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Brothers by Nature

Inspired by their time spent outdoors, two brothers, Ed and James Harrison, one a graphic designer, the other a printmaker, have teamed up to produce Under the Skin, a project that reflects their love for the natural world and their passion for environmental stewardship. The handcrafted print series of endangered animals raises both awareness of the animal’s plight and funds to support those working in conservation projects on the ground. Finished with a UV skeleton of the animal, when the lights are turned off, the prints glow, showing all that would remain if the species tragically falls into the darkness of extinction. Ed and James share with us their personal journeys and motivations for the project.

You both have a very close relationship with the natural world as well as the creative arts. Could you tell us where this stemmed from and what set you down this path?

James: Growing up in South Wales, we had access to arguably some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. This is where my passion for the ocean grew strong; we’d rush out of school to go surfing and explore the rugged coastline and curious wildlife of The Gower Peninsula. From a young age, our parents always encouraged us to be productive and spend time outdoors over playing video games or watching television. They loved to share their passion for the natural world with us.

As the youngest of four boys, my brothers have been a major influence on me, exposing me to art, music, outdoor pursuits and recreation. Naturally, I followed in their footsteps and pursued art and design, first studying in the small surf town of Falmouth and then moving to the Glasgow School of Art, where I took a very hands on approach to my work in an ever-expanding range of mediums. After graduating, in my spare time, I continued my practice in printmaking at the Glasgow Print Studio. There, I developed my printmaking skills, learning from world-renowned printmakers and taking on screen-print commissions. I’ve since set up my own screen-printing studio and now collaborate with a variety of artists and illustrators to create limited edition screen-printed artwork.

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Ed: Creativity has always been strongly supported in our family. But perhaps surprisingly, our parents come from scientific backgrounds; they are both doctors, with our dad having studied natural sciences during medical school. Our house was always full of scientific books, old medical instruments and tools, with shelves stacked with medical journals and those iconic bright yellow National Geographics. This is likely where my interest for science and biology stems from. Like my parents, I had intended to study medicine, but ultimately I went down a more artistic path that felt truer to me.

After working as a freelance graphic designer between Brighton and London for a few years, in 2016 I felt in need of a change. I wanted to escape city life and spend more time outdoors. The beauty of freelancing is the freedom to create work on the go anywhere in the world. I’d always dreamt of the great mountains of Canada – there aren’t many countries where you can ski, surf and rock climb all within a few hours drive. So that year, I headed to British Columbia, bought a van, which also became my home on wheels, and worked remotely whilst exploring these incredible landscapes. Life on the road, as I've learnt, requires a different mindset and poses new challenges every day. It’s a pretty wild and special chapter of my life.

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Where did the idea for Under the Skin stem from?

Ed: Alongside my client work, I always have passion projects on the go. In March 2015, I started up Animalia Daily, a side project for which I illustrated a different animal species each day. It didn't matter if the illustrations were unfinished, as long as I was illustrating every day and honing my own style. The exciting thing was choosing each animal; I would trawl through nature books, journals and encyclopaedias to find species that I felt I'd enjoy bringing to life. I think in shapes, the aim being to capture the characteristics and movement of each animal with as few illustrative elements as possible. This daily project formed the foundation for Under the Skin.

James: Whilst Ed developed Animalia Daily, I was printmaking work that also focused on animals and nature. Whenever Ed and I meet up, we love to share our work with each other – an enjoyable and important part of our creative processes which always sparks new and inspiring ideas. One time, whilst both laid up with skiing injuries, we delved into a deep discussion on conservation issues and how we are living through the sixth mass extinction; in that moment, inspired to do something proactive, we decided to bring our skills together and create a project focussed on endangered species. And Under the Skin was born.

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"It’s funny how childhood curiosities can have such an influence on your outlook on life." – Ed Harrison

How does it feel to collaborate and use your talents for a cause you are both so passionate about?

Ed: Raising awareness of endangered species is a key aim of Under the Skin. But more than that, we want to offer a way for people to take action, make a direct impact, and support endangered animals through supporting the grassroots organisations. The further the project progresses, the more we uncover just how desperate the situation is. But we are also discovering the efforts being made by passionate people dedicated to these animals and the wild places in need of protection. This gives us hope. And we feel honoured to be able to offer our skills, time and creativity to help promote the charities, organisations and individuals on the front line.

