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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Nick’s Ink: the design is delivered.

Facebook messaging between Nick Yarr and me, 14/01/17

Nick Yarr
Exchange safely accomplished – I’m digesting the design – it is very intricate. I can’t believe my arm is that size flattened out – deceiving! The next stage will be getting my tattoo artist on board, and getting the design scanned. Any input as to where to look re scanning will be gratefully recieved! Thanks again, Clive.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
It’s an interesting perception, the size of the arm, as I thought it looked rather small when the ‘wrap’ was flattened out to make a pattern. I was a little worried that it had shrunk over time. However, when I taped it around my own arm it was a reasonable fit. Neither of us are what might be called beefy, and so I’m guessing in terms of skin surface, our arms are similar.

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This will be the first tattoo of the Skin project, and so I’ve no idea what the response of an ‘ink artist’ will be. There are a lot out there now who are both designers and inkers, and some of the star practitioners may well consider inking only their own designs. However I guess it’s the nature of of tattooing to be often transferring a specific design or image that the client wants. For this design, we need first rate copying skills married to the sense of interpretation that’s bound to be a part of the process of making a good transference from pencil drawing to inked skin. It’ll take a lot of subtlety.

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Nick Yarr
Any thoughts on the scanning and where to start? I like the shading and three dimensional effect it gives. I like the flow and intricacy of the design, though the blue is something I’m becoming accustomed to!

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Hansel & Gretel was scanned by Saxon Digital Services in Norwich. I think they did a magnificent job, which then transferred to the printing of the book. You can see all the fine etched lines in the printed illustrations which I’d worried wouldn’t reproduce well. I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

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Regarding the blue. Throughout the design process I took images and digitally removed the colour, so I could check out how everything would look without the blue. The blue translates to a smoky shadow and you get a good sense of what the design would look like if you elected to go that way. Personally I like the blue, but the choice is there for you to forego it. Or if my blue is a tad bright for you, it could be pulled back to a more muted one.

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Nick Yarr
Thanks Clive. I like the monochrome  and the blue. I’ll give it some thought. I like the design very much. It’s what I was hoping for, but more extensive, if that’s the word, and extensive in a good way. Remind me of the reason for getting a digital translation. (This is a whole new world for a doctor – lol)

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
A detailed digital image might make it easier to download and show any ink artist what you you want to have put onto your arm. A good photograph or series of photographs might do initially, but at some point whoever you select will need to see a scale version or the original, given that it was designed to fit your arm.

Nick Yarr
I see – so I could also then translate the digital version onto paper so they had a full scale design to work with.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Exactly. Also, should you decide to go with a monochrome version, you can give the ink artist a scale image with the blue turned to tonal.

I recall in our original discussions, alone among all the participants you wanted something that was more pattern-like. More about mark-making. I remember being a bit daunted by your brief, because I’m essentially a narrative painter. But interestingly the past years have seen me working more frequently with patterns. They’ve always been there, in the flowery fields of the ‘saints’ paintings (Saints Kevin, Hervé and George) and in the rich diapering of textiles and backgrounds.

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But now, in the Gawain series, they’re increasing foregrounded and given compositional weight to bear. In this gouache and pencil study for the print of The Green Knight’s Head Lives, the patterning of the horse’s caparison and the Knight’s tattoos, cover a good three quarters of the image, knitting it together and conveying the world in which the character lives.

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So gradually I’ve became confident about what I could produce for you. (I am super aware that this is for life.) Had I been designing a tattoo for myself, it would have been the one I’ve made for you. I loved the idea of translating all the traditions of elaborate British historic embroidery and adornment into a tattoo. Your foliate design would serve just as well for the embroidery of an Elizabethan sleeve or doublet, as for a tattoo.

