Gawain has made it onto the cover of Printmaking Today, with an inside story by James Russell on the collaboration between Dan Bugg and me.
Gawain has made it onto the cover of Printmaking Today, with an inside story by James Russell on the collaboration between Dan Bugg and me.
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).
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 .
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.
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.
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 .
Below: the finished painting of The Travails.
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.
As the layers of of the drawings increase, the image darkens.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
The Virgin and child painted onto the lining of Gawain’s shield begin to take shape.
Gawain’s helmet plume. Gouache and pencil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is how Gawain looked when composed of all the layers of stencils. Quite sooty!
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.
Adding one of the black screens to the proofing stage, to check how things are looking.
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.
Below: the finished print.
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
Please join us if you are able at the opening of:
Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press
Prints, paintings and drawings on the theme of the medieval poem
Thursday 8th September, 6 pm – 7.30 pm at
The Martin Tinney Gallery
18 St. Andrew’s Crescent, Cardiff. CF10 3DD. +44 (0)29 2064 1411
Exhibition runs from Thursday 8th Sept to Saturday 1st Oct, 2016
Art commentator James Russell writes of the Penfold Press collaboration between artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins and printmaker Daniel Bugg:
“The story is the kind you might find in The Mabinogion. Sir Gawain is more human than your average legendary hero. Having taken up the challenge offered at the Camelot Christmas feast by the terrifying Green Knight, he embarks on a quest to find this ogre, only to be tested – and found wanting – in unexpected ways. Sir Gawain is both a glittering knight and a fallible young man, and it is this flawed human character that intrigues Clive. Each print is inspired by the text and rooted stylistically in its world, but beyond that Clive and Dan have allowed their imagination free rein.”
All the images are preparatory studies for The Armouring of Gawain, or details from stencils prepared for the print.
Gawain must seek out the Green Knight’s chapel, where he is oath-bound to submit to a blow from an axe that will very likely kill him. Everyone at the court witnessed the challenge from the Green Knight that led to this pass, and no-one believes that Gawain will return. So the acquitting of him in fine armour is a bit of a hollow pretence, a show of largesse from a King gilding the sacrificial lamb. (It was Arthur the Green Knight had in his sights, but young Gawain stepped in to be his champion.) Clad in chased and burnished gold, radiating light like Apollo, the young man’s gaze turns to the image of the Virgin he’s had painted onto the lining of his shield. She alone must steel him for the travails ahead.
In the distance Camelot, compromised by the moral bankruptcy that will one day see it fall, is already dark, as though light has departed with the last good man.
A savage wind has tugged locks of Gawain’s hair from his helmet and set them streaming with his dancing crest of plumes. He’s locked in this metal suit, living and perhaps dying in it unless he reaches a trusted place where others may be relied upon to uncase him. Shining and jewelled, the armour is both protection and prison. He must cook or freeze in it as the weather dictates.
Below, the application of greasy, lithography crayon and opaque fibre-tip pens on layers of granulated Trugrain.
The Green Knight Speaks, while a great title for the fourth print in the Gawain series, doesn’t quite fit my image as it should. In the finished study for the work, the Green Knight’s lips remain firmly shut, and so the title must change. Right now I’m toying with several options, none of them yet quite there. Suggestions if you have them, please.
In the meantime work is underway on the stencils that will create the print. Each title in the series begins as a series of rough sketches in which I try out ideas. In this print, the Green Knight, having retrieved his decapitated head, holds it aloft to speak
After the ideas have been hammered out in rough drawings, I make a fully rendered painting of what I propose for the print. The image below is a detail of the painting for this print, showing the embroidered caparison of his horse.
The next stage is to produce the ‘master-drawing’, the template that sits beneath the layers of transparent film on which I draw and paint to make the stencils. A master-drawing sometimes differs in detail from the painting, as it’s my opportunity to make any corrections to the composition.
Once the master-drawing is has been drafted, the stencil-making is a relatively straight-forward process of tracing and separating the elements of the image into layers according to colour. Here is a detail of the master-drawing that will underlie the drafting films to guide me through the business of making the stencils for this print.
I begin with the stencil that will print as black. In dark red opaque marker-pens which enable me to make the sharp outlines of the embroidered motifs, I trace the background of the textile on a sheet of transparent Truegrain laid over the master-drawing.
At the next stage I work with lithography crayon to soften and shadow the pattern, and then add a second stencil to print the green of the embroidered elements. A third adds the orange background.
