Illuminations

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Peter is in Edinburgh, where he’s to give the keynote address at the symposium Shaping the View: Understanding Landscape through Illustration, organised by Desdemona McCannon. Before he left we had several discussions about illustration, looking at definitions of the word.

il·lus·tra·tion (ĭl′ə-strā′shən)
n.
1. The act of illustrating or the state of being illustrated: concepts that would benefit from illustration; an idea that lends itself to illustration.
2. A picture or image that is used to decorate or clarify a text.
3. An example that is used to clarify or explain something. 
4. Obsolete Illumination.

It’s a tricky one to pin down, ‘illustrative’ having been used in modern times as a pejorative deployed by a curatorial elite set on defining boundaries that put ‘illustrators’ further down the pecking order of arts practices.

But tucked away at the foot of the list, I like the ‘obsolete’ definition, illumination. When my friend, the writer Marly Youmans asked me how I’d define myself in relation to my collaborations with her, I unhesitatingly wrote back, partly in fun, ‘illuminator’.

When growing up in the 1950s, my home, though full of books and music, had little on the walls that might be defined as art. There were mirrors and wall-lamps, and even pictures – if you include the rather unlikely though jaunty wallpaper of palm trees and desert islands that decorated our back parlour. But there were no paintings. So looking back, I begin to realise that my earliest experiences of the world as expressed in images, were through the pages of my childhood books.

The ones that stuck fast and have stayed with me over the years, are the Rupert Bear and Toby Twirl annuals. I learned to read on my father’s lap as he helped me make sense of the words under the pictures showing Rupert’s adventures with his pals. The speed with which I progressed was entirely down to wanting to know what happened next in the stories!

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The bucolic loveliness depicted by the illustrators of Rupert’s and Toby’s worlds, was simultaneously observed from life and imagined. Observed with enough tenderness and precision for me to recognise types of rural settings – my father was a wayleaves officer for the South Wales Electricity Board and often took me with him on field trips – and yet subtley different enough to open up imagination. The pine forests of the Rupert books were exactly like those I’d visited with my father, though with the added allure of being portals to other, more exciting realms, accessed by the simple means of climbing the trees, just as Jack had clambered up a beanstalk to find himself somewhere unexpected.

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Both the boy bear and the boy pig had the freedom to scamper about on their own business, and both were secure in the knowledge that ‘mum’ would have tea on the table when they returned, no matter how outlandish their adventures out of range of parental disapproval. I lived in the annuals, and later in the comics of my day, and after those in books that had no illustrations, excepting for those on their covers. Illustrations led me gently, naturally, persuasively to literature.

Landscape for me has always been where I’ve retreated to recover myself. So when my life in the theatre became too chaotic to endure, I bolted to the countryside. It was the natural place of healing, and it was where I took up brushes and began to translate my out-of-control feelings, into the painted worlds I felt safer in.

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I see now, though didn’t at the time, that the sense of comfort and balance I was trying to recapture, had its roots in those early experiences of discovering the world through the illustrations of Alfred Bestall, Sheila Hodgetts and others. And later, after I moved from landscape painting to explore further options, I came to understand enough of where my emotional responses to landscape had originated, to be able to reference the books of my childhood in paintings that openly acknowledged them. My Dream Farm is one of them.

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Perceived divisions between art and illustration are ones I’ve come to disregard. For me, the two are the same. There’s good and bad that flows from easel painters (for want of a better definition) and illustrators alike. The banal is bad regardless of whether found between the covers of a book or on the walls of a gallery, while the great is always illuminating, whether springing from the pens and brushes of Potter and Sendak, or from Hockney at his most sublime and painterly. (A man who excels at everything.) High and low are definitions I’m unmoved by. There is only excellence, and it all comes from the same source.

My picture book, Hansel & Gretel, is due out later this month. It’s taken a long time to make a book that has its roots so firmly in what I grew to love and trust as a child. The last page bears this text:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a painter who occasionally makes images for the covers of novels, poetry collections and plays. He has always wanted to make a picture book, and this is it.

