Sophie Layton is a London based artist with a boundless curiosity for technique that sparks a tangible energy in her work. Having specialised in Fine Art Printmaking at the University of Brighton, her work snowballed after her 2009 Degree show, firmly anchoring her in the art world. She has now returned from a residency in Japan brimming with inspiration and equipped with new skills.
Sophie, we are so excited to welcome you to Smithson Gallery! We first saw your work at The London Original Print Fair where we fell in love with Nordic Disco. We love your contrasting use of deep dark hues pierced with vivid colour. Tell us what kick started your career as an artist?
Thanks! I really got in to monoprinting during the last year of my degree and created a body of work called Presence of Absence. This was a series of monoprints studying interior spaces with a shard of light falling on to a wall and exploring this through colour, this simple motif is what started my career. I sold my entire degree show, then was asked to be in a show with more of these works, and it just snowballed from there...
Fantastic, and you continued working in monoprint following your degree show?
Yes, I spent about two years working in monoprint with different designs and motifs, and it became so easy and natural, like breathing. But when things get too easy they get boring, so ever since I have been learning new techniques to challenge the monoprinting. For example, I took a photoetching course in 2010 and started mixing photo etching with monoprint. Learning new techniques always changes the work, printmakers are process led artists, the techniques come first and the ideas come after.
Your current body of work is a mix of architectural monochrome photo-etchings and bright, dynamic shards of monoprinted colour. Can you tell us a bit more about your process behind creating these pieces?
I wonder around cities snapping away on my iPhone, then trawl through my huge collection of imagery selecting the photographs that I think have potential. I then dissect these photos in Photoshop; moving elements, whacking up the contrast to make the darker areas really dark and the lighter areas brighter. I deconstruct the photograph with the idea in mind of reconstructing it with blocks of colour. When I’m happy I print them off on my Inkjet printer so I have loads of images to cut up and play with. I then start thinking about colours and monoprint them on to separate sheets of paper. I then make collages using the digitally printed photos and the monoprinted colour, until I have something that I’m happy with. I then print it, turning the photographic elements into photo-etching, and monoprinting the shards of colour, building it up in layers. Sometimes I print sections of the colour just with the palm of my hand rather than putting it through the press.
What other techniques have you explored?
In 2016 I took a masterclass in Carborundum printmaking, and combined photo etching with that. Carborundum is a ground metal, like iron filings, which you mix with adhesive. It hardens like a cement then you can scrape ink over that, buff the surface and get really rich and wonderful results. I have also recently returned from a residency in Japan where was learning the technique of Moku Hanga, or Japanese Woodblock printmaking.
Yes, we have been looking forward to hearing about this! What was it that drew you to Japan?
In 2014 my boyfriend and I went on a 4 week trip to Japan just to see the country and I came away not feeling satisfied. When it comes to crafts like ceramics, glassblowing or printmaking, the Japanese are such perfectionists, it’s mind blowing, there is so much to see. I just knew I had to go back. It was strange because when I returned to London I accidently came across a Japanese artist called Tetsuya Noda who had a retrospective at The British Museum. Just like me, he mixes photographic imagery with painterly printmaking, and seeing his work really cemented the fact I was going back to Japan.
Tell us about the residency?
I went to study at a specialist Moku Hanga school called MI-LAB at Lake Kawaguchi near Tokyo. I was there for six weeks with six artists from all over the world. We lived, cooked and worked together under the same roof. The light and landscape were just incredible, I would go running every morning and my desk looked on to Mount Fuji. I wanted to go to Japan to get away from what I was used to both in terms of my environment and my practice, and this was definitely the case.
What aspect of Moku Hanga did you find most interesting?
I really enjoyed learning about Bokashi, which is a shading or gradation in the depth of colour achieved by various techniques. I started playing with Bokashi using the landscape around me, but I’m not a landscape artist, so I wasn’t loving what I was producing, but I was learning.
How will this new-found knowledge change or influence your work going forward?
One of the great aspects of printmaking is you can employ different techniques to achieve different qualities of mark making, for example woodblock printing has a such a different nature, it forces me to be more delicate. You can get rich results but the overall effect is still muted. I primarily make monoprints, but enjoy learning new techniques to challenge and contrast the painterly nature of monoprinting. It’s too early to say at this stage how Japanese woodblock printing will develop my work and ideas. I’m very excited having just returned from the trip to Japan and we’ll just have to see what journey Moku Hanga will take me on!
You also managed to squeeze in some short residencies at other printmaking studios in Japan?
Yes, being a printmaker you can go to any studio on the planet and instantly fit in with a community of likeminded people who all speak the language of printmaking, even if their verbal language is not your own – there aren’t many forms of art of professions that you can have that opportunity with.
You are now back in South London, what aspects of your residency and your trip to Japan have you brought home with you?
I have created a Moku Hanga studio in my small attic, Japanese people can work in such small spaces, and my attic is a perfect space for this. I have also been inspired to create a new body of work around Ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arranging. A friend took me around some galleries in Tokyo and we stumbled upon an Ikebana exhibition, I loved it and have been researching Ikebana societies in London. I can see a similarity between Ikebana and my ‘Presence of Absence’ work. I like the juxtaposition of awkward organic shapes and sharp lines created by shadow.