from start to finish: ‘The Catch’

Detail of The Catch

There were three models for the fisherman of The Catch. The first was the real thing, glimpsed in the Rialto Market in Venice when Peter and I were there on holiday. He was hosing down his catch, and I circumnavigated the market several times to memorise his face. This was many years ago, but I’m good at storing remembered material for later use. While the Rialto fisherman was dark-haired, the other two models had fair to red colouring. Curator Simon Martin of the Pallant House Gallery was one of my references… he’d just had a very sharp hair-cut when we last saw him back in June… and the artist Paul Bommer was the other.

These are the first drawings of the Rialto fisherman, made from memory.

Then come the compositional sketches.

Above: the initial idea is to have the fisherman cradling the tray of fish.

Then I try him front-facing…

… before returning to his profile, though with the tray more loosely held.

The setting behind him in the sketch above is of Aberporth. But then I change my ideas, and make a background of Aberystwyth sea-front with ‘Old College’ taking pride of place and filling the upper quarter of the composition.

This last sketch is the final template for the painting, with the fisherman and his setting resolved. The outline of the figure is softer than in the earlier studies, sweeping up left of the composition. His shoulders though squared to the front, are more relaxed.

The painting begins. Acrylic on gessoed panel measuring 42 x 42 cm.

Below: the painting in progress amid my pots of Golden heavy-bodied acrylic. Because I am away from the studio I’ve brought many pots of paint to cover all eventualities, though the the final palette is muted, with the colours mixed from a very few pigments.

Below: the face begins to emerge, and a sheet of flame is added to the roof of Old College.

At this point I begin to think about the fisherman’s tattoo. My starting points are our Penparc Cottage plates, bowls and mugs from Gwili Pottery. I don’t know whether there’s an official name for the design, but we just call them the ‘shell’ china. Nothing so grand as a ‘service’, but a motley collection acquired piecemeal over a number of years. Hand painted, it seems to me that the designer must have produced a ‘pattern-book’ of elements, because no two pieces are the same. The china-painters of the Gwili workshops must have been given the freedom to fit the various individual designs to the objects under their brushes, whether mugs, plates or bowls. There’s a wonderful freedom to this ‘design’, as painters freely extemporise on the theme. Some mugs have a cluster of mussels at their bottoms, while others have a Caucus Race of them garlanded about their inside rims. Sometimes nautilus shells issue forth an elegant sufficiency of tentacles, while others sprout sheaves of them, streaming like hair in a riptide. Clam shells are made elaborate with sgrafitto coils and embellishments, and starfish squirm between razor-shells and whelks.

The shell design has turned up in many of my Aberporth still-life paintings. Like the Gwili workshop decorators, I ‘riff’ on the theme.

My first idea for the tattoo is merely decorative, a device to clad the skin in a marine pattern, seen on the left, here

But then I decide that what’s needed is drama and a hidden narrative, and I invent a scenario of a vessel plunging into the depths, a giant nautilus pursuing it with snaky tentacles. I use the ‘clipper’ motif from another Aberporth piece, a small oval box I’d decorated with a ship and waves about ten years ago. Because the box, filled with pralines, had been a gift from our friend Rex Harley, the newly decorated version became ‘Rex’s Box’, and has been titled as such in the many, many paintings it’s appeared in. (See third image above.)

‘Rex’s Box’

I play a lot with the design before I’m happy with it.

It’s a complicated idea, and I need to be confident enough to get it down quickly in paint for it to remain fresh. So I draw the nautilus-pursued vessel many times on paper before reaching for my brushes.

Finally I’m ready, and I nail it in one ‘take’. The sgrafitto means that things have to be done quickly, as the paint stays wet enough to work through with the end of the brush handle for only about forty seconds.

I paint in the embankment that holds the right side of the composition, adding sgrafitto to define the stonework.

Next come the fish. I work on them for a couple of days, and this time it takes three attempts to get things right, and there’s much sanding down and re-painting in between my failures. I ditch my original notion of many fish overlaying each other, and simplify everything so as to leave lots of pleasing negative spaces between five of them. The ‘ghost’ fish are a last minute idea. I like the strangeness of them, and their pallid contrast to the vividness of the ‘real’ fish.


Finally I come back to the fisherman’s head, which has remained unfinished as I wasn’t clear about what I wanted from it. This is the first completed version

Something is not quite right. I feel the uneasiness that always makes me reassess what I’ve produced. After an hour or two of gazing, I sand back the lower half of the face, shortening the nose as I paint it for the second time. Then I rub back and re-paint the eye so that it’s closed, and everything begins to fall into place. He appears to be in a reverie, or perhaps dreaming.

As a final change, I crop his beard so that it falls short of the curve of his T-shirt neckline, and disconnect his previously conjoined eyebrows to soften his expression. The painting is completed the evening of Saturday 2nd August. Measuring just over 40 cm square and made on the dining-room table in Penparc Cottage, it took eight days to complete, not including the preparatory ‘thinking time’.

The Catch

Clive Hicks-Jenkins


All enquires the Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge

14 thoughts on “from start to finish: ‘The Catch’

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  4. Fabulous! Thank you for sharing your process. One simple phrase caught my attention “After an hour or two of gazing…” So glad you wrote that. I feel much of the painting process is not painting, but looking. Alas many non-artists don’t get that, as in my husband, when he visits me in the studio and I’m staring, and then three hours later I’m more or less in the same spot, He’ll look around and earnestly ask, “is something different?” Dear lad – that’s why I love him. I’m sure its akin to the editing process of writers.

  5. Thank you for a glimpse into your process! I am a fledgling painter, gathering as much wisdom as I can from those around me.

  6. Clive it’s just wonderful! Thanks for the thought process too, apart from everything else I particularly like the vulnerable dimple at the base of his neck. The closed eye is perfect, yet the open one looked good, how did you know to change it? That’s your genius!

    • Dear Lizzie, I fretted a good deal over that eye. What I failed to record on camera was that I painted it about twenty times. I was despairing of it at the point that I painted it out completely, and then left it a blank space for days. When I returned to the problem I painted in the eye you see in the one image, with the white made in red oxide and the iris tawny. I was pleased with that, but ultimately it didn’t lend the quality to him I wanted. Closing the eye is a risk, as it’s likely to sever the connection between the subject of the painting and the viewer. Luckily this didn’t happen with the fisherman, and it just makes him more of a mystery, without shutting us out.

      I balk at ‘genius’, my dear friend, but I am devilish persistent! (As you know!)


  7. Clive, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you are back at easel painting, and to know some of what this means. Fascinating explanation of your process with this one, and a truly wonderful result. I like it very much indeed – the composition, the closed eye, the curious flame, the control of color, and the marvelous basket of fish. Perhaps interesting to you would be the fact that in the Anglican Church, the Gospel on Sunday August 3 was the story of the “loaves and fishes,” which I thought of immediately when I saw this painting of yours.

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