To celebrate my 3 year business anniversary on 1st June this year I’ve written a blog about my personal creative journey. From aspiring maker, to fashion and homeware designer and then back to my roots working with my hands again as a printmaker.
I’ve always loved making things and being creative. My favourite phrase was, and still is “I could make that”. If I don’t know how to, I’ll certainly have a go.
Sewing, crafts and baking where my biggest interests. In my early teens I made soft toys that I would sell to a local gift shop opposite Shakespeare’s birthplace in my home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. I still have the costing and sales book I kept track of it all in! An early entrepreneur in the making!! I went on to make all my own clothes.
Being a child of the 70’s, Tony Heart and Blue Petter had a great influence on my childhood. I loved making a Sindy doll clothes shop filled with clothes I’d made too.
I also liked drawing. I would spend hours sketching Disney Characters. Quite ironic that I ended up working for Disney!
At school my strongest subjects had been maths, sewing, art and the sciences. I didn’t have a particular ‘I want to be a something’ when I grew up. I just knew I liked making things.
I took a two years National Diploma in design, specialising in fashion design in my second year. I excelled at the pattern cutting and making part of the course and made a wedding dress collection for the end of year show.
I then moved to Southampton to study a two years Higher National Diploma in Fashion Design. I graduated in 1991 at the age of 20.
My tutor recommend me for a junior textile design job in London. I had been hopeless at textile design at college and wasn’t a city girl at all. I did need a job though. I applied, did the application design project for my second interview and got the job!
So at 20 I moved to London. It was a steep learning curve and I was way out of my comfort zone.
Back then textile design concepts where still painted by hand using gouache paints. Each colours was mixed to the exact Pantone shade of the retailers palette. This is where I developed my strong eye for colour. In also learnt how to create textile patterns and graphics.
I worked my way up the career ladder in fashion and textile design, designing for high street retailers such as Principles and Evans, part of The Arcadia Group, and Freeman’s catalogue.
A change in direction
After 15 years in fashion design I felt the need for change. I’d had enough of fast fashion and wanted to move into designing homeware. That seemed easy as I had all the transferable skills but I met a lot of resistance from recruitment agencies.
I was contacted about a new role being created at Disney Consumer Products. Being someone with a broad adaptable skill base, I fitted right in. I went on to set up the Pan European Creative Managers role for Disney Home and Disney Baby. My role was about developing the creative direction for the Disney characters and films. I worked with the local European teams to create a cohesive look across Europe. Developing ranges on everything from Disney Princess bedding to Winnie the Poo lunch boxes was great fun.
In search of more meaning - Travel and Fair Trade
I’d climbed the career ladder and had a successful career but something was missing. I longed to do something with more meaning and give something back. I also had a desire to travel more as I hadn’t taken a gap year after graduating.
In 2015 I quit my job to go backpacking around South East Asia for a year.
I spent four months in Cambodia volunteering for a Fair Trade company in Phnom Phen.
They had three gift shops and worked with an in-house team of artisan makers, as well small producers and craftspeople across the country. I worked with them to develop their ranges and help improve their marketing. I loved every minute of it.
Moving to York - a happy accident
Returning back to the UK I didn’t want to go back to city life or return to the rat race in London. At 35 I moved back in with my mum and dad so that I could look for a design job in Fair Trade. It wasn’t easy as most companies are quite small.
Months of cold calling led me to a design vacancy at Shared Earth in York. I came up for an interview and got the job. A few weeks later I moved up here, with no sense of where this new chapter in Yorkshire would take me.
Shared Earth were one of the largest Fair Trade retailers and wholesalers in the UK. We developed ranges with over 30 producers, crafts people and artisan makers across the world.
I went on to become their Head of Design, developing homeware and gift ranges. I also created a fresh cohesive look for Shared Earth's branding and marketing materials. Communicating how the products were made, by who and what difference the purchase made was very important.
Not everything goes to plan
Recession hit and many of the senior management roles where made redundant.
I put a “help, I need a job” out on Facebook and a few days later I had an interview for a maternity cover role as a graphic design in a design agency. I got it. Phew! Not being a formally trained graphic designer I felt like I had a lot to prove, so that was another steep leaning curve.
When that came to an end I was looking for work again. The design world is very London centric, so it’s not easy.
A role came up at George Home at Asda, designing home accessories and lighting. In my heart it wasn’t right but I had a bills to pay. I actually remember crying when I got the job. It meant I was back designing in the commercial word again. Don’t get me wrong it was a brilliant role.
