‘The Temptations’ stencils, from start to finish

When I began this project to make fourteen prints with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2017), I first made a painting of each image that I could then use as a guide when making the stencils. Seven prints into the fourteen I made the decision to work directly onto stencils, which means ‘holding’ the ideas I have for the colours of a print in my head, rather than referring to a painted study.

Like those for The Three Hunts completed last month, the stencils for The Temptations have been produced in this way. Once I’d mixed the paints for the ‘colour key’ (see below) I made the stencils while imagining how the colours would look once the print was underway The stencils are not rendered in the colours of the finished print, but with a grey, red oxide and black palette allowing me to better see the planned image on the transparent layers of drafting film that Dan will later transfer to the printing screens.

Below: rough sketch for the print.

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A more refined study for the Lady of Fair Castle.

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Gouache samples in the ‘colour key’ indicate to Daniel Bugg the six inks I want mixed for the print, plus black. Every colour requires a separate stencil. Sometimes several stencils of a colour are required so that the inks can be applied with varying tonal effects.

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Here are images of the stencils as they progress.

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Although they have their own allure, the layers of stencils give an entirely deceptive impression of what the print will eventually look like. The more layers added, the hazier the image becomes, as though viewed through a mist. It’s quite a feat, remembering all the colours involved and trying to imagine what they’ll look like when printed over each other. I keep notes to hand, but the process is one that relies entirely on being able to work toward an idea that won’t be revealed until the printer begins to assemble the image from layers of inks mixed to match my colour samples.

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After Dan has transferred the images to the screens, the long slow task begins of mixing inks and proofing. Once all the proofs have been examined, tweaked and finally agreed upon, the editioning of the print can begin.

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The Alien Within

I think I’m St Francis. I’ll pick up anything, sure that I’ll come to no harm. I’ve carefully picked up bees and wasps when I’ve noted their behaviour isn’t aggressive. I usually watch carefully and act accordingly. But last night when something clattered into the water glass at my bedside table as I was getting under the duvet, I didn’t have my spectacles, and so I assumed it was a cranefly and fished it out. I headed for the window with it on the back of my finger, but by the time I’d unlatched and raised the sash, the insect had flown back into the room. I cast about for a bit but couldn’t see it. Found my spectacles, and settled down for a read before sleeping.

 

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Ten minutes later a clattering of wings alerted me to the fact that it had returned and was blundering around inside the shade of the anglepoise lamp. I reached over and cupped the bottom of the shade, and when I felt the insect alight in my palm, closed my fingers to a loose fist to carry it to the window. In an instant there was stab of pain in the soft flesh of the base of my thumb, like a hot needle plunged deep. I yelled loudly and dropped the culprit. It sat on the bedside table looking at me, head turning from side to side like a mantis.

Once antihistamine had been applied, I went to the computer screen to see what I could find that looked like the creature, and after I was satisfied, headed back to bedroom armed with an empty glass and a postcard in order to safely retrieve and deposit it outside.

I’m not sure exactly which type, but it seems it was a Ichneumon wasp. A handsome thing about 3 cms long that looked as though it had been carved from amber. Though the males don’t sting, the females have a blade-like ovipositor used to pierce a living host and deposit eggs, and the procedure can be used defensively when the wasp is threatened.

Any deposited eggs in my hand won’t hatch, dealt wth effectively by my immune system, thank god! The alternative would just be too John Hurt for comfort!

 

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The pain had been considerable but instant, and died away quickly, perhaps indicating no venom. However this morning there’s a residue tingling and vague discomfort and heat, though that might just be my mind playing tricks. When I stretch my palm while theres no swelling, I have a disc of flesh the size of 1p that’s notably white at the site of my alien invasion!

Wasp photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Hansel & Gretel Pop-Up Card

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From a distance I’ve watched progress on this Hansel & Gretel Pop-Up Card, published by and available exclusively from Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden. The design, which draws on elements I produced for the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre Kit, comes with an envelope for posting. It’s impressively packed with detail and the construction is incredibly clever.

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I’d always hankered for a pop-up project, and so I was pleased when Louise at Pollock’s declared her intention to create a card on the Hansel & Gretel theme. I couldn’t be happier with the result. My congratulations to the team who put in so much hard work to create this.

Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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Cuarteto para el Fin de los Tiempos at the Iglesia de los Jesuitas

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27th May, 2017, 19:30H. The space is packed. Under the great dome of the wooden ceiling there’s restlessness and anticipation from the audience. Everyone has been waiting for this performance. Director of the festival, Daniel Broncano, has played his cards close to his chest. I haven’t seen the projections of my paintings on these rough stone walls. I don’t know how he’s fitted the images to the music or what the scale of them will be. The musicians of Trio Rodin walk out onto the stage. Jorge Menotti on piano, Carles Puig on violin and Esther Garcia on cello. Daniel joins them with his clarinet. They begin.

