Updated: Jan 3, 2020
I'm delighted to have a feature in the November edition of Living North magazine.
Leaving behind a corporate career travelling the world for Disney in order to pursue life as a professional linocut artist in York, local creative Michelle Hughes talks us through the leap of faith she took to follow her dream.
While many of us may think that working within the (surely) glitter-dusted hallways of the magical Disney empire sounds like a dream come true, life as the Pan European Creative Manager of the company wasn’t all it was cracked up to be for York-based artist Michelle Hughes.
‘We would give out a licence to different manufacturers to create each product within Disney’s range of homeware, and my role was to make sure that all those products looked like they’d been designed together, without appearing too contrived,’
Michelle explains. ‘So I worked with the in-house character artists – one would draw Mickey Mouse, one would draw Winnie the Pooh, one would draw the princesses, etc – to create style guides for our European licensees, which included character art, different design elements, colour palettes, and indications of how to use them all.
‘I think you get swept along in a career path of what you’re “supposed” to do, then at some point you look up and think: hold on a minute, does this actually sit with my values? But when you’ve got a good wage and you’re at the top of your career, it’s really hard to throw that away – and that’s what it felt like I’d be doing, if I did set out on my own. But I knew I wanted something more than the corporate world could give me. I’d taken a couple of days holiday at one point and used that time to create visualisation boards, where I’d visualise what I was good at, what I’d done well in my career, what I liked and what I didn’t. My confidence was at rock bottom, so I put loads of inspirational quotes on there too. But that was that; I stuck it on my wall and parked it. A few months later, I was out in China with work and found out that I was going to made redundant. That was the shove off the cliff for me – and it really did feel like a great big cliff! But that’s when I knew I had to do my own thing.’
Having cultivated a passion for crafting and design since childhood – starting off by sewing soft toys on her granny’s Singer sewing machine – Michelle first entered the world of fashion at university before eventually gravitating towards graphic design and printmaking. And with Michelle Hughes Design up and running (and her garage successfully converted into a garden studio), Michelle now specialises in designing linocut prints inspired by Britain’s natural world and, particularly, the landscapes, landmarks and wildlife found in her native Yorkshire.
‘I’ve always loved the style of linocut design – not always in linocut necessarily, but that mid-century, 1940s graphic quality of vintage railway posters and things like that,’ she says. ‘And because I’ve grown up making things with my hands, the fact that I’m now working in a studio basically chopping up bits of drawing suits me down to the ground! I’m also a passionate cycler and walker, so I’ll go out for the entire day and let the environment inspire me. Every print I create is based quite closely on photographs that I’ve taken when out and about. Sometimes I sketch by hand, and watercolour in how the colouration is going to work, while other times I work on my iPad to digitally map the final design.
‘Once I’ve decided how each piece will look, I’ll carve the “key block” – the part of the design with the most detail – into traditional linoleum, and use that as my first colour block. Then I’ll carve the block for the second colour, and so on. I mix all my own colours, and I use a multi-block technique, where each primary colour is on a separate block, then I use a semi-transparent ink to create secondary colours on the page. The print itself is created using an etching press, where you ink the relevant block with a roller, put the paper on top and then
basically wind it through a glorified mangle to sandwich the ink and paper together. You do that for each colour, so it can take a very long time to complete, as it has to dry in between. My latest design took roughly three days, but was done over a period of about four weeks to include drying time. There’s quite an art to it all – pressure, humidity, temperature, so many factors affect how that final design comes out.’
Native to the county, Michelle has settled her business in Holgate, York, where she also runs small linocut workshops to inspire more people in her local area to take up the craft – crediting the location as the perfect base for her photographic expeditions into the country, and the city’s creative community for giving her the self belief she once lacked.
‘I just love being in the centre of it all,’ says Michelle. ‘Here I’ve got everything at my fingertips, but I can also spend as much time as I want going out to the dales, the moors, the coast and the wolds. There’s a really great creative community in York that I didn’t know about before I moved here. I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if it wasn’t for York Printmakers, for example, and I’m part of a few creative groups like that. Having that support from like-minded artists is invaluable.’
And having recently completed a commission of 12 linocut designs for the National Trust – to be used in marketing materials for royal Anglo-Saxon burial site, Sutton Hoo – it seems Michelle’s designs are proving popular with art, heritage and nature lovers alike. So, what’s next?
‘It’s funny, in my corporate career I always had plans for the future, but now I’m just winging it!’ she laughs. ‘I am planning to map out the key National Trails in the North at some point, so that’s plenty there to keep me occupied! I do beginner’s workshops at the moment, but I’d love to do more follow-on courses and already have a waiting list for those, so I’ll be fitting those in. I’ve also just found out that I’m going to be illustrating a book soon, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m just leaving myself as open as I can be to new opportunities.’
To find out more about Michelle’s work visit www.michellehughesdesign.com
You can read our full interview with Michelle at www.livingnorth.com
Click on the images below to find out more about the linocut prints in the feature or m printmaking page to see other linocut designs.
A huge thank you to Becky Hardy who interviewed me and wrote the article. Also to my lovely friends that often take professional photographs for me. Tom Jackson for my studio photograph and Mike Pringle for the Hole of Horcum and inking Staithes linocut block photo.