Meet the Sheffield artist whose intricate lino prints depict cityscapes, seaside vistas and donkeys

While a lucky few choose a career for themselves and wind up doing exactly what they set out to, the majority of people carve out a path following a few twists and turns in the road.

Saturday, 23rd October 2021, 7:00 am

The latter is certainly true of Sheffield artist, James Green, whose intricate yet minimal prints of cityscapes, seaside vistas and British wildlife, will be familiar to plenty in the city.

Though he has spent more than a decade making a living as a freelance artist, his route into the industry has not been straight forward.

Birmingham-born James has made Sheffield his home, after arriving here in 1992 to begin a fine art degree at Sheffield City Polytechnic, now Sheffield Hallam University.

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Sheffield artist James Green. Picture: Scott Merrylees

The 48-year-old specialised in photography, and while he enjoyed his degree, he describes how he did not feel as though he had found ‘something he loved doing’ by the time he completed it.

Fast-forward several years, and James was working in a post-graduate admissions office at the University of Sheffield when he decided to make his first print using linoleum, or lino, after being inspired to commit his cat Otto’s image to print.

"It was my mother-in-law who got me started when she lent me some lino cut tools and lino and I had a go. I did a pattern of my cat, it was a rather crude lino print but I really liked the process so started making these prints.

"I made a load of greeting cards to give to friends and cut out the negative space and what you leave is what prints, and you need to get used to that aspect of it. The fact that you need to cut what you need in reverse and what you print will be mirrored. That can be more tricky when you’re doing writing or lanscapes.”

Some of James' prints. Picture Scott Merrylees

“I honestly had no idea it would turn into a career,” said James,

In the meantime, another of James’ creative outlets, music, was beginning to flourish.

James has been a musician since 2000, and formed The Big Eyes Family Players, a band he describes as melding ‘folk music and experimental pop’ here in Sheffield.

Then in 2009, the band was signed to Domino Records, a leading independent record label that is perhaps best-known for signing Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys; and the quintet were tasked with making an album of folk songs with Scottish musician, James Yorkston.

James at work. Picture Scott Merrylees

James Yorkston was already signed to Domino, and James says he was instrumental in bringing their record deal about.

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“I was offered a deal to put out some music and then organise a tour. The only way I could really do that was if I left my job so I decided to leave because I thought I’d really regret not doing that.

“I left to do the music thing in 2009, and it was really good for a while,” explains James.

James pictured with one of his prints. Picture: Scott Merrylees

As many musicians called to give evidence in this year’s MP-led inquiry into the economics of music streaming will attest, making music pay and turning it into a viable career path, has long been an issue.

Back in 2009, streaming services were not the monoliths they are now; but making enough money to live on, even after securing a record deal, was still a challenge for many musicians, including James.

"We toured the UK and played in Europe a bit as well. The tour lasted for between four and five weeks.

"It took about six months for me to realise there wasn’t a lot of money in music wasn’t going to change my life.

"Other musicians were doing other things to keep them afloat, and I didn’t really realise that,” said James.

He added: “I realised that perhaps it was a bit of an unrealistic thing to be doing; and thought I’ve been making these lino prints for years, maybe I should pursue that.”

James specialises in lino and screen prints. Picture Scott Merrylees

And with that, James’ career as an artist began in earnest and he got the business off the ground by setting up an online shop and beginning to sell his work at craft and farmers markets in Sheffield and beyond.

The next thing he needed to do was to find his style, and a creative niche that represented his passions and interests.

“I spent a couple of years working out what I enjoy most. I was doing pictures of more traditional things and some more abstract pieces as well.

"Eventually, about three years down the line, I began focusing on three areas, which are basically what I do now, and they are: landscapes; wildlife, specifically UK wildlife and donkeys, and they’re often quite abstract,” said James.

Explaining why depictions of donkeys form part of his artistic offering, James said: “I started doing a lot of donkey prints, primarily because I felt they were undervalued in the art world or the real world and felt I wanted to champion them, and this grew into a series of prints.”

From his home studio in Meersbrook, James creates landscapes of locations he loves, which includes some of Sheffield's spectacular views, as well as seaside scenes in locations including Scarborough; Robin Hood’s Bay and Cromer in Norfolk.

James attributes his distinctive style to ‘keeping things simple’ and ‘generally only working with two or three colours maximum’.

He says that the process of creating lino prints, through which a design is cut into the lino and the ink is then added to his chosen material using a printing press, has helped to inform the simple design James has made his own.

“I often think that if I was a painter, I think I would get confused by the number of choices in terms of the number of colours and space,” he said.

Over time, James has also added print making to his repertoire, which has a slightly different process to lino print making, and is currently in the process of setting up a print making studio in his garage at his home. Until then, James will continue to use equipment from Hunk Print, who are based in Highfield.

James cites Pablo Picasso; David Hockney; Francisco Goya; Max Beckmann and Frida Kahlo as being among his artistic influences.

In addition to his online shop, James also sells his printworks in markets in locations including Leeds; Nottingham and Devon, at the Sheffield makers’ shops on Ecclesall Road and the Winter Gardens, and has also been commissioned to complete work for parties including the Folk Forest music festival in Sheffield; art gallery, the Hepworth Wakefield and English Heritage. One of his prints has also been used in a book written by Charlie Gilmour, the son of legendary Pink Floyd guitarist, David Gilmour.

As James’ style and collection has evolved, so too has his range of artwork, and in addition to prints, James has also recently begun to branch out into textiles, with help from the Stitch Society to turn one of his donkey prints into aprons and smocks.

He says they have been created as part of a project, funded by a grant from Sheffield Council’s ‘freelance fund’ which was set up in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Just as with many local artists, a sizeable proportion of James’ income comes from selling his prints at events including farmers’ markets, which meant that the pandemic hit him hard.

Thankfully, his online sales also increased during lockdown, as people were spending more money on themselves and loved ones, helping to keep him afloat.

Looking to the future, James is enjoying being able to return to markets, and is continuing to make music with his band, now going by the shortened name of Big Eyes Family, who released their eighth album, The Disappointed Chair, in November last year.