2022, the year I learnt photoetching

Thanks to a small grant from a-n, Time, Space Money, I was able to develop my photo etching skills. I had always steered clear of light-based intaglio/relief as too complicated, too many variables and beyond my ken.

However, coming out of lockdown I wanted to explore photoetching for a few reasons:

  • don’t need much additional equipment
  • just a UV lightbox or dependable source of UV light
  • I could take it into photopolymer relief (or solarplate) once I had developed the intaglio
  • Expand offer of print studio
  • Support artists who want to use photoetching
  • Sheer curiosity

The grant allowed me to go to the University of Cumbria for two days and then to Green Door Studios in Derby for a two-day 1:1 photo etching course with the wonderful Pandora.

These are the prints and plates I made at the University of Cumbria:

While this was fine for high-contrast line images, I wanted to develop tonal images and for that I needed more expert help!

The course at Green Door enabled me to work with more precision. Here’s the original image:


Final print:

We used an aquatint screen and an aquatint ground to create tone. The photopolymer film was also much finer and trickier to handle but got more depth and definition.

When I got back to Cumbria, I did more experimentation and then did a skillshare with Studio members. This is not a formal course (thank goodness!) but it allowed me to work alongside fellow printmakers to try things out for ourselves.

The results were patchy, but then we didn’t have the full setup with the UV lightbox, vacuum beds and aquatint booths.

But people were smiling!

I also experimented with solar plates to create a strong relief plate with half-tone. Here’s the plate, and print:

I’m particularly interested in the solar plate/photopolymer as it’s easier to handle and you don’t need to mess around with film. The only problem is the expense, but the hardness of the plate means that you can use it for either relief or intaglio.

January, 2023

Something to Say, Blackwell, July 2022

Letterpress workshops on the theme of ‘Protest’.

Letter of application:

Dear Lakeland Arts,

‘Something to Say’


I am writing to apply for this Creative Call Out. I would like to create a collaborative piece of work with visitors to the site based on the theme of PROTEST.

I lived in Hong Kong in the 1990s and have close connections and family there. The right to protest has been radically and violently restricted in the past two decades. Hong Kong has changed from a free (albeit quite materialistic) society to a population of frightened and silenced people.

I believe that people should have the right to protest and make their voices heard, especially if their democratic and human rights are under threat. In the UK, the Police and Sentencing Bill has significantly eroded the right to protest since April.

I consider myself a minority in Cumbria because of my Chinese-Portuguese-Spanish-South-East Asian heritage. I always tick the ‘other mixed’ box, usually way down the list of ethnicities. I don’t consider myself ‘other mixed’, but nor do I hide. I just want my voice to be heard, equally and without prejudice.

I would like to make a piece of work that empowers people and reminds them that Cumbria, although peaceful and a place of that most people ‘escape’ to, has a radical history too.

My proposal is simple – a collection of small hand-printed letterpress protest signs that are mounted on short lengths of wood and stuck into the grass around the House.

The signs (about 15 x 20 cm) would be printed on 180 or 600gsm card and stapled to a length of wood about 40 cm long. I would help the participants set the letterpress type and print them onto card using my vintage Adana letterpress machines. All materials are biodegradeable and/or recyclable. I have been donated offcuts of card by local businesses so I am using materials that would otherwise be landfill. I expect that the installation would only last the duration of the week that I run the workshops and I would take it down at the end of the week. The advantage of printing the signs is that people could take a print home as well as leaving a copy at the site.

The signs would be about the right to protest and the rights we need to protect such as the right to roam, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to wild-swim or even the right to enjoy a hard-boiled egg in peace. I like the idea that radicalism (Latin radix, root) comes from the ground, that it refers to getting back to basics, and being grounded. Protest signs can be funny, unifying or divisive, thoughtful and challenging. I would very much look forward to seeing what people come up with for their signs.

The signs would not be weather-proof long-term but the inks I will be using will be oil-based and not run in the rain. The card is heavy enough to withstand some battering.

Printing has always contributed to an ‘interesting’ relationship between authorities and radical voices. In the sixteenth century, only licensed printers could operate printing presses. Printing multiplies the message, whether it is propaganda or dissent.

Printing also has strong connections to STEAM, in that much scientific knowledge was disseminated via the medium of print, and the technology in itself has changed the way we communicated and continue to communicate. We still use words such as typecast, cliché and out of sorts which all come from the printer’s workshop. Problem-solving is key to successful printmaking: geometry, measuring and estimation, mirror-thinking, process and the physical manipulation of materials and objects. All these skills are very STEAM.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Yours sincerely

Vega Brennan

Fictional moths

These are the 6 final imaginary moths.

They are based on illegal/illicit night-time activities.

