, why did you choose the technique of mezzotint?
J.R.: The idea of mezzotint has always interested me as the subject of all my work is the light. However, when I was at art school, nobody knew anything about it and I think it would have been seriously frowned upon as being unfashionable. It took twenty-three years after leaving school to find someone who could teach me.

How labour intensive the process of mezzotint making?
J.R.: Preparing the plate is very long – especially the larger formats. I use a pole rocker, so it is less painful for the wrist and elbow, but a 30 x 40 cm plate can take over 20 hours of rocking with a 4-inch rocker. But the good side is that when the plate is well prepared it is free sailing from there. Many artists are attracted to mezzotint because it is supposed to be slow and zen, but I draw very quickly and I can work up a very complex drawing in a few days. I have a basic rule that it takes at least five or six state proofs to advance the drawing and let the surface of the plate mature.

 

In the studio of Judith Rothchild and Mark Lintott, Octon, France
In the studio of Judith Rothchild and Mark Lintott, Octon, France

Do you draw directly on the plate or you use one of your prep drawings for inspiration, perhaps one of your pastels?

J.R.: Most of my images are drawn directly from life on to the plate. I have a little “stage” on my worktable so that my subject is eye height. I very rarely make preliminary drawings, only sometimes to see if a complex image can fit on the plate. I also use drawings from my sketchbook to make prints from our travels. I think I have only used a photo twice for hundreds of prints but that was for a very specific subject, for example the hidden face of the moon.

 

Who are your biggest influences in this technique from the past and the present?

J.R.: I learned mezzotinting from Albert Woda in a four-day course, so for a number of years he was a very important influence. He also published our first book. I don’t really have many “influences”, but I have colleagues that I respect, like Mikio Watanabe. Recently, I have seen the work of Sarah Gillespie, which I like a lot. There is a biennial International Mezzotint Festival in Ekaterinburg, Russia, which brings together the work of one hundred mezzotinters worldwide. There are some very skilled printmakers out there, but it is unfortunate that there are few whose combination of technique and image really gel for me.

 

Do you see if collecting habits of mezzotint works differ in different countries?

J.R.: It is not so much a question of collectors, but of printmakers; there are many countries where mezzotinting is virtually unknown.

How do you work? What is your daily routine?

J.R.: There is no daily routine. I work on my plates virtually every day, usually after the gardening and before cooking.

M.L.: Making books is not a full-time project, however, when I am involved, it is a seven-day-a-week job. We had a student with us in August who was surprised to see that book making could be so intensive.

 

Letterpress in the artist’s workshop, Octon, France
Letterpress in the artist’s workshop, Octon, France
You both are involved in creating beautiful artist’s books. How many artist’s books have you produced so far?
J.R.: We have made about forty editions.

How much work do you put into production of such a book?

M.L.: Too much to think about!

What are your criteria on the choice of a poet?

M.L.: We were very lucky that we knew Ruth Rainlight because she and Alan Sillitoe had a holiday house in our region, and she wrote a poem for Judith before we had even considered making a book. We had the chance to meet other poets at a major festival that took place near us. We choose texts which are visual and that speak to us. Recently, we published a poem in Portuguese as we discovered that Portuguese, like English language, poetry can be very direct and visual. We also use classical texts when they seem particularly appropriate. For French texts it is better that they be out of copyright because certain publishers are very tricky. Dealing with American and English publishers is definitely easier.

What are the steps between an idea and a finished book?

M.L.: As it is an enormous amount of time and energy, first we both have to be in agreement! Sometimes, Judith has made a series of prints and she hopes I might want to make a book, sometimes, we meet a poet we want to work with, sometimes I find a text that inspires me. Before a project can develop, we need to agree to a format and decide how many images it might have and what techniques we may use. Judith usually completes the images before I get more involved. Then I need to choose type size, the quantity of pages etc. Although she might make suggestions, I am responsible for the final layout. The balance between text and image is essential in an artist’s book. We always print the mezzotints before the text. For the letterpress, I have a choice between four presses, a couple dating back to the 19th century and well over a hundred cases of lead type. Each press has its own advantages and limitations. The Vandercook is excellent but is limited in format and thickness of paper. The Adana is a wonderful little machine, but the format is very restricted. The Stanhope and the Albion are very flexible but more difficult to set up and slow to print. When all is printed, I have the challenge of the covers, slipcases and boxes. The fact of doing everything ourselves gives us infinite options of making the project more complicated. We often decorate the papers ourselves using linocut, screenprinting, marbling or embossements. As we live in the country, it is important to have stocks of many papers available, as local supplies are limited.

How has your practice change over the years if it did?

M.L.: What is important for us is that every book has a new challenge, something we have never done before. As a result, we are always learning new tricks to be incorporated in the next book. Our first books, we printed up to 50 copies. Now our editions are much smaller, but the books are often more complicated.

What an ideal artist’s book should contain?

M.L.: Content! Not just an intellectual idea.

Do you have a favourite artist’s book which triggered your interest in producing one of your own?

J.R.: Not really.

What is your next project?

M.L.: We are just finally finishing a project that we started during the lockdown last spring – a little fragment of the “Peste” by Camus with Judith’s linocuts of 22 rats running to their death. On Christmas day, we are looking forward to a new challenge – a mini book made in one day in, perhaps, 10 copies, if we succeed.

 

Browse Judith Rothchild at Emanuel von Baeyer – Cabinet