G.O.S.

 

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This began as an e-mail to my team, but while writing it I thought how much my friend Ronnie Burkett would enjoy it, and so I’ve re-jiggled it slightly to make a blog post.

Early in my career as a choreographer I worked regularly with a hardened, chain-smoking, drop-dead glamorous stage manager. Old school, name of Maggie. She wore a cocktail-dress, for christsakes, in the prompt corner! Maquillage, perfume, the works. She’d seen it all and didn’t think much of it, though she was a woman who had your back if she believed in you. I trusted her judgement implicitly, even when it was jaundiced. She ran her stage like the captain of a man-of-war.
One day we were hanging out together in the scene-dock during the intermission of a pantomime. She’d had a couple of fortifying sherries sent down for us from the dress-circle bar. Companionable silence between us. The company were in tatters at the tail end of three months of nine performances a week. (Three on Saturdays, which was hell!) Even the three alternating teams of juveniles looked like the walking dead. Peachy make-up caked over the chalky pallors of a cast that had barely seen daylight since before rehearsals. Everyone sick to death of the show and yet anxious about beginning the inevitable rounds of auditions to get the next jobs. Maggie surveyed Cinderella’s stout little ponies in their enclosure, where the groom was gloomily sweeping up what you might expect. ‘Fuck!’, she muttered through a plume of cigarette smoke. (Those were the days! Smoking in the scene dock!) I raised my eyebrows questioningly at her. ‘Well…’, she said, ‘… that just about sums it all up!’ I looked blank. She inhaled deeply, her eyes narrowing and sliding sideways in the direction of steaming manure sprinkled with tinsel shed from a passing fairy. She ground her cigarette under an immaculate high-heel and headed for her corner, break over. ‘Glitter on shit, love…’, she called, disappearing into the stygian darkness of the stage. ‘… it’s all fucking glitter on shit! ‘

And she was right, though perhaps not in the way she meant. That’s exactly what fairy tale is, though generations of adaptations have perhaps inevitably stripped back what underlies the glitter. Almost from the start the story of Hansel & Gretel has been garnished with the gemutlich of lebkuchen, glacé cherries of suspicious hue and jaw-breaking bulls-eyes, to the point where many children see only the surface, and not the skull beneath the sugar-icing.

In the Humperdinck opera, the many children turned by the witch into gingerbread are restored to life in the last act, after Gretel has done her shoving. Everyone sings and dances prettily and happiness prevails.

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This is definitely NOT the story we have from the Grimm brothers, who don’t balk at the horror. Their witch is a carnivore. She doesn’t magically – and reversibly – transform children into gingerbread, but stews them and sucks the marrow from their little bones. At the conclusion of the opera, Hansel and Gretel are reunited with their distraught and loving parents. In the Grimm version the children are duped by their mother into venturing deep into the forest because she wishes them dead, and their father allows it. I have no idea why at the end, having vanquished the witch and taken her treasure, they head for home. Perhaps they feel safer with the devil they know, though as it turns out, mother has died in their absence. So while it’s a cruel, bleak universe that the Grimms conjure, we know that it is not just through the realms of fairy tale that monsters hunt.

Though I’m conscious that my version may not be the go-to option for parents overly-anxious about what their children read just before lights-out, I’m happy to be restoring a tradition that does not pretend life is a stroll in the park with the reward of a cup-cake at the conclusion. No Disney princesses in this fucking wood!

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A Feast of Marshmallows

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My  book of Hansel & Gretel, published by Random Spectacular, has been beautifully produced under the watchful eye of Simon Lewin at St Jude’s. The scans by Saxon Digital and the printing by Swallow, both in Norwich, are perfect. Every etched line and fleck of the original drawings, meticulously reproduced. The book’s six colours plus black have been created as Pantone separations, consistent in colour throughout and printed onto a matt paper that is so much more pleasing for being without the sheen of many illustrated books. The covers are a slightly heavier card than the pages, and the construction of the book cleverly ensures that every double-page spread opens flat, so that no part of any illustration can become lost in or distorted by the ‘gutter’.

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There are four, three-leaf fold-out spreads scattered throughout the book, and these took a lot of effort to get right in the early design stages. In the finished book the illustrations across each closed fold-out are perfectly aligned, which can have been no easy task for the printers.

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Technically this is just about the most accomplished book I’ve set myself the task of making. I told the story with little recourse to text, and such words as I allowed myself had to be woven through the images as though a part of them. I worked in a technique of colour separation that is relatively new to me. Indeed I was already over halfway through the project when I began learning from Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press the process of producing colour separations.

