Art Artists in Shirts in Studios Conversations Lifestyle

Artists in Shirts in Studios: Nick Richards

By Nathan Sharp

Jul 13, 2022

Artists in Shirts in Studios: Nick Richards


A new series featuring - you guessed it - artists, wearing Drake's shirts, at work in their studios. Last year we visited the studio of etcher Nick Richards, on the bank of the River Thames.

Photography by Kevin Davies.


Nathan Sharp, Drake's: Could you tell me a little bit about the etching process?


Nick Richards: Etchings are metal plates – I’ve got zinc plates here. And I’m etching with nitric acid, into the zinc, using various methods like laying an aquatint dust onto the plate and melting it on, then painting with acid in the same way as you might with watercolour. And I’m using a very strong acid, I’m using 1:2, which is one part acid to two water, or 1:5, 1:10, 1:15. Different strengths of acid bite at different rates and you’ll get dark tones with 1:2, light greys with 1:15. So I’m combining all these different acids to create my pictures. 


NS: Do all the acids look the same in the containers? 


NR: They’re completely transparent, so when I’m painting with the acid, I can’t see what I’m doing, that’s the skill of it. I’m laying all these acids on, but I’m having to build a mental picture of my print while I’m doing it, because I can’t actually see what I’m doing. I can only see it when I ink it up, and I can’t ink it up while the aquatint dust is on the plate, so I’ve got to carry on with this mental picture, and then I’ve got to wipe it all off and see what I’ve got. I don’t usually do that until I’ve already done quite a lot of work on it, because otherwise I just get lost. I have to have a certain amount of belief in what I’m doing.


NS: How long are you doing that for before you ink it up?


NR: It could be a whole morning, and then when you’re getting completely lost you see what you’ve got. All of my prints have come about from a certain amount of putting acid on, and then taking a proof, seeing where I’m at, and then I might put another aquatint on, do some more. There’s a limit to how much aquatint you can keep doing.

NS: So, you’ve only got so many goes?


NR: Exactly. You can’t keep doing it over and over again, otherwise they cancel each other out. You’re putting these amounts of dust on, this resin dust that you melt on, and you can’t just keep putting it on, because if it’s going on in the same area it cancels out the last lot of biting [the process in which the acid reacts with the zinc] that took place. So, you have only got a limited time to do it.


NS: Do you ever work on anything that you think is going to be a success, but isn’t?


NR: Oh, all the time [laughs]. You get a little sense that it’s going well, and when you ink it up you start to know. Sometimes it doesn’t print well, but usually when I’m inking it up I can start to see if I’ve got good results. 


NS: How did you come to etching to begin with?


NR: Well I went to art college and I did fine art. I only slowly made my way into printmaking, I was doing more painting, actually. [Then] I went to the Royal College to do printmaking there, so that cemented doing etching. Norman Ackroyd was one of my tutors. He’s an inspiration to me, an early tutor who was lovely, really encouraging. And he does spit-bite, similar to me, or I do it similar to him.


NS: What is spit-bite?


NR: Spit-bite is where I’m actually working with spit, and nitric acid. If I paint nitric acid onto the aquatinted plate, it will just go into a bubble. But if I put a little bit of spit into that I can paint with it, because it breaks the surface tension of the liquid. And I’m using swans’ feathers, [they] create really nice brushes. I find that a swan’s, or a duck’s, or a seagull’s feather, they’ve got lots of oil in them because they’re river birds or sea birds, so they’ve got protection from the acid. If I use an ordinary bird’s feather it won’t work properly, but a river bird or sea bird will be perfect. They can withstand nitric acid.


NS: I suppose a lot of these methods are well-established, but are you kind of making up your own techniques, too?


NR: Yes, I’ve definitely got some of my own processes and procedures, and secrets that I’m loath to let out. In terms of the sequence of them, I don’t think many people can execute these very easily, because there are a few little procedures that are quite tricky and that require quite a lot of training.

NS: Shall we talk a little bit about subject matter?


NR: Yes of course. 


NS: So obviously you etch the river [Thames] a lot.


NR: I’ve been by the river [in this studio] now for ten years and I think that’s had an influence on me. I really love the tidal Thames: it goes out, it literally empties twice a day. Often the pictures have been inspired by trips along the river - and sometimes I’ve included lots of different scenes in one picture - but they’ve become increasingly from memory. So, although I draw along the river, nearly all of my work is invented, and they’re imagined scenes from along the river. They’re either based on a true memory or based on imagination. 


NS: So, it’s your Thames.


NR: Yes, it’s my Thames. Although people will say it has a real feel of the Thames, it’s definitely the Thames according to me. 


NS: Are you pursuing certain themes when you’re working? 


NR: I like having a title that is evocative. It might be Departure, or Time Passing. Time Passing is a loaded title. And Syzygy is a mysterious word, it’s a lovely word, but it actually means the alignment of the moon and the Earth and the sun, to cause the highest tide of the month, or the lowest tide of the month. You get your spring tide when the planets are in syzygy. The gravitational pulls are highest, so you achieve the highest tide or the lowest tide. And because I’m always down by the river I look out for when the lowest tides are, so I can get down [there]. 

NS: Do you see the river changing?


NR: Yeah, the river’s changed in terms of the architecture. It’s become a lot more boring, I think. The modern developments that are going up don’t exactly inspire me, and I’m not trying to do work about the river Thames in 2019, particularly. Like I said, I’m doing the Thames of my mind. 


NS: Are you still finding things that you didn’t know were there?


NR: Yeah, absolutely. Although it’s become more difficult, because I know all the places to get down on the river now, I know them very well. So, it becomes a bit more of a challenge, and maybe some of the work could go a little bit more abstract as a result.  


NS: How much ground do you generally cover?


NR: I know nearly every place [on the river] from Tower Bridge to here, and carrying on up to Earith, then to Purfleet. So, I know the river very well, in terms of where to get down onto it. Deptford, I used to go to a lot, to do a lot of work. But I work more along here now, and further on towards Purfleet. And tomorrow I’m going to Canvey Island, for instance, to do some drawing. There are some really good structures there, good jetties. I’ll go anywhere where there’s some jetties, and some old wharves. 

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