~4 layers, edition of 10 + 6 for the book=~350 pulls of the handle of the big press.

Each moth is roughly 50 x 75mm, printed on Chinese Xuan paper, using a mixture of oil-based inks and water-based inks. Cutsword is a multi-block reduction print using two blocks.

It became a dance where movements became economical, practised and precisely calculated to move objects, paper and ink.

The fictional moths will be bound, along with the Solway moths into a book with letterpress, edition of 6, binding yet to be decided.

A licence to print money

Who decides what is valuable?

How do we create value?

I use these two questions keep my approach to art and art teaching fresh and relevant. I enjoy looking at everything from ‘the outside’, and from the outside, art must be a very strange thing indeed. Giant dogs made of flowers? Ulay and Marina Abramovich? Religious iconography? Sometimes, teaching art every day, day in, day out, we forget that our students are new to art, and it must be a very confusing, exciting and disorientating experience coming into a classroom and being expected to produce ‘art’ and look at ‘art’.

I have been teaching a project called ‘Money’ for the past two years to my Year 9 students. It came out of a desire to get them questioning norms and thinking about the value of art. It was also a sneaky way to combine lots of key skills and media and create an end product that was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

I started out by asking colleagues if I could borrow their banknotes from different countries. I quickly found out that photocopying banknotes is illegal and not as easy as you might think. I wrote to the Bank of England for permission to reproduce their notes with certain caveats attached (please do the same if you are thinking about using banknotes in your own teaching).

I went to the superb Bank of England Museum in London and found out all about forgery and the elaborate security measures used to keep our money safe. For example, I found out that most countries’ banknotes have a certain pattern of dots which are picked up by photocopiers and scanning software so that it is impossible to make colour copies of banknotes. I also looked at coin design and manufacture which I may use later for a project based on medals (look up ‘hobo coins’ for a real kick)

So, we had the ‘visual reference material’. To understand of how money actually works, I kept pestering my school’s Head of Economics and Business Studies about economics, inflation, deflation and exchange value, listened to BBC podcasts and read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I found very interesting parallels in Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark where value is created not by consensus or social contract but by a few select actions be they deliberate or inadvertent.

While I was putting together this project, I was also completing my Masters in Fine Art and Education at Northumbria University. The Money Project was extremely relevant to what I was doing as an artist and vice versa. I was thinking about exchange and value and the connections between people and I ended up creating a Fluxus type project which involved ‘re-connecting’ with friends, family through letters and print exchanges.

Back at school we started out by looking at portraiture and images of power: representations of state leaders, dictators, kings and queens as well as celebrities. I set up a mini photographer’s studio in which the students photographed each other with tiaras, medals, big hats, looking haughty and empowered.

We looked at graphic designers and banknote designers such as Ootje Oxenaar who created the beautiful Sunflower banknote for the Netherlands. Hidden images, microprinting, using Google Translate to create cod Latin mottos kept my students thinking about how to make an object that was universal but at the same time extremely personal. My students very much liked the idea of creating their own currency. Banknotes have been issued in ‘cookies’, ‘mollars’, ‘jazzles’, ‘leaves’ and ‘smackaroons’. Lots of Photoshop lessons ensued so that they could pull all the elements of their design together. In amongst all of this I managed to teach the usual things such as the proportions of the face, drawing portraits from direct observation, how to make a nose look like a nose, tone and mark-making, the basics of graphic design and typography.

We talked about printmaking and reproduction (Walter Benjamin) and what is an ‘original’ piece of art and a ‘copy’. One of my students said that concept of editioning prints ‘does her head in’ but she appreciated the economics of it. They categorically did not enjoy the seemingly endless lessons of scratching into plastic to create a drypoint plate but they got thoroughly involved in the process printing their final banknotes. To top it all off, I negotiated with my school’s headteacher to enable them to ‘buy’ a cake in the canteen with one of their banknotes. I later turned classroom into a bank, my kiln into a safe and used it to display big wodges of cash which unfortunately could not be used to bolster our school’s budget. So, if I haven’t managed to turn my students into artists, I will have given some an alternative career in master forgery.

But seriously, I believe the desire to create art is an innate human need. So much of what we wear, use and carry around with is designed and it is good to look afresh at an everyday object such as money. To return to the questions I posed at the start of this article:

Who decides what is valuable?

How do we create value?

I would say ‘It depends on what you mean by value’, and ‘We create value by being creative.’ For example, did you know that anti-corruption campaign group 5th Pillar in India use a ‘zero zupee’ banknote to allow members of the public to thumb their noses at those who ask for kickbacks? Art is powerful.

(Originally published in AD Magazine, NSEAD, Spring 2016, Issue 15)