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I am unapologetically proud of this achievement. I have always believed that inexpensiveness should be no impediment to producing a commercial book with all of the attention to detail that might be expected from an expensive private press edition. I love the art of paperback covers – particularly in Czech and Poland – and have collected vintage and contemporary European children’s illustrated books for more than forty years. While Hansel & Gretel is not intended as a children’s book – it’s a tad too dark for that market – it nevertheless honours the traditions of the children’s book illustrators who have given me so much pleasure over a lifetime. I can hardly believe that at sixty-five, I have finally made my first illustrated book!

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Poet Damian Walford Davies writes of Hansel & Gretel:

‘Just amazing. Beautiful, terrifying. What a piece of work. The blues and pinks and whites have the smell and texture of marshmallow, which is fitting. ‘Eat and get fat’ might be the epigraph for the reader, too, who will verily feast.’

Artist Ed Kluz writes:

‘I pored over your Hansel and Gretel last night – such a wonderful and wicked piece of work. The drawings are at the same time lush and cruel.’

Purchase Hansel & Gretel HERE

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The Boy and the Wolf by Callum James

Callum James wrote his beautiful poem, The Boy and the Wolf, in response to paintings I’d made on the theme of Saint Hervé. In the way of these things, after I read the poem, I began painting again. Now the paintings are inspired by Callum’s poem.

The Boy and the Wolf

I. Hervé is Born.

Born in November
in the short days:
born leaning against
the slanting rain:
born from a frozen prayer
to a bleak God.
Knitted in solitude
in a womb
pricked by a vow and
surprised into swelling.

II. Hervé’s First Sight.

Pushing aside dark earth,
a milk-film
over his eyes:
this small stone of a boy
ate dirt, while the
glory danced white
on blank, black retinas.

III. Hervé Learns About the World.

Grasses by their hissing
and sharp cuts:
fur by its musk
and static crackle:
snowdrops by their tinkling
on his fingertips;
the world attacked him,
was a lightning strike
inside his chest.

IV. Hervé Has Visions.

And in his twilight
a light more sumptuous
seeped in;
a bending tree and he
was fighting dragons,
the broken sun on
rough-topped rivers
and he was rich in diamonds,
smiling mad.
He fell to pray
before the hilltop shepherd
who flexed an angel’s wings:
a cloak that rippled
threadbare in the wind.

V. Hervé Sees The Wolf.

He saw,
the day The Wolf came,
he saw the threat
and the salvation.
He saw the shape of undergrowth:
thicket-dark, triangular,
he saw a head
the shape of a snarl
in heated breath.

VI. Hervé’s Dog is Killed By The Wolf.

What did he see
in the smell of hot-iron
from the slaughtered dog?
What bright colours,
what beauty was in his hands
slipping through
spilled intestines?
What overwhelming, pungent
touch of heaven came?

VII. The Wolf Attacks Hervé.

And The Wolf turned
with the world
around the boy
and teeth the temperature
of ice pushed through skin:
here where the heavy pelt,
muscle-packed, pressed
the boy and his skin tore
breaking the line of holiness
that runs around a saint.

VIII. Hervé Redeems The Wolf.

A blinding alleluia of light
as from the boy
love tumbled,
burst like river-diamonds,
mingling with The
Wolf’s breath,
flooding the grasses, fur,
the snowdrops,
heating the prayer
that made him.

IX. Hervé and The Wolf Together.

That moment hung,
a stopped raindrop,
a never falling leaf
within his soul: quivering.
It abided there.
The Wolf abided
at the centre of him.

X. Hervé Prays

Unable to contain it
all inside, the boy
began to howl;
a voice of red and gold,
a passion, sung like petals
spewing, uncontrollable
from God’s own lips,
and everything that heard him
leaned and swayed
and healed a little
as he lay his head
forever
on the shoulder of The Wolf.

Illuminations

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Peter is in Edinburgh, where he’s to give the keynote address at the symposium Shaping the View: Understanding Landscape through Illustration, organised by Desdemona McCannon. Before he left we had several discussions about illustration, looking at definitions of the word.

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strā′shən)
n.
1. The act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated: concepts that would benefit from illustration; an idea that lends itself to illustration.
2. A picture or image that is used to decorate or clarify a text.
3. An example that is used to clarify or explain something. 
4. Obsolete Illumination.

It’s a tricky one to pin down, ‘illustrative’ having been used in modern times as a pejorative deployed by a curatorial elite set on defining boundaries that put ‘illustrators’ further down the pecking order of arts practices.

But tucked away at the foot of the list, I like the ‘obsolete’ definition, illumination. When my friend, the writer Marly Youmans asked me how I’d define myself in relation to my collaborations with her, I unhesitatingly wrote back, partly in fun, ‘illuminator’.

