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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Gawain and the Green Knight: ‘The Travails’, from start to finish.

I had a choice of encounters to explore visually. In the poem, while on his journey to find the ‘Green Chapel’, Gawain battles and vanquishes various creatures, including wolves, ogres, serpents and woodwoses. Woodwoses are ‘wild men’, shown as shaggy of body in early manuscripts, often wearing garlands of leaves to bind their snaky hair.

Below: Woodwose from the Speculum Regale (King’s Mirror).

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I came close to showing Gawain locked in combat with a woodwose. I liked the idea of rendering all that shaggy fur.

Below: early sketch of Gawain disabling a club-wielding woodwose .

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But in the end I decided that the composition would benefit  from a non-human form. I’d already explored a man in combat with a dragon in a series on the theme of Saint George, and so I returned to a composition devised for Battle Ground, made in 2007.

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In Battle Ground Saint George is in the dragon’s grip. By contrast in The Travails Gawain stands poised, shield raised for protection and his right arm thrusting home the killing blow. It’s an hieratic image, full of tension but not in any way, despite Gawain’s windblown hair, kinetic. I wanted the sense of a frozen moment.

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Once the composition was established, I began working on a detailed drawing to guide the painting. I brought out the dragon maquettes made originally as compositional aids for Battle Ground .

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Below: the finished painting of The Travails.

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Work begins on rendering Gawain and the dragon in lithography crayon, ink and paint on layers of transparent plastic. These are called ‘stencils’, though that’s a bit misleading because there’s no cutting involved as there would be with the kind of stencils you might use to decorate walls or furniture.

Each layer of these screenprinting stencils represents a single colour for the eventual printing process. The sheets are fixed with registration pins over a ‘master drawing’ that guides me as I build the image.

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As the layers of of the drawings increase, the image darkens.

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Once the layers have been completed, they’re dispatched to the Penfold Press where Daniel Bugg processes them into screens for printing. The screens are made of micro-fine mesh stretched over frames. The mesh is coated with photo-sensitive emulsion that allows my drawings to be ‘fixed’ in such a way that when ink is squeezed through the screen, it prints the image onto the underlying paper. Each colour requires a separate screen.

Once Dan has the screens prepared he mixes colours and the process of printing and proofing begins. This is the point at which we get a sense of whether I need to do further work on the existing stencils. If required I add new ones. We make decisions on how to manipulate the layers of colour to achieve the desired effects. For The Travails many proofs were made, some of them transforming the image quite radically from the original painting.

Below: early stages of proofing.

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Below: At this stage, Dan points out that I’ve forgotten to make a layer of gold for the falling leaves. The background is darker than in my painting, but the fact is that the intention is to make a printed image with qualities in its own right and not a reproduction of the painting. The painting is really just the starting point of a new creation through the medium of the screenprint.

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Below: a brighter blue for the background better approximates the original painting, but is nevertheless unsatisfactory. The colour of the dragon too, gets closer to the original, though we both agree it has too much of a resemblance to chewing-gum.

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Dan and I reference the painting (below) throughout the early stages of the printmaking, though we quickly realise that the background blue and the colours of the dragon and Gawain are too tonally alike for the combination to work as intensely as I want for the screenprint.

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Below: Dan tries a more radical approach. The background darkens and the dragon turns the colour of a plum. I like this one a lot, though we feel that the dragon and Gawain need to be closer in tonal value in order to better balance the composition. Gawain is catching the eye too much.

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Below: Dan has added a layer of texture to the dragon using a stencil I’d made for another print. The background has become even inkier and Gawain’s red is really popping. The outline of the dragon is crisp. We’re both satisfied. This is the final proof, the one on which the edition will be based.

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Curator and art commentator James Russell writes of the print:

Armoured but helmetless, his shield held staunchly before him, Gawain plunges his spear into the breast of a serpent. Fans of Clive’s work may recognise the grinning beast with its ghastly scaled body as a relative of the dragon battled by St George in a memorable series of paintings, but this is a different kind of image for a different kind of story. The tale of St George would have been familiar to the Pearl Poet’s original audience, as would a host of quest narratives and stories of bravery in which the slaying of a dragon or similar beast represented a culmination. Victory proved the knight’s valour and therefore his moral worth. Not so in the case of Gawain.

In one short if vivid passage we learn of his journey in search of the Green Knight’s home, the Green Chapel, in which he vanquishes a menagerie of medieval monsters. Wolves, bears, giants, woodwoses, serpents… none can match him. He proves his strength and courage again and again, but these battles are little more than ritual acts. The world has moved on, and when he undergoes his true test he will not even know he is being tested.

In portraying St George, Clive presented the sinuous form of the dragon and the limbs of the knight twisting together in violent struggle, but Gawain is not wrestling this beast. He is dispatching it, calmly and resolutely. Is it his virtuous shield with the painting of Mary that empowers him? Or is he simply too strong for mere serpents? Or are these easy victories set up for him, to inflate his pride? The falling oak leaves suggest that we are already within the Green Knight’s domain…

 

James Russell

 

Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press opens at the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff, on Thursday 8th Sept. The exhibition runs until October 1st.