Pressing Matters Magazine Vol 23, Summer 2023, Fenn Ditton Contemporary Printmaking (Pressing Matters Prize)


The Movement in Her Marks

As part of Fenn Ditton’s recent contemporary printmaking prize, we were thrilled to choose Rachel Gracey’s lithographic print Following Marston Brook as our Pressing Matters award winner.

Drawing seems integral to your practice – can you tell us where your idea for a print usually starts?
I’m always looking, watching, recording, gathering information and ideas, especially from the landscape. When I become familiar with a place, I begin to draw and paint and I’ll use anything to hand – watercolour, gouache, felt tips, crayons, biros – whatever works to capture the essence of a place, the mood, the drama, the stillness.

We loved the movement in your painterly and expressive lines – can you talk a little about your mark-making?
For me printmaking has a wonderful way of simplifying my sketches, paring back what matters in an image and causing just the key marks, lines, blocks of colour to remain. Lithography is wonderful because if I’ve used a range of materials in my sketching, I can, mostly, replicate similar textures, washes and lines with tusche on my zinc plates. And then lithography will always surprise with added texture and alternative marks.

Your prints are pretty big and created on a massive lithography press. What are the ups and downs of working at such a large size?
I count it such a privilege to be able to work on a large scale. After sketching, I will create small prints. I see these as my ‘maquettes’ feeding ideas for the large work. I enjoy the making of these, but it’s when I am free to make large gestural marks and huge solid block shapes that I become totally immersed. It’s a challenge to roll the ink evenly, and many pieces get torn up, but the joy of peeling back a big clean crisp print is very satisfying.

Can you talk us through how you build up your layers of colour and why you navigate towards certain colour palettes?
I’ll start off with the colours used in my sketches. There can be a certain amount of planning involved in a nine colour lithograph print. And the mixing of each colour one week at a time as each colour dries, choosing how opaque/transparent to make them, how each colour will react and dry with another can take me several hours of mixing. But there is always room for experimenting and I love to play with colour, make mistakes, push boundaries and see colours create their own voice.

Whereabouts is Marston Brook and why did it inspire you to make this wonderfully atmospheric print?
There’s a spot on the riverbank opposite University Parks in Oxford where I will often sit. The day I drew this piece was very vibrant, the greens particularly verdant. I had been working on a series called River Notes and a number of prints had represented a great deal of isolation and lonely aspects we all felt the previous year or so. This setting, however, had a ring of optimism about it, of defiance and hope. I wanted to put down on paper the power nature has, and display in representation the driving force and resilience of the landscape. For it to have been chosen as your winning entry is such an honour. I’m so pleased you have enjoyed something of the joy of this piece. Thank you for awarding me this wonderful prize.


Printmaking Today Vol 31, Autumn 2022  Moments in Nature – Catherine Daunt – Hamish Parker Curator of Modern and Contemporary Graphic Art at the British Museum


Rachel Gracey – River Notes – Catalogue Introduction, David Boyd Haycock, Author and Curator, Oxford, August 2022

Rachel Gracey takes the title for her latest exhibition from what she calls ‘a quite extraordinary, quirky book’ that was first published in 1979, and which she happened upon purely by chance. River Notes: The Dance of Herons, by the American author Barry Lopez, is all about seeking oneness with the natural world. Lopez lyrically charts the inner thoughts of his nameless narrator alongside his sensations in an unnamed landscape – looking, watching, dreaming – alert to all the sensations of Nature.

Gracey was particularly captured by one of the final lines, when, with winter approaching, a dried-out watercourse returns after a long summer drought. ‘The river has come back to fit between its banks,’ Lopez’s narrator observes. ‘To stick your hands into the river is to feel the cords that bind the earth together in one piece.’

Lopez’s word ‘cords’ echoes with its musical homophone, ‘chords,’ and the ‘notes’ of his title are not simply the record of his words, but also his appreciation of sound. The book’s whole approach to being with and in nature resonated with Gracey, who has a deep appreciation of music. ‘This is what I am really doing,’ she realized as she read. ‘I’m observing what’s going on … I’m involved in watching landscape, watching nature.’

The first set in the quartet was inspired by the River Thames at Port Meadow. This large, open area of flood plain on the western edge of Oxford has for centuries been an area of common land, open to everyone. During the isolation of lockdown in 2020 it also became a popular location for escape from confinement. Gracey saw how important water suddenly was for so many of us – as a place of sanctuary, release, freedom. Reflecting the changing moods of that difficult year, these smaller images (necessitated by her inability at the time to source the larger zinc plates she usually works from) are often liberating and celebratory. A few are also sad, sullen, dark.

