By Jon Severs, Monday 18 December 2017
In a Victorian warehouse in Margate, a group of people who have never met each other are carefully cutting out pieces of lino.
Most have never done it before, some never will again, but for a few, this is the start of something long term.
And for one or two in the room, this is actually already a career, they are here simply for some top-up guidance.
It’s a difficult blend of experience and aspiration for the man running this linocut workshop to balance.
“We have a real mix of people who use Hello Print Studio,” admits Nick Morley, who runs the print studio in Kent and opens the doors for day, weekend and night courses in other print techniques as well as linocut. “This includes recent graduates, professional artists and designers, hobbyists of all ages and a few retirees. We cater for beginners, improvers and people who want a refresher. We also get some advanced printmakers who just want a few pointers.”
Such diversity is the norm at print clubs these days. Age, experience, location – it’s all much more varied than it once was. For every retiree looking to be creative in their newly discovered free time, there is a 20-something searching for outlets for their creativity after work. For every professional printer looking to diversify their skillset, there is a middle-aged parent just looking to “give something a go”. It’s also tapping into the counter-cultural, hipster trend that finds value in non-digital crafts.
So if you want to run a print club yourself, or you would quite like to attend one to potentially expand your own business offering (there’s still time to stick a course on your Christmas list), what does it take to put on a workshop and what do people expect to find at one?
Well, the first step to knowing about a print club is to find a print club. Margins are low in all aspects of print and marketing is expensive, so whether you are seeking out a workshop or trying to promote your own, social media, with its free-to-air platform for advertising, is probably the best place to start.
“Our social media activity is strong,” says Kate Higginson, managing director at Print Club in London, which offers an extensive range of screenprint workshops. “I think this is how lots of people find out about us.”
Richard Ardagh, a partner at New North Press in London, which offers both general and bespoke letterpress classes, agrees: it’s all about social media for him, too. But he adds that another source of willing participants is word of mouth – when people have an enjoyable experience, they tell their friends. That’s something you come across again and again with print clubs: customer acquisition is predominantly recommendation led.
That’s not to say you can’t push that chatter a little. Higginson uses events and partnerships with the likes of Somerset House to generate some interest. Meanwhile, Morley writes blogs and has been featured in books and publications. And Iain Perry, co-director at Unit Twelve in Stafford, which runs screenprint classes, says he also sends regular mailouts.
Edinburgh Printmakers, which offers a varied range of workshops, has used hard-copy advertising such as leaflets, too.
Of course, whether you are seeking out a print club or running your own, you need the right product on offer. For most, that means a focus on a single print technique.
“We only use screenprint,” says Higginson. “It’s a format we love and works well in our studios. Plus it’s a good practice that produces affordable prints, which is key to our business. We didn’t go into other platforms like letterpress for safety reasons mostly; screenprinting is pretty safe as all our machinery is manual so we can leave people to work at night without a technician on duty. As soon as you have automatic machines it changes health and safety aspects which would in turn increase our level of staffing and make the studios more expensive.”
Ardagh only teaches letterpress. “New North Press is a letterpress printing studio. Established in 1986, teaching has always been part of our practise and we have taught regular public classes since 2012,” he says.
That’s not to say no-one tries to offer multiple techniques. Morley teaches a selection of different print disciplines, though he says linocut is his first love.
“I love the simplicity of linocut,” he explains. “The cutting part is a matter of either removing or leaving behind the lino. When it comes to printing in layers with colour it becomes a whole lot more complex and there is so much to learn and experiment with. I also like the low-tech aspect, and you have to slow down and think as it is difficult to repair mistakes.”
Edinburgh Printmakers, meanwhile, offers a huge buffet of options: “Our courses cover almost all kinds of printmaking,” says marketing officer Thomas Flanagan. “We run courses in stone lithography, photo-plate lithography, etching, screenprinting, mezzotint, relief printing, block type, woodcut linocut, drypoint, cyanotype, sugarlift, aquatint, collagraph, and monotype.”
The more print techniques you offer, the higher the running cost but also the broader the appeal of the workshops and the more people you can get through the door: it’s a tough balancing act. Finding the right solution for you is crucial; there is no universal truth on this point.
Whether you have a range of techniques being catered for or just the one, the attendees tend to be the same mix, with people looking to get different things out of the experience, as Morley stated earlier.
Perry has noticed a shift, though, in the ratio of the number of people who attend purely for fun and those looking to get more out of it.
“For some participants, it is purely to find out more about the process and have an enjoyable creative day,” he says. “But increasingly the people booking on to the print workshops are keen to develop this as something they can do at home either at amateur or professional level.”
Unit 12 offers follow-on courses to cater for this requirement.
“We often get people booking on to the intermediate workshop at the end of the doing the basic/beginners one as they are keen to learn more,” says Perry. “I have had one or two people who have booked on to the same workshop again, maybe six months or a year later as they are keen to revisit it and fine tune aspects of the process.”
Ardagh has noticed the same shift, with many customers returning for more advanced courses, while Higginson says Print Club has a 37% return rate.
So if you are looking to attend a course rather than set one up yourself, there should be no fears about being too advanced for the beginner’s group or worrying that the printer running the course will resent you coming to set up yourself professionally. Likewise, if you run your own courses, you should expect people to attend for this reason, too.
“Usually people want to gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to be able to use printmaking equipment on their own, and to become fully-fledged printmakers in their own right,” says Flanagan.
But he stresses that beginners and those attending just for fun are also welcome, and that the workshops cater for both. Soni Sonsoles, who runs the Sonsoles Print Studio offering screenprint courses, agrees: workshops have to cater for all – a tricky, but possible, aim.
Yet is a workshop alone enough these days? It would appear not. Many of the print clubs will now also act as a conduit to sell work. For some, that may mean incorporating selected workshop works in exhibitions. Edinburgh Printmakers also sells selected work through its shop. But for Print Club, it is much more part of the deal from the start.
“It’s a key arm of our business,” says Higginson. “We sell lots of work that is produced in our studios and we ship worldwide.”
While useful for the attendee, for the workshop host, selling work can be an added complication to an already complex offering: catering for a mix of abilities and a mix of aspirations for the class – not to mention people moving at various speeds alongside a whole range of other variables – is clearly a tough ask – you will even have to think about commission charges, retail values and product selection. Certainly, there will be marketing advantages from running courses and selling work, but is there any monetary gain for all this effort?
Morley says any profits are ploughed back into the studio to update the kit, while Flanagan says Edinburgh Printmakers secures good profits from its courses and its shop. And Higginson says printers should not feel embarrassed by making money.
“I don’t do anything for the joy of it, I’m a businesswoman at heart,” she says. “While I really enjoy supporting the artists, I find much more enjoyment from making them and us money. Creative arts are a really tricky area to make financially viable so I’m proud we’ve built a successful business that employs 25 people and sells work by over 500 artists.”
Clearly, getting yourself on a print course to broaden your own print business or just have fun, or running courses yourself, can be hugely beneficial then. But Morley does have one pre-requisite for success: it has to be something you enjoy, as “it’s definitely a labour of love”.