The Tailor and the Penfold Printer

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In Beatrix Potter’s favourite of the books she produced, an ailing tailor hurries to complete the intricate embroidery of the Mayor of Gloucester’s wedding waistcoat. When the tailor, too ill to continue, leaves the unfinished waistcoat and takes to his bed, the mice emerge from the wainscot to complete his work for him. I have always loved the story, Potter’s shimmering, dancing prose, and the wonderful illustrations that accompany it.

Right now I feel like the old tailor, while Dan Bugg is playing all those mice, with their busy paws and meticulous workmanship.

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I am new to screen-printing. My first print at the Penfold Press was Man Slain by a Tiger, and the experience was entirely a happy one. Dan guided me unerringly through the processes, which was by way of a preparation for the ambitious fourteen-print series we plan on making together, based on the medieval poem, Gawain and the Green Knight. The first in that series will be out in time to make it into the Christmas stocking of anyone interested. Titled Christmas at Camelot, it shows Arthur, Guinevere and Gawain on horseback, hunting with hawks. I started with a coloured pencil study, made as a guide. Here is a detail of the drawing.

Next I made the four separations that would be transferred to the screens ready for printing. These were made as layers, in paint and lithography crayon on TrueGrain, a granulated, transparent plastic.

In Yorkshire, Dan and I had two days in the studio getting playful with the printing process. It soon became apparent that my original plan to print just in grey, green, black and red, was not working as well as I’d hoped. There was a dry, constrained quality to what was emerging. I thought I might have to start my work again, but Dan was adamant that he thought the composition and drawing were beautiful, and that we just needed to enliven the print with some more layers.

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He encouraged me to add another two separations, and this time, advised by him, I worked in paint and brushes, and I kept the mark-making gestural. (See the image above.) I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing, but Dan watched and encouraged, and promised me that all would be well.

At such a stage, when things seem to be getting out of control, you can do one of two things: have a meltdown, or trust and surrender to the collaborative process. I chose the latter.

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I left Dan with what seemed to me to be an almost unreadable tangle of marks. When I’m at the easel in my studio, I work my way methodically through such muddles, but in this case I was having to leave Dan to to sort things out. It would require a huge leap of the imagination on his part to understand what I was aiming for in terms of mood, colour, balance and coherence. But Dan has such skills in bucketloads, and soon he was producing images that made complete sense.

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Dan continued to print in my absence. We messaged:
23/11/2015 19:16
Daniel Bugg
I hope you don’t mind but I’ve had real fun with the images. As you are at a distance from the studio I decided to work through any colour combinations I could. That way you can see what I see as I print.
23/11/2015 19:16
Clive Hicks-Jenkins
You’ve been a busy boy. Suffice to say that I won’t lose sleep over these, the way I would have done over the first ones we did. Things are looking so much more exciting! Thanks, Dan. Most heartening! And I don’t mind at all. Why would I mind when you make my work look so good?
23/11/2015 19:22
Daniel Bugg
I spend so much time with the images I can’t help but play, as it’s so easy for me to make changes during the printing. I’ve always worked this way. I see it as my job to give you options and yours to tell me to bugger off if you don’t like them! Some of the most interesting prints I’ve made were informed by a collage approach to various proofs. When you receive the images we’ll talk through some of the options. Of which there are many!

This is an entirely collaborative process. The fact is that Dan knows what will work better in terms of a print, than I do.  He knocked me into shape in the studio in double quick time. He shook me until my brains… or what passes for them.. rattled, and all the change dropped out of my pockets. It was terrifying and rewarding. It still is. All the marks in the images are mine, but the ways in which they’ve been layered are down to Dan’s skill. At this stage we’re still playing, and the final decisions have yet to be taken. It’s an exciting time.

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Please forgive the length of time between the last post and this one. My Mac had a mechanical breakdown and had to be sent away to have a new drive inserted. Back to normal again now.