James: Everyone can create positive change no matter their skill set, and as designers, we can highlight pertinent issues we feel are important in creative and engaging ways. In line with our values, we take a sustainable and eco-friendly approach, which influences our processes and everything from using responsibly produced papers, inks, packaging, to the way we post the prints. We reuse, reduce and recycle materials wherever possible. And this mindset has a powerful way of feeding into everyday life and the choices I make: healthy eating, limiting plastic waste, sustainable food, enjoying the great outdoors, and appreciating our connection to the natural world.

Does your love for the great outdoors and outdoor recreation have an influence on your creative practice?

James: Spending time outdoors is directly linked with my creativity, inspiration and happiness. More than this though, it has led us to become more aware of the impacts humans have on our planet. Over the past few years we’ve surfed amongst large oil spills, witnessed huge amounts of plastic pollution, noticed weather and snow conditions changing in the mountains, and the impact on the wildlife is becoming more and more evident. Seeing this first hand has directly influenced our work.

Ed: The great outdoors provides an amazing space to get out of the studio, change your mindset, and live in the moment. Whether rock climbing in the mountains, skiing in the backcountry or surfing in the ocean, you’re sharing these beautiful natural environments with a variety of other species. It’s impossible not to be inspired!

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Can you please explain the process of creating an Under the Skin print?

Ed: It can take anywhere up to two months to produce an edition of 40, depending on the complexity of the illustration and number of layers in the screen-print. Before design work begins, we do a large amount of research to understand the animal's anatomy, behaviour, habitat, movements, iconic features and defining characteristics. I then look to capture these stylistically; a pencil, drafting compass and ruler are my go-to tools to begin the sketching process. I then move onto my laptop, working with the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator to create a digitalised animal illustration, following which I experiment with colour to find a strong, bold background that both ties the illustration into the print series and lends to the animal’s habitat. I’ll then illustrate the skeleton using anatomical diagrams, books and online resources for reference. This intricate layer represents the true anatomy of the animal, whilst contrasting with the bold, simple, geometrics of the animal’s body. James and I collaborate throughout this process.

James: Once Ed sends me the digital files, I separate the illustration into layers based on colour. Each layer is digitally printed in solid black shapes onto individual sheets of transparent acetate – these perform like stencils. Each acetate stencil is placed upon a silk screen coated in light-sensitive emulsion; the screen is then exposed to ultraviolet light in an exposure unit. In areas of the screen that are exposed to the light, the emulsion will set, and in areas where the stencil shielded the screen from the light, the emulsion can be easily washed away, leaving free areas of mesh where printing ink can easily pass through.

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It’s then onto colour mixing. It can sometimes take days to accurately mix a colour. You need lots of natural sunlight to properly assess the colours – the Scottish wintertime doesn’t always make this easy. Once the colour is mixed, the paper is placed onto the printing press using an alignment method that ensures each sheet of paper will be in exactly the same position every time. The screen is mounted onto the press and, finally, it’s time to print. I use a palette knife to spread the ink across the bottom of the screen, then use my squeegee to both “flood” and “pull” ink through the screen, transferring it through the mesh onto the paper below. The backgrounds are always printed first, with the layers built up on top of one another to make up the final print. If anything is out of alignment whilst printing, even by a few millimetres, the print can’t be used. Our screen prints currently range from between 6 and 13 layers, so there are many opportunities to misprint – something that even master screen-printers contend with. Once the whole edition is complete, the prints are trimmed down by hand, numbered, and embossed with a stamp of our logo.

Ed: Each print has a story; there is something really satisfying about the process going from hand-drawn to digital, then from digital back to hand-made again. From start to finish, our process is a true labour of love.

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What has this new venture and the evolution of the project taught you?

Ed: We are excited to be partnering with more charities to print and protect more endangered animals. Our project is organically evolving, which is really exciting. However, we’re very aware that as the project grows, so too does our environmental footprint, and while we’re far from perfect, we strive to maintain a responsible and sustainable design approach by questioning the materials and process behind everything we create. Consciously maintaining this awareness gives us something to keep pushing for, in both our creative venture and everyday lives.

James: We feel that education is one of the most important ways to get people engaged with issues and to take action. We are pushing more on this educational side, and we’re now giving talks on our Under the Skin project and our approach to meaningful design, as well as topics such as threats of ocean plastic and the importance of old growth forests. Due to the nature of our work, we are constantly learning about the decline of animal species all over the globe. Honestly, it’s pretty overwhelming. However, we feel constantly reassured that we are focusing our energy on a positive cause, and this motivates us to continue working hard to develop Under the Skin. •

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This story is from Volume Nine

The Wilderness Volume

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