Artist Jack Clayton’s body of work is an impressive mix of woodcut prints and intricate pen and ink illustrations. Claudia Davaar Lambie attends one of his workshops to learn more about his craft. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Two and a half years ago, having just arrived in Vietnam, I bought my very first piece of artwork. It was entitled ‘Dong Son Drum’ by Jack Clayton and is inspired by an ancient form of Southeast Asian storytelling where scenes of daily life, war and animals are represented on bronze drums.

Clayton used the template to depict his own images of life in modern day Vietnam. It proudly hangs on my wall and reminds me of my own journey here.

In the last few years, London born Clayton, 30, has honed in on his passion for woodcut printmaking. He moved to Vietnam in 2012 and his impressive collection of artwork has gained popularity both at home and in Saigon.

In his woodcuts he focuses images of landscapes and characters and skillfully manipulates them. He entwines images into the grain of the wood, letting the natural patterns inform and dictate the work in progress.

With printmaking, he creates obscure illustrations that unravel on further inspection. “I experiment to create unique and eye catching work,” he says. “I enjoy mixing the inks, to create my own blends of colour and trying out different carving methods to move away from the traditional aesthetic.”

His grandfather, a magician on the London circuit, sparked his interest in the arts when he was a boy by showing him tricks. Since then, a fascination with illusions has threaded through his work, engaging the viewer with thought provoking imagery; seemingly clear-cut from the outset only to reveal intricate messages when you delve in a little deeper.

Clayton is currently working on a woodcut which portrays how the human mind makes decisions. So far, he has spent around 30 hours on the project. The symbolic images are drawn directly onto the wood with pen. He then patiently cuts the wood around the images. The different textures and layers of the wood add to the abstractness of the piece. As Clayton works, his ideas constantly evolve. “I never have a finished piece in my head when I work. I’m always thinking and sometimes I redo (it) if I can,” he says.

I jumped at the chance to attend one of his workshops at his apartment and was instructed to come armed with a design idea. Around 10 of us turned up, eager to impress. Around the large living room-come-workshop space Clayton’s past and present woodcut designs, digital prints and Quest Festival artwork were dotted around. He speaks modestly about his collection and it seems he wants to continue learning as much as he can about the craft, never becoming complacent.

Wooden cutters and engraving tools were scattered on the table along with blocks of wood and a saw. After chopping a slab of wood for myself, I sketched the Egyptian symbol the Eye of Horus surrounded by my take of a geometric world map onto the wood. After an hour of drawing, it embarrassingly looked like a five-year-old’s output but by then it was time to cut the wood.

Carefully, I began to chisel my image. The woodcutting was exhausting. If a mistake was made there was no going back. Over the course of the workshop, there were patches of silence while we concentrated on our precision.

Clayton meticulously worked on his own piece at the same time, skillfully switching between the types of tools depending on how deep he wanted to make the cut. The technicality and attention to detail in this craft comes naturally to him. For the participants, we were shrouded in wood shavings, unsure if the next woodcut would be our last.

Once the woodcut is complete, the final phase is to print it. Clayton rolled the coloured ink along the grooves and deep indents of the wood, generously coating it. He then turned the woodcut facedown and imprinted the paper with the woodcut design. Using a wooden spoon to smooth over any bumps, Clayton lifted the paper to check that the designs from the wood had been transferred across. I didn’t realise that the image engraved on the wood would be reversed when it was printed. In the end, my unintentional mistake (of a back to front world map) appeared quite intentional and abstract.

Before Clayton leaves Vietnam to study printmaking in the UK, he wants to host more workshops with local and expat artists, collaborating and learning about other artistic techniques. The sensory overload that overcomes us from living in Vietnam is sometimes overwhelming. With Clayton’s work there is a therapeutic element, both in the method of woodcutting and his interpretative designs.