I use two varieties of stencil. Trugrain has a granulated surface that produces interrupted colour and mark-making… a kind of glittering effect… while drafting film is smooth and can yield dense fields of colour and unbroken lines. The stencils are worked in tonal variations of red-oxide and black, using pens, crayons, pencils and paints. On each stencil I make a note of the layer of colour represented. As I assemble the layers of stencils, I have to imagine what the colours will look like when printed over each other. For this print there will be seven stencils: black, yellow, mid-blue, dark-blue, red, orange and turquoise-green.
The textile in this image is an invention in which I riff on traditions of Coptic and Romanesque embroideries. In the absence of any buildings or landscape in the background of the print to give it a location, the motifs of scattered talisman-like eyes, flying peacocks and scrolling tendrils bearing oak leaves and assorted fruits, fills one half of the composition with a sense of place and mystery. The Green Knight brings the wilderness into the halls of Camelot, through the decorations on his horse and the inking on his skin.
I am in thrall to the processes of making the separations that Dan Bugg at Penfold Press transforms into the screens he uses to produce our Gawain prints. Drawn and painted onto layers of transparent film, the limited palette of greys, black and red oxide are substituted in the printing process for the rich colours I favour for the project. But there is a sobriety in the layers of artwork that appeals to me.
The light works in so many interesting ways on the films, that I find myself photographing them at every stage of the work. Luckily they survive the process of transference to the screens, and afterwards Dan stores them in his plan-chest. It might be interesting to exhibit them one day, together with the prints that were made from them. The screens themselves get cleaned and used again, and so the transparencies alone are the record of how the prints were made.
The following images are of transparencies for the third print in the series, The Green Knight Bows to Gawain’s Blow.
The Green Knight Arrives.
Edition size: 75, image size: 55.5 x 55.5cm, paper size: 70.5 x 69cm
Now available for purchase.
It begins at that darkest, mid-winter point of the turning year, when communities of the northern hemisphere celebrate in order to get through the hard times still ahead. In the poem Arthur and Guinevere are at the heart of the Christmas Court festivities when there’s an unexpected arrival at the door. Chatter ceases, all eyes turn to the spectre stepping uninvited into the warmth and light, bringing with it the chill of snow and ‘otherness’. For me it’s the most thrilling account of an ‘entry’ in the history of English literature.
Here are the stages that went into the making of this image, from sketches to compositional studies and a scale guide made in gouache and pencil, though the processes of building the stencils in layers to the final print. It’s an almost alchemical conjuring for me, new as I am to the mysteries of screen printing. But in the company of Dan Bugg I’m being led through them by a master. He has facilitated this adventure. We are now two prints into a series of fourteen, and number three is already well on its way.
As I explore my options for images to represent the magnificent narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the task is all about finding the spaces between the words. The Pearl Poet garnishes his poem throughout with lengthy and alluring descriptive passages. All action stops as pages of verse are devoted to detailed accounts of the Green Knight’s appearance, the appearance and caparisoning of his horse, Gringolet, the armour Gawain is formally arrayed in to begin his quest and the garments gifted to him when he stays at the the Castle of Lord Bertilak.
Gouache and pencil study
The descriptions of how the Green Knight looks at the moment he rides his horse into the Christmas celebrations, are not what move me to make images. I’m driven more by what underlies the arrival, and by the way everything has changed by the time he leaves.
For this first encounter with the Green Knight we spy on him outside the court, eyes closed as he prepares for what lies ahead. It’s essentially a portrait, an intimate close-up to draw the viewer into what’s about to be unleashed. Sorcery of the winter variety is afoot, and as though in anticipation of what will one day unfold at Camelot… the seeds of its destruction having been present at its inception… the tower beyond is crowned with flame. Everything must end, everything must fail eventually, and here the Green Knight is the herald and catalyst of what will one day bring about Camelot’s fall.
Printing and proofing
Proof overworked with coloured pencils.
Curator and art historian, James Russell, on the print.
‘Arthurian legend is full of warriors, but the Green Knight is unique – unearthly, even monstrous, yet still a knight. His unexpected arrival during the Christmas feast is one of the most famous entrances in the canon of British literature, accompanied in the poem by what Clive calls a ‘forensic’ description of his outlandish appearance.
Clive looks beyond the poetry to explore the character and cultural implications of Gawain’s nemesis, in an intense portrait of mingled power and vulnerability. The upper body of the Green Knight fills the frame, his statuesque head and massive arm suggesting the might of an ancient god – but in a sensitive pose reminiscent of Rodin. That flowing beard hints at the graphic gravitas of a playing card king; look again and it is a river flowing through a tattooed forest. Our 21st century Green Knight is a modern primitive, whose identity is etched into his skin.
