Conversations with Ursula

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I was one of three artists selected by Ursula as her ‘inspirations’ on her GSCE course. (The others were Degas and the sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green.) Questions and answers were through the medium of e-mails and came about when our mutual friend Christopher Hammond-Davies put us in touch. By the time we began writing Ursula had evidently done quite a lot of research on my work. Her questions were well-prepared and insightful and made me think quite hard about working practices developed over such a long period that I sometimes forget I had to invent them in order to be the artist I aspired to.
Ursula and I have never met. I didn’t include her own images here because I felt I should first seek her permission, something I have yet to do.
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins
I have attached some pieces of my work! The drawing is just a picture my mum thought had emotion. The others are some prints, landscapes and drawings of my ponies in the field.
Here are my questions. Thank you so much for letting me ask your these.
1) You often have horses in your compositions. I know from your Artlog that your grandfather was thought to have done rather romantic things with horses. What do they represent for you?

I think horses – and horse riding – represented freedom for me when, in so many other respects, my life was governed by the tyranny of dance classes and rehearsals. I loved my chosen work, but riding was a wonderful release from it.

I remember being on a horse – probably at my grandfather’s – before I remember walking. I always preferred riding without a saddle.
2) Are you a fearless rider?

I was, once, long ago. But at sixty-seven I no longer ride and I don’t have a horse, though I live in the countryside and have land and a stable.

However my time is so consumed with being an artist, that there’s not enough of it left for what it would take to keep a riding horse. Success brings all sorts of things in its wake but time is not one of them. My diary is packed with exhibition and illustration commitments. My husband, Peter, works too, as a curator, and it’s already a challenge, finding the time to do things together. He doesn’t ride, and so it’s not an activity we could share.

3) Your inspiration is often from myth. Your pictures tell stories, but they are full of emotion. Can you say how you get so much feeling in them?
Right, that’s a tough one. When I began painting I was always striving for technique and proficiency and emotion didn’t really come into the equation. But then I began to notice that I only became fully engaged with a subject when it triggered an emotional response in me, and that response was more reliably to be found when I felt deeply about the idea behind the painting.
The starting point for me was still-life, and I began to make better still-life painting when I used items with family – and therefore emotional – connections .
So now I use that technique to invest all of my paintings with maximum emotional content. The viewers don’t have to know how I do it, or even recognise the elements. But for me, they have to be present.
4) Do you know what the result will be when you begin a picture?
Yes and no. The starting point of any composition will always be a series of rough drawings. I don’t worry at this stage about anything other than working out the mechanics, and the drawings are sometimes robust and confident, though sometimes quite fugitive and wispy. And I often make many of them. In them I’m feeling my way with three principal elements:
 
i) likenesses
ii)  shapes
ii) arrangements
By these I mean: 
i) how the objects/people/animals/places will look
ii) what shapes they will make
iii) how those shapes will be placed in relation to each other
My main concerns at this stage are composition and positive and negative space. Colour and tone don’t usually come into the equation until much later.
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In these respects, the works are definitely ‘planned’, whether as easel paintings for a gallery or as illustrations. But when the business of painting begins – when the brushes and/or pencils get busy on the work itself – although I may have very strong ideas, often the image will start to go its own way. I’ve learned not to become too fixed on how the final work will shape up, because there have to be elements that surprise me, and perhaps even take it in an unexpected direction. When this happens, I don’t try to force things back into where I think they should be going. I follow where the painting is leading me. If at the conclusion I feel that the painting is good, though not quite what I intended, then I’ll set it aside to come back and look at again later, when I can view it freshly. I may finish there, and go no further. 
Here’s an Artlog post about making a painting, start to finish. I didn’t use a maquette for this one, but relied on the memory of a man I’d glimpsed at a fish market. It was the ‘memory’ that was crucial. It helped me make the mood of the painting.
I find that if I have a really good subject, then I return to it over and over again, because there is no single, definitive way to depict an idea. I learned that from Picasso, who would paint a composition multiple times and each version was compelling as a stand alone image. But he’d make it over and over, and it would become a series, and the whole series was as satisfying as any of the individual paintings, drawings or prints.
5) Do you have ‘happy accidents’ when the paint seems to do it itself?