The second set in the series, inspired by the River Helford in Cornwall, reflects a very different sort of river, one that is dramatic and powerful. They sing with a different, wilder sort of rhythm. The Cherwell, the river closest to her home in North Oxford, and its neighbouring ponds, inspired the gentler third set. The Cherwell has many busy stretches – especially in summer, when it is the haunt of walkers, anglers, bathers, canoeists and punters. But it can quickly quieten. When it does, one can sometimes spot a kingfisher, an egret, cormorants, a heron, wagtails. These ornithological elements are in the images she creates, the colours and the shapes bringing out perhaps the fluttering of birds, or their song.

Poised on the riverbank, carefully observing, Gracey made records on paper in ink and pencil and watercolour, producing endless drawings for each of the series. Having collected her information, her sketches were taken back to the studio, where they eventually became the inspiration for her finished works.

What is most striking is Gracey’s powerful and assured use of colour. ‘Nature does have such vibrancy,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes you wouldn’t believe it – sometimes it’s only there in the leaf, but I think, “Let’s actually make it the whole thing!”’  She is very keen to push the boundaries of printmaking, and sculpture has been a particular influence in helping her achieve this. One of her favourite artists is the American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976). Best known for the metal mobiles he started making in the early 1930s, Calder brought colour and movement in to what until then had been a very static, frequently monochrome medium.

Gracey perceives how movement is happening all the time, even in the stillest English landscape. With her most recent prints she has aimed to capture something of this shifting three-dimensionality. Her aim in every work is to capture something of the motion and the depth in a single moment – to capture what she calls ‘one essence of a place.’ Made during the spring, summer and autumn 2021, the Cherwell series have an extraordinary vibrancy and joy to them. ‘With these,’ she says, ‘I think the river has been so full of surprises … They are much stronger than I thought they were going to be.’

The final set, based upon a brief visit to the River Stour in Dorset earlier this year, is the most deeply personal of the series. Gracey has bound them into a little book she has titled ‘Rubato Flow.’ A musical term, rubato means the expression of freedom in the performance of a rhythm, making it the performer’s own. Using just black and white on coloured paper, they are a meditation on the recent death of her father. They convey how, even in the latter stages of his life, he expressed a joy and freedom in living – a desire to seize life. Though sad and poignant, this final set is, nonetheless, meditative and beautiful.

Fittingly, Gracey quotes to me the melodic lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, On the Pulse of Morning: ‘A river sings a beautiful song. It says / Come, rest here by my side.’

Rachel Gracey – A Walk in the Parks – Catalogue Introduction, Catherine Daunt, Hamish Parker Curator of Modern and Contemporary Graphic Art, British Museum, August 2021

For many of us, it has taken a pandemic to gain a familiarity with our local green spaces, but Rachel Gracey has been exploring, observing and drawing the University Parks in Oxford, the city in which she lives and works, since 2008. Over many visits, at times with a pram or a dog, she has come to know the landscape intimately and has captured on paper its various physical features from its ponds, paths and trees to the curve of the Rainbow Bridge and glimpses of the academic buildings at its edges. She has recorded seasonal and temporal changes, moments of striking light and those intangible qualities that form the essence of a place. There are no people in Gracey’s images, and few signs of human life, but as viewers we are invited to experience the landscape with her and share in her unique encounters with it.

Gracey is best known for her semi-abstract colour prints of the outdoor world, from Suffolk rivers and the British coast to the national parks and beaches of California. Her process begins with immersion in a landscape. If she has a sketchbook with her, she will draw en plein air using whatever is to hand: pencil, crayon, charcoal, conté or watercolour. At other times she will hold the details in her mind and make studies in her studio or transfer her ideas directly onto a block or plate. Her aim is to catch a sense of place and what is happening in the moment, so while the images begin with close observation, the colours and shapes might change and develop as she works.

Inspired by a collection of Abstract Expressionist prints that she saw as a student, Gracey has focused on printmaking throughout her career. She made her first prints of the University Parks, a series of linocuts, in 2012-14. At the time she was without access to a press, so made relief prints in her loft using a spoon to do the printing. In 2014 she acquired a Mann Direct press, which she installed in a shed in her garden, allowing her to produce the large-scale lithographs that form the series A Walk in the Parks, printed in 2015-17. Her affinity for lithography is unsurprising given her lifelong love of drawing, as the technique allows her to draw directly onto a zinc plate, initially with chalk and then with crayons, pencils and liquid tusche (a greasy ink), to create a variety of lines, marks, textures and tones.

