With a little help from her friends, Elspeth Lamb has found her ideal studio. Clare Henry witnesses the stone age beauty created there

A DECADE ago Elspeth Lamb set up Bon A Tirer, the first and only independent lithographic studio in Britain. She started with one small press from Edinburgh's Royal High School. ``It's 1930s, made by J Greig at Edinburgh's Fountain House Works. They wanted rid of it. I got it for #25, plus half a dozen prints I donated to the school. I wonder if they still have them? Two friends helped me dismantle the press and bring it to Glasgow. It's been worth its weight in gold.''

The next, an 11ft monster Mann offset litho press, came from Edinburgh's Printmakers, and its beds cope with prints up to 36.x.49in. ``No other studios have got anything as big as this. And I can also do monotypes on it. In Edinburgh Ken Duffy used it to print Bellany prints in the 1970s.''

Getting the Mann assembled, quite a job, was accomplished by Chris Halliday, an engineer from London, and Lamb says: ``The printmakers' friend. He's one of the few people in the world who can fix old printing presses.''

In 1986 Lamb was just back from a year's research residency in America, at the Tamarind Institute of Lithography of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Tamarind has a worldwide reputation as the top place for lithography. Along with teachings on techniques, etc, Tamarind's director Marj Devon - ``such a positive person'' - offered a course on setting up your own workshop. ``Of course the States tax legislation was different. Here there are no tax shelters!''

Regardless, Lamb set to. ``While I was in the States I got a phone call from Jacki Parry who had just found the now-famous East Campbell Street studios. She was first in. Long-distance, I reserved a space on the top floor - #26 a month then, much more now!

``I set up the studio all on my own, with the exception of a 1989 regional development grant. A photographer friend, Robert Hamilton built the wooden sink. A potter pal made the sides. I used friends to help me. It's a small operation. The workshop is basic - but it works. It's been the best thing I ever did. This is my haven of peace. I can shut out the world. I couldn't do without it.''

Lamb is currently acting head of Printmaking at Edinburgh College of Art where she's been teaching since 1978. ``Working with painters there influenced my way of looking; my work became more intuitive and expressive. George Donald's full-bodied imagery was inspirational too!''

Lamb trained at Glasgow; then did a postgraduate in Printmaking at Manchester in 1973-74 before going to the Ruskin in Oxford. She was involved in Glasgow Print Studio in the early days where I first knew her as a figurative etcher. At that time Glasgow used modern metal litho plates which are light to handle in comparison to the original very heavy, limestone litho stones, but, says Lamb, ``stones are superior. You can really manipulate the image; finely tune it by using different strengths of acid in a way impossible on zinc plates.

``I first tried stone lithography at Oxford. I'm really self-taught in stone litho. It's a technique based on the antipathy of grease and water. I used American How-To manuals, but of course all the charts applied to different climates! I made a mess quite often at the start. When I got back to Scotland I used the litho stones and small presses at Glasgow Print Studio which the then director Calum MacKenzie had managed to find. Old litho stones are nowadays very precious. Calum was very helpful.''

After a year lecturing at Glasgow School of Art, Lamb became etching technician at GPS from 1975-78. ``There was a great spirit of camaraderie then - even selflessness. We got paid a tenner a week. Thatcherism has a lot to answer for. Nowadays there's an unhealthy, over-competitive spirit about.''

In her third-floor eyrie, Lamb has printed edition after edition of complex, colourful prints which have earned her a handsome reputation. But foreign travel (``inspired by Jacki's globe-trotting example'') has also played its part in forging Lamb's characteristic exotic imagery. First it was summer visits to Greece and Crete; then, after New Mexico, umpteen trips to Mexico itself.

``From 1988 on, each year my husband and I have been following the main Mayan and Aztec sites in Central America. This year we went to Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. There are impressive shamanistic churches in Honduras, half-Christian, half-pagan, the floors strewn with pine needles, rose petals, and candle wax. They are so atmospheric!''

This has inspired her latest handmade paper prints which have petals and leaves embedded in the pulp together with embossed snake shapes and hi-tech computerised images as well as Xeroxed skulls, masks, and skeletons floated on to the top of the pulp sheets when wet, a bit like chine colle.

More foreign inspiration comes from trips to Finland, where she was artist in residence in 1991; Canberra and Seattle in 1993; and Vancouver's Malaspina Printmakers in Canada in 1994. Each new place brings new contacts and new techniques. Lamb is a virtuoso printmaker with all techniques at her fingertips but has a gift for peau de crapaud (literal translation ``toad-skin'' but really meaning a method of creating wonderful tide-like textures).

Recently, along with paperworks, she's also been experimenting with strong colour procion dye and silkscreen printing. The results were shown to great acclaim at London's Contemporary Art Fair last month.

Lamb's studio shelves are a mass of inks, paints, extenders, grits (for grinding the surface off the stone when she has finished with it and wants to make another print), talc for the stone edges, palette-knives to spread the ink before rolling up, gum, acid, black touche, brushes, sponges, and the essential rollers with their black surfaces and wood or metal handles. Getting a clean print off stones is not easy (I speak from experience) and rolling the ink on is an art in itself.

So what does Bon A Tirer mean? ``It's literal translation is `good to pull', but it's actually the first satisfactory print; the one you are absolutely happy with. When you edition you try to compare and match up to that one so that the edition - in my case usually about 15 or at most 20 prints - is all the same. A colour trial proof is when the colours deliberately vary.''

What next? ``The writing's on the wall. I hope to build up the multimedia aspect in my own work and at Edinburgh too. But an artist still needs a good analytical sense. That's essential.''