Creative Lives — Dan Howden talks us through the freedom and isolation of being a linocut artist
For Dan Howden, the road to mastering the art of linocut has been a lonely one – ‘it’s perhaps the least collaborative medium going’ – but it’s a road he won't be straying from anytime soon. Having graduated from Manchester School of Art in 2017 with an MA in Illustration, he has since dedicated almost all of his time to this often solitary pursuit. But the hard work has paid off and his commitment has seen him earn commissions from a broad range of clients including Dr Martens, Intern Magazine and Medium, and win the Anthony Dawson Young Printmaker of the Year Award. Dan speaks to us about these highs and lows, his hope for a more social practice through trying new mediums, and why he struggles with self-promotion.
Dr Martens, Intern Magazine, Pressing Matters, Medium, Mayday
BA Graphic Design and Illustration, Liverpool John Moores (2012-2015) MA Illustration, Manchester School of Art (2016-2017)
How would you describe what you do?
Using a layer-heavy approach I’ve been practicing for years now, I produce detailed prints, imagery and sometimes animation from linocut. The high volume of registrations within my work give it a painterly quality and sometimes I feel like a fraud as it doesn’t necessarily resemble traditional lino. I doubled down on it at university and since then it’s snowballed into becoming my entire practice, which if I think about for too long, can be a little disconcerting. Most of my work is scenery-based as I love capturing atmosphere within my prints, however since finishing my masters in 2017, I’ve been trying to produce work that contains a little more substance.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I work part-time and typically return around midday. On arrival there’s a lengthy lunch/dinner-in-one scenario in order to avoid disrupting the momentum I get whilst printing, and then I tend to roll on through until I sleep, which can occur any time after midnight.
Working from my room, I like to start off with some light admin and a little Colbert before I reach for the inks and resume the project that’s at the fore. If I’m in-between commissions, I’ll either turn to my sketchbook and progress with Mel’s (a personal project) or go for a spin and photograph things of interest for a stock image library I’m compiling on my Mac.
The lack of physical detachment from the work has historically never been an issue. I like living with the work, I can down tools, walk a few paces and crawl straight into bed.
How collaborative is your role?
Lino is perhaps the least collaborative medium going, so unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to work alongside anybody yet. The hope is that the addition of sound and animation to my practice will eventually get me in a room with others.
Mel's Autumnal Shopfront
Sixty Nine, Eh?
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
First and foremost, I rarely experience boredom being freelance. There’s always something to do, something to improve, another commission or a new skill to learn. When you’re getting paid to do your hobby, that’s kind of a cool thing and I try not to take it for granted.
I also still get a buzz from landing a really complex registration too. I’ll feel myself sweating just before the contact. I like that.
The time aspect is all part and parcel of linocut and something you sign up for, but finding the time for a social life is a puzzle I’m still working at. Also, the inevitable dormant periods are particularly rough – not just on the bank but on the ego, too. Oh and keeping receipts.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Being perceptive, being objective and being selective.
What do you like about working in Manchester?
I moved from York to Manchester at the start of the year. I feel like the rug could be pulled out from under me at any moment and that’s very motivating.
“I feel like the rug could be pulled out from under me at any moment and that’s very motivating.”
Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
I’ve been working on a lino and animation project since I finished my masters in late 2017 entitled Mel’s. It’s set in the store room of a New York department store at night and is centred around the conversations that occur between a group of seasonal mannequins.
It’s been a total departure from my commission-based and layer heavy work as it uses a consistent 2-5 colour palette and the emphasis is on narrative. The project has really surprised me as I still feel equally as enthusiastic now as I did in 2017, and that’s really rare. I think the fact that it’s accommodating thematically has certainly helped. Because the focus is on conversation and it’s set in a department store, the idea has a lot of flexibility and can facilitate new interests as they develop over time. I can pick it up and put it down whenever and my Instagram feed illustrates this.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use my Mac 24/7. One minute it’s a light box with Sellotape all over it, the next it’s recommending me premium internet content. A good scanner is essential, too. I’ve been using the same lino tools since 2011: two glass chopping boards, some Speedball rollers, the cheapest water soluble inks (they dry really fast) and some Amazon-found Linoleum. If I’m making editions to sell, they’ve got to be on great stock and Somerset Satin 300gsm is my go-to. Some sharp Intaglio blades don’t hurt to have lying around, either.
Athens WIP & Chinatown WIP
What inspires your work and how important do you think it is to land on a particular style as an artist?