The influence of Abstract Expressionism is evident in Gracey’s gestural, at times painterly marks, but most prominently in her bold use of colour, which was encouraged by the British artist Albert Irvin (1922-2015), a guest teacher at Wimbledon College of Art where she was a student. With the exception of a group of monochrome linocuts in which drama is created through texture, colour is central to the University Parks prints. Gracey goes far beyond the greens, browns and blues that we might expect of a park environment to find the colours that we see but don’t always register: soft pinks and yellows, near-neon greens, warm reds and the sombre purple that descends before the trees darken to silhouettes. We are there in the landscape with her, watching the sun pan across the sky to set the trees alight, feeling the icy chill of a winter’s day, and recalling those private moments in public parks when all worlds but our own seem to fade away. 

International Women’s Day Series: Rachel Gracey RE – Bankside Gallery Blog, March 2020.

The final artist in our International Women’s Day Series is Rachel Gracey. Using Lithography and relief printing, Rachel’s work emphasises the spatial relationships between natural forms, and the changing experiences of the familiar, articulating a sense of place, identity and memory.⁠

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Rachel Gracey RE.

What first attracted you to printmaking, and to lithography in particular?

At 19 I was shown a plan chest draw filled with Jim Dine etchings. Having been a keen sculptor and avid drawer I was incredibly surprised and blown away by the intensity and freedom of marks he made on paper using print. Seeing these and a collection of monumental Abstract Expressionists’ prints nearby, my interest in Printmaking was launched. Unused large litho presses at Art College caught my attention and the beginning of a lot of experimentation ensued.

Lithography is a very physical and often drawn-out process – I understand that with your work in particular, it can take weeks for you to reach a finished product. It must take a great deal of patience! Could you tell us a bit more about your process?

Learning to print using lithography has taken many years to grasp. It is a slow process but I find it incredibly absorbing. My technique is to print one colour at a time. Each colour has its own plate. These plates begin greaseless. Marks are made, painted or drawn, with greasy crayons, pencils or liquid tusche; no biting with acid or cutting with tools. There follows a process using chemicals, water and black non-drying ink to strengthen the image, protect the plate and prepare the image for proofing. Gum Arabic is the final layer before the plate is ready to be printed with colour. Cleansed of all grease and wiped with water the plate is ready to be rolled by hand with a thin layer of ink. Whether fine delicate lines, washes or dense flat areas, the image magically appears as the ink builds up,  and I print this on one piece of paper. The wiping, rolling and printing is then repeated and the first colour of an edition of lithographic prints is established. To develop my image I begin work on another plate and go through the whole process again. I like to use 7-9 layers of colour for each print. However, in order for there to be a final piece I have to be happy with the images on each plate, how they over lay onto each other, and also the effect of the new colour over the previous ones. Many prints end up in the bin as the harmony of these three does not work.

I like to sketch in the same way, layering one colour on another. However, merely drawing is not enough as I like to be physically involved. Lithography has become very naturally, if exhaustingly, a means of taking my drawings further.

What is it about the landscape that inspires you? What do you hope to capture with your work?

I love the power of nature. Whether the landscape is a local tended park or more recently the rugged terrain of California, I am attracted to the transformation and variety of the created world. Its energy, form and colour is fascinating. I respond to what I see by trying to capture it and hold it as a memory, or a journey; to evoke thoughts of beauty, tension, drama or pure simplicity.

What does a typical day look like for you? (If there is such a thing!)

On an art working day, having packed off the family for school and work, and made sure Giacometti, our Wire Fox Terrier has had a walk, I go to the shed at the end of the garden. This is where I’ll spend whole days looking over my sketches, redrawing, planning, prepping and printing. Some days I’ll be using a huge Mann Direct press printing large lithographs; other times all I’ll have to show for a day’s work are a mass of colour swatches that aren’t right. Regardless of the outcome, time flies.

Giacometti – what a great name for a dog! This leads me onto my next question… Are there any artists that you can point to who have most influenced your work?

I remain very influenced by artists working in 3D as much as 2D: the grandeur of Anthony Caro’s welded steel pieces, the spaces created and distorted by Alexander Calder’s mobiles, the colour and playfulness of Matisse’s cut outs, Picasso’s rich absorbing lithographic drawings. Also I admire the masterful colour mixing of Annabel Gault. Her ability to create a sense of place is wonderful.

