Collective Thinking

Printmaking Today, Vol.15, No.2, summer 2006, p.27

Nigel Oxley

Interrogating the brain

This article is an account of the collaboration between artist Susan Aldworth and master etcher Nigel Oxley to produce a series of images based on the brain. This has been a collaboration over the last six years where Susan and Nigel have been developing different techniques and applying them to her area of research and combined image making.

Brainscapes: Inside the heads of 30 strangers

Each etching is a portrait of a patient who gave Susan Aldworth permission to observe them during neuroradiological procedures. Nigel Oxley talks about the making of them:

“You are now able to portray images that go way beyond mere medical illustration. Looking at the etchings, one senses one is looking at a phenomenon of some kind – consciousness. They look like they’ve made themselves. That’s the great beauty and charm of them. We are really onto something with these plates. Letting white spirit bleed into meths on top of the aquatint produces a perfect representation of a brain haemorrhage. It’s extraordinary – we’re managing to set a haemorrhage in metal… It’s staggering to think that all this has come out of one plate and one etch. The depth and subtlety of it is astonishing. It goes on revealing itself.

Every week you turned up with new drawings inspired by your work at the hospital. You wanted to find a way of working purely in negative line to describe the relationship between the physical brain and the mind. In doing so, you have taken negative line etching further than anybody else I’ve worked with. The exciting thing for me is inventing a new process by taking bits of the old vocabulary and turning it into something else.

I think we were really on to something in those last few plates where we let meths bleed into white spirit on top of the aquatint. We got a completely multi-layered image in one etch. Your drawing skills and the fact that you let the process find its own life are the reasons for the success of the plates. And it didn’t end for me when the day was over. I kept thinking about the work and how we could keep developing.  I sometimes felt a bit thrown when you showed me one of your drawings, but we always managed to come up with a solution through etching. If I’d only seen the finished prints, I would not have known how these plates were made.

There is a lot of separate imagery and mark-making going on in your work. Your visual language is broad enough to take manipulation and remain fresh. Etching is a very generous medium and the key to a good set of prints is having a successful personal graphic language.”

Nigel Oxley, Master etcher


I had been working on location at in the neuoradiology department at the Royal London Hospital for a couple of years and had produced hundreds of drawings. Two significant things happened in 2005. I received an arts council grant to develop work for the exhibition Matter into Imagination, and I also was appointed Artist in Residence in the Print Room at London Metropolitan University where I am now Visiting Research Fellow. 

The Royal London Hospital and The Print Room at London Metropolitan University are on the same street which meant that I could draw on location at the hospital in the mornings and go straight into the etching studio at the university in the afternoon. This was very important to the integrity and dynamism of the work. The drawings were transferred quickly and freehand from sketchbook to etching plate whilst I still had the emotional fallout of the hospital experience in my mind. In the print room I worked with master etcher Nigel Oxley who had previously worked with Jim Dine, Lis Frink and John Hoyland at White Ink and Kelpra Studios. We had an immediate rapport. Etching is a highly chemical process and proved to be an exciting medium to pursue my ideas about consciousness.

We invented a radical way of working which used negative or white line rather than the traditional black line of etching to reflect the negative photographic qualities of brain scans and x-rays. It also gives a sense of seeing below the surface. We set the white lines against rich tonal aquatints to bring light shining back into the pictures to suggest the self of each patient. We experimented with using chemical reactions on the surface of the plate to mirror chemical activity in the brain.

The first series of print were called  Brainscapes: Inside the heads of  30 strangers. They are a series of portraits of the patients I had drawn on the operating table – as intimate as an artist could get – made from looking into the very being of each person, extraordinarily intimate portraits of their minds in action. Making these etchings with Nigel was a serious methodical adventure – one we went on to repeat many times in the future.

Susan Aldworth, Artist