I like including juxtaposition within my work – a series of Portacabins at the site of the Parthenon in Athens, a group of cynical mannequins in a toy town department store. I enjoy taking nice, pleasant things and adding a little reality. Halloween, for instance, inspires me all year round. It’s primarily a holiday for children, but it’s dealing with some pretty dark subject matter and I love that combination.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you and which you would recommend to someone else?
I strongly recommend studying a master’s degree, especially in the arts. It can be such an important pit stop if you’re maybe unsure or keen to branch out and try new things.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Cesc Fàbregas' understudy.
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied illustration at degree level – the year of the price hike. I think it’s beneficial, certainly. Anything costing £27,000 should be, but it’s by no means essential. Going solo, you’re probably not getting access to the same facilities, and a YouTube tutorial isn’t going to give you the same network, feedback and wisdom that a tutor and some peers could, but there are plenty of solutions to these omissions in 2019.
After graduating what were your initial steps?
I knew I wanted to do a masters. I felt my work just wasn’t quite there yet, so I moved home, took a year out, practiced lino and got a little more life experience under the belt. I worked at John Lewis for five days, got a job on Gumtree washing dishes at a fancy French restaurant and then became a cleaner.
Shortly after graduating I was included in People of Print’s 2015 graduate finalists which gave me some hope, and that November, after shooting a few emails, I received my first editorial commission for Intern Magazine. In hindsight I really wasn’t prepared for that one, but it taught me a lot about the editing process.
I then had the obligatory cry/meltdown and questioned whether I’d chosen the right degree, but the It’s Nice That feature came literally the next day and I took it as a sign to continue. I wound up getting a couple of great exhibition opportunities and accepted into The Royal College of Art the following summer – but that was far too much money so I went to Manchester, instead.
Intern Editorial 2015 & Mayday Issue 5 Green
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
During my masters I lived with three 18-year-old boys in student halls. One particularly loud Friday night I reconvened to the library and came across a competition in Printmaking Today Magazine. It was free, so I applied. I shot them across some files and the following week I received an email congratulating me on winning the Anthony Dawson Young Printmaker of the Year Award for 2016 accompanied with a cheque for a couple of grand. There was an award ceremony in London and I got to bring my mum along, that was a nice moment.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
There was momentum and potential after receiving the Anthony Dawson award, but I returned straight to my studies and chose not to strike whilst the iron was hot. I was pretty naive and assumed I could simply return to that scenario once I’d graduated. That was a big mistake.
"Social media is a dangerous dance and the numbers don’t help."
What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance, and how do you deal with these?
Determining the value of the work. I’ve had tutors tell me I’m selling myself short and enquirers who drop off the face of the earth when I give them a price.
I’ve made an effort in recent times to document the process better, rather than just post the finished article. Palettes, off-cuts, scans, time-lapses and studio photography have hopefully illustrated the effort that goes into each print.
How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Self-promotion is my Achilles heel and has been since I graduated. I just find it very difficult to be sincere online. It’s far easier for me to write something flippant than it is to type ‘This is my print, it took a really long time, it’s about this, it’s available here if you’re interested and it’s this much’ and I think that’s probably been quite detrimental and given the impression that I don’t take freelancing seriously. Social media is a dangerous dance and the numbers don’t help.
Portacabin 3 & York Minster
What would you like to do next?
I’m looking to work on a larger scale, get some representation, find regular collaborators outside of my skillset and one-day work with Apartamento Magazine.
Could you do this job forever?
Freelance forever? I’m not too sure about that. I have other aspirations, but I’ll always practice lino.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
I recently came across a motivational print whilst out and about in Manchester, it read something along the lines of ‘Be Nice & Work Hard’ [most likely Anthony Burrill's Work Hard & Be Nice to People]. It’s a sentiment I think everybody can get behind but I’m not sure whether, in practice, I entirely agree. From experience, I think hard work can be misplaced, especially early-on. Effort needs to be directed appropriately and I think it’s really important to get into the habit of questioning your work and its purpose so that you’re moving the needle forward each time and being efficient, too.
Regardless of how you subsidise your lifestyle outside of university, whether you land that creative job or you move home and work in a French restaurant (nothing wrong with the latter by the way), it’s so important to retain that drive and creative enthusiasm. Make all the mistakes you can and most importantly, learn from them. Also, if you haven’t already, give the The Illustrator’s Guide to Law and Business Practice by Simon Stern a read. It’s a very useful book regardless of where you are in your freelance career.