Mandy’s magical altered images

Mandy Walden in her studio

Mandy Walden in her studio - Credit: Nick Butcher

Mandy Walden’s pictures capture the atmosphere and essence of the places, people and wildlife they depict but, it’s fair to say, from a slightly unusual angle. Sheena Grant went to find out more.

Mandy working on a painting in her studio

Mandy working on a painting in her studio - Credit: Nick Butcher

Artist and printmaker Mandy Walden describes her creations as pictures of “magical ordinariness”. But anyone who gazes for very long on her scenes of some of East Anglia’s coastal gems, with her trademark golden moons and golden fish, leaping hares and landmark buildings, might beg to differ.

One of Mandy's creations

One of Mandy's creations - Credit: Nick Butcher

Magical they certainly are. But ordinary? No way.

A view of Southwold by Mandy Walden

A view of Southwold by Mandy Walden - Credit: Nick Butcher

What Mandy actually does, in her quirky and distinctive style, is to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.

By golden light the visitor came swooping high above, by printmaker and artist Mandy Walden

By golden light the visitor came swooping high above, by printmaker and artist Mandy Walden - Credit: Archant

Her hand-painted prints of Southwold, Aldeburgh and north Norfolk have a dream-like quality about them. They are rooted in reality but a kind of altered reality where buildings and perspective are distorted, clouds and sea swirl into view and the golden moon is ever-present.

Wildlife - including the booming bittern of coastal reedbeds, seals, swallows and cormorants - feature heavily and each picture is accompanied by a lyrical, poetic title that adds to the magical, other-worldly quality.

This distinctive style is not one that Mandy set out to create. It has evolved over the years but more than that it is really a reflection of who she is, the things that are important to her and have influenced her since childhood.

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Originally from Halesworth, Mandy has lived close to the Suffolk coast all her life and with her husband, Dick, a keen birdwatcher and naturalist, spends many hours walking and watching wildlife along the stretch of beach between Southwold and Aldeburgh.

“I’m never happier than when out in the landscape,” she says. “My work tells a story of the world around me - crumbling cliffs and the sea, fishing boats, a bittern in the reeds, hares dashing across fields. I want to celebrate every aspect of this landscape, to communicate an atmosphere of place and feelings.”

She works from a studio in her garden at Beccles, her dog lying nearby and a seemingly unending stream of birds stopping off at a well-stocked feeding station outside.

“You get to know many of the birds individually”, she says. “There are several families that have been here throughout the summer and a blackbird that spends all day in the holly bush. I do get distracted by them sometimes but you also get a wonderful feeling of calm here.”

The timber studio is insulated for year-round use and has electricity connected. She treated herself to the building when she quit primary school teaching to concentrate full-time on her artwork in 2010.

This is where her ideas start to take shape in a little sketchbook. It’s where she draws an image on to the picture-mounting board from which she makes her print blocks and where, later on, she hand-paints the prints that have rolled off an etching press housed in a converted brick building next to her studio.

At the moment she is painting one of Southwold that shows the lighthouse and other buildings set on a circle with the beach, sea, sky and swallows flitting across a golden moon. I suggest the effect is similar to that of a photograph taken through a fisheye lens.

“I know,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated by that.”

The places she paints are instantly recognisable but her pictures are anything but a true replica. Very often buildings are missing from a scene or others are included where they really should not be.

Like the passages of text which accompany each image, it’s all part of a narrative - something that has become increasingly important as time has gone on. And the fact that many of the ideas she uses start to coalesce during countryside walks is crucial to how they translate into the final image.

“A lot of my work is loosely based on walks, tracing a journey in a way,” she says. “You are aware that a lot of time you are doing a circle in a walk.”

While the fisheye-effect one of Southwold clearly reflects the idea of a circular walk, narrative and journeying underpin the others too.

“With all my images I try to have a story they can tell,” she says. “It is never just a straight reproduction of a view. I’m not concerned with portraying an exact, realistic copy of a particular place but want to capture its essence by using a distortion of scale or perspective, a patchwork of unconnected parts found in a landscape.

“The fact that I tend to leave chunks out and change the perspective is, in a way, a bit like being on a walk and the views you have as you go along. Some of the things you see out of the corners of your eye as you walk along a street are out of scale and distorted.

“For me walking is all about being outside in the countryside and getting inspiration. I do take some pictures of buildings to reference and do sketches. A lot of the time it is trying to think about how to get all the elements in and make it work.

“Southwold features a lot, I suppose, because I grew up at Halesworth and have spent all my life close to that coast. It has always been a special place for me.”

