Writing in the introduction of Rubber Stamping by Stephen Fowler, which is published this week by Laurence King, artist Rob Ryan describes his initial experience of the rubber stamp as being of one of authority: “Our textbooks held the name of the school firmly rubber stamped in navy blue on the inside pages,” he writes. “‘Do not deface or steal’ was the accompanying message. It was the brand of ownership.”
But he goes on to describe how using a rubber stamp as an artist has been an entirely freeing experience. “The self-reliance of rubber stamping is liberating, since you absolutely own the means of production,” he continues. “You don’t have to answer to anyone and are now free to set off with just a few simple stamps on a journey that could take you anywhere. The joy of repetition is now at your fingertips and you can begin to build up bigger and bigger images, stamp by stamp, as a builder can build an entire house from one size of brick.”
For the uninitiated, Fowler’s book is the perfect book to help you begin this journey, if you are so inclined. It contains practical advice on the tools needed, and the various techniques you can achieve, as well as suggesting imaginative uses of the stamping process. Below, we talk to him about what, for him, makes rubber stamping such an enduring art form.
CR: How did you first discover the joy of rubber stamping?
Stephen Fowler: It was whilst I was studying illustration at Harrow Art School (now part of the University of Westminster). Fridays were printmaking day. Our visiting tutor, the printmaker Steve Hoskins, brought in a bag of WHSmith erasers, and taught us first years how to make rubber stamps. For a few years I used it purely as a handy DIY reproduction process – it’s a very forgiving process, transforming drawings and thumb nail sketches into beautiful impressions. It wasn’t until I, as a tutor, introduced it to my own students, that the lightning struck and I realised the diversity of the medium – then I was away producing all manner of things. It’s true what they say – you learn so much through teaching. Both student and tutor are transformed by the experience.
CR: What particularly appeals to you about the medium?
SF: Its stunning diversity, and contradictory nature – it can be exclusive and inclusive in its application. Artists and illustrators play with its official form of visual language. For instance, Saul Sternberg questioned the power of officialdom through the intentionally unreadable stamps and seals he produced during the 1960s, whereas Jeremy Deller’s use of rubber stamps at the Venice Biennale made everyone a part of the British Pavilion 2013 show. Everyone could stamp and take home a printed souvenir of two of the murals featured prominently in the exhibition [see below]. I’m fascinated that it is part of the ‘system’, documentation, keeping order etc, but it’s also been and still is employed by the counterculture, the underground. Think about all those John Bull printing sets, stamped protest posters and DIY graphics!
The very limitations of rubber stamping, its size and low–fi characteristics inspire a myriad of approaches. For example, its portable nature means it can be printed anywhere, inspiring artworks on walls, food, and bodies.
CR: Why do you think the style is particularly relevant for artists today? Is it having a popular moment – if so, why?
SF: I believe it is having a revival. Everywhere I go, cheap rubber stamp kits and an array of purpose-made carving slabs are now available. It’s a very democratic process, with no intimidating orthodox history. Not only are the medium’s graphic impressions a delight to look at, it’s equally joyful to print with. Once tried, most people become addicted to the immediacy of the carving and printing. From the conception of an idea to its printed application, ideas come thick and fast. It’s elastic in nature, so the maker’s personality and practice will always shine through in any context they choose.
Rubber Stamping by Stephen Fowler is available now from Laurence King Publishers, priced £17.95; laurenceking.com