Yes. But I also ‘play’ a lot with materials. (Accidents, while great, can be useful tools if they can be repeated.) Each type of material requires a different skill-set and mastery, and playing helps me become practiced and fluent. Acrylic inks work in this way, oil paints in that. Primed canvas has these advantages, but gesso on board suits me better. Watercolour requires one set of disciplines, and acrylic tube-paint, another. This dry pastel fixes well, and this one changes colour when sprayed. The same pigment (colour) will behave differently in different brands of paint, because there are different versions of a pigment, some ’true’ and some ‘manufactured’. (The word ‘hue’ usually means a manufactured substitute of a natural pigment that may itself be too expensive. You have to read the information on the tubes really carefully.) I make up notebooks of working techniques and some of the earlier ones have been my companions for twenty years or more. You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. When something works well, I make a note on which brand and how the colour was mixed, or exactly which viscosity allowed for me to scratch through a layer of wet paint with the end of my brush. (A technique called sgraffito.) Materials are chemicals, and you need to understand how they work. I researched coloured pencils for over a year because I discovered that though it didn’t say so on the tins, most were wax-based while only a very few were wax and oil-based, and the latter were better because they didn’t ‘bloom’ when used heavily. Blooming happens when waxes mixed with the pigments manifest as a fine, white, disfiguring dust on the surface of the artwork. When it occurs some time after the work has been put under glass it’s as though white mould has set in. But the manufacturers are often not keen to show-and-tell what their products are made of, and so I had to extensively research to get the information I required, and that took determination. I phoned around the companies tracking down people who would talk to me and eventually I found the perfect coloured pencil brand for my purposes. (Faber-Castell Polychromos.) On another occasion I was dissatisfied with the way shellac-based aerosol fixatives affected the surfaces of my works in dry pastel, so researched until I found a casein-based product that came in pump activated misting dispensers. Sometimes being an artist requires the perspicacity and insight of a Hercule Poirot! 

Of course none of this matters a fig to the man or woman standing in the gallery looking at the work. But the knowledge is a big part of my discipline as a painter, because it enables me to be better at what I make across many disciplines of media. When I have an idea it’s reassuring that I can pick and choose exactly how I might go about making it a reality.  

6) Do you sometimes struggle to get the right gestures in horses and humans? I like that you prefer Stubb’s observations over Munnings’ photorealism.

Yes, I do struggle. This is where maquettes come into play for me. They help with that. But I think too that I should explain my attitude toward the life model. I like having a life model from time to time. It’s a great discipline. But I never make paintings from models because I’m not looking for those levels of reality. I make life studies for eye-to hand practice, and for information. But after the model has gone, I use the studies done from the model to make maquettes, and it’s those I use to make my compositional sketches. The maquettes free me from all sorts of level of distraction that come with the life model.

With the model I’m so busy looking and representing that I can’t focus on what I have in my head for a painting. The maquettes help free me of those distractions, and they help me better find what I’m searching for. In an entirely practical way, they focus me. 

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7) Do you think you need specific talents to be an artist, such as drawing, or is it enough to want to make things?

My methods are particular to my experience. I came to art very late. I was having a mid-life crisis when at forty I began painting, and I because of my circumstances – I had to make a living –  didn’t go to art school. I am self-taught. To begin with I taught myself in in an academic manner, by observation and painting from life. I improved my drawing. I taught myself by practice, landscape, still life and figure painting, and from books, perspective and colour theory. 

