James and the Book he Never Saw

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On Friday our friends Sarah Joseph and her son Sam came to Ty Isaf to be with Peter and me for my birthday. All of us now twice vaccinated yet still super cautious, we sat distanced in the dining room while Sarah and Sam pored over the Beauty and Beast drawings. (Soon to be dismantled from their hard-cover sketchbooks before scanning for the publisher and thereafter framing for the October book launch and Martin Tinney Gallery exhibition.) 

With windows and doors open to a bracingly cool breeze, Sarah and Sam worked with admirable slowness through each of the – to date – forty illustrations. It was something Sarah and I had done regularly with her husband James throughout the long months of creating Hansel & Gretel, the publishing of which by Design for Today we were able to push through before James’ death in 2019, so that he was able to see what he had watched being made.

Before even the first studies had been made for Beauty and Beast, James quizzed me over how long the book might take, as he had plans to lobby his oncologist for more time in order to be able to be with us throughout the project. That was not to be – as he well knew – though he liked to pretend otherwise. 

Long ago, when James had been a stage manager, and I a choreographer, we had been friends and co-workers travelling the world together. In time the habit had grown between us of him being my advisor in all things related to music. His knowledge was encyclopaedic and his skill as a musician ran deep. Throughout the preparations and rehearsals for the music theatre production of Hansel & Gretel that preceded the published edition of Simon Armitage’s libretto, James and I discussed the themes and studied the score together, and his insights brought depth and nuance to my understanding and direction of the piece. Through the incredible determination and support of his family he was even able to be present at the premiere of the work at the 2018 Cheltenham Music Festival, in his wheelchair, and loving every moment of the evening.

On Being Seventy

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I’m going to be a little indiscreet here, and I apologise in advance to any of those who were present at the occasion I’m describing and feel uncomfortable about what I’m about to reveal.

Is this how it’s going to be from now on?

On Friday I was seventy. I should say I’ve never had trouble acknowledging the passing of years before now. This time, however, the number choked me. It seems so impossible an age, and not the person I see myself as being. Or perhaps I should say ‘saw’ myself as being, because now, I do. I have to.

In 2019 I was commissioned by a big organisation to lead on a project to design what was to be the major element of their creative theme of the year. The first meeting took place at the offices of the digital render company who would build and launch the project, so we could all talk and get the ball rolling on the design work. There were quite a lot of people around the table, including the digital company’s Managing Director. I was the only old man at the table. Most around it were in their late twenties to mid thirties. The M D looked super cool, a bit of a surfer-boy-turned-exec. He was, if I’m honest, a tad prickly, as he’d lobbied for his company to provide in-house design. Instead he got me. As the creative talk began and ideas flew around the table, I listened carefully before beginning to throw in suggestions that I could see were going down well with the team from the organisation who’d commissioned me. I could see I was making a lot more work for myself, but on the plus side all the thematics of the project were going to play to my strengths. Toward the end the MD turned to me and said that if I found the pace and demands of the project to be too much, his team would be happy to take on any work I wasn’t up to completing. The air around me turned to ice.

The MD was being a twat. But just as I drew a sharp intake of breath before releasing a fusillade, the Art Director of the commissioning organisation stepped in and quite sharply explained to the MD that there would be no designer on the project other than me. And that’s the way it went. I wasn’t yet out of the woods. The Project Manager at the digital company threw deadlines at me throughout the design process that would have daunted a man half my age. I worked through weekends and nights for three weeks. It was a sort of hell, though it was also exciting.

I never missed one of those deadlines, and I’m proud of that. And in the end the project looked damned good. The old man pulled it off.


I’m guessing there’s going to be more of this, as time goes by. People will look at me when I walk into a room, and make assumptions. That bothers me, a lot. Keep watching. I’ll let you know how it all works out.

Beauty first sets eyes on Beast

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Olivia McCannon’s description of the first encounter:

Beast!

I have no words for what I see                               

appearing from this scenery of

supernatural wealth – must 

process chthonic splendour rigged

with glowing eyes and claws, 

clothed in the violated cosmos                  

spiked with satellites and artificial stars

needing time and having none

I lift beyond my body

leave a dress

On Revision in Illustration

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Work on Beauty and Beast. Text by Olivia McCannon and illustrations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. To be published by Design for Today in October 2021.

