Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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‘Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle’: the stencil-making.

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After the gouache and pencil study has been produced to work out how I want the print to look (see above), I begin on the stencils. These are first drawn and painted onto lithography film, and thereafter photo-developed onto the micro-mesh screens used to produce the prints. All but the last of the images below are of the stencils that will create the black layer of the print. I work with a greasy lithographic crayon, an oil-based pencil for finer marks, and a special fibre-tip pen with opaque ink. The pen marks are red here, but once this stencil has been rendered as a screen to print from, all the marks you see will be printed in black ink.

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A pencil on paper is mark-making with the tonal qualities created through pressure of the hand. However in screen printing any mark is a mechanical one, and any tonal aspect has to come through colour mixing, through layering and by the close proximity of the small dots of ink forced through the micro-mesh of the screens.

The images for the Gawain series are produced on film of two types: smooth and granular. The irregular surface of the granular TruGrain, means that a wax crayon drawing on it consists of dots caught on the raised parts of the film.

Below, a detail of a wax drawing on TruGrain taken with light behind it clearly shows the dots that build the effects of graduated tone. I’ve also used a scalpel to scratch through areas at the upper left and down the right hand side, to vary the mark-making in the finished print.

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Below: tens of thousands of tiny dots build the tonalities I want in the finished print.

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Below: the completed drawing on TruGrain ready to be transferred to a screen for printing.

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The black layer of the print is the one that holds most of the compositional detail. The ‘coloured’ layers that will be printed beneath it, will be made up of one layer of red, two of blue and two of yellow.

Finally, a picture of the stencils ready to be rolled and sent to Dan Bugg at the Penfold Press. The image appears a little fuzzy only because it consists of six translucent layers.

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New Directions

Today a sheet of proof images for the Hansel & Gretel picture book arrived from Simon Lewin. They look as I expected, having seen images of them last week in an e-mail. The fine details of the original drawings are intact in the images, thanks to the excellent scans. There was also a laser-printed colour dummy in the parcel,  a paste-up not intended as anything other than something for us to sign off on with regard to pagination and the alignments of the fold-outs.

It’s looking great. The limited colour palette renders it a tad schlocky and as a consequence it has a feel of the ‘horror’ comics I loved so much as a kid, the memory of which I was keen to honour in the book. Little misalignments in the colour separations keep it gritty and not overly refined, and I’m much obliged to Simon Lewin for having moved me in this direction from the start. Agreeing to produce colour separations was a big step out of my comfort zone, but luckily I was also about to begin work on the Gawain series of prints at the Penfold Press with Daniel Bugg, and thereafter I was able to take what I learned from him and apply it directly to the picture-book.

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Making colour separations for Hansel & Gretel

It’s been a fantastic year. I’ve been able to produce a body of printed work that while remaining recognisably mine, has carried me creatively in excitingly different directions. Daniel Bugg and Simon Lewin in their separate projects, took a punt on an artist with very little experience of print-making. The success of last month’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff was a testament to Dan’s capacity to coax interesting screenprints out of me. As Simon and I embark on the last lap to get Hansel & Gretel past the finishing line, I’m feeling this project too has opened whole new worlds of possibilities for me. This old dog may not yet have mastered all his new tricks, but he’s up on his hind-legs and dancing a jig, so the signs are promising!

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Making separations for Gawain and the Green Knight

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.

The Artist Watches

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Some years ago I was in Oxford with Peter. He must have had an appointment somewhere because I was alone for a few hours enjoying a book-buying spree in the city centre. While sauntering along minding my own business I saw three people strolling toward me, a man and two women. Age hard to guess, but he looked to be in his thirties or early forties, and one of the women was older, though not so that you’d notice. The three were arm in arm, him in the middle, and they were laughing and clearly enjoying themselves. They were beautifully dressed, the man in one of those generously cut heavy woollen overcoats that cost as much as a small car, the women in understated shirtwaist dresses under long, swinging cardigans. A smattering of discreet jewellery. Fantastic, glossy hair, all three of them. Definitely not British. I think I heard Italian as they passed, but my heart was drumming in my ears and so everything sounded as if I were underwater.

I stood transfixed, turning to watch them, book-filled carrier bags around my feet. He was half a head taller than his companions. They looked as though they owned the day. Magnificent. His beauty was heartstopping.

I followed them. Oh, not for very long – I’m not a stalker – but I just wanted to drink in more.  Hurtling down a side street I managed to loop round and get ahead of them, and by dint of pretending that I was waiting for someone – I even checked my watch to appear more convincing – I stood where I could get a better look.

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The subterfuge was unnecessary. They were absorbed in the moment and in each other. I could have been in a Mickey Mouse costume and they wouldn’t have noticed. Looking at his broad back as he and his companions disappeared into the Oxford crowds I thought faintly, where the fuck do you go to get that hair, that skin, those teeth, that mesmerisingly deep voice, height, physical ease and presence? I felt like a hamster watching a puma walk past.

His face has never left me, etched sharply by whatever chemistry surged through my brain at the sight of him. Here he is, at the top of this post, reinvented as Bertilak de Hautdesert.

 

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Invitation to ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’

Please join us if you are able at the opening of:

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

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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

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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.”