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‘The Swifts Return’

Updated: Apr 29

Discover the creative process behind a captivating lino print titled 'The Swifts Return' by talented Resident Artist, Cathy Duncan.

“I’m calling the print ‘The Swifts’ Return’  for the joy they bring each summer, the promise of good weather and time spent watching them scythe through the air calling to each other in great excitement”.

Cathy Duncan


'Swifts Return' will be exhibited at Northern Prints exhibition entitled "Endless Forms, Most Beautiful" from 6.30pm Friday 17th May until Saturday 13th July.

The Endless Forms Most Beautiful exhibition will be held at Northern Print in Newcastle upon Tyne (dates will announced soon). The exhibition will showcase original prints inspired by Bestiaries and Herbaria created by artist members of Northern Print. As well as a focus on ‘at risk’ species, it will highlight and include endangered craft processes, including letterpress, lithography and papermaking, as well as traditional methods like lino printing. "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" is a phrase in the closing statement of Charles Darwin's 1859 book on the Origin of Species.  In his book, Darwin introduced the theory of natural selection, meaning the animal most fit for survival will live and pass on the traits that help it to survive.


Cathy has chosen the Common Swift, Apus apus, one of the seventy endangered bird species in the UK, as her muse and a bird well-suited to feature in any bird compendium. Country folk nicknamed it “The Devil’s Bird”, likely due to its dark plumage, speed of flight and the piercing shrieks it emits as it flies around trees and buildings, often appearing in flocks that resemble phantoms. Swifts are also associated with hope, steadfastness, grace, beauty and freedom as they spread their wings to explore new horizons.

Observing swifts every summer from her home is a rare sight in the UK and Cathy eagerly awaits their return this year. She describes the Swifts as "Fast-moving birds that bring joy and excitement as they fly in and out of their nests under the eaves". They are known for their remarkable abilities, such as flying at the fastest level speed of 69mph and being capable of sleeping, eating, bathing, and even mating while in flight. A global decline in flying insects, pollution, habitat changes, overuse of pesticides, and climate change have all contributed to fewer sightings of swifts. They return to the same spot to mate, renovate their nests, and lay and incubate their eggs. "The Swifts Return" is the title of her lino-cut, capturing the thrill of watching them soar through the air whilst issuing high-pitched screaming calls to one another.


Stylistically “The Swifts Return” is influenced by images from Medieval Bestiaries, and features the simple forms of Swifts circling above a dreamlike representation of her view across her garden towards the Tyne Valley.  The print will serve as a poignant reminder of the beauty and significance of a bird species whose breeding population is rapidly declining.

Examples of Bestiaries:  A moralising medieval collection of descriptions and often illustrations of real and mythical animals.

Cathy very much hopes that on visiting the exhibition you will feel a sense of joy. Let this artwork inspire us to value and protect these incredible birds and their natural habitats.


‘The Swifts Return’

How the print was made

“Cathy aimed to create a dreamy landscape by bringing the sooty brown swifts to the forefront of the design in a dynamic circular formation, emphasizing their amazing acrobatic flight, often accompanied by their distinct high-pitched screaming”.


Lino printing, also known as lino-cut is a relief printmaking technique similar to woodblock printing. A relief print is one in which the printing surface is cut away so that the image alone appears raised on the surface. The raised areas are inked and printed, while the parts that have been cut away do not pick up the ink.


Designing the Lino cut:

Cathy produces observational drawings of the landscape surrounding her home and uses photographic references for the swifts.


Elements of the landscape from multiple observational drawings are collaged together to create the composition. The swifts are scaled to give a sense of movement, depth and dynamism.


Visual impact is achieved by simplifying the design to its essential elements and lines before transferring it to the lino.

Collaged Drawing of 'Swifts Return'

 Before printing, Cathy mixes and tests specific colours using linseed oil-based inks. A base colour of opaque white ink is mixed with greens and blues for vegetation and the sky. Reducing medium is added to increase transparency in mixtures with lino-print colours. Cathy keeps a careful record to ensure consistency of colours throughout the print edition.



 Transferring the Design onto Lino Blocks:

Carbon paper is placed underneath the tracing paper and secured with tape onto the lino, which has been pre-cut to the exact size of the final print.


The design is traced over firmly to transfer it onto the lino.


Cutting the Lino

Specialised lino-cutting tools are carefully chosen for specific purposes, such as cutting fine lines for detail work, scooping out large areas, making straight cuts, and trimming edges.


Cathy uses two identical-sized sheets of lino, one for the background landscape and one for the swallows. Using lino-cutting tools, she carves away sections of each lino that will remain white and unprinted. As can be seen in the image below these areas are very intricate and require artistic vision, a steady hand and craftsmanship. The uncarved, raised areas will form the printed image.



Inking the lino block:

A small amount of each mixed colour ink is rolled out onto a sheet of thick glass using an ink roller, until it is smooth and velvety, often described as looking like the skin of an orange.

Each colour is then rolled out onto the lino block to give a smooth, even layer of ink. Cathy utilises several small rollers, each inked up with a different colour. A few passes may be necessary to get a ’single’ layer of ink onto an area of the lino.

An acetate sheet is used to mask out areas of the design.

Printing the lino block:

Cathy uses the Roller Press to print her work. Each block is registered exactly to the paper by using a template placed on the roller bed, and attached to each sheet of paper are two plastic tags with eyes which will fit into flattened hooks positioned on the template. This means the paper will fit exactly in place for each subsequent layer of colour on the Lino block. Cathy uses thick Rives paper to reduce the drying time of each subsequent colour.


Cathy would like to share a quote from Ted Hughes’s poem.


“Fifteenth of May. Cherry blossom. the swifts

Materialise at the tip of a long scream

Of needle. ‘Look! They’re back! Look!…

…They’ve made it again

Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s

Still waking refreshed, our summers

Still all to come - …“


Northern Print-Visit the Exhibition (from 6.30pm Friday 17th May until Saturday 13th July)

We hope that you have enjoyed reading this blog from Cathy Duncan. Everyone is most welcome to visit Northern Print to see the exhibition “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” which is free to visit. See map below if you plan to visit.

The usual gallery opening times for Northern Print are Wednesday - Saturday 12pm - 4pm,

Stepney Bank, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon TyneNE1 2NP

Telephone: 0191 261 7000


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