Dissatisfaction is a part of the artist’s armoury of creativity. Without it, how would we ‘grow’ ideas?

To begin with there was nothing tangible, just the notion of making a book that had been rattling around in my head, seemingly forever. There was no text, only a huge admiration for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film, La Belle et la Bête, shared with the poet and translator Olivia McCannon.

Olivia and I emailed each other for over a year, working out what there might be in terms of a book. Would it be a new translation of Cocteau’s screenplay, a return to the origin tale and a reinvention of it, perhaps in a contemporary setting, or something else entirely? Maybe something with threads running through it in homage to Cocteau’s masterpiece. A hybrid, both new and old, creating a dialogue with Cocteau and his fellow creators.

When I began preparations, there was much research, but as yet no text. Olivia and I were still exploring ideas. I’d been making maquettes and character studies, but everything was still undecided. My maquettes referenced the film, but also changed the characters. They weren’t likenesses of the actors playing the roles.

Early paper maquette of la Bête

As our talks focussed in on the notion of a hybrid creation, I made a single illustration – one I felt confident about as the foundation block – to which another was added, and then another, and another.

The first illustration

I’ve never worked in this way before. My illustration projects have always been responses to an existing text. But on this book I’m working with conversations with the writer as the starting points, and fragments of text still in flux. In illustration, the decisions made at the outset affect everything that follows: the way the characters look and what they wear. The settings – the buildings, rooms, passageways, gardens and landscapes of all the locations of the story. Every detail considered, invented, revised and rendered.

A group of images made out of sequence to the emerging text, grows. New images are added to make connections between them. Gradually a narrative in pictures emerges, but it’s a creation that morphs every day because each new part of it not only adds to what’s gone previously, but changes it. Each emerging section of the text, changes it. My starting point is invariably a scene from the film, which then transforms into a version I believe will work on a page. So a scene in which multiple cuts show Belle, la Bête, a table laid with silverware, crystal and fruit, an overmantel clock chiming, living statues watching from the shadows and a fire-blazing, gets condensed to a single double-page image.

Belle et la Bête in a frame from the film
One of two living stone busts that support the fireplace
Lay-out drawing for a double-page illustration of the scene
Study for a living statue

Illustrations become sandwiched by others that affect them. Sometimes an image is cancelled out and discarded, but more usually changed to better deliver what’s needed at that stage of the story. Things that weren’t issues, become so overnight. An idea I thought was coming over with clarity, becomes muddled because its context has changed.

Illustration underway
Detail of la Bête from the first version of the dining-room
Detail of the fireplace head from the first version
In the second version, the Beast and the stone head have changed
Third and final re-working of La Bête

I try to avoid obviousness when making images to accompany a text. I draw inspiration from Olivia’s emerging narrative, but largely attempt to colonise the spaces between her lines of poetry.

As the book expands, and the passages of text emerge to fit together with the images I’ve already completed, then my revisions begin. Perhaps I see that the adjustment of a character’s glance might better signpost the page-turner’s forward trajectory, or profitably pause it. A new line suddenly makes clear that the image is needed as a bridge to the next page turn, and an adjustment could aid that process. I enjoy the challenges of patching illustrations with newly worked elements, of discovering forgotten aspects and realising on reflection how they work better – or not so well – as I’d originally thought. The revisions don’t show in photographs and won’t show when printed, but the changes will be apparent when the works are exhibited in a gallery in October, when close inspection from oblique angles in bright light will reveal the myriad surgeries. I like the idea that the journey will be visible in the surface of the artworks, like age-lines in a characterful face.

Gateway to a Map of Myths

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It was only back in 2019 that I spent a year as artist-in-residence with English Heritage, and yet it seems a lifetime ago. Anyone with the romantic notion that I spent a year motoring around the countryside visiting English Heritage properties in care and making artworks at a leisurely pace, would be way off the mark. It was deadlines from beginning to end, and I spent the entire time pinned to the worktable in my studio, creating images that were the results of my own research. There wasn’t time to visit a single site. Nevertheless there were exciting creations during the year, even when technically and creatively challenging in the allotted time.

The first project was to design and render all the ‘assets’ (artworks, to you and me) for the online, interactive English Heritage ‘Myths Map’ that was produced by the digital agency, Gravitywell, in Bristol. I suggested a cartouche of the type used on historic maps as a portal to the experience, and produced a number of rough designs to kickstart discussions with the Gravitywell and EH teams.

