In our last edition of Meet the Team, Lauren Maccabee explained that frustration with lengthy image making processes when studying art played a big part in eventual her pursuit of photography. For Dan Howden however, the intricate and unavoidably time-consuming craft of linocut suits him to a tee. When in his stride, Dan can produce lino prints with a depth of colour and intricacy rarely seen and at a pretty frightening pace too.
I’ve come to Manchester School of Art to meet Dan, contributor to our fourth print issue, to learn about his practice and experiences to date. He’s about to complete his MA in Illustration and seems to have an eye-watering amount of prints to make. “Four linos a day” he tells me. I look back at him in disbelief. Faced with a mountain of work he seems totally calm, but does at least acknowledge that it’s going to be no mean feat to pull off.
Dan in the MA studio space
Lino may be Dan’s medium of choice these days, but that wasn’t always the case. He vividly remembers colouring in helicopters that his mother, an artist, would draw for him. That connection to and deep interest in colour has stayed with him ever since. Like the majority of those studying A-level Fine Art, Dan was encouraged to paint. He swiftly decided that footballers would be his subject matter, with the likes of David Villa and Cesc Fabregas faithfully recreated in acrylic. Having being told in group crits that painting more footballers wasn’t really the progression that his teachers were looking for, he begrudgingly took on a new muse.
Coldplay’s Chris Martin was Dan’s go-to during his first few months studying Art Foundation at York College, but his tutors refused to let him rest on those laurels, so after trying out charcoal, fine liner and experimenting with making a comic book strip, he reluctantly started trying lino. The ship had already sailed in some respects, with tutorials on a number of techniques including lino passing him by. Undeterred, he snuck into the supply cupboard, grabbed the essentials and set about practicing at home. His first print, “a horrible roadkill bird”, almost caused Dan to retreat to his comfort zone, but he stuck it out. His second ever print was two colour, a noteworthy step up fuelled by his naivety and one that set the tone for an exploration of the technique unbridled by convention.
Al Hassan Al Basri Convenience Store, 2015
Initially cutting up the lino and piecing it together like a jigsaw, Dan’s prints became more detailed and employed a wide range of colours. The more he experimented and tested out new ideas and methods the more he felt comfortable and able to articulate his ideas in the medium. “I got the bug for it”, he readily admits. “I find it therapeutic. I’m quite introverted, so it allows me to be by myself”. From his Art Foundation, Dan carried his method into a Graphic Design and Illustration BA at Liverpool John Moores University. By his second year, most of the other areas he was working in were dropped in favour of solely focussing on linocut. For the first time, he touched up some of the work on Photoshop, having been disappointed with the quality. However, due to his commitment to the arduous manual process, he didn’t feel comfortable “cheating the viewer”.
The longer you talk to Dan, the more you realise that he’s not at all averse to taking the long way round solving a problem. Rather than reconcile his differences with post-production, his solution was simply to get better at the printmaking process. So, in his final year, he only worked on lino, improving each production stage as he worked towards the desired output. By the time his final project came around, the results were stunning. Working from photographs taken on his trip to Cape Cod, Dan recreated scenes with formidable depth in a rich and inviting set of dusty pastel hues and shades that do the Northeastern peninsula proud.
The weather turned tropical, Fast and Furious 7 was out, these were crazy times to be alive
From 'Cape Cod' by Dan Howden
Created from huge blocks of lino Dan produced the series over a blissful, if comically serendipitous fortnight having accidentally gone home for the Easter holiday two weeks early. Returning to an empty house he inadvertently happened upon the ideal environment to make the work. “The weather turned tropical, Fast and Furious 7 was out, these were crazy times to be alive”, he smiles as I try to work out exactly how he misplaced Easter. “In those two weeks, I got six prints done, they took me about a day and a half each. It was the best feeling”. Having hit an intense but satisfying rhythm, Dan’s dedication to honing his linocut process started to pay real dividends and further projects focussed on architectural scenes proved popular. Twice covered by It’s Nice That, a niche seems to have been carved out, but fearing like we all do, albeit for different reasons, that the Chris Martin days would return to haunt him, Dan doesn’t want to slip back into a comfort zone.
It seems that the main focus of his MA is to develop a more critical process in his the idea stage of his work. Ever the recluse, Dan’s contact time with tutors has always been “off peak” or out of hours as those working in HE will undoubtedly refer to it. While he’s always had a good relationship with his tutors, there are some inevitable drawbacks to doing the majority of his work outside of the taught environment. Determined to kill his darlings a little more and ensure that his pieces aren’t self-indulgent, Dan is challenging himself to play more with narrative in his work and produce less stand-alone images, a habit that he attributes in part to the culture of Instagram.
Dan at work
Everyone needs a routine, a system or other means of finding a balance when working self-directed and Dan is no different in that respect. Aware by now that I’m talking to and about a man who often deals in extremes, his strategy for achieving that balance in the year between his BA and MA nevertheless surprised me. Taking a cue from YouTube megastar Casey Niestat, whose advised, “take the job that you don’t want to be doing and from that you’ll figure out what you do want to do”, Dan took a cleaning job at his old secondary school. He knew full well that on an almost daily basis he’d feel embarrassed as students worked out that he used to attend there. The job paid well, but that didn’t diminish the desired effect. “It was really good for me, because it kept my ego in check. During the week I’d be cleaning toilets and then at the weekend, I’d get to do my real work”.
Work ethic has never been an issue for Dan, but striking a balance between uni work and commissions is proving to be something of a headache. Not a bad problem to have of course and one that he’ll no doubt solve in a typically idiosyncratic manner. “I like working hard”, he muses, “I’m sure there’s a far more relaxed and stress-free way to do things, but it’s not for me. Right now the only thing that’s really stressing me is getting a passing grade”. That, you would have thought, is in the bag already.