Ben Goodman is a printmaker living and working in Bristol. Specialising in wood engraving, Ben has been refining his technique throughout the years and now uses the reduction method to create intricate, multi-layered limited edition prints, cards and posters. We caught up with Ben at his BV Studios workspace to find out more about his working practice, his artistic influences and the theoretical dimensions behind his latest body of work.
For people who are not yet familiar with your work – who is Ben Goodman?
I’m an artist/printmaker who uses wood engraving to create intricate multi-layered prints, usually portraits. I work from my studio in Bristol in-between teaching printmaking at UWE and restoring books at Bristol Bound. I moved here in 2006 for an Art Foundation course and then stayed for a degree in Illustration.
How did you get into art? And what sparked your interest in wood engraving?
Both my parents encouraged my interest in art from a young age and my Dad regularly took me to galleries (usually with a certain amount of resistance on my part). It’s thanks to his perseverance that eventually he suggested we visit an exhibition of wood engravings by Thomas Bewick at the Ikon Gallery. I remember being a bit unconvinced, but I went along anyway. I had no idea that three years later I would be selling my prints at The Royal Academy and then in 2016 I was elected as a member of The Society of Wood Engravers and had a collection of work bought by the V&A for their permanent collection.
What are your major sources of inspiration?
Inspiration and ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it’s a conversation that gets the ideas ticking. Other times it can just be looking at the shadows falling across a building or the contours of a person’s face. In recent years my work has taken on a theoretical dimension and it’s my theories as much as the visual aesthetics that have inspired my engravings.
What would you like a viewer to walk away with from your work?
I had a piece in an exhibition last year and I read a review of the show where my work was mentioned and the reviewer questioned whether my piece was in fact an engraving. This made me happy! Here’s why: The series of reduction engravings that I’ve been working on over the past three years have been exploring ideas around memory, specifically the memory of a person after they have died and the reputation that remains amongst family and friends. But also how our mental image of a person shifts during their lifetime. As I observed this process in the real world around me I started to draw parallels with the process of engraving a block of wood and transferring the image onto paper. Like a person, the solid three-dimensional shape of the wood transfers into a two-dimensional print, or memory of the original engraving. The print seems the same as the wood, yet different. I chose to create the prints using the technique of ‘reduction’ wood engraving but I also chose to engrave them in a way so that the prints looked unlike (conventional) engravings. I’m fascinated by the transformation from real life into subjective memory and how a mental image can be distorted by the choices we (or they) make (consciously and sub-consciously). So I’m glad the review questioned the technique I had used, like a conversation about a lost friend, you might be surprised by another person’s recollections of them.
What is it about wood that incites your creativity?
Wood is a beautiful material. I’ve tried the alternatives such as plastic and resin, but wood is the easiest to cut and it’s nice to look at during the many hours of engraving. Often the old ways are the best and wood engraving is no exception. The combination of wood, hand-tools, linseed oil and cotton rag paper work as well now as they did 250 years ago (if not better!).
How do you go about developing an idea for a new work? How do you prepare for it?
I enjoy a certain amount of spontaneity while I work so I try not to work up an image too much beforehand. If I develop a preliminary sketch too much then it feels like I know what the final print will look like and that kills the excitement. So I tend to imagine the print in my head and gradually over weeks or months of playing with it in my imagination I settle on a way of creating it. Then I start with a simple outline and the rest is improvised as I work. It’s during the actual process of engraving and printing that I work out how to make the image. It’s for this reason why I could never produce my images using pen, paint, iMac or laser cutter – it’s the unique interaction between graver, wood and ink. And the combination of my mood, the light, the seasons, the music, and the coffee that come together to make each printed layer unique during the 6 to 10 months of work.
Tell us the story of your victorian printing press.
In 2012 I realised I would need my own press if I was going to develop as an artist, so I started asking around. I found a few and even went to view one in London. Then I got wind of one that was near Bristol, in a school that was about to be demolished! By the time I got out there to see it there was only a week left before the demolition team were to move in. So I set about finding the money to buy it, a studio to house it and a person to move it. Luck was on my side and a week later I had myself an Albion Press, built in 1875 by Thomas Matthews. It’s a great bit of kit and should easily last another 144 years.
You live and work in Bristol. Where do you go when you want to relax or get inspired in the city?
Bristol is an inspiring place to be. Just a walk around the docks past the old boat yards and the new restaurants fills me with creative energy that makes me want to engrave new work. The atmosphere in Bristol is one of encouragement and support. Just being here feels inspiring.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Live life, make the most of it, you only get one chance. Make the work you want to make and most importantly… be nice to people!
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself evolving as an artist?
My life has evolved naturally as I’ve responded to new discoveries. I moved to Bristol to do animation, then discovered illustration, then printmaking. I love wood engraving and the direction my work is taking so maybe this is me set for the rest of my life, or maybe there’s something else round the corner. I remain open minded to change…
Thank you, Ben for the great company and conversation.