‘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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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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What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

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The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.

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Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.

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In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.

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I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.

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Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.

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The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.

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I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.

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I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.

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I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.

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Painting Made for Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

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Daniel Broncano, who’d invited me to work on the Messiaen project, had written to me about the prisoner-of-war camp in which the composer had been incarcerated while he wrote the piece. The music had been first performed in the camp by inmates, and so I began my initial work by expressively exploring the physical environment and conditions of the music’s making. I worked in black and white. But then Daniel wrote again, this time suggesting that I read the biblical texts Messiaen had been inspired by. He also explained why he thought I should work in colour. I stopped what I’d been doing, took some time to think through Daniel’s ideas. and started afresh.

I often find that an earlier piece of work can kick start a new process of creativity. On this occasion I looked to my print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’d made a design of foliate scrolling and peacocks as an embrodery pattern for the caparison of Gawain’s horse, Gringolet. That became my starting point for Quartet for the End of Time.

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The composition advanced quickly from there. I thought not so much in terms of solid colour, as building a picture from textures, transparencies and the prismatic effects sometimes see in the sheen of insects’ wings. I used maquettes of a winged horse and a cat-like beast to build the composition.

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I’ve frequently used cats both wild and domesticated in my compositions, and this one became a hybrid, built from a lion, a tiger and a leopard. Its tail sprang leaves, blossom and fruit. Massed and layered textures swarmed over the composition. The beasts’ pelts writhed with mark-making and the background became an inky sea of gouache, the matt density a pleasing contrast to the polish of the heavily worked pencil rendering of flora and fauna. I played with the joints of the maquettes, emphasising them to suggest layers of making. There’s a sense of imminent dissolution, as though all the pieces are about to drift away. I like the borderlands where representation collides with the artificiality of a construct. Increasingly in my work it’s where I’m most comfortable.

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