Behind the design: The 2016 Lunar Year of the Monkey UK coins

With Chinese New Year just around the corner, we caught up with Wuon-Gean Ho, designer of The Royal Mint’s Shēngxiào UK Lunar Coin collection, to find out more about her Year of the Monkey coin design. This is now the third coin Wuon-Gean has designed for the Lunar coin collection, so we also took the opportunity to find out more about the lino cutting technique that she uses to create her designs.

Hi Wuon-Gean, tell us a little bit about yourself…

I’m Wuon-Gean Ho, I’m an artist and print maker and I’m designing The Royal Mint’s Shēngxiào Lunar coin collection. So far I have designed the Year of the Horse and Year of the Sheep coins, and this year is the Year of the Monkey.

What does the monkey symbolise in the lunar calendar?

My sisters, who are twins, are both monkeys and, as far as I know, monkeys are very lively, clever, intelligent, and a bit cheeky. I think people born in the year of the Monkey are supposed to be quick at making decisions and are clever and energetic.

Tell us about your research…

We don’t have very many monkeys here in England, so I ended up looking at a lot of websites and videos of monkeys in action. After hours of research, I decided to choose a rhesus monkey for my coin design, which is an ‘old world’ monkey that lives in Europe, Africa, China and South East Asia.

Did you choose the rhesus monkey for any specific reason?

I watched a lot of videos of them jumping and climbing in trees and what really attracted me to them was how they move. They’re very elegant. They’re also very sociable and live in big family groups. Normally the mum is in charge and they have a really strict social order. They’re just very playful animals and I think they’re very cute to look at. I guess the combination of their intelligence and their playfulness appealed to me.

You’ve chosen to have two monkeys in the design – why did you do that?

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I suppose I chose two monkeys because the monkeys are always together and it helps to convey their social personality and that family element. The other, more personal reason, is that I have a niece and nephew who are little monkeys to me! At the time when I was thinking about the monkey design I wanted to put them in it. So the main monkey is Alby, my nephew who is six years old. He is full of life: always jumping around. The little monkey is Aoife-Mae, my two year old niece. You’ll also notice I included two Sheep in the Year of the Sheep design (with several more hidden sheep in the trees in the background) and two horses in the Year of the Horse design (the second horse is the hill figure).

Why did you choose to show the monkeys jumping in the design?

Well, there’s an ongoing theme in my coin designs – the theme of movement is something that I would like to bring to all the coins. In my Year of the Horse design, the horse is turning in the field with its tail and mane moving in the wind. In the Year of the Sheep design the sheep are walking towards the trees and have one eye looking forwards, one eye looking back. With the Year of the Monkey design, the concept of flight was something I wanted to explore, because monkeys take to the air even though they don’t have wings.

What were your first thoughts when you began this new design?

I looked at some of the other Year of the Monkey coin designs from around the world, and what struck me about them was that many of them show monkeys sitting, or balancing on branches, holding peaches. I already knew that I wanted to continue the theme of movement with my Year of the Monkey design, and provide a contrast with other coin designs.

In my research I looked at what the monkey means in Chinese culture, in Chinese traditions and folk tales. Have you heard of the Monkey King? He is a super hero who has a very mischievous streak, who ultimately uses his magical powers to protect others. Eventually I drew what I found most exciting and appealing about these monkeys – which was their energy and movement.

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Tell us a little about how you approach the design in linocut

Linocut is my first choice when working on a new project. I use Japanese vinyl, rather than lino: it’s a similar material to handle. The vinyl is dense to carve and my marks are a collaboration between the mark I want to make and the mark I am slightly forced to make by the resistance of the material. When you put the knife into the block, the knife has to be quite certain where it wants to go, otherwise you get an unsteady line. Lino/vinyl is a great medium for doing dynamic shapes and forms, and graphic silhouettes.

There’s often many different sketches and ideas but generally once you commit to a path in lino you can’t go back. So I do a drawing on the block lino, and then I carve into the block and then I print it. Then, once I’ve come out the other end of the journey, I look back and ask myself ‘was that what I wanted?’ If not, I’ll start again. I will commit fully to my design while I’m carving, I don’t try and modify it half way through.

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How did you translate that movement and that jumping into the design?

I think the movement comes from the drawing. If you look at videos of monkeys jumping from tree to tree, they do a very clumsy squatting motion on the branch before they do this elegant take off. They also tend to jump symmetrically, rather than with one arm outstretched. I wanted to convey the elegance of them ‘in flight’ so there is an element of fiction to the drawing.

Can you describe the features of the design for us?

The main monkey is leaping from the tree into void, he’s leaping forward somewhere we cannot see. I hope this conveys the bravery and courageousness of this monkey as well as his movement and energy.

The tree and the grasses in the background represent the fact that monkeys can live in many different habitats. They can live in the forest, in the grassland or they can live by the water.

The other monkey is jumping the other way, playing. This is to emphasise the social nature and companionship of monkeys in their large family groups.

Are there any hidden elements in there that might not immediately catch the eye?

Well, you might not have spotted it yet, but my name is in the design. I have a very old style name seal, which I’ve hidden in the design – it looks like a fruit hanging on the tree. I also included my name seal in the Year of the Sheep design – it was hidden in the fur of the sheep. Did you spot it?

How does the year of the monkey compare to other calendar years such as the sheep?

The Year of the Sheep was a calm and domestic year, I think it was about family and home making. I think the Year of the Monkey is a lot more dynamic, because the monkey is very clever, lively and intelligent. I think it might be faster paced, more active and more energetic.

What do you like most about the coin design?

The coin is a completely different medium from the lino print and what I like about the design on the coin is that the silhouette and the graphic quality of the print has come through well in the frosting of the coin. The foreground, such as the foliage on the coin, is frosted and the background, the table, is shiny and polished. So, when it catches the light, it looks like the foreground is very bright and the background is dark and gives the coin a very similar graphic quality to my original linocut.

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I enjoyed designing the coin. I’m getting used to the idea of working in a circle, and conveying movement. I’m enjoying working with the idea that the design is going to be in three dimensions, with relief and flat areas, and the added dimension of the frosted and the shiny areas. It’s a really fun project to do and I am enjoying collaborating with the craftspeople at The Royal Mint.

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What’s next in the series?

The next coin in the series is the Year of the Rooster and, in my design, the rooster is in a hidden location in the UK.

So there you have it, another fascinating look into the story behind a coin design. The Lunar Year of the Monkey coins are available now on royalmint.com. We’d like to know what you think of Wuon-Gean’s Year of the Monkey design, so let us know on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Menelik A I

    I don’t understand why the United Kingdom needs or should have special coins for the Chinese New Year. It seems to be a commercial decision with a eye on markets in the Far East. That isn’t really what the Royal Mint used to be for.

  • Riekie Wootton

    It’s wonderful. It’s the most invigorating way to show the understanding the insight from two cultures so divers overly different yet the same, the godly nature of the west combined with the earthly nature of the being within….I’m also looking forward to see designs coming forth that will show the border years…I’m not only an Aquarian but also a Monkey-Rooster… I feel the Monkey appear a bit’pregnant’, thus it could have been a more outstretched monkey to convey the elegance of the animals movement. ILl wait a bit longer for my ‘coin’ to arrive. But the idea is right…money is needed for the many needs of the UK and the charitable work we had to do. The astrologer’s view would be welcome as well..