Upon graduating from Visual Communication studies at RMIT in 1990, artist Helen Timbury headed to far East Gippsland to “escape from having to apply for a job in an advertising agency on St Kilda Road”. The lure of nature has never ceased.
In a rented Genoa farmhouse, Helen began designing printed material for local businesses and community groups with nothing more than a set of Rotring ink pens and some Letraset type sheets.
Helen was illustrating booklets and posters for The Friends of Mallacoota, a volunteer group that cares for Mallacoota’s natural environment, when the local Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning officers noticed her work. They soon had Helen illustrating flora and fauna for interpretive signage on the Errinundra Plateau in Croajingolong National Park, and at the Orbost Rainforest Centre.
The work was close to Helen’s conservation values, as she’s “always been drawn to remote natural areas”.
"The lure of nature has never ceased".
“I’d grown up in an avid bushwalking family and visiting National Parks on weekends and school holidays was pretty normal. One of our more memorable adventures was to circumnavigate Cape Barren Island on foot, relying on food being dropped in by light aircraft.”
Sharing that she had felt her education in Melbourne was “linear and unremarkable”, Helen’s time at RMIT did reveal to her that she was better at illustration than graphic design. Ironically, Helen says that “it’s the graphic design that has paid the bills over the years”.
Around 1998, Helen shifted her graphic design into the digital realm, but she began to miss the tactility of the previous approach. This led Helen to printmaking, “where I could handle paper, muck around with ink and be the creator of many artworks from just one printing block”.
“Being a full-time mum, I learnt when I could at weekend printmaking workshops, and people began to buy my prints. When my youngest child went to school, I was able to take linocut printmaking more seriously and I developed my studio space around 2008.”
Helen’s printmaking practice has blossomed ever since, and recently she has begun to include linocut prints in her design work as a means of introducing handmade elements. Her limited edition prints are sold at markets and galleries, and some of the prints have become cards and calendars.
Delving further into her passion for linocut printmaking, Helen offers that there are three key reasons why she is drawn to the technique.
“Firstly, I love the idea of making multiples; many artworks from one plate. Secondly, it is a very beautiful and simple craft using dense black ink, thick velvety paper, and a hand-carved block. The action of carving into lino is repetitive and can be somewhat cathartic. I once ran a workshop called ‘Big Hairy Things’ where students carved a large block of lino for the sheer enjoyment of carving. Quite a few teenage boys attended. The final reason I am drawn to the process: the strict discipline involved in printmaking.”
Sometimes Helen begins the process with a theme in mind; other times it’s a specific photo or a series that she wants to convey.
To begin, Helen prepares a bunch of tiny sketches and, if needed, searches for the right plant, bird or animal reference. The next step is to calculate the size of the print required and then start a line drawing at the correct size, taking into account that the image is reversed when printing.
When Helen’s happy with the design, it’s then transferred onto the lino block and carving begins. The lino block is carved so that the image stands out in relief. The raised sections that are not cut away are inked with a brayer (a hand-roller) and printed. Proof prints are undertaken at various stages of the carving process.
The final block is printed on special printmaking paper torn to size. Sometimes second and third blocks are added to a design. The oil-based inks that Helen works with can take a few days to dry and she will apply any hand-colouring with a brush.
"My images celebrate the biodiversity of our national parks and other protected places".
Once there are 10 or 20 clear and near-identical prints prepared, Helen signs and creates the numbered editions the prints. The first print is always the best print, and the clarity declines across the editions that are produced.
Outlining her current motivations, Helen divulges that she’s increasingly alarmed by the urban development that’s building up around her current home in Drouin.
“My images celebrate the biodiversity of our national parks and other protected places. Gippsland’s biodiversity is unique — to be protected. Lately, I’ve come to reflect that our connections with these special places, plants, animals and birds contribute to our wellbeing more than we realise.”
Something that many more people may concur with currently, given the challenges and restrictions associated with Covid-19.
Many of the established artists featured in Gippslandia have shared that their compulsion to create was discovered when they were young. Considering Helen’s creative career, it’s fair to wonder if she too was encouraged to pursue artistic endeavours as a child.
“I was enabled from an early age. Dad was a draughtsman and brought home ‘worn out’ sets of technical pens and Letraset sheets with the ‘e’s and ‘r’s used up. In primary school, I remember a permanent inky callous on my right middle finger… I was happy drawing with a pen in my hand.
“But I didn’t really discern between the words artist and illustrator. When asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’, I always answered ‘a children’s book illustrator’. So, maybe I’m an illustrator who uses printmaking. The two streams of my visual practice occasionally merge. They have never seemed too far apart.”