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I want to take a tattoo tradition that’s been rather hijacked by tribal patterning, and make something elaborate and quintessentially British. Transposing what might once have been the embroidery of a sleeve, directly onto skin, feels rooted visually in the decorative traditions of these islands, while being married to the more subversive, modern expression of body modification. I love the idea of a reversal of what once was. The Elizabethan courtier wore his decorated splendour as an outer suit that could be peeled away to reveal the undecorated body. Now the dark suited business man can peel away his sober outer layer to reveal the foliate glories of his tattooed skin.

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I think it’s drop dead sexy, this kind of male surrendering to beauty. Like a buck with a pearl earring. I don’t know how many people will get to see your tattoo, but I think it could be a gorgeous surprise, just poking out from under the cuff of a white shirt and skinny-smart three-piece suit. Hey ho Silver!!!

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Nick Yarr
I agree that tattoos are sexy. Moreover this design is very different to the many tattoos I’ve seen, and that’s a very good thing! I think that finding an artist I’m happy to trust to do justice to your work will be the next challenge. I’ve a few in mind – so I’ll keep you posted! Thanks once more for the time and trouble you’ve taken. It is very much appreciated.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
You might explain at some point that this a part of an ongoing art project. That might have an appeal for an ink artist who was interested in the profile generated by the project.

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.

The Knight and the Virgin

Making a screenprint.

Rough sketches. There were several of these, but the one below was the guide to the study painting.

Below: working the face in some detail on mountboard before beginning to lay on paint. The drawing disappears almost completely under the first layer of gouache, but by that time it is already ‘locked’ in my head.

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The Virgin and child painted onto the lining of Gawain’s shield begin to take shape.

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Gawain’s helmet plume. Gouache and pencil.

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Camelot, worked in sgraffito and pencil. The ground is heavy, acid-free mount-board that allows for the inscribing with a needle.

Rendering in gouache and pencil.

The finished study. Gouache, pencil and sgrafitto on board.

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The composition re-drawn as a ‘master-drawing’ to guide the process of making stencils on separate layers of transparent film. Each stencil represents a single colour in the printmaking process.

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Camelot rendered in wax crayon on transparent film. In the study, the ‘etched’ look was created by using a needle to ‘indent’ the card, and then working pencil over the top. With the stencil I had to use a technique more akin to scraperboard, wielding a needle to clear areas of the wax drawing. It was massively time consuming as the sticky wax detritus had to be constantly brushed away before it got stuck back down by the pressure from my hand resting on the surface. This stencil, which is a small section of the composition, took two days to complete.

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Layers of transparent film create the quality of mark and tone Dan and I were looking for. The stencils are all made in black and red. No point in working in colour at this stage. It’s easier to see what’s going on in the layers by simplifying. The pattern on the inside of the shield was particularly taxing. In the painting the pattern was made by using yellow ochre whipped in with a fine brush over the top of the red. For the printmaking, the ochre has to under-print the red, and so all those pattern marks on the stencil had to be painted around. A long day’s work.

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More layers of stencils. Even though they’re transparent/translucent, eventually it becomes hard to see what’s underneath the top five or six layers.

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The stencils fixed in place with registration pins to assure correct alignment. The colours at right are the guide for Daniel Bugg. Each corresponds to a layer of stencil. The big brush is to dust the stencils and keep them free of detritus, though usually a few stray hairs from Jack end up in there.

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This is how Gawain looked when composed of all the layers of stencils. Quite sooty!

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Proof stage by Daniel Bugg. The two stencils for the colours shown here have been processed as screens by Dan. Each screen is made of microfine mesh stretched on a frame, through which the printing ink is squeezed to make the impression.

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Proofing stage.

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Adding one of the black screens to the proofing stage, to check how things are looking.

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Another proof, this time adding shades of ochre before laying in the black. Red and cobalt teal laid over each other make a rich, bruised purple.

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Below: the finished print.

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The Armouring of Gawain. 2016.

Screenprint. 55 x 55 cms. Edition of 75.

Opening 8th September at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff

Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press.

Prints, paintings and drawings exploring the medieval poem