Meet the block-printer that creates elaborate designs inspired by the natural world

From her renovated 1940s bus store, artist Lou Tonkin block-prints elaborate designs inspired by the natural world

Artist Lou Tonkin photographed by Jesse Wild

Nestled on the Cornish coastline, not far from St Ives, artist Lou Tonkin carefully carves away at a block to create one of her highly intricate prints, capturing a throng of hedgerow foliage and shoreline creatures in rich, pigmented ink. ‘The work I make is very personal to me,’ she explains. ‘It’s a reflection of my interaction with nature and the great outdoors.’

Advertisement
Lou Tonkin working at her desk
Lou’s desk is collaged with inspiring prints

Tell us a bit about your background…
I have always been a creative person. I was the child with cupboards filled with old loo rolls and bottles for craft projects. I am also really dyslexic, so I found school quite difficult. I chose to immerse myself in what I was good at, rather than academic subjects. 

How did you discover block printing?
I did a bit of lino printing at school, which I really enjoyed. I loved that it was hands-on and traditional. We had a beautiful tall press with wooden handles, and physically using that felt different to sketching or computer-generating an image. I love the whole process, from first drawing an image to cutting it on the block. Being a printmaker is quite a specific thing – you have to think in a precise way. I often work back-to-front, as everything will be in reverse when it is printed. It’s also very three-dimensional, as I can use more than one block to create a print and have to imagine how exactly they’ll fit together.

Lou Tonkin Lino cutting a design of a figure planting a tree

Tell us about your process
Sometimes I’ll see something when I’m walking my dog in the morning and I’ll hold that image in my mind until I get back to the studio. I’ll then draw it in one of my sketchbooks. If I need a reverse image, I’ll trace the design from the sketch and flip the trace over using old-fashioned carbon paper (like you’d use for duplicate receipts). I’ll then copy this onto the printing block using a scalpel. Next, I carve away the block from the design – taking away the background so the lines of the sketch stand proud. Then I roll some fantastically sticky ink onto the block and press it onto Japanese washi paper, which I prefer to use. After that, I hand-burnish the back of every design with a wooden spoon, as I don’t have a large press. It’s quite magical. I love seeing a picture that I’ve carved by hand on the block and then its mirror image on the paper next to it. It’s such an exciting way to work.

Describe the items you make
I usually print designs onto paper, and sometimes onto fabric. I love creating items that are useful – and I use several local producers to turn my paper prints into homewares, such as tea towels and mugs. Using local craftspeople and makers is really important to me, and I’m very much blessed to live among a particularly creative community in Cornwall. 

Lou Tonkin peels away paper from the Lino block to show a finished print

What inspires you?
I have to say almost exclusively nature. I live in a beautiful place that’s just up the road from a creek and the beach, plus some old woodlands with ancient broadleaf trees and little lanes to explore.

Can you tell us what your studio is like?
It’s a workshop in my back garden, which means I’m in control of what’s outside my window. I like to plant loads of comfrey and borage outside, so the studio is always surrounded by bees in the summer. The space used to be the local bus store so, in the 1940s, it’s where they would keep the little single-decker buses that serviced the village. It’s not a purpose-built space – all I have added is insulation, paint and skylights. I also like to display lots of things that inspire me. My desk space is covered with prints that I’ve done, and I recently stumbled across some wooden antique printing blocks that are now up on the wall.

Several of Lou's designs printed on clothes, mugs and tea towels

Any plans for the future?
I’m working on designs that can be printed onto linen and made into clothes with fashion brand Phaedra, plus I’d love to learn how to make wallpaper. I’ve just created some new repeat prints; they will be great as fabric but also as hand-printed scarves.

Advertisement

See more of Lou’s prints at loutonkin.com