Sue Downie has been making books during lockdown – she explains the process

Making books

I am really taken with making books. No, I don’t mean ‘How to paint bad watercolours in 5 minutes’ but unique artwork in book form. Until I started making books I didn’t realise it was a recognised artform which gives me more pleasure than painting a piece of work intended to be hung on a wall. That said, it is time consuming and everything I have done I have given as gifts. It is something you can literally do ‘one page at a time’, and as I work on a very small scale, if one page ends up a rubbish it isn’t a disaster.  Most of my recent work involves acrylic and a gelatin plate. Monotype printing using a gelatin plate gives interesting unique images.

I am part of an art/conservation group so my subject matter reflects my interest in the natural world. I use text, often quotations, within the images. Titles have included Promise of Spring and  Seasons and Journey.  The former is mainly birds and flowers and the latter is the story of the migration of the swallows that usually live in our garage (and sadly haven’t reappeared yet – apparently high winds in Europe in early April killed thousands of swallows).

The image on gelatin prints is created in a myriad ways. You can vary the paint application on the gel plate, you can lift the paint once it is on the plate by touching and removing the paint with textured surfaces, or you can mask using plants or stencils. In addition, you can add layers to make complex and multicoloured images.

From L to R:
Grey abstract using varied paint application and removal of paint with strips of paper.
Nest with masking fluid used on the areas that became the eggs.
Blackbird using stencils. Layer 1: white tree on grey background, layer 2: bird, layer 3: the wall.

And once you have made an image you can ‘hand finish’ and otherwise meddle with it.

This includes drawing and writing on the image with gel pens or even cutting holes on the image so one page can be seen through another.

I hand drew the catkins onto a printed background. Then I cut out the centre. The central of the image was then stuck on and incorporated into the next page.

One of the joys of gel printing is you don’t need to be fussy about paper. Initially I used old watercolours that I had painted and they hadn’t worked. I chopped them up and printed on top using opaque paint. My most recent book was done on card that was cut from medication packets. Ill health has its advantages! And the cover was a Bonio dog biscuit pack covered in an old pillow case. The paint I use is Atelier Interactive acrylic but any acrylic or printing ink can be used.

So how does it end up as a book?

I have tried various methods. When I used watercolour paper I folded it as if it was a card. I then sewed 10 ‘cards’ together with dental floss. No, don’t worry, it was new and unused. My eco tendencies aren’t quite that extreme. I found a battered book in our village charity bookshop and removed the text and bound the papers into the cover. The book needs to be a little bigger than the papers and the stacked papers need to be the same thickness as the spine of the book. Now I am locked down and socially isolated I can’t go to the bookshop so I have been trying single page Coptic binding. This has two advantages. Firstly, you can bind single unfolded sheets and secondly the resulting book can be opened so that it lies completely flat. Coptic binding is supposed to be the oldest form of book binding and looks complex. I am beginning to get the hang of it but I still haven’t perfected it.

Coptic bound book. Cover is card from Bonio box covered with printed pillow case using elderflower leaves as ‘stencils’. Stitching is heavy thread.

I do miss my watercolours and I am sure I will return to them. But at the moment I am hooked on gelatin printing and I am planning my next book.

Sue’s favourite resources

Single page Coptic Bookbinding

This You tube channel has many other book binding tutorials, for members who are interested in making their own sketchbooks or artbooks.

Gelatin Prints

Sue recommends this website