A fascination for the decorated body has long been a feature of Clive’s work, and here there is a powerful pictorial contrast between the blood-red towers and battlements of Camelot and the organic forms inked into the Green Knight’s skin. As he prepares to bang on the door of King Arthur’s great hall, we can’t help but notice the lopped oak tree on his raised arm. Is this a record of violence done to nature? Nothing is explicit, but much is implied in this luminous vision of contrasting cultures: medieval Christian civilisation on the one hand, and, on the other, the timeless wild.’
While I’m eager to share new work here, I agree with Dan at Penfold Press that we need to hold back from full disclosure of preparatory images for the Gawain series until the prints are ready to launch. So here, by way of a compromise, are some details of the paint and pencil study for The Green Knight Takes Gawain’s Blow, shown in black and white rather than in colour. They’re by way of accompaniments to a conversation between me and my friend Aleksy Cichoń in Poland, who has seen this colour study in full, and today has written to me about it
Aleksy: The radiance of colour in this piece is amazing. But I have a question – who is character in base of column? Samson or Atlas?
Clive: He’s a Green Man. Look closely and you’ll see the foliate patterning on his robe. Here, carved in stone, is an early personification of the ancient magic embodied in the Green Knight. And the sepulchre crowned with a winged-lion (above) is also foliate patterned, as though there have been other Green Knights before this one, and the ancient tomb is always waiting for a new occupant. In addition the stone man and lion act as witnesses to the event, as I didn’t want the visual distraction of the King, Queen and courtiers looking on.
Aleksy: When I’m reading your words about this picture… I’m pretty sure that you’re representative of timeless generation of artists, true artists. What true artists do? They create artificial world based on philosophical rules. Furthermore, the image must be like philosophical treatise – multi-leveled, subtle model of petite universe. Well, you can do it. Gawain and Green Knight as universal figures of eternal drama – I’m shivering when I think about it. It’s good sign.
I’m in love with Green Knight’s melancholic acquiescence of his beheading.
Clive: I’m glad you like the Green Knight’s acquiescence. I find it rather sexy, this mighty presence bowing to the blade.
Aleksy: I’m aware of Knight’s load of sensuality, but melancholy side is the most attractive hue of character. Or maybe I’ve read too many books like ‘The Confusions of Young Törless’ and my outlook is distorted. Might be.
Clive: I agree with you about the ‘melancholy hue’. It is the abiding mood of this drawing.
Gawain is crimson, steeped in the blood of all victims who’ve been slaughtered in the name of faith or their masters’ causes. I wanted him to have a whiff of the Inquisition. He’s presented as flawed/tainted in the poem, though he’s definitely heroic in the terms of the times. But things are not so simple now, and we have better insights into what all these fabulous warriors actually did… the Templars, the Crusaders and the Samurai and their ilk, the Alexanders and Lawrences of history, and the Gawains, Lancelots and Lochinvars of fable. No matter how nobly they may be presented, they’re harbingers of death, albeit wrapped up in the ‘honour’ of whichever variety they subscribe to. I wanted this Gawain to be complicated!
Clive: I haven’t had time enough to write to you as much as I would like. Up to my eyeballs in work. No doubt you are too.
I really like this spoof by Mallory Ortberg on Gawain and Green Knight . Made me laugh out loud with it’s American youth jargon! It’s pretty brief, yet conveys the story arc remarkably successfully!
Aleksy: The American Green Knight – pretty funny! And it reminded me some Polish experiments made by St. Barańczak – great polish translator of Shakespeare’s. He wants to summarize content of the dramas in short funny rhymes. As I remember, tragedies (like in original) were ending in oceans of blood, so precis was faithful.
Aleksy is responding in drawings to my progress through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can see his first drawing, The Green Knight Arrives, HERE.
My own Green Knight Arrives colour-study for a print can’t yet be revealed, but here’s a detail of the drawing for it.
Preparing the stencils ready for producing a screen print is a relatively new experience for me, though under Daniel Bugg’s guidance I find myself greatly enjoying the the learning curve. It was odd, to begin with, creating an image only to deconstruct it in order to build again, this time in layers.
Now I find those layers to be fascinating. Neither the original preparatory image, nor the print that will come later, they have their own transient, translucent allure.
There’s paint, both opaque and transparent, drawings made in lithography crayon and in ink and collaged elements, where films marked with ‘frottage’ – rubbings made over rough surfaces such as the floorboards of my studio – are cut and taped into place to add diversity and density of mark-making.
Occasionally there are errors, excised with a scalpel and repaired with transparent tape elastoplasted over the wounds.
Of course, the only people who usually see the stencils are artist and printer. But today, for visitors here, I’ve made an album of images of the stencils for my current print-in-the-making.