The individually hand-coloured prints have been her mainstay for years but just lately she’s diversified a bit, creating The Dawdling Day Illustration Company for a series of giclee and canvas prints as well as a range of limited edition cards that are hand-finished in gold paint and all individually titled, numbered and signed.

“The name came from my interpretation of the word dawdle: taking time to stand and stare,” she says.

The giclee prints are commercially printed from a original painting and give a slightly different – more affordable – effect to the individually-painted prints she makes on her press at home.

With that process it can take anything up to two days to produce one print (if Mandy is starting from scratch). She takes picture mounting board, draws on it, uses a scalpel to cut and peel off the relevant parts, seals it and covers the board with oil-based etching ink before printing on her press. Each board will have a life of about 25 limited-edition prints.

“They’re printed in one colour – blue or brown – and dried before I paint them, something that will take a good day, if not more,” says Mandy.

She uses watercolour paint, which is built up in layers to create a more vivid, dense effect than is seen with traditional colour-wash.

Incredibly, given the technical accomplishment of her work, Mandy is largely self-taught.

She qualified as a primary school teacher in 1979 and for many years that was what she concentrated on.

“I wasn’t doing any art work then at all,” she says. “I always loved art and it was probably my best subject at school but I never took it any further. It was only was when I took a break from working when had my children that it became something I could do.

“When the children were small I did an evening class in watercolour and that started me off. I began exhibiting fairly early on - it was a way of being at home with the children and having an income. The work I’m doing now is nothing like I did then - that was very much just watercolour landscapes really.”

She started to develop a style that incorporated both painting and printing after doing a weekend print-making course in 1998.

“The course got me hooked on that side of things,” she says. “I’ve always loved etchings and detailed print making. With the technique I use it means I don’t need any acid to print so I can do it at home. I saved up until I could afford a small press and gradually things took off from there.”

The inclusion of her ‘trademark’ symbols, the golden moon, fish and hares, are

all things that have somehow just happened.

“The moon has always been a big feature in my work,” she says. “It’s always fascinated me. There’s something magical about it. It’s the same with hares. It’s just something that has really grabbed me.”

The hand-written title around the edge of each image is, says Mandy, a traditional print-making thing but she admits: “My details have got longer and longer over the years. It’s just another element of it. It adds to the atmosphere.

“As my style has evolved and become more detailed the whole thing has become more imagined. The artwork that appeals to me tends to be work that has a strong story element to it - and that’s something that can be found in many kinds of art. I love stained glass too, there’s always a good story with that.”

For years Mandy managed to combine teaching with her other life as an artist. In many ways, they fused together beautifully as art became increasingly her area of the school curriculum. But the demands of both eventually became too much.

“I went part-time by having one day off, then it was two days and then three,” she says. “Then there came a point where there was just too much going on. School was full on and this was as well. I felt there was too much going on in my head at the same time. Something had to give and I wasn’t going to let this go so I took the plunge and went for it.

“It probably wasn’t a good idea financially but my dad died when he was only 58 and as I got closer to that age myself I started to think I wanted to make the most of my time and not have things left undone. I have no regrets. It’s gone very well. I’ve been very fortunate with a really good core of galleries that I’ve been with for a long time now who have supported me and pushed me work.”

The one thing Mandy sometimes struggles with about her current working life is the amount of time she spends alone.

“I’d love to develop a workshop gallery,” she says. “Perhaps somewhere off the A12 where people pull in and look at your work and see you working. It would be great just to have contact with your audience. I deal through galleries all the time and it would be lovely to meet your buyers face to face. As it is, I rarely see the people who are buying my work.

“On the plus side I’ve been able to spend so much more time on my work since I’ve been doing it full-time and my head is a lot clearer because I’m not having to think about school lesson plans nowadays.”

She would also like to do some one-to-one tutoring in the future and has an idea for a book of coastal images from around Britain.

“We go to Mull (in Scotland) every year, which is probably my second love when it comes to landscape,” she says. “That’s one of the places that appeals to me to branch out into. Cornwall and Yorkshire are possibilities too.”

But whatever she ends up doing in the future it’s unlikely Mandy will stray too far or too long from her beloved Suffolk coast.

“Nowhere has quite the same pull for me,” she says.

Mandy Walden’s work is on permanent display at a number of places including the Southwold Gallery, Lion House Gallery, Lavenham and Dedham Art and Craft Centre. She is a member of Norwich Print Fair group. Her work is also on show at the Aldeburgh Gallery, along with that of other artists, from October 24 to 30. Visit www.mandywaldenartist printmaker.co.uk or email mandywprintmaker@gmail.com