Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins: the poet and his illuminator

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I offered the term ‘illuminator’ to Marly Youmans some years ago when she asked me how I wanted to be described in terms of making images for her books. I went for the word used for the often anonymous artists who decorated early manuscripts with glowing intensity. I love being Marly’s illuminator, and we’ve been travelling hand-in hand for a long time now. I’ll be decorating her Book of the Red King for Phoenicia Publishing this year. There’s an ease and trust between us that’s creatively liberating.

The same comfort is in place with Damian Walford Davies, for whom I’ve made the covers of his trilogy of narrative poems, Witch, Judas and my yet to be released favourite, the ghost story Docklands. Simon Armitage is proving to be another easeful collaborator, leaving me and the team at Faber to get on with things. Trust, of course, is at the heart of such relationships. It’s either there or it isn’t. It can’t be negotiated or contractually enforced, and it’s at its best when the author knows the images don’t have to illustrate, so much as create a mood in which to set the words. Sometimes the images can even play against the text, without in any way disrupting the flow of meaning. It’s a magic thing, and it either happens or it doesn’t. Like all intuitive creative processes, I’m quite convinced that no practitioner could show precisely how to do it. I always know when I’ve got the idea right, and can move forward in confidence to see a book through to completion, but I find it impossible to explain why.

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I’m not entirely sure what it is that so consistently brings me to work with poets. Saturday’s exhibition opening at MoMA Machynlleth was the culmination of the close-on three year task printmaker Dan Bugg and I set ourselves to make 14 screen prints inspired by Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of this extraordinary narrative poem, but it was only after the first six images had been editioned and published that Simon saw the work and wrote to me about it. Two years on we’re in the process of adapting the images to Simon’s forthcoming revised edition of the poem, due out from Faber in the Autumn.

After two selling Gawain exhibitions with the Martin Tinney Gallery (Part 1 in 2016 and Part 2 in January this year), MoMA Machynlleth is hosting a three-month-long exhibition of the 14 prints plus preparatory material made over the period of the project, from sketches, maquettes and painted studies, to stage-proofs and the ‘drawings’ made on lithography film that produced the colour separations for the screen prints.

Simon is softly spoken and on Saturday he read from his Gawain translation with deceptive diffidence. Nothing declamatory or overly emphatic in his delivery, but a mesmerising eloquence and intensity that effortlessly bewitched the audience. He gave a masterclass in how to do more with less, and I’ll remember it always.

Below: the most important critics, Dan Bugg’s children, Alfie and Elsie take in the exhibition before the doors open. Both are pretty proficient in the printing studio, and so they have the insiders’ perspective.

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Print No. 13: The Sorceress

Morgan le Fay is the architect of magic in the poem of Sir Gawain and the Green knight. Here she evolves from drawing through the multiple stencils that will produce the layers of colour in the finished print.

The drawing is made on board and underlies the transparent stencils throughout the process of rendering them, providing me with a guide so that everything aligns. The plastic layers are held in place with alignment pins and punched tabs.

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I make textures using a scalpel to cut through lithography crayon.

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Opaque red oxide paint is used to create flat areas of colour in the finished print.

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The colour samples will guide Daniel Bugg when mixing the inks for printing.

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Texturising the beast’s pelt and modelling with shadow.

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When overlaid the layers of stencils get very dark. Everything will look completely different when printed in colour.

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The outlines of Morgan le Fay, her beast, the flames springing from the beast’s feet and the flowers diapering the composition, have to be carefully drawn around in order to create the background. Because the background is to consist of three layers of colour, the process has to be completed three times, which is both time consuming and a tad boring.

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The flames are rendered to lend form.

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Here the image has been photographed with just three layers of stencils. There are seven stencils required for the finished print, but when the seven are layered they become so dark that the image doesn’t photograph well.

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Print No. 12, as yet untitled

Gawain stands in the Green Chapel. His elaborate armour was cleaned of rust and polished back at Fair Castle, but now it’s further transforming with burgeoning engravings of foliateness and a constellation of stars emerging on his breastplate.

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He reaches toward his helmet, removed in order to take the Green Knight’s blow, and out of which greenery is spewing.

IMG_1997Gawain has fulfilled the oath made a year ago in Camelot. He’s knelt before the Green Knight and submitted to his axe, but has escaped with nothing worse than a parting of the flesh at the back of his neck.

He’s staunched the wound with what he had to hand. Throughout the series of images items have fluttered upwards: pennants, cloaks and helmet plumes, and now the girdle secretly gifted to him by the Lady of Fair Castle streams out, an embroidered stand-in for what might so easily have been his life’s blood.

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These stencils have been the most complicated to date, mainly because of all the background filigree work, duplicated on four layers. Now I await the first proofs from Daniel Bugg at Penfold Press.

Update on ‘The Exchange’

Back at the beginning of September I made a post about my work on the preparation for number ten in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series of prints I’m making in collaboration with Penfold Press. The post charted the progress of The Exchange from first sketches to completed stencils, the latter of which were dispatched to Daniel Bugg for him to begin the long work of transferring them to screens and beginning the proofing.

In my studio the image started as a sketch…

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… and ended as a set of stencils.

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Dan made two proofs to show me. While the first carefully matched my seven colours, the second was one of those happy accidents which sometimes occur and that you have to consider very carefully. For the second proof Dan had mixed varnish into one of the colours which then printed with far more transparency than he’d anticipated. While surprised by the effect, both of us loved the result. The jury is still out but I think we’re coming to the conclusion we should go with the flow and attempt to reproduce the accident in the edition. There’s something wonderfully ghostly about it. I particularly love the way it’s impacted the butchered stag on the right of the composition. I won’t show the whole print here. It still needs tweaking. Moreover we never reveal any print in its entirety until the edition is ready for publication. But here’s a detail of it.

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Tomorrow I’ll make some adjustments to the stencils that Dan returned to me, and then they’ll head back to him for the editioning to begin.

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Development of the Stencils for ‘The Green Chapel’

Guide Drawing

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Stencils are made on transparent film, one per eventual colour in the print, and so some impression of the image may be had as the layers build, though of course the colour is missing. The drawing lying underneath the stencils is the template of the image throughout the process.

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The sample colours at the side of the stencils, indicate to the printer the colours required at the printing stage. This print will consist of five colours.

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As the density of the render increases with each stencil, I occasionally have to remove layers to better see what’s going on. The crayons, pencils, inks and paints used are not transparent, and so each new layer begins to obscure what lies underneath. The printing inks by contrast are largely transparent, allowing the many layers to show in the finished print.

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Using an improvised etching needle to break up the heavy lithography crayon with sgraffito and create what will eventually be a more tonal layer of ink.

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In the image below the sketches in the margin were made as I worked out the composition.

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In the image below, the scratches catching the light on the surface of the plastic stencil, in the print will create an area of softer tone

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Below, tonal stencils will underlie the stencils on which the details of the image are rendered.

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‘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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