I moved on to be the Design Manger for the Cook and Dine range. We designed everything from the graphic illustrations on mugs and tableware to all over prints on tea towels. They hadn’t had a designer in the team before but I enjoyed the challenge. I worked with a team of in-house designers, freelancers, buyers and merchandisers on multiple ranges each year. We developed thousand of products each season.
Sewing the seeds of change
The corporate world was all I’d ever known. I’d already tried to escape the rat race once before but had got sucked back in.
I couldn’t imagine working in highly stressed head office environments for the rest of my working career. In design manager roles I had lost sight of hands on design work. My time was spent on strategic direction, planning what the trends and ranges would look like and overseeing designers or briefing freelancers to make that come to life. Plus lots of meetings and endless emails!
I’m a great fan of vision boards. I took two days off after ‘Barmoor’, a weekend yoga retreat near Hutton le Hole in the North York Moors. I created moods boards showing what I’d achieved, my strengths and elements of what could be part of a business in the future. I used pictures of things I’d designed or made, brands or products I adored or aspired to and inspirational quotes.
I create vision boards or mood boards a lot. They’re a good thing to do as they make everything a lot clearer. They cemented what I had done so far and how I views myself. Although I didn’t know what would come next, I was clearer about what was important to me and the things I liked. I also knew that my true inner confidence was rock bottom. Only one thing for that, to get help, and that’s what I did.
Leap of faith
Redundancy in January 2016 was the opportunity, be it a scary one, to make a big lifestyle change.
Although in part, it’s what I’d been planning, I wasn’t ready, I didn’t have a plan (I’m a big planner), how on earth would I make a living. I hated the thought of working alone as I loved being part of a team, bouncing ideas and bringing those ideas to life. I’m a worrier too and dreaded the though of financial insecurity.
I’d been out in China on a buying trip when we heard about redundancy’s. I’d said that “If my role is one of them, then that’s it. I’m not working for anyone else ever again.” It had been my fourth redundancy. I’d become resilient, you have to be, and proactively found something else each time but in my heart I’d meant what I said.
So with one big shove, off I went. This was the beginning of my journey into self employment.
I started my own business in June 2016.
Following my dreams - A tale of two halves
I initially set my business up purely as a graphic designer, offering design support to local business. That made sense and in time would pay the bills.
I had no intention of becoming an artist. I’d always seen making crafts or art as as hobby, rather than a career choice. Plus it’s very hard to make a living from it. Sadly we don’t seem to value hand made things as much as we should.
I’ll come back to my journey to becoming a printmaker later.
As well as selling my linocut prints through galleries, print fairs, open studios and my own online shop, I also run linocut workshops in my studio.
There’s often a cross over, where clients ask me to incorporate my linocut technique into the the logos and branding I create for them. Beetle Bank Farm is an example of that.
Keeping it local - Hawthorn Printmaking Supplies
I discovered Hawthorn Printmaking Supplies, a local family run company who make there own inks and printing presses. I’d pop in to buy an ink and an hour later would come out totally inspired from taking to Barry and Micheal.
First graphic design briefs
To build my portfolio of work for my new business, I offered to refresh the design of the Hawthorn’s logo. They said yes, in exchange for printmaking inks and tools. Win win!
This led onto Hawthorn’s recommending me to Angela at Beetle Bank Farm. I went on to create their branding and marketing materials, using the medium of linocut to create the initial design concepts.
The craft of print
I think the craftsmanship of printmaking appealed. I’m a maker at heart. I love making things by hand and feeling that connection through all my senses.
Linocut seemed like the natural choice. I now use the multi-block method of creating my linocut prints. It takes a lot of planning to get the registration of each coloured block line up. I’m quite mathematical and enjoyed pattern cutting at fashion college, so I guess it comes from that too.
I’d always been a fan of Angie Lewin’s linocuts and woodcuts. I’ve always loved mid century design, whether that’s 5o’s clothing or salvaging vintage furniture finds for my home. I love vintage railways posters and Japanese woodblock prints too. There’s something about their graphic style and use of colour.
Self taught - learning something new
I’m completely self taught, I’d play and experiment. Some things worked and others not so well but it was good to be back ‘playing’ with creativity.
I used soft cut lino for my early designs as I just had basic linocut tools. I also used what I’ve coined as ‘the jigsaw method’. My series of Yorkshire Dales linocut prints where all created this way.
Linocutting at home doesn’t have to be expensive. Read my blog about Linocut tools and equipment here.
Eureka - Finding my own style
As I’d always designed for other people I didn’t have my own personal style. It was about what was right for their customers, brand and trends.