When growing up in the 1950s, my home, though full of books and music, had little on the walls that might be defined as art. There were mirrors and wall-lamps, and even pictures – if you include the rather unlikely though jaunty wallpaper of palm trees and desert islands that decorated our back parlour. But there were no paintings. So looking back, I begin to realise that my earliest experiences of the world as expressed in images, were through the pages of my childhood books.

The ones that stuck fast and have stayed with me over the years, are the Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl annuals. I learned to read on my father’s lap as he helped me make sense of the words under the pictures showing Rupert’s adventures with his pals. The speed with which I progressed was entirely down to wanting to know what happened next in the stories!

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The bucolic loveliness depicted by the illustrators of Rupert’s and Toby’s worlds, was simultaneously observed from life and imagined. Observed with enough tenderness and precision for me to recognise types of rural settings – my father was a wayleaves officer for the South Wales Electricity Board and often took me with him on field trips – and yet subtley different enough to open up imagination. The pine forests of the Rupert books were exactly like those I’d visited with my father, though with the added allure of being portals to other, more exciting realms, accessed by the simple means of climbing the trees, just as Jack had clambered up a beanstalk to find himself somewhere unexpected.

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Both the boy bear and the boy pig had the freedom to scamper about on their own business, and both were secure in the knowledge that ‘mum’ would have tea on the table when they returned, no matter how outlandish their adventures out of range of parental disapproval. I lived in the annuals, and later in the comics of my day, and after those in books that had no illustrations, excepting for those on their covers. Illustrations led me gently, naturally, persuasively to literature.

Landscape for me has always been where I’ve retreated to recover myself. So when my life in the theatre became too chaotic to endure, I bolted to the countryside. It was the natural place of healing, and it was where I took up brushes and began to translate my out-of-control feelings, into the painted worlds I felt safer in.

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I see now, though didn’t at the time, that the sense of comfort and balance I was trying to recapture, had its roots in those early experiences of discovering the world through the illustrations of Alfred Bestall, Sheila Hodgetts and others. And later, after I moved from landscape painting to explore further options, I came to understand enough of where my emotional responses to landscape had originated, to be able to reference the books of my childhood in paintings that openly acknowledged them. My Dream Farm is one of them.

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Perceived divisions between art and illustration are ones I’ve come to disregard. For me, the two are the same. There’s good and bad that flows from easel painters (for want of a better definition) and illustrators alike. The banal is bad regardless of whether found between the covers of a book or on the walls of a gallery, while the great is always illuminating, whether springing from the pens and brushes of Potter and Sendak, or from Hockney at his most sublime and painterly. (A man who excels at everything.) High and low are definitions I’m unmoved by. There is only excellence, and it all comes from the same source.

My picture book, Hansel & Gretel, is due out later this month. It’s taken a long time to make a book that has its roots so firmly in what I grew to love and trust as a child. The last page bears this text:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter who occasionally makes images for the covers of novels, poetry collections and plays. He has always wanted to make a picture book, and this is it.

Colouring the Imagination

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Back at the beginning of discussions with Simon Lewin about the proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel, he suggested that I produce the illustrations as ‘separations’. My method of making illustrations up until that point had always been to paint as intended for reproduction. However, Simon works with print-makers, and the Random Spectacular imprint he created as an extension of his work at St Jude’s is one where he explores print-related projects that interest him. I am not a print-maker – or I wasn’t back then – and his suggestion meant I was going to have to learn some new tricks.

Separations are the layers of colour used to reproduce an image. Simon explained that my images for Hansel & Gretel could be made as separations on layers on drafting-film or heavy tracing-paper, prior to digital scanning. The digitised layers would then be ‘assembled’ in the computer ready for printing. Images made in this way have the feel of those in early illustrated books, when the colours were printed in separate passes.

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Simon’s vision of how the images might be produced was encouraging, but it would all be new territory for me and I didn’t want to let anyone down. He remained reassuring and persuasive, explaining that he’d guide me through the processes and then personally assemble the images ready for printing. He would design the book.

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I began researching and adapting the Grimm Brothers’ story to what I thought might work in a picture book. Initially I produced quite a lot of text, but eventually pared that back to twenty-seven words scattered throughout forty-eight pages. Enough to make a coherent narrative and to lend ‘voices’ to the various characters. I planned to letter the text myself.

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Above: lettering from the final render of the opening page spread.

Simon and I agreed on a square format book. We planned the dimensions of it and the number of pages, including four fold-outs that would spring surprises and carry forward the story-telling. What we put together at that point remained the template for Hansel & Gretel to the completion of the project.