What would your advice be to a young aspiring artist?

Read lots, visit exhibitions regularly, keep an open mind but also stay focused on your own direction. Culture and movements can be persuasive; be aware of them and try and find your own voice. And if you love art you’ll never need to be encouraged to work hard.


Rachel Gracey – Pacific Coast – Catalogue Introduction – Jane Neal, Art Curator, July 2019

‘He stood breathing, and the more he breathed the land in, the more he was filled up with all the details off the land. He was not empty. There was more than enough here to fill him. There would always be more than enough.’ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Rachel Gracey is an artist thrilled by the power of things. A contemporary printmaker, at the core of her practice we find nature in all its undulating forms – from the roiling seas off the British Isles, to pastoral landscapes, tended parks and more recently, the rugged terrain of California. The wide open skies of this State were an obvious draw for an artist who has always been fascinated by monumentality and the respect engendered by an art work so immense its scale is utterly absorbing and the effect on the viewer, transformative.

Gracey began her career with a strong sense of the potential for physicality in art. She not only wanted to follow convention and draw in pencil, but to use materials such as wood and metal to create both lines and form. Influenced by the spare grandeur of works by Tony Cragg and Nigel Hall, the simplicity of line in the sculptures of David Smith and the deliberate and uncluttered forms forged from found materials by Anthony Caro, Gracey sought to develop her own artistic language that allowed her to respond to the challenges of engaging with the movement of shapes in space within the discipline of printmaking.

 Given the close and often symbiotic relationship between painting and printmaking, it is interesting how influenced Gracey has been by the works of minimalist sculptors. We can feel the weight of the forms she depicts, and her fascination for texture, pattern and process just as strongly as her regard for each composition. Indeed her sensitivity to forms in space and the play of light on three dimensional objects is something which sets apart Gracey as a printmaker.

It was after visiting the Guggenheim (which one, Ray, and when?) and seeing a mobile by the artist Alexander Calder which Gracey credits as one of the most important influences on her artistic practice. An exhibition of his mobiles at the Royal Academy (when Ray?), resulted in Gracey embracing negative white spaces and allowing these ‘blank’ areas to heighten the presence of form and colour in her works. Far from remaining empty, these white spaces themselves are charged by the often vibrantly coloured shapes that surround them and the play of light and shadow that transforms them.

Since this moment, Gracey has recognised how important the white of the paper is in relation to the build up of colour in her printing process. She breathes light between the shifting forms that make up the rural landscapes and seascapes that constitute her subject matter. 

Always though, the pull of abstraction in addition to an acute awareness of process and the clarity of clean compositions, underpins Gracey’s work. She is moved by the drama inherent in a grand but simple shape. If we think of the undulating lines and intensity of colour in a Matisse ‘cut out’, we can visualise a work which, as Gracey says: ‘both calms and stirs.’  She often builds up her drawings and develops her lithographic and lino prints using collage and block colour to create contrast and a tension she finds exciting.

Throughout the 20th Century we can find examples of artists, who, like Gracey, have become seduced by the absorbing and enthralling process (and power), of printmaking. The making allows for a level of experimentation and collaboration which results in a practice which is constantly labile and sometimes throws up unexpected results. It reflects Gracey’s own desire to go beyond mere observation and her commitment to explore and reveal the unseen. As her subject is landscape, delving into process can result in works that are uniquely evocative: traces of colour through trees and bushes stir memories in the artist and viewer alike as shifting thoughts seek out recognisable forms and places.

Gracey sites artists who draw in print and paint that she finds fascinating: Jim Dine, Auerbach and Brice Marden – each has an intensity that she feels goes beyond mere observation. Marden is often described as a romantic minimalist and his work has a gentle beauty which stands in contrast to the more aggressive ‘wrestling’ the other two artists display. Both states are attractive to Gracey, and indeed we can find a soft fluidity and a taut strength in her practice.

Gracey first had the opportunity to go to the US and experience first-hand, the full volume of the American Abstract Expressionists, while she was an art student. Reflecting back on this initial exposure, Gracey recognises that it sowed the seeds of her working on paper. She began to imagine she might have a voice – not necessarily chiming with their philosophy or style – but resonating with their daring and energy.