The EH team were very keen to use the iconography of Saint George and the Dragon, which I used to surmount the cartouche. They were also enthusiastic to include an animated element. Because time was incredibly short, I decided to render the image so as to look rather like a paper-cut, as it would have a graphic dynamic and yet be relatively quick to make.

All aspects of the map were initially made in black and white and the colour added later. It was such a complex project that it could have been misleading to decide the palette at the outset. It was much easier to assemble everything and then play with options.

The image had to be flexible enough for it to be adapted to several formats across various EH platforms.

The animated element was a gentle joust between the Saint and the Dragon, and the ‘maquettes’ I designed needed to be very simple as there would be no close-ups. The figures had to work pretty much as reverse silhouettes. I would have preferred to make the animation myself, but Gravitywell wanted to produce it in house, and so made the sequence guided by a thumbnail animation storyboard I created for them.

The puppets were designed and assembled by me and photographed in key positions. I then took them apart, scanned the components and sent the files to the company to be digitally reassembled and animated.

The animation was brief and added a little liveliness to the viewers’ experience. Once through the cartouche and sailing down to the map, there were animated cloud elements and passing flocks of birds to sweeten the interaction. Sea-monsters emerged from waves and a masted ship went down in the tentacles of a Kraken. I’m of the opinion that while tight deadlines and tight budgets are challenges to creativity, they shouldn’t necessarily be impediments.

There was a plan to make a more complex George and the Dragon animation for another EH platform later in the year. I’d made a trial, rough maquette of a dragon in preparation for that, but in the end it was cancelled. A shame as the maquette tests were good.

Christmas Raffle

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In the lead up to Christmas, Penfold Press is running a competition. Anyone purchasing The Tiger’s Bride via the Penfold website between now and Christmas Day, will automatically be entered into a raffle to win this original study that I made preparatory to the print.

Measuring 20 x 20 cms and made in coloured pencil and ink on paper, the drawing has been mounted ready for framing. It shows an example of the ‘popular art’ so loved by the Victorians, those picturesque castles, follies, houses and cottages mass-produced by Staffordshire factories, their gleaming white brightened with vibrant brushstrokes of colour. Often made as spill-holders, pastille-burners or stands to hold pocket-watches, they embody a decorative charm that despite the fluctuations of times and tastes, has always found favour in people’s homes. Whatever the realities of life, a bit of Staffordshire can lighten the heart and add a splash of fairytale to a dark winter’s day.

The drawing was one of many made prior to my final work for the print. In the finished print I added a painted Polish folk-art bird to the left-hand tower. I love Polish folk-art and have a fairly big collection of these charming little birds, still made in rural areas of Poland.

The winner will be contacted via email. Good luck!

You can go direct to The Tiger’s Bride page of Penfold Press from HERE, and for anyone interested in Polish Folk Art and the little painted birds in the images above, Zara of the online shop Frank & Lusia always has a good selection in stock HERE. (Or has them for as long as the trade deal holds.)

Illustrated Book Award Interview with the V&A’s Rebecca Law

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Please find the Interview

HERE

Endpaper for Hansel and Gretel in which the children’s world is made of vintage building blocks.

The March Lockdown put an end to the proposed V&A exhibition of works by the several categories of Illustration Award winners. There is be no V&A 2021 Illustration Award, and the current plan – all being well – is to re-schedule the postponed 2020 winner’s exhibition for next year.

I was so pleased to be asked to take part in the V&A interview. It enabled me to credit all those who brought Simon Armitage’s text to the page. Particularly the publisher, Joe Pearson, who I hold in the highest esteem, and Laurence Beck, who meticulously ‘cleaned up’ and colourised my drawings ready for printing. (I put him through so many palette variations, and yet he remained unruffled and good humoured throughout.) The book was a team effort, and everyone worked tirelessly to get it to the finishing line.

My thanks to all at the V&A, especially to Rebecca Law, my contact throughout, who asked interesting questions in the interview. (link at top of page)

The Big New Adventure

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I’ve loved Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of La Belle et la Bête since first I saw it. Loved it, been thrilled, haunted and in thrall to it. I never tire of watching it, sometimes quipping that it’s the film to throw in my coffin to keep me company in the afterlife I don’t believe in.