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Above: rough schematic of how the book would appear when looking down at the top of it it, the pages fanned to indicate the inclusion of the fold-outs. The positions of the fold-outs would later change so they were spread evenly throughout, and they became full rather than half-pages.

I planned to make the images to the printed scale. This way I wouldn’t have to be thinking about how reduction might impact the artwork.

First came small, rough sketches, and later, maquettes of the characters. The children sprang to life almost immediately, barely changing from the earliest scribbles to how they appear in the book.

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However the parents evolved somewhat startlingly in ways I hadn’t expected.

The father eventually became a creature made from empty seashells, suggesting the hollowness of a man nagged and criticised to a point muteness.

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Over the months of development the mother became increasingly grotesque, and that eventually impacted on the witch, because I had to find ways to make her even more scary than the ‘bad’ mother.

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Before the final work of rendering began, I completed a made-to-scale dummy-copy of the book, with every image planned down to the smallest detail. The only element missing was the colour, which I was still thinking about. I passed the dummy to Simon Lewin when we met at the opening of Jonny Hannah’s 2015 exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It was a wonderfully exciting event packed with Hannah enthusiasts, and Simon slipped the dummy unopened into his bag for later study. After he’d sent an e-mail signing off on it, I prepared to make the final renders.

In June 2015 I’d met Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press to discuss whether we might collaborate on a print. We made a single, editioned screenprint together – a first for me – and as a result of that enjoyable and successful experience, we planned a project to produce a series of fourteen prints based on the the medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dan guided me through the process of working on layers of drafting film with brushes, crayons and pens. Due to the complexity of what I planned for the Gawain images, for each print I first produced a fully rendered painting to use as my guide to making the separations.

Below:

a) original painting of The Armouring of Gawain made as my guide to creating the separations

b) layers of separations on drafting-film held in place by registration pins on the right

c) the completed screenprint

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Because of this, by the time I came to make the artwork for Hansel & Gretel I was feeling more confident about producing separations. However, having spent so long working out how to tell the story and creating the visual character of the book, there simply wasn’t the time to make paintings of all the pages. I hoped that as the colours of the illustrations were going to be more simply deployed than those of the Gawain prints, then the lack of guide paintings wouldn’t be a problem. I’d simply ‘imagine’ how the images were going to reproduce in colour.

The Hansel & Gretel drawings were made in black pencil on heavy board. With the exception of the separations for the cover (see top of post) which were cut from red lithography film, the separations for all the illustrations were produced in opaque paint on drafting film. Because separations define the areas of colours that will come at the later printing stage, they can be made in any colour. I used red oxide. At this stage the layered artworks looked quite strange.

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Between us Simon and I had agreed on a simplified palette of seven colours for the book: mid blue, pale blue, dark red, mid yellow, dull pink, black and dull yellow, selected from a universal Pantone chart. On each drawing and separation I indicated which colour I intended for that layer. Some of the black drawings were intended for reproduction in colour. Keeping track of how all this would look required a lot of imagining. When making a drawing I intended for reproduction in colour, I would scrawl that colour in large letters on a post-it gummed to the upper corner, to remind myself that contrary to how things looked in front of me, this was not going to be black when printed.

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Above: Hansel & Gretel drawing in progress, and below, digitally scanned and proofed by the printer in mid blue and dull pink.

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Some artists scan their drawings and separations and digitally colour them on the computer screen to get an idea of how they’ll look when completed. But I don’t have those skills, and so I have to work ‘in my imagination’.

The completed drawings and separations were scanned by Saxon Digital Services and then printed by Swallowtail, both in Norwich. Saxon and Swallowtail made significant contributions to the outcome of the translation from artworks to book. The original drawings were rich in mark-making, tonality and detail. I’d used etching needles to create hair-thin bright lines against the sootiness of densely worked pencil. Although made in black, the drawings had a delicate silveriness that came from the grain of the paper surface and from reflected light, and the printed images would have been pummelled to death had they been produced with too dark a contrast. Neither could the layers of colours be allowed to obscure the details and textures of the drawings. I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it all. But the results, when I saw them, were perfect. Every last detail had been reproduced, down to a thread of saliva stretched between the jaws of the witch as she anticipates dinner!

From start of project to conclusion, Simon Lewin was nothing less than magnificent as chief enthusiast, publisher, designer and project manager. No detail escaped him. He never put any constraints on what I produced, at all stages finding solutions to smooth the way forward for me. Moreover there was no deadline, meaning the work could develop and unfold without the pressure of a completion date.  There have been no compromises on Hansel & Gretel. Not one. The book is exactly as I wanted it to be.

Hansel & Gretel

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanned by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

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