‘Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle’: the stencil-making.

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After the gouache and pencil study has been produced to work out how I want the print to look (see above), I begin on the stencils. These are first drawn and painted onto lithography film, and thereafter photo-developed onto the micro-mesh screens used to produce the prints. All but the last of the images below are of the stencils that will create the black layer of the print. I work with a greasy lithographic crayon, an oil-based pencil for finer marks, and a special fibre-tip pen with opaque ink. The pen marks are red here, but once this stencil has been rendered as a screen to print from, all the marks you see will be printed in black ink.

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A pencil on paper is mark-making with the tonal qualities created through pressure of the hand. However in screen printing any mark is a mechanical one, and any tonal aspect has to come through colour mixing, through layering and by the close proximity of the small dots of ink forced through the micro-mesh of the screens.

The images for the Gawain series are produced on film of two types: smooth and granular. The irregular surface of the granular TruGrain, means that a wax crayon drawing on it consists of dots caught on the raised parts of the film.

Below, a detail of a wax drawing on TruGrain taken with light behind it clearly shows the dots that build the effects of graduated tone. I’ve also used a scalpel to scratch through areas at the upper left and down the right hand side, to vary the mark-making in the finished print.

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Below: tens of thousands of tiny dots build the tonalities I want in the finished print.

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Below: the completed drawing on TruGrain ready to be transferred to a screen for printing.

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The black layer of the print is the one that holds most of the compositional detail. The ‘coloured’ layers that will be printed beneath it, will be made up of one layer of red, two of blue and two of yellow.

Finally, a picture of the stencils ready to be rolled and sent to Dan Bugg at the Penfold Press. The image appears a little fuzzy only because it consists of six translucent layers.

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Little Acorns

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The Toytown Toy Theatre that Daniel Bugg and I made this year as the Penfold Press Christmas card is a tiny thing, though the screen-printed 2 x A4 sheet kit took a lot of planning and producing. Originally we’d intended there to be a third sheet with the instructions. But that would have added significantly to the cost and effort of production, so given the model was quite simple, we decided to let the recipients figure out how to assemble it unaided.

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First of all there were some sketches, then a model or two. I tried various ideas. At one time there was to be a ship at sea with a merman blowing a triton cresting the waves at the stage front. Then I had the notion of a toy-train with steam, and finally, a toy-duck with a top-hat as a steam funnel! Originally the stage front was more of a traditional proscenium.

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I’m not quite sure what prompted me to turn it into a toy town, nor where all the strange creatures that decorate it came from. It’s a bit of a mystery too, that while the roofs of the buildings are crusted with fallen snow, there are spring tulips decorating the front of the stage. Perhaps in Toytown all the seasons come together!

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I rendered the artwork onto film ready for Dan to turn into screens, and finally, the sheets were printed by him at his Penfold Press studio in Barlby.

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Dan sent me a clutch of construction sheets for my own use, and my last job was to snip and glue a theatre so that Peter and I had one for our mantelpiece. It was the centrepiece at Christmas, but long after the other decorations came down, it remained, and it remains there still, wishing anyone who cares to look, Toytown ‘Yuletide Greetings!’

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The Witch, the Director and Mr Mitchum

At the start of the project to tell the story of Hansel & Gretel in pictures, I made a single, worked-to-completion, wide-format image to show the publisher, Simon Lewin, how the finished illustrations might look. Here it is.

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The witch hurtles like a bird of prey, pursuing the children in a hail of Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts and assorted confectionary. However, much changed between the trial image and the final artwork. To begin with I reversed the action, propelling the momentum from left to right so as to continue the action in the direction of the page turns. Here’s the image as it appears in the book, though without the colour that was added at the printing stage.

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And because the finished design became a spread with an added right-hand fold-out, I had to make sure that the witch and the children were hidden completely when the fold-out was in the closed position, which meant they had to fit exactly into two thirds of the composition. When the spread is first opened, with the fold-out in the closed position, the house stands on the left-hand page, while the right offers a view of the children approaching it across a bridge as the witch, bent and hobbling with the aid of a walking-stick, heads toward them. Here’s a detail of the drawing, photographed before it was finished.