It was a long process, and I was still learning when I began to exhibit. But then, as I became more fluent in my disciplines, I realise that wasn’t the kind of artist I wanted to be. I wanted a more visceral, more ‘felt’ approach in my painting. I preferred the art of the early Renaissance, before the rules of perspective had been set. I liked the awkwardness when things looked slightly wrong. I loved ‘outsider’ art. And so I began inventing methods to pull myself away from academic discipline, evolving a practice of working with substitutes: wooden building blocks, constructed paper landscapes, found objects and maquettes. It was like learning the theoretic rules of music, before beginning to deconstruct. So the route was not straight forward, and I can’t say whether it would be right for anyone else. But it was right for me. In retrospect, though I can’t know what may have been had things been otherwise, from this perspective I am very, very glad that I didn’t start painting earlier in my life, and that I didn’t go to art school. I think I would have been a quite different painter had I done so, and not necessarily a better one. It has been quite a lonely journey, but a really focussed one. I love finding solutions to my own problems.
Maquettes of Gawain and his horse Gringolet made in preparation for work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I do believe that drawing is the heart of everything. But not necessarily academic drawing. Expressive drawing is the thing I love, and that can be many things. Awkward, clumsy, questing, delicate, unsure or rough as hell, drawing is the heart and soul, and to do it well, you need to be in touch with your heart. It’s not just about looking, it’s about feeling.

8) I really enjoyed working with a horse made of individual paper pieces, an idea borrowed from your Gawain and Gringolet. Do you develop an idea using a range of techniques in an organised way, or is it different every time?

 

Maquette of Gringolet under construction. I work in paper when creating the pattern, and then transfer to more robust card that I can work on in paint and pencils.

I takes time to build maquettes, and I’m always looking for different outcomes and improvements. The earliest ones were utterly simple and they served me well. Now they’re much more complex because I’m always looking to make them more flexible and articulate. These days there are all sorts of things going on behind them. Sliding bars and swivel joints allow me to reconfigure the maquettes so as to be more useful as compositional tools. Essential pivot points are no longer fixed, but can move around. Where once I had a half dozen maquettes, I now have many. Boxes and boxes of them, ranging through animals, mythic beasts, saints, angels and knights in armour. I make new ones for every project. They’re my actors.

 

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Moreover sometimes they become tools for other disciplines, and over the past years I’ve used sets of maquettes to produce animated films.

 

 

An animated film to accompany orchestras playing Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, is performed all over the world, and more recently, I used shadow-puppet maquette sequences in the Goldfield Ensemble production of Hansel & Gretel.

 

But inspiration can come from many places. I have a particular love of German Expressionist cinema, and that too spilled over into Hansel & Gretel:
(I add these into my answers, because for me being an artist embraces many disciplines, including those of stage director and designer.)
Right, I think that’s it. But I’ll happily expand if there’s anything I haven’t answered clearly enough. Just tell me what you want. And I have yet to make a list of outsider artists for you, but I promise I will.
Very Best
Clive

Hans Poelzig’s and Marlene Moeschke’s work on Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of ‘The Golem’

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I’ve long held a passion for Paul Wegener’s 1920 film of The Golem, based on the Jewish legend of the biddable man made by Rabbi Loew out of clay. (Though of course things don’t go quite as intended and the creature conjured into life develops a mind of its own.)

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Wegener recruited architect Hans Poelzig as set designer for what would turn out to be the most extraordinary depiction of a Jewish ghetto made in the style that’s now described as ‘Plastic Expressionism’ after the modelled shapes and textured surfaces of the sets, as opposed to the previous ‘German Expressionism’ used by historian’s for films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in which the sets were flat surface constructions with all elements, from the skewed architecture to the angled shadows and shafts of light, painted onto them.

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Poelzig’s atmospheric sketches from his Golem project-book were translated into a Prague Ghetto of perspective-defying labyrinthine streets, alleyways and courtyards where high gables and witch’s hat rooftops twist out of true over buildings that slouch and slump under the weight. Wegener filled it with roiling rivers of extras in a horrifying crush of humanity and it’s hard to believe the crammed effects were achieved with any degree of safety for the participants.

 

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Below: a meandering street of the Jewish ghetto seen here under construction. As the director’s fixed position cameras would be set up to film from carefully selected angles, the buildings could be created as thin facades over scaffolds.

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Below: this image demonstrates the wonderful textures of plasterwork on the sets for The Golem as carried out by the UFA scenic department.

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For the interiors Poelzig turned to a sculptor – and later wife – Marlene Moeschke, who shaped rooms for The Golem resembling the ribbed and arcing interior forms of seashells.