After years of printing, Gracey has become increasingly drawn to the making of prints, rather than focusing as intently on the actual outcome. It is observing the process that remains embedded in things – be they artistic or architectural – as in a Frank Gehry or Richard Rogers’ building, which continues to inspire her.

Gracey depicts windows into vistas that constitute moments in a journey. They are the connective lines throughout her works. From lively adventures to explorations of energy, form and colour, Gracey draws us into her way of looking, feeling and experiencing. She enables us to see beyond the simple surface, into the often sublime spaces that nature offers up, quietly and powerfully.

After studying fine art at Bristol, Gracey specialised in printmaking. She gained an MA in Printmaking at Wimbledon School of Art, where her lithographs were awarded the Michael Putnam Prize.  Gracey belonged to the avant garde Artichoke Print Workshop in Brixton, from 1995-2007, assembling an innovative and varied portfolio. She has exhibited at various public institutions, galleries and high profile venues including The Royal Academy, The Barbican, Bankside, Rebecca Hossack Gallery, The Groucho Club and The Mall Galleries.

Permanent displays of Gracey’s work can be found at Southampton Hospital and Watson Wyatt Partners, Reigate. Outside London, Gracey’s works have been displayed at the Original Print Gallery, Dublin, the Lynne Strover Gallery, Cambridge and the Wiseman Gallery, Oxford.

In March 2019 Rachel was elected an RE by the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. She was a Hunting Art Finalist at the Royal College of Art.

Rachel Gracey: South South-West in Perspective – Dr Ursula Weekes, independent Art Historian and Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She specializes in the history of print and in Indian Mughal art. April 2018.

Rachel Gracey stands out in the current British printmaking scene for her commitment to lithography as her primary form of artistic expression. In March 2017, Gracey was elected an Associate Royal Engraver by the Royal Society of Painter Printmakers, acknowledging her skill and contribution to contemporary lithography and linocut. Her work is widely exhibited and is now in the permanent collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the Royal Collection.

Rachel Gracey’s practise is part of a long tradition of British landscape artists. Her work is marked by a deep involvement in the local landscapes of her life, especially Wimbledon, Oxford, and Cornwall. She works in sets, enabling her to explore the changing vistas, colours, moods and seasons of particular places.  Gracey intuitively perceives the rhythm and shapes of these landscapes. She is constantly outdoors drawing and painting, and it is these experiences and memories of the landscape that she transforms into the layered shapes and colours of her lithographs.

Rachel Gracey works on a huge Mann Direct Press in a garden studio at her home in Oxford. The press is 9 ½ x 5 ft, with a printing bed of approximately 3 ft x 4 ft (fig. 2). This means that she can work on a very large scale. Lithography is based on the idea that oil and water repel. When writing or drawing with a grease-based substance on a flat limestone (wax crayons, a greasy ink called tusche, pencils), oil-based inks can be made to adhere to this surface, while being repelled by water in non-printing areas of the stone. This occurs when the surface of the stone or plate is covered in a solution of gum arabic and nitric acid, creating grease-receptive image areas, and water-receptive non-printing areas.

The ambitious technical demands of Gracey’s lithographs, the complex layering and choices of colours, the variety of marks, and size, require a virtuoso ability to understand the precise physical demands of her medium and the press. It is a process that requires patience. Gracey prints all her own work and usually begins with pulling 12-15 impressions of the first plate to begin making an edition. Each colour in the finished work (normally she works with about 6 to 8 colours) represents an individual plate in the printing process. Each plate must be printed separately and hung for five days to dry. In her experience it is while printing the last two or three plates, that impressions have to be discarded from the edition. If, for example, she mixes a particular tone for colour seven and feels it is not right when printed, the impression has to be rejected, despite it having been patiently printed and hung for almost six weeks in her studio already.

In this series of lithographs, South South-West, Gracey has moved away from places populated by trees, such as Wimbledon Common and the Parks in Oxford, to pursue the open spaces of the coast line, fields, the sea and the sky.  These themes are first evident in her Suffolk Rivers, but in South South-West they are addressed more boldly in colour and mood, as well as in the range of representational and abstracted compositions.

Gracey’s South South-West series was conceived over a six year period, and captures both the momentary and the timeless: she conveys the changing patterns of clouds, the vibrancy or dullness of a day, the colours of open land, the reflection of light in water. The absence of humans or signs of their presence gives the landscapes a timelessness. Rachel Gracey’s work celebrates these daily cadences of land, sky and coast with the eyes of someone who does not take these miracles for granted.