Printmaker Philippa Thomas is drawn to bodies of water. She’s currently based between Bristol, a city beside the River Avon in the southwest of England, and the Isle of Skye, with rugged landscapes and fishing villages. Not so long ago, she was based on the canals of the Cotswolds. “Pictures I make are often of the sea,” she says. When she was a child, her family spent a lot of time by the ocean. “It's a very happy place for me.”
Her parents ran an antique shop and Philippa and her sisters grew up surrounded by old books, objects and paintings. “My dad particularly liked old watercolours of British landscapes which I never thought much of at the time, but I think that growing up surrounded by those dusty pictures influenced me.”
While studying illustration at Edinburgh College of Art, Philippa concentrated on drawing but sampled printmaking. Following her studies, she moved to Bristol to work in theatre set design, which she considers “an extension of illustration, in three dimensions”. After ten years, she moved up to Skye, working in a shop and teaching herself printmaking techniques while using the Highland Print Studio in Inverness. “That was really what galvanized it for me. I fell in love with relief printmaking while working in the landscape,” she says, and has now been working with the medium for five years.
Her background in set design feeds into her work. “A lot of my work is driven by forms, shapes and space. When you’re creating set designs, you’re working in space and thinking about it in three dimensions. It’s similar with printmaking, thinking about how to create spaces, creating a relationship between forms on the paper,” she says. “You can get really into your process. It's very absorbing and you can indulge in it.”
The printmaking community in Bristol drew her back to the city, along with the great facilities and equipment, which can be harder to access in Skye. Her current studio in Bristol is situated in a Victorian factory building which has previously been used for aircraft and clothing manufacturing. “There's a big printmaking press here, lots of space. It's a complete luxury compared to my little studio in Skye,” she says, where she currently works with a small A3 etching press.
Surrounded by crofts, her small studio in Skye faces out towards the Atlantic from the Inner Hebrides. She has a view of Loch Bracadale, and can just see the Isle of South Uist. “Most of the time you can't see much because there's a lot of sideways rain and wind,” she says. “But on the occasional clear day, you can see right out to the MacLeod's Tables, these two flat-topped mountains, and then the MacLeod's Maidens, which are sea stacks. There are lots of myths and stories around those hills.”
When travelling between Bristol and Skye, Philippa is drawn to parts of the coastline that have “slightly odd architectural features.” In her prints, she often depicts figures in coastal landscapes. “There's a familiarity in watching someone who is walking a coastal path or having a day out by the sea. There's a real nostalgia to it,” she says. “I love to draw people on paths and walking up and down steps.”
Exploring how figures move through a space draws on Philippa’s background in set design. “You immediately have a shape created by the pathways. It brings a narrative to the piece.” She’s particularly interested in desire lines, which are pathways created by the repeated footsteps of people, often representing the quickest way to get to a destination when constructed paths don’t exist or are too lengthy. “You can see the well-trodden routes that are taken. Skye has a real footprint of history. You have cleared villages from two hundred years ago, right next to modern bungalows. You get that lovely juxtaposition.”
Philippa depicts intriguing buildings in atmospheric landscapes in prints on the front of a series of three cards, created exclusively for TOAST. “I was fixing on something quite simple. I was exploring forms interacting and there being a sense of space in the images.” She created many versions during the development process. “It was really lots of different play, which is what printmaking is really good for.”
She considered the soft, hazy light you get in the wintertime, and experimented with scale. “The idea of zooming in on a little hamlet or group of buildings. I was in the Cotswolds when I was making them and there are lots of picturesque, tiny villages there. I was inspired by those rolling hills, very different to Skye, but equally beautiful.”
Philippa cuts her designs into lino, which is malleable and soft, using a selection of tools including sandpaper and wire brushes to soften the surface and give an etched feel. “I really love the graphic flatness of lino printing, but I also like to rough it up a bit.” Then, she prints on a small proofing or large etching press. A key part of Philippa’s process is mixing colours. “About 75% of my time is spent thinking about colour. I’m always amazed at how many hours I can spend developing colours, because you'll be aiming for one colour and sometimes you get something slightly different. It's a constant learning process.”
In the striking landscapes Philippa depicts, there is a sense of serenity. But “landscapes aren’t always peaceful places and the countryside isn’t always an idyll,” she says. “In my work, there is a calmness but also a sense of enjoyment in looking and seeing the unexpected.”
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Hermione Russell.
Watch Philippa in her Skye studio on our Instagram.
Shop Philippa Thomas’s set of three cards for TOAST.