I played with ideas in my cold dusty garage, using basic beginners tools. I had my eureka moment when I created my Yorkshire Dales and Teal Sunflowers linocut prints.
Since then, my style has evolved and refined. I’m known for my use of colour and simple styalised silhouettes, particularly of local Yorkshire landscapes. I often use paths to draw your eye through the picture.
I draw on my textile and graphic design experience for my use of colour and composition.
In April 2016 I joined York Printmakers. I felt like a fraud. I’d dabbled with linocut but nothing that was any good.
To begin with I volunteered to design their logo, bringing the letters members of the group had created through various printmaking techniques. I created the linocut letter Y.
Their support and encouragement spurred me on. Joining the groups first exhibition at Blossom Street Gallery in York, in Oct 16, I was bitten by the bug and was asked to exhibit my work in the gallery on an ongoing basis.
We meet once a month and share our latest prints and plan exhibitions. There’s a wealth of expertise within the group, across various printmaking disciplines and subject. We now have over 45 members of the group and will be holding our third annual York Printmakers Print Fair at York Cemetery on 21 and 22 September 2019.
Living the dream - Garden studio
Like many artist and makers I first started out working on my kitchen table. I used my very cold and dusty garage for printing.
Redundancy money was the opportunity to convert my garage into a light and airy insulated garden studio. I live in a quite suburb of York, with a view of Holgate Windmill.
I love the quality of light, even in the greyest day. I have windows overlooking my garden so it brings the outdoors in. It’s such a relaxed place to work. Listening to birdsong is quite idyllic.
Find out more about my studio make over here.
Creative self doubt and growing self confidence
I’ve learnt to stand back and walk away from my designs when I first print them and let things settle for a few days. I think like many creatives I can be my own worst critic.
I’ve taken part in York Open Studios as well as my own open studio events. It’s great opportunity for me to meet people and share how I create my linocut prints. Find out more about my latest exhibitions here.
Sharing a passion
I hope to inspire others to make more time in their lives to take up something creative. In July 2017 I started running linocut workshops from my York Studio.
I keep the groups small, to a maximum of four people, so that everyone gets lots of one-to-one attention. I thoroughly enjoy teaching them. The look on peoples faces when they peel back the paper from the lino block for the first time is an absolute joy. This is even more so, when a someone has started the day saying that they’re not arty or can’t draw.
My desire for adventure - Inspired by nature
My work reflects my love of nature and the great outdoors.
My desire to rekindle the freedom of travel from my days backpacking around Asia has led me to explore what’s on my doorstep.
I cycle and walk to gather inspiration. I don’t like to just grab a photo from Google. I need to see, feel and experience the landscape for myself. Observing my surroundings, I capture the colour, shapes and textures within nature, landscapes, wildlife and style of buildings, on my camera before return to my studio. I want to capture the essence of that in my work.
On walks, friends often say that they now ‘experience a view through the eyes of Michelle’, which is rather lovely.
Quality of life is important to me. Working for myself has been life changing.
Stepping out of the rat race and building a career and business from what I love has meant that I am so much happier.
Time out - My Yorkshire weekend
As you’ll have guessed my perfect weekend is being out and about exploring with my walking boots or cycling.
Having said that I do love time at home. Whether that’s spending time gardening or cooking and baking for friends.
My top tips for running your own business
Be proactive - Get out there and speak to people. All my work has come through word of mouth.
Find your own style - Create a clear message, look and feel across everything you do.
Chip away - It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Just do the best you can until you know better.
Follow your heart - Always stay true to yourself and your values.
There are so many places and views I’d like to create linocut prints of. The Lake District, Northumberland and Scotland to name but a few.
Following on from the linocut illustration commission I recently did for National Trust’s Sutton Hoo, I’d love to design book cover illustrations too.
I’m also interested in collaborating with other people, be that for community projects or specific events.
I feel very proud of what I’ve achieved so far. All this wouldn’t have been possible without the tremendous support of my family and friends, customers and followers that have believed in my dreams.
I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading this insight into my world. I also hope I’ve inspired you to give something new a go. Live life to the full and follow your heart.
About the author
Michelle Hughes is a printmaker and graphic designer. Her linocut prints are inspired by nature; her love of gardening and the great British countryside.
Michelle loves exploring the countryside by bike or on foot, camera in hand, capturing
ideas for her next prints. Back in her garden studio, Michelle creates simple but stylised silhouettes based on her photographs, and cuts these shapes into lino. She hand prints with an etching press, using oil-based inks to create tonal blocks of colour. Michelle’s prints are limited editions.