Above: preparatory drawing for an illustration

For the longest time I’d been wondering how best to honour and homage the film. To begin with I toyed with the idea of making a series of paintings, but then together with Joe Pearson at Design for Today – who published Hansel & Gretel last year – hatched a plan to produce an illustrated book in collaboration with the poet Olivia McCannon, who I’d been longing to work with. Joe, Olivia and I are in agreement that neither a straight adaptation of the screenplay nor a picture book version of the film could do justice to our ambitions. We’ve opted instead for what we’re referring to as a reinvention of Cocteau’s masterpiece characterised less as a translation, than a ‘dream’ of the film.

Above: my portrait of La Bête, the first image made for the book

I’ve filled drawing books with preparatory material. Characters and places have been exhaustively explored in order to find versions that will work to best advantage in illustrations. Iconic visual aspects of Cocteau’s Beauty and her Beast In their Christian Bérard costumes have been pored over, their shapes, textures and design characteristics examined, simplified and reconfigured so as to work graphically on the page. I’ve built maquettes and three-dimensional model sets to help with my compositions.

Above: maquettes under construction

With the groundwork done, I begin the real work of construction. There’s no dummy yet, but I estimate forty illustrations. Time to get busy!

Above: Jean Cocteau’s handwriting in the film’s opening credits

Interview on winning the V&A illustrated Book Award

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Jayne Paddington of Southampton Solent University interviews me:

 

JP: Tell us about the book illustrations you created.

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The book had an unusual beginning. As an artist with a background in theatre, in 2017 I’d been commissioned by a music ensemble to helm a new production of Hansel & Gretel. The producer had seen and been impressed by the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop (see above) and wanted to capitalise on the success of that. She’d begun talking with the composer she had in mind for the project, and as I was already collaborating with Simon Armitage on the revised and illustrated edition of his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Faber & Faber, 2018), I suggested he join us as the librettist/writer.

 

Simon titled his re-working of the fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and it previewed at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2018 before a national tour and a London premiere at the Barbican. A recording of the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during Christmas week, 2018.

 

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At some point during the pre-production of the show Simon suggested we might work together to produce an illustrated book of his libretto/poem. We discussed the options for publishing and  I recommended we speak with Joe Pearson at Design for Today. When Joe agreed to undertake publication, work on the book began in earnest.

 

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Set in a war zone, Simon’s version of the fairy tale took a completely different tone to the original by the Grimm Brothers by changing the impetus for Hansel and Gretel’s journey from that of abandonment by feckless parents, to an agonised decision by a loving father and mother to send their children away from the bombings.

 

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By this simple change the story became one of love and sacrifice, rather than of duplicity and abandonment. He was very clever too at conveying the degrees to which children mis-hear and misconstrue, and his text is full of moments when the siblings’ actions are based on their misunderstanding of events.

 

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With regard to how the images were made, the overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing that both Joe Pearson and I greatly admire. One of the hallmarks of the process is that the images are reproduced on uncoated paper and have a matt finish.

 

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Above: work underway on an illustration, and below: as it appears in the book.

 

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I made the drawings in black pencil, some on paper and some on granular lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means. I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer, Laurence Beck, which was the point at which the colour was added.

 

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Below: detail of the image as it appears in the book.

 

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Another attractive hallmark of old-school lithography can be the slight mis-registration of the various colours. This is something I’d intentionally cultivated in my artwork for the book, and Laurence was very careful to reproduce the effect in the finished images.

 

JP: How did it feel to win? What will happen now as a result of winning?

 

It’s been a strange time to receive my V&A Illustration Award in a summer when the building has been closed. The event was originally to have taken place at the museum in June, but was indefinitely postponed at the time of lockdown. There was to have been an exhibition of the artwork at the V&A, and that too was cancelled.  I heard about the announcement not from the museum, but from a press release they put out. While it’s very exciting to have been honoured in this way, it can’t be denied that reading about it in an unexpected online press release has not had the excitement factor that an event would have brought to it. I’m guessing they will either hold a smaller event later in the year, or failing that I guess the trophy will be delivered in the post.

JP: Where do you find inspiration for your illustrations?