I’ve grown to know the music well during the weeks spent making the paintings, yet in this space, it springs surprise after surprise on me. There are things I’d missed completely in the recording I’d used. Here in the Iglesia de los Jesuitas the players are transformed. Jorge at the piano is ablaze. He’s at the back of the platform and when his head darts round to watch his companions, the speed is almost shocking, less a man than a predatory bird. Esther’s face, thrown back into the light becomes the pale mask of a seer. She curves into her instrument, embracing and becoming one with it. Carles is as ramrod straight as a Renaissance prince, fierce and commanding. The dramatic spectacle of the playing is mesmerising. There’s a moment when Daniel wrings a passage from his clarinet that has me trying to align my breathing to his. I can’t. I don’t know what his lungs are made, from but mine are not made from the same stuff! The experience of both the music and the musicians playing it, is visceral, exhausting, exhilarating.

The images of my paintings above, are huge and vivid in the darkness, their surfaces textured by the rough stone. All is well. Everything works. The paintings become meditations between the black and white photographs of the Stalag VIII-A prisoner of war camp. Gaunt musicians from the the first performance of Quartet for the End of Time, stare out from the graininess of another world: barbed wire, snow and rows of dark huts. I glance around to see an audience transfixed and transformed by a performance both eerie and life-affirming. I think about my parents and how they would have loved this moment. I imagine them siting here, a few rows away in front, their backs to me, heads inclined together. Younger than I am now, so that the grey-haired son gazes on his youthful progenitors-to-be. I wish they would sense my presence and turn around so that I could see their faces. But onstage the movement draws to a close, the audience stir and settle again and the couple are no longer there. Time, having for a moment folded so that the past pressed against the present, reverts to its more usual, linear trajectory. I am in the moment again, and the long-time-dead have gone.

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The players are done. There’s a frozen moment of completion, the held breath of a conclusion. Then the long exhalation and the applause. The audience are on their feet. The musicians return from the mountain top. Here at Segura the demand for an encore sometimes comes in the form of a rhythmic ‘Flamenco’ clap that grows out of the applause. But not for this. There is nothing that can extend or follow this performance, and we all know it.

 

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At the Prado: The Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Maestro de Virgo inter Virgines

760MasteroftheVirgointerVirgines-2LamentacioacutensobreelcuerpodeCristomuerto-1480MPrado_zps5210c9e8.jpgFrom my notebook, Prado Museum, Madrid, Tues 23rd May, 2017.

‘In an exquisite arrangement for an emotionally draining painting, the four figures are linked in a composition that restlessly carries the gaze around it. A woman to the left holds a pose straight out of a Martha Graham ballet, her elbows raised and her fingers interlocked. Hers is an oddly large face, the most prominent of the three mourners, and however I view the painting, she’s always the starting point. The problem is that she’s a tad too conventionally pretty, and as such very nearly undermines everything with her sweetness. In contrast the Virgin and St John evidence palpable grief, their faces dully anguished, their bodies broken, bowed and frozen, as though they will never recover from the horror.

Then there’s the brutalised figure of Christ, sallow, shadowed and unmistakably dead. His high forehead and features are taut, as though the flesh has shrunk back to cleave even more closely to the skull. His joints are pronounced, ribcage visible and collar-bones sharp. The face is ageless, simultaneously childlike and old, the way the dead so often appear. The nails of his punishment have not just torn and bruised the skin, but have made the ligaments spasm. His ruined hands are frozen, clawed as they rest on what seems less an unravelling loincloth than an elaborately scrolled strip of parchment.

It’s agonising to look at. The artist wouldn’t have witnessed a crucifixion, but he certainly knew what a dead body looked like. His painting is brutally honest about the horrors men have wrought on man. He’s thought hard about how the beating of a nail through a foot that then has to bear the slumped weight of a body, will make the flesh swell around the wound. As my eye travels upwards from the sumptuous green pool of fabric around Christ’s head to the dramatic, self conscious pose of the woman whose skirt’s hem is his pillow, I think I know at last why her face is so sweet. It’s a punctuation mark, a relief, a moment to rest and catch the breath and hold onto life, before the restless journey continues down into grief again, to the pitiable and the broken.

When I paint, I always try to imagine the sensations that I’m depicting. This painter has imagined too, and his imagination has led him to a dark place. Whether you have great faith or no faith, the honesty of what he has imagined makes for stark viewing. This painting shows us the evidence of brutality and suffering. We recognise what it tells us, because brutality and suffering are as present in the world today, as they were when the Maestro de Virgo painted this unforgettable image in 1487.’

 

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