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Above: Moeschke’s model for the Rabbi’s laboratory, and below, the set.

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The laboratory was a particular triumph when meticulously recreated at full scale for the filming. Though it’s been over half a century since I first saw fragments of  The Golem as a teenager, the images still make the hairs at the nape of my neck stand on end. Marlene Moeschke’s contribution to the film has rather too often been overshadowed by Poelzig’s, so it was heartening to see her acknowledged and her models foregrounded in the excellent 2016 exhibition ‘Golem’ at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

 

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The Making of the Myths Map

My thanks to Gravitywell, the award-winning digital media company in Bristol, for sharing this example of how my artwork for the English Heritage Myths Map was layered by them to create an interactive experience across diverse platforms. This is just a small corner of the map, but you can experience the full effect by clicking on the link at the bottom of the page.

 

 

I produced all the artwork for the map, and the entire project was designed, built and launched by Gravitywell in a six week schedule. There were times when it seemed an almost impossibly short time in which to achieve everything, but we did it!

Click here for the full Myths Map experience.

The Kraken Surfaces…

… in an animation that’s just a marginal detail – like a tiny but telling image in the border of an illuminated manuscript – within a project I’m working on for English Heritage, the launch of which will be announced soon.

 

The animation began with the construction of a simple maquette of the Kraken, and a drawing of the stricken ship.

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Below, the maquette is placed over the drawing to give a rough impression of how the two will work together.

 

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The schedule allowed for only minimal animation, and to that end the Kraken was a simple build from two layers: a top one of the head with four tentacles, and a layer beneath with two tentacles. While we didn’t have the time to produce a more elaborate ‘coiling’ animation, the two Kraken layers moving independently of each other give an impression of writhing tentacles. All of the animations for this project have to run on loop, and to that end have been designed as tiny narratives that have a start and a finish, and can endlessly repeat.

The Kraken and ship were scanned and delivered, along with my animation storyboards, to our collaborators at the Bristol-based Gravitywell, an award-winning digital agency that develops websites, iphone/android apps, and SEO services. Laura-Jane Alison is project manager at Gravitywell keeping us all to schedule, and Matt Doyle is the lead designer responsible for the animated sequences. I think you can very likely tell from the Kraken animation that we’ve been having a lot of fun with the project. The scans have been digitally coloured according to the palette agreed between me and English Heritage’s supervising art director for the project, Becky Baker.

Artists and illustrators have long been drawn to the notion of sea monsters going head to head with ships, and there’s no shortage of visual material exploring the theme, both historic and contemporary.

 

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The Kraken is a particular favourite of tattoo artists, and in a painting I made some time ago of an inked fisherman, I added a tattoo of a giant Nautilus reaching out to grasp a clipper.

The main source of inspiration for the Kraken in my animation, is this illustration by Denys Montfort in Histoire naturelle, général et particuliére des mollusques: animal sans vertébrés et a sang blanc, Volume 2, published in 1801.

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But for those of you who remember him, I suspect I’ve been channeling the spirit of Captain Pugwash.)

 

Field of Play

The commission to make the image of Saint George and the Dragon for English Heritage Magazine, came in over Christmas while Peter and I were staying with our friends Liz and Graham at their home near Lamonzie Montastruc, Dordogne.

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Because the deadline for completion was so tight, and moreover I needed to get a preliminary off for approval before we returned to the UK, the first sketches for the painting were made at the kitchen table while Lizzie busied herself with preparations for supper – and puss thought that sitting in the middle of my sketch pad was a good way to help me better concentrate. (Here she is getting my attention to let her in!)

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A few days later, back in my studio and with the clock ticking down, I painted into the small hours to complete the work so that I could deliver it for scanning at the National Library of Wales the following morning. Skin of the teeth timing!

 

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Framed and titled ‘Field of Play’, the painting sold at the Martin Tinney Gallery a couple of weeks before it appeared in the Spring edition of English Heritage Magazine. I’m currently working on the next image in the series.

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I think I should go to stay with Liz and Graham whenever carrying out commissioned work. La Crabouille is clearly conducive to  my creative flow!