 

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When you’re working to a text by the poet laureate, you don’t have to look any further than the words. I knew Hansel & Gretel inside out because I’d already designed and directed it for the stage, so I had a very good starting point for the project. Nonetheless, the moment the stage tour was over I began from scratch again with the text, dividing it up and making a very rough dummy copy that set out lines-per-page and earmarked where the images might go. And because the publisher and I had considered that first dummy very carefully, though the details sometimes changed over the period of illustrating, the overall shape and number of pages remained pretty much as we set out at the beginning.

 

The next stage was to make a huge project-book in which I began the process of designing every visual element I intended to show: human characters and what they wear, settings and the moods generated by them, objects, animals and events.

 

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It was exhaustive and stretched to several hundreds of images. (Enough for three books really.) Even if something appeared only once – such as the ‘imagined’ hyena that appears early on – I drew it dozens of times to work out what the image would bring to the book.

 

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For a bridge described by the author as ‘arched like a hissing cat’, I made more than fifty drawings of arch-backed cats, hump-backed-bridges, cat/bridges and bridge/cats, gradually finding the hissing cat/bridge hybrid that best conjured the mood of the scene.

 

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Simon is an incredibly enriching poet to collaborate with, and to do justice to him I find ways of accompanying his texts in ways that will take the reader by surprise. I  begin with the words of course, but often the places most profitable for illustration are the spaces between them.

 

JP: What advice would you give to our students wanting to one day follow in your footsteps?

 

Well they can’t follow in my footsteps, and shouldn’t want to. They should find their own ways, and travel by routes of their own devising. My careers have been various. I didn’t start as an artist, but as a choreographer and director, so I came late to the easel and even later to illustration. My experience is that the wider your interests, the better you’ll be at whatever you do. I don’t go around thinking about illustration all of the time. I read (voraciously) listen to music, study history, try to understand the world, try to understand people and stash away everything I learn in the place marked ‘material to be be used on some future project!’ I study art of all varieties and periods. I collect art, vintage toys (particularly wooden building blocks), textiles, puppets, masks, comics, fossils and books. I’ve collected all my life, whenever I’ve had a bit of spare cash. Some of the things I’ve collected ended up in the stage production of Hansel & Gretel, and migrated from that to the book.

 

Below: from the shelves of my tinplate toy bird cabinet…

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… to the stage production of Hansel & Gretel 

 

… to a double-page spread in the book:

 

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This little cavalryman migrated from my sitting room…

 

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… to an animated sequence in the stage production …

 

 

… to a preparatory drawing for the book …

 

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… to full render separations on paper and lithography film …

 

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… to the final colour book illustration. (Detail)

 

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All my collections fuel my work. I never have to start from scratch with any illustration project. Somewhere in my collection, there will be a starting-point ready made. I just wander around looking at what I have until I find it. It’s a more organic process than trying to conjure something out of nothing.

 

Here’s a link to a little film about the making of Hansel & Gretel.

 

http://www.designfortoday.co.uk/hansel-gretel

 

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2020.

 

Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes

Author: Simon Armitage

Illustrator: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Designer: Laurence Beck

Publisher: Design for Today

Re-making the Fairy Tale

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Daisy Wynter wrote to me at Instagram re. Hansel & Gretel:a Nightmare in Eight Scenes:

 

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“I love your work so much, I can’t stop looking at it and the wonderful textures you produce. Is it colour pencil or some kind of printing technique for these images?”

 

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I replied:

“The drawings were made in black Faber Castell pencil on either paper or lithography film, with occasional use of collaged textures that I produced myself by various means.

 

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I made separate ‘stencils’ in crayons and paints on lithography film for the colours. The layers of drawings and stencils were assembled digitally by the book’s designer Laurence Beck, which is the point at which the colour was added.

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We did it this way so that we could experiment with the colour palette, and this turned out to be a great advantage because along the way we radically changed our ideas to those we’d set out with.

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The overall intention was to capture something of the golden age of lithography printing. I’m not keen on illustrations that are essentially photographs of painted artwork reproduced on coated art paper. We planned on uncoated paper and a matt finish throughout the book, and the slight mis-registration that can be one of the delights of lithography and screen printing.

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The images and text feel integrated in this way, especially as we added colour to some of the text to denote which characters are speaking.”

 

Below: several layers of pencil and crayon on lithography film. These were separately scanned and assembled in the computer…

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… at which point colour was digitally added.

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Below: the tailpiece of the book.

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