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When the fold-out is opened, the terrifying transformation has taken place. Moreover the viewer has been catapulted closer to the action to see in detail the witch’s awful appearance, clawing at the fleeing children’s backs.

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There are four page fold-outs in the book, and with each I wanted the ‘reveal’ to carry the narrative forward. In two I also included a shock moment, rather like a jump-cut in a film.

The children in the trial drawing are exactly the same as they appear in the finished book. However the design of the witch changed a little, anatomically. The underslung jaw of the early drawing was jettisoned, replaced with the more typical hooked nose/chin profile of fairy-tale witches. I knew that those teeth couldn’t possibly fit into her jaws when closed, and so in the two close-ups where they’re not apparent, I imagined them as being hinged, like a snake’s, folded back into grooves in the gums until required. I even made a witch maquette with a little mechanism that unfolded the fangs from horizontal to vertical as her jaws gaped, and slid smoothly back again as they closed. I didn’t really have need of it for the illustrations, but I always find that I work better with that kind of background information.

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Finally, here’s an image from Night of the Hunter, the sole film on which actor Charles Laughton worked as a director. It’s a cinema masterpiece, but it was misunderstood at the time and Laughton never directed another film. Robert Mitchum as the murderous ‘Preacher’ scrabbles up the cellar steps in pursuit of his step-children, and I realised even as I drafted my composition that I was remembering Preacher’s clawing hands, hellishly intent on mayhem. In Night of the Hunter, the children escape. In Hansel & Gretel, they don’t.

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Nick’s Ink: the design is delivered.

Facebook messaging between Nick Yarr and me, 14/01/17

Nick Yarr
Exchange safely accomplished – I’m digesting the design – it is very intricate. I can’t believe my arm is that size flattened out – deceiving! The next stage will be getting my tattoo artist on board, and getting the design scanned. Any input as to where to look re scanning will be gratefully recieved! Thanks again, Clive.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
It’s an interesting perception, the size of the arm, as I thought it looked rather small when the ‘wrap’ was flattened out to make a pattern. I was a little worried that it had shrunk over time. However, when I taped it around my own arm it was a reasonable fit. Neither of us are what might be called beefy, and so I’m guessing in terms of skin surface, our arms are similar.

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This will be the first tattoo of the Skin project, and so I’ve no idea what the response of an ‘ink artist’ will be. There are a lot out there now who are both designers and inkers, and some of the star practitioners may well consider inking only their own designs. However I guess it’s the nature of of tattooing to be often transferring a specific design or image that the client wants. For this design, we need first rate copying skills married to the sense of interpretation that’s bound to be a part of the process of making a good transference from pencil drawing to inked skin. It’ll take a lot of subtlety.

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Nick Yarr
Any thoughts on the scanning and where to start? I like the shading and three dimensional effect it gives. I like the flow and intricacy of the design, though the blue is something I’m becoming accustomed to!

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Hansel & Gretel was scanned by Saxon Digital Services in Norwich. I think they did a magnificent job, which then transferred to the printing of the book. You can see all the fine etched lines in the printed illustrations which I’d worried wouldn’t reproduce well. I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

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Regarding the blue. Throughout the design process I took images and digitally removed the colour, so I could check out how everything would look without the blue. The blue translates to a smoky shadow and you get a good sense of what the design would look like if you elected to go that way. Personally I like the blue, but the choice is there for you to forego it. Or if my blue is a tad bright for you, it could be pulled back to a more muted one.

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Nick Yarr
Thanks Clive. I like the monochrome  and the blue. I’ll give it some thought. I like the design very much. It’s what I was hoping for, but more extensive, if that’s the word, and extensive in a good way. Remind me of the reason for getting a digital translation. (This is a whole new world for a doctor – lol)

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
A detailed digital image might make it easier to download and show any ink artist what you you want to have put onto your arm. A good photograph or series of photographs might do initially, but at some point whoever you select will need to see a scale version or the original, given that it was designed to fit your arm.

Nick Yarr
I see – so I could also then translate the digital version onto paper so they had a full scale design to work with.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Exactly. Also, should you decide to go with a monochrome version, you can give the ink artist a scale image with the blue turned to tonal.

I recall in our original discussions, alone among all the participants you wanted something that was more pattern-like. More about mark-making. I remember being a bit daunted by your brief, because I’m essentially a narrative painter. But interestingly the past years have seen me working more frequently with patterns. They’ve always been there, in the flowery fields of the ‘saints’ paintings (Saints Kevin, Hervé and George) and in the rich diapering of textiles and backgrounds.

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But now, in the Gawain series, they’re increasing foregrounded and given compositional weight to bear. In this gouache and pencil study for the print of The Green Knight’s Head Lives, the patterning of the horse’s caparison and the Knight’s tattoos, cover a good three quarters of the image, knitting it together and conveying the world in which the character lives.

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So gradually I’ve became confident about what I could produce for you. (I am super aware that this is for life.) Had I been designing a tattoo for myself, it would have been the one I’ve made for you. I loved the idea of translating all the traditions of elaborate British historic embroidery and adornment into a tattoo. Your foliate design would serve just as well for the embroidery of an Elizabethan sleeve or doublet, as for a tattoo.

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I want to take a tattoo tradition that’s been rather hijacked by tribal patterning, and make something elaborate and quintessentially British. Transposing what might once have been the embroidery of a sleeve, directly onto skin, feels rooted visually in the decorative traditions of these islands, while being married to the more subversive, modern expression of body modification. I love the idea of a reversal of what once was. The Elizabethan courtier wore his decorated splendour as an outer suit that could be peeled away to reveal the undecorated body. Now the dark suited business man can peel away his sober outer layer to reveal the foliate glories of his tattooed skin.

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I think it’s drop dead sexy, this kind of male surrendering to beauty. Like a buck with a pearl earring. I don’t know how many people will get to see your tattoo, but I think it could be a gorgeous surprise, just poking out from under the cuff of a white shirt and skinny-smart three-piece suit. Hey ho Silver!!!

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Nick Yarr
I agree that tattoos are sexy. Moreover this design is very different to the many tattoos I’ve seen, and that’s a very good thing! I think that finding an artist I’m happy to trust to do justice to your work will be the next challenge. I’ve a few in mind – so I’ll keep you posted! Thanks once more for the time and trouble you’ve taken. It is very much appreciated.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
You might explain at some point that this a part of an ongoing art project. That might have an appeal for an ink artist who was interested in the profile generated by the project.

For my friend Susan, long lost but now found.

I wrote the following in 1998 for the Pelham Puppet Collectors’ Magazine, and it was published in issue No. 10, illustrated with a brush and ink drawing I’d made of my own ‘Bimbo’ puppet.  In 2016, Susan Wilmott contacted me at my Facebook page, over fifty years since we’d last seen each other. I know she has never read what I wrote in 1998, and so here it is, dedicated to her.

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Bimbo

‘In the 1950’s my family lived in an Edwardian terraced house in a suburb of Newport called Maindee. My early years were idyllic, and from the dizzying perspective of middle age, it seems in memory that this childhood realm was a map of delights such as were once found in the endpapers of favourite books. At the bottom is the pocket-handkerchief sized park where I played. To the left is my Nan’s house, bolt-hole and tuck-shop when I was in trouble with my parents. At the top is the wooden shack of the newsagent’s, fragrant with tar and boiled sweets and crammed under the railway bridge like a swallow’s nest glued to the eaves. On Saturdays I’d loiter over selecting comics from the counter, praying that a train would pass over while I was inside so I could experience the thrill of the little building rattling and lurching fit to slip its moorings. At the heart of the map stands our house, red brick and plain, primly aproned with privet at the front though concealing at the back a marvellous and unruly wilderness of cottage garden where rambling roses, honeysuckle and orange blossom tumbled above the massed bedding flowers that were my father’s pride and my mother’s joy. Overlooking the garden, my bedroom, repository of dreams, books, paper theatres, fossils, old bones and Pelham Puppets. On the map this place bears the legend, ‘Here be treasure!’.

My friend Susan Wilmott lived just around the corner. Both in memory and in school photographs she smiles out shyly, forever in summery cotton frocks under pastel cardigans, her fair hair caught back with plastic slides. Like me she collected Pelham Puppets, and whether by accident or plan, we didn’t seem to double up on what we acquired, between us building quite a varied cast of characters. However, there was a puppet of hers I sorely coveted.

Bimbo was the largest puppet in our joint collection, and both his size and design singled him out as being the most handsome. Susan, always generous, allowed me to play with him whenever I visited. We would lift him reverently from his boxed bed of tissue paper before spinning him like a dervish to unwind his strings, his arms and legs flailing wildly. A weighty and beautifully balanced marionette, the extra joint necessitated by a neck separate to his head enormously extended his potential for subtle animation. His vividly painted clown’s mask conjured both humour and melancholy, but we fretted over his mop of orange rug-wool hair, which we were constantly untangling and smoothing down, resulting in it getting a tad grubby. We were therefore alarmed when we discovered that despite all the care we lavished on him, the rabbit-skin glue attaching wool to scalp had become brittle. Underneath his fringe an unsightly crust of adhesive and paint had crazed and come loose, so poor old Bimbo looked as though he had rampant psoriasis of the hairline. From then on we had to take even greater pains with his appearance, combing his increasingly unravelling fringe forward with our fingers to conceal his disfigurement.

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His outsized composition hands and feet made that wonderfully satisfying clonking noise that I’ll always associate with Pelham puppets, and when I finally acquired a Bimbo of my own a couple of years ago, it was after rejecting many of the later models, which have smaller plastic hands, a change that crucially unbalanced the character’s proportions. Another cost-cutting exercise was the introduction of nylon yarn for his hair, and although Bimbo long remained one of Pelham’s most popular puppets, such parings at quality undoubtedly diminished the charm of later versions for those who remembered how magnificent he’d been in his salad days!

The puppet now in my collection is a ringer for the one owned by Susan. He arrived by post, and when I first glimpse him, cradled in tissue wrapping, my heart lurched and I hurtled back through the years to the perpetual summer of childhood. He had mislaid his bow-tie somewhere, and the sharp-eyed Pelham experts among you will have noticed that I replaced it with one made of a checked fabric, instead of a striped one. That apart he is as pristine as the day he left the Marlborough factory all those years ago, and I wonder what became of the child who once owned and cared for him so well. Whoever he or she was, I’m grateful that Bimbo was clearly cherished. He doesn’t have so much as a knot in his strings.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins.’

Yesterday Susan sent me a photograph I can’t recall having ever seen. It’s dated 1961 and was taken in the playground of the school we attended in Maindee, Newport. Susan is second from the left in the front row, holding marionettes of Bimbo and Gretel, and I’m next to her with my puppet of Pinocchio. Just over my shoulder our friend Vivienne holds Hansel.

It was a sunny day, and many of us are squinting against the sun or have eyes downcast. Look how clean and tidy we are, all pressed pleats, short trousers, cardigans and pullovers. Jayne Venn, second from the right at the back, with her neat, glossy ‘Louise Brooks’ bobbed hair. David Russell in red at the back just behind Vivienne. I remember him as solid, dependable and kindly. Penny Stark, who I had a crush on, directly behind Susan Wilmott. Behind me, head cocked, Susan Hill. Still living in Newport, Susan Hill provided most of the names that I’d forgotten. I was in awe of her because she was so clever. But who’s the boy on the right in the front, wearing a striped sweater and holding a Pelham Ballerina in his left hand? Can’t recall, though I remember his face so well.

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Nick’s Ink

 

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I’ve had a long-standing plan to work with a number of collaborators who’d agreed to be tattooed with images produced by me from ideas supplied by them. The original plan was to make an exhibition of my scale-drawings, together with ‘selfies’ of the collaborators being inked. The final part of the exhibition was to be a series of small, intense portraits I planned to paint of my subjects and their completed tattoos.

The exhibition was always going to be a logistic nightmare of scheduling, in part because of the number of subjects and the availability of the ink artists. It was to be down to each ‘collaborator’ to research and then book an ink artist of his or her choice and to manage the process of the inking. As it became increasingly clear to me that it was going to be almost impossible to make a stab at a project completion date in order to bring on board a gallery committed to an exhibition, I found myself drifting away to other, less problematic subjects. In time I realised that, good idea though it had been, I’d effectively ‘set aside’ the exhibition, moving it into the lumber room at the back of my mind labelled ‘Future Projects’.

Alone of all the collaborators, Nick Yarr was the one who persistently enquired about his design and when it would be finished. Perhaps this was to do with the fact that we’re friends and see each other regularly, so the subject has often come up in conversations. I’m afraid I kept him waiting a long time because of other commitments, though I can’t discount my hesitation as being in part down to the anxiety that whatever I produced could not, once transferred to Nick’s skin, be walked away from in the same way as he might walk away from a painting that he grew tired of. I guess that ink artists are familiar with the responsibilities inherent in their practice. But for me all this is new, and it has made me slow. Though the design has been on the go for some time, it’s now been finished, making it my first completed work of 2017.

Nick wants a full-sleeve inking. He’d requested a design featuring a clematis ‘orientalis’. It’s a beautiful plant that I’ve painted several times, and Nick and his partner Martin own a small still-life featuring an orientalis that I made in 2006.

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Here, then, a detail of Nick’s design, with the the bell-shaped flowers and silky, fronded seedheads of clematis orientalis and a scattering of oak leaves blowing through. The drawing references the stylised, foliate diapering of Elizabethan embroidery and the botanical decorations found in Books of Hours. I’ve laboured long over it. I wanted the drawing to be as beautiful as I could make it.

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I’ve heavily shadowed the design to add illusory depth to the intentional flatness. To make sure my made-to-scale drawing would exactly fit when transferred to his body, I instructed Nick to bandage his arm with kitchen wrap until a flexible shell was formed. The shell was sliced through in order to remove it, then boxed and delivered to me. Flattened out, it’s provided the template on which to create the design. (See image at top of post.) Nick did the work well. I guess what I requested was a little like plastering a broken arm, and so as a GP he was well placed for making a neat job of it!

Nick will now take the design to the tattoo artist of his choice so that the process of inking can begin. I’ve frequently been asked to design tattoos, but to my knowledge, this will be the first artwork of mine to make it onto skin! The responsibility weighs heavily and I don’t expect my underlying anxiety to let up until the work of inking has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

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Of course there’s some possibility this might reinvigorate the tattoo project. Some of the original collaborators may return, or new ones emerge. But I think that I’d defer commitment to an exhibition until a group of the designs had been completed and executed, and in this way remove the scheduling pressures that had dogged the project in its earlier incarnation.

Marly Youmans’ ‘The Witch of the Black Forest’

The Witch of the Black Forest

The witch is singing in her swazzle-voice
As she sows teeth inside her garden close;
The little nubbins answer to her call
And sprout and shape themselves to candy cane
Or lollipop—the trees lean down to hear
Her tunelessness and watch the candy grow.
She sings, The world is hard, the world is harsh,
But taste and see (O taste!) that it is sweet.
The trees seem towers, up and up, with leaves
Like child-drawn crowns, or else are hogweed roots
Set upside down to kvetch and snatch at stars,
Or sulk and dream they are anemones
Beneath the sparkles of a moonlit sea.

Believe this: she no longer has a choice,
Could never sniff out change with her long nose,
Poor marrow-sucking bitch, her hunger all
The all she ever knows, her need the bane
That shriveled soul and made it disappear.
She tells her minion-men of ginger dough
To ferret Hansel-crabs from the sea marsh,
Prepare the cage, the pie tins for mincemeat…
The Father made of shells whistles and grieves,
Bent by the fire, cleaning his axe and boots.
Stepmother’s keeping busy, making scars.
Hansel and Gretel feel the old unease
That seems to fill both now and memory.

Days passed, and there was nothing to rejoice
The belly or the heart: Stepmother’s blows,
The bowl of tears Woodcutter drank, the small
And dwindling meals of bread, the glass of rain.
The tossed-out boy and girl were left to deer
And bear and tree, and to the luring glow
From panes in witch-hat towers. The world is harsh,
But taste and see (O taste!) that it is sweet.
Something called their names—song or sugared eaves,
The licorice sills, the faery-glamoured fruits.
Cannibal cupboards shrilled of candy bars,
While murmurs from the staring witness-trees
Said oven, cage, and ashes, ashes. Flee.

Marly Youmans
In honor of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’s Hansel and Gretel (UK: Random Spectacular)