What I’m not

I’m often asked what kind of art I make. I know my face clouds over when the question comes, because the answer isn’t simple. Easier, perhaps, to say what I’m not.

I’m not a landscape or a still-life artist …

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… though earlier in my career I painted both.

I’m not a portrait painter and never have been, though everyone tells me they recognise Peter in my drawing and paintings.

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I’m not an abstract painter, though I love abstraction.

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My painting doesn’t aspire to realism, but rather to inner truth.

I’m not an illustrator though I make covers for novels and poetry.

Recently I’ve made my first picture book, though it’s not a children’s picture book.

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I’m not a print-maker, though I’m currently making a fourteen print series of screenprints with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Based on the translation by Simon Armitage.)

Penfold C cmyk-2While I’m an atheist, my work often explores biblical and faith based themes.

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I’m not an animator, though I made the animations for the 2013 stage production of The Mare’s Tale (composer Mark Bowden and librettist Damian Walford Davies)…

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… I was commissioned to make an animated film to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival…

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…. and last year in collaboration with artist/model-maker Phil Cooper, film-maker Pete Telfer and composer Kate Romano, I created an animation as the online trailer for my picture book Hansel & Gretel. (Published by Random Spectacular.)

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Sometimes it’s not possible to make a simple answer.

 

 

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Clive, Aleksy and the Green Knight

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The Green Knight Arrives, by Aleksy Cichoń

As Dan Bugg and I work over the summer on prints two-to-seven in the Gawain and the Green Knight series, in Poland, Aleksy Cichoń is going to keep pace, making a corresponding drawing for each print, conjuring his own vision of images based on the text. As the work unfolds, we’ll discuss the various ways in which we approach the themes of Gawain and the Green Knight. Here the conversations begin.

 

Clive:

Aleksy, what a wonderful image to find in my inbox this morning. This is a beauty.

I was trying to think of a word to describe how you draw, and fluency is the word that keeps coming to mind because it expresses the quality of being at ease in a language, and you draw with exceptional ease. Compositionally it is enticing and mysterious. The Green Knight doesn’t emerge through the door sitting high in the saddle, blazing with energy. This feels like old magic, something that starts slowly in darkness, stirs, rises and grows in strength, uncoiling into the light. I’m drawn by his averted gaze, the slumped body, his arm outstretched with palm uppermost, the sprig of holly held lightly between his fingers, and the energy in the horse’s stance, balking at the threshold and the throng of the Christmas revellers out of sight of the viewer. All these are unexpected choices that work wonderfully well. But particularly strange is the fact that he sits sideways on his mount, rather than astride. It’s entirely unexpected, visually arresting and psychologically intriguing. This green man doesn’t have to master his green horse the way mortal men master their beasts, between strong thighs and with commanding hands. These two, are as one, and whatever passes between them requires no signals or physical control. I’m touched that you made and shared this drawing with me.

One of the reasons that I wanted to be a painter rather than an illustrator, was because I feared illustration might turn out to be a job where I would only gain employment if I produced to order, which I felt I had neither the skills nor temperament for. So I made my way as a painter who exhibits and sells in galleries. But now, perhaps because of my profile as a painter, I occasionally get asked to make book covers. I’m quite sure I couldn’t make a living at it, but I like that my work as an artist has reached out and created these opportunities, because I have always enjoyed the art of the paperback book cover, particularly in the European tradition.

The poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is full of descriptions. Pages and pages of them. The poet offers forensically detailed accounts of what people wear, and the Green Knight’s appearance is described down to the the embroideries on his garters. So as I work on the print series, I avert my eyes from those descriptions, because the words make evocative images in the imagination that don’t need realising in the illustrations. Instead I make accompanying images to the text that prompt different trains of thought, opening unexpected ways of seeing.

In your drawing, you have done the same thing. You’ve created an image to make the reader turn his eyes away from the text, and toward something inward looking. It’s emotionally powerful in the way that a description of the Knight’s wardrobe, is not. This, for me, is the great skill of the artist/illustrator confident and skilled enough to rise to the challenge. I would love to see you express further ideas based on this text. Judging from your first drawing, you would find surprising solutions!

Do you know the work of Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), who was a painter, illustrator and muralist? Your drawings remind me a little of his.

 

Frank Brangwyn drawing of a leadworker

You have the same ease with a pencil, making lines flow across the paper with mesmerising energy. I can see connections, too, with the great illustrator Arthur Rackham. (1867-1939)

Arthur Rackham illustration for Aesop’s Fables

Aleksy:

Dear Clive,
Your proposition of The-Green-Knight-Challenge is so great! I’ll participate in it with pleasure! It’ll be an antidote to my laziness in drawing. This is an amazing theme to explore. Furthermore, