Head

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Above: Study for the cover of Marly Youmans’ Thaliad

Sarah Parvin recently commented at the Artlog on a post about the forthcoming print, The Green Knight’s Head Lives.

Paul Jacobsthal writes on the Celtic cult of the head: “Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.”

That brought me up short, because I’ve only recently begun to realise just how much the head has become a recurring motif of my work. Not in the sense of portraiture, which I’m not all that interested in, but as an isolated object, often with a sharp terminating horizontal, as though separate from a body. The head as a subject in its own right.

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Study for the illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, The Old Stile Press

Study for the Green Knight

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Study for Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head

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Study for Gawain Transfigured

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Paper-cut project in collaboration with Peter Lloyd

Study for Gawain

Page decoration for Marly Youmans Maze of Blood, Mercer University Press

Study for the Green Knight

Gawain Transfigured

Cover artwork for Marly Youmans’ Maze of Blood, Mercer University Press

Cover artwork for Marly Youmans’ Thaliad, Phoenicia Publishing

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Decorated page for Marly Youmans’ Thaliad, Phoenicia Publishing

Study for an unmade book

Illustration from The Sonnets of Richard Barnfield, The Old Stile Press

The Green Knight

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Unused decoration for Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head

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Page decoration for Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head, Stanza Poetry

Study for an unmade book

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Paper-cut project in collaboration with Peter Lloyd

Cover artwork For Marly Youmans’ Val/Orson, PS Publishing

Poster design for Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale

The Princess from The Soldier’s Tale

Page decoration for the illustrated edition of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, The Old Stile Press

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Decoration used on the back cover of Marly Youmans’ The Foliate Head, Stanza Poetry

Change of Title

The Green Knight Speaks, while a great title for the fourth print in the Gawain series, doesn’t quite fit my image as it should. In the finished study for the work, the Green Knight’s lips remain firmly shut, and so the title must change. Right now I’m toying with several options, none of them yet quite there.  Suggestions if you have them, please.

In the meantime work is underway on the stencils that will create the print. Each title in the series begins as a series of rough sketches in which I try out ideas. In this print, the Green Knight, having retrieved his decapitated head, holds it aloft to speak

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After the ideas have been hammered out in rough drawings, I make a fully rendered painting of what I propose for the print. The image below is a detail of the painting for this print, showing the embroidered caparison of his horse.

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The next stage is to produce the ‘master-drawing’, the template that sits beneath the layers of transparent film on which I draw and paint to make the stencils. A master-drawing sometimes differs in detail from the painting, as it’s my opportunity to make any corrections to the composition.

Once the master-drawing is has been drafted, the stencil-making is a relatively straight-forward process of tracing and separating the elements of the image into layers according to colour. Here is a detail of the master-drawing that will underlie the drafting films to guide me through the business of making the stencils for this print.

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I begin with the stencil that will print as black. In dark red opaque marker-pens which enable me to make the sharp outlines of the embroidered motifs, I trace the background of the textile on a sheet of transparent Truegrain laid over the master-drawing.

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At the next stage I work with lithography crayon to soften and shadow the pattern, and then add a second stencil to print the green of the embroidered elements. A third adds the orange background.

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I use two varieties of stencil. Trugrain has a granulated surface that produces interrupted colour and mark-making… a kind of glittering effect… while drafting film is smooth and can yield dense fields of colour and unbroken lines. The stencils are worked in tonal variations of red-oxide and black, using pens, crayons, pencils and paints. On each stencil I make a note of the layer of colour represented. As I assemble the layers of stencils, I have to imagine what the colours will look like when printed over each other. For this print there will be seven stencils: black, yellow, mid-blue, dark-blue, red, orange and turquoise-green.

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The textile in this image is an invention in which I riff on traditions of Coptic and Romanesque embroideries. In the absence of any buildings or landscape in the background of the print to give it a location, the motifs of scattered talisman-like eyes, flying peacocks and scrolling tendrils bearing oak leaves and assorted fruits, fills one half of the composition with a sense of place and mystery. The Green Knight brings the wilderness into the halls of Camelot, through the decorations on his horse and the inking on his skin.

“blood unfurling, not gushing”

 

The Green Knight’s Head Speaks.

Final pencil study awaiting paint.

So here I am at the moment of the drama when the game changes, all the rules of the natural world broken. The blade has descended, flesh has parted and the head has rolled. But this giant of a man doesn’t lie down, even though separated from his seat of reason, and he strides off to retrieve it from where it’s rolled and rested. Arthur’s knights, unknightly-like, have kicked it for sport, making a football of the thing. Little wonder Camelot will one day fall.

The decapitated Green Knight, head in hands, turns to face the throng. Is the event to be shown from the front, or from the side, from a distance or in close-up? On horseback or off? More importantly, how is the severed head to be held? The territory is ripe for clichés. Somehow I must avoid them. Swinging the head by its hair is not an option, or it will look like every other scene in Game of Thrones.

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I explore the alternatives.

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Having tried it all ways I resolve to show it grasped and held aloft in both hands, tilted to an angle with eyes sliding sideways from under half-closed lids while beard and hair stream and snap like pennants in the wind. But this is indoors, so is the wind a supernatural unsettling, or an earthly one, racing through a doorway left gaping after the Green Knight’s arrival? It doesn’t matter. We can’t see  anything of the space anyway. And there’s no wound for us to gawp at either, as I don’t want to distract with bleeding stumps. Nevertheless the head is off, no doubt about that, absent from where it should be and present where it should not, held high and cradled in strong hands.

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There’s blood, or what passes for it with old magic at work. Dense with flow, not kinetic, but hieratic, spouting, fountaining frozen, blossoming atop a frilled column. This is blood unfurling, not gushing. My reference is a fungus I once found bursting through the black plastic of a neighbour’s bale of hay. It was huge. I broke away a grapefruit-sized part of it and brought it home to photograph and draw. I’ve lost the drawings, but a photograph of it survives, fluted like cathedral fan-vaulting and flowing in overlapping scallop-shapes. It will make a strangeness in the composition rendering the event not just supernatural, but beautiful. There’s beauty too in the horse’s embroidered caparison, which will swarm with foliate meanderings and flighty birds.

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A significant element in the composition is the animal’s wildly rolling eye and fearful expression. The human observers are out of frame, and so it stands in for them in the matter of a response to what’s happening, its astonishment more meaningful than anything we might expect from those loutish, head-kicking bully-boys pissed on Christmas wine.

Above, reference photo of fungi, and below, beginning to create the embroidered patterning of the horse’s caparison.

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The Things That Made Me: part 3

Part 3, and I think the last of my posts on the films, TV programmes, books, comics and toys that had profound effects on me when I was a boy. I’ve left the stills without captions, so as not to spoil the fun of you figuring out which films they come from.

Click on these links for parts 1 and 2.

I’ve avoided descriptions as I want the images to speak for themselves, though I will say of the model of Boadicea that until I came upon the online image of it while searching for something else, I’d completely forgotten I’d ever had one exactly like it. The sight of it brought the memories and the pleasure flooding back, including how much I loved racing the chariot on the crazy-paving path that ran between the flowerbed and lawn of our back-garden, and the feel of the chariot’s relief decoration under my fingers.

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The View from Ty Isaf

I have found that in almost every circumstance, just because questions can be asked, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be. The thin veneer of civilness that keeps society running smoothly on a macro level – and personal relationships on a micro one – doesn’t function the moment people believe that honesty, no matter how brutally expressed, is a better option than a moderated reply. We could all learn to think a bit more before speaking. So when David Cameron decided to ask people what they thought, which is what a referendum essentially is, it was almost inevitable that some of the answers were going to be damned ugly.

And here we are, awakening each morning to a system broken, to good people feeling that they’re not wanted here, to Europe understandably turning her back on us and our government collapsing in ruins around ministers who did’t have any systems in place to prepare against this outcome. This isn’t government. This is an electorate reduced to a baying mob thanks to the hubris of a prime minister who thought he could run a referendum like a TV reality show, and those around him who complied.

I am so deeply, corrosively ashamed of what’s happened. I’m ashamed of a government, divided against itself to our terrible cost. I’m ashamed of the Labour party, that didn’t put up a decent fight against the terrible events unfolding, and spoke too late and too little. I’m ashamed of the media, who misinformed, fuelled anxieties and complicated issues. Most of all I’m ashamed of the electorate, who allowed themselves to be influenced by hucksters, and then used the system to smash everything into smithereens.

Put simply, when the question is ‘Does my bum look big in this?”, the answer must take account of many things: human frailty, the need to be loved, a desire for affirmation and the hope that kindness will prevail. Kindness has not played any part in what has transpired here, and that is the single thing waking me at 5 AM every morning to a sense of the deepest loss and fear for our future.

Forthcoming Exhibition

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Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press

The Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff

Thursday 8th Sept – Saturday 1st Oct, 2016

In collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press, Clive Hicks-Jenkins is devising a series of fourteen prints based on the medieval verse drama, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a classic vividly translated for the 21st century by Simon Armitage. The exhibition will present the first seven prints, marking the half-way stage in this major project, together with paintings and drawings on the theme.

Art commentator James Russell writes of the series:

“The story is the kind you might find in The Mabinogion. Sir Gawain is more human than your average legendary hero. Having taken up the challenge offered at the Camelot Christmas feast by the terrifying Green Knight, he embarks on a quest to find this ogre, only to be tested – and found wanting – in unexpected ways. Sir Gawain is both a glittering knight and a fallible young man, and it is this flawed human character that intrigues Clive. Each print is inspired by the text and rooted stylistically in its world, but beyond that Clive and Dan have allowed their imagination free rein.”

Evolution (or how stuff happens)

In 2012 I made a single, collage image of a design for a glove-puppet Witch. I’d been thinking about the glove-puppet of a Witch I’d made as a child. (That’s a whole other story, that you can read about HERE!) Not sure now whether I’d intended to recreate the lost Witch of my childhood, but I certainly never made this second puppet. The design is still Blu-tacked to the wall of my studio.

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With the idea of a Witch rattling around my head, I began to work on further witchy images. By now I’d settled on the Brothers Grimm tale of Hansel & Gretel as my vehicle for exploration, and in no time at all I was playing around with the idea in the form of a Hansel & Gretel alphabet primer made in collage.

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Because the original tale was steeped in the spirit of the Black Forest, the primer was in German. I really liked what I was producing, though I never completed it.

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With the Hansel & Gretel theme now firmly rooted, for no reason that I can think of I made a set of hand-painted enamelware plates. I told everyone they were ‘nursery’ plates for the amusement of any children who came to stay with us, but really they were for me. The cold-enamel paint used for the images proved not to be knife and fork proof.  Moreover the paint turned soluble in hot soapy water, and so the plates were relegated to being used only for serving cupcakes!

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Out of the blue in 2012, Simon Lewin of St. Jude’s asked me to contribute to the second edition of his Random Spectacular magazine, an enterprise he was he using to raise funds for a hospice. I’m not sure how he found me, but I was surprised and pleased to be asked. For the magazine I wrote a short, tart tale based on Hansel & Gretel, though with a decidedly different outcome to the original. I illustrated it with black and white collage/drawings of my enamelware plate designs that Simon tinted into muted colours for the magazine. Random Spectacular 2 was published in 2013.

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It had a beautiful cover made by Jonny Hannah

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At some point during the conversations Simon and I had about the magazine illustrations, I said that I’d now really like to make a whole book of Hansel & Gretel. He replied that he was interested in the idea as he intended to expand and diversify the Random Spectacular imprint beyond the ‘magazine’ format. That was the ‘beginning’ of the Hansel & Gretel picture-book project. I made a single, fully-rendered image to describe to him what I was thinking, and then we were off!

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I eschewed the ‘twist’ to the story that I’d come up with for the Random Spectacular magazine, and with the notion that any text would be minimal… and hand-lettered… I began to make storyboards, spreadsheets and dummy copies of the tale, boiling it down where necessary to simplify the narrative, and expanding ideas where illustrations could effectively take the story further.

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Simon and I agreed that the book would be square, and that a number of spreads would have fold-out pages to extend the compositions and the potential for surprises.

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There were substantial explorations of character and changes of presentation. The children’s parents in particular evolved from fairly conventional depictions, to something far darker and psychologically complex. Ultimately the ‘Weak Father’ became a hollow man, built of empty shells, while the ‘Bad Mother’, who had been rather soigné, descended into neglect and malice.

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Maquettes were built…

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… and built again.

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The ‘natural history’ of the Witch had to be worked out in detail. She would turn out to be other than what she at first appears.

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Fitting the work between other projects, I delivered the dummy-copy, illustrated with detailed though not yet final renderings of the images, into Simon’s hands at Jonny Hannah’s 2015 exhibition opening at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Thereafter the work of final rendering began in earnest, and was completed this month. After scanning, colour will be added as ‘separations’. The book is due to be launched this Autumn. Watch the Artlog and the Saint Jude’s Homepage for details.

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