My Illustration Heroes. Part One: Sendak, Potter, Trnka, Bombová and Legkobit

Above: book cover by Ukranian illustrator Vyaceslav Legkobit

I wish that art wasn’t compartmentalised. I wish that every time I talk about making images for books… for their covers or their pages… I didn’t have to think so carefully about how to describe what I do. I know I’m not an illustrator. That description would be misleading, suggesting talents and experiences that I don’t possess. But I know within my chosen sphere, I have transferrable skills that serve me well enough to make a cover for a novel, or a vignette for a page of poems. Or make a picture-book. So I dance about when asked, and say I am a painter who sometimes makes book-covers. When being grandiloquent, I lay claim… particularly in relation to working with Marly Youmans, for whom I have made more covers and vignettes than any other author… to being an ‘illuminator’, because that suggests something different in terms of my ambition. Many of the artist/illustrators I most admire might be said to be illuminators inasmuch that they shed light on text, which is the quality I most aspire to.

My favourites? Well, the list has changed over the years, though some of the names remain constant. There are many artist/illustrators I greatly admire, Ardizonne, Bawden, and the contemporary Isabelle Vandenabeele being among them. But here I’m going to stick to the artists whose books are never far from my hand, and whose creations inspire me at every turn.

Maurice Sendak is a genius. A god, even, in book terms. His drawings for The Juniper Tree (in two volumes) are one of the great achievements of twentieth century book illustration.

Moreover he resolutely refused to talk down to children, knowing that they understood only too well the complexities of life, and that it was his duty to be emotionally truthful in his books for them.

So much of what I most admire is European in origin. Interestingly Sendak, searching for inspiration when preparing to make his images for The Juniper Tree, came to Europe because he wanted the German landscape to be present in the finished images, and the European illustration (and engraving) traditions, to underpin his version of the Grimm Brothers’ tales.

During the trip Sendak visited Wales, where he discovered in the Wye Valley a dramatic, conifer-wooded and mood-drenched landscape he recognised as being a spiritual equivalent of what he’d been searching for on the continent. Wales became, in part, a stand-in for what he’d sought in Germany, and his drawings made in the vicinity of Tintern Abbey were later referenced for the  Juniper Tree illustrations. In his diary of the time, he wrote “Use Wales for cheerfulness, Germany for gloom.”

In company with Sendak, Beatrix Potter, too, is a genius. Her characters are drawn with precision, and although they walk on their hind legs and dress in clothes, it would be a mistake to consider her sentimental.

Like Sendak, Potter is truthful. We have no doubt about the intentions of the sandy-whiskered gentleman toward Jemima Puddle-duck, and the black Berkshire pig, discovered by Pigling Bland in Mr Piperson’s farm, answers bluntly when Bland enquires why she was stolen, ‘Hams’!

There’s no getting around what Pig-wig knows to be the fate of her kind, and Potter doesn’t mislead the young readers. Read the stories again if you doubt me. It’s not just Potter’s illustrations which are works of genius. Her prose is glitteringly sharp. There’s not an extraneous word. She pares to the bone, and the stories are all the better for it. When I read Potter, I know I hear her true voice.

Jiri Trnka was a Czech artist, illustrator, puppet-builder and film-maker. He made images for countless books, and among my favourites are the two volumes he made for the publisher Paul Hamlyn of stories by Hans Anderson and the Grimms.

Both volumes are on my shelves in multiples, because they were published more than once, and some versions are better produced than others.

The cross-fertilisation between Trnka’s disciplines bring a compositional dynamic to his illustrations that enlivens the books. Moreover, he is a master of mixed media, which gives his illustrations a wonderful vitality.

An artist that few will be familiar with now, and I include her on the strength of a single book that I adore: Die Goldene Frau (The Golden Woman), published in 1972. Illustrator Viera Bombová was active principally in the 60s and 70s.

She won awards at the Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava in 1967 and 1969. Images for Die Goldene Frau are considered to be among her best, something I can’t verify, as it’s the only work of hers that I’ve seen. If you love illustration, find a second-hand copy of this book. There are plenty available online.

Vyaceslav Legkobit continues to be a mystery. I’ve written about him before at the Artlog, and by the time I’d finished that post, I knew considerably more than when I’d started. To put it baldly, he vanishes.

He vanishes from the worlds of publishing, and from any records I’ve been able to trace. That he’s highly regarded by so many artists and illustrators is phenomenal, given that there isn’t a massive body of work to examine. He caught something direct and universal in the fragile, paper-bound books that he produced images for, and it works as well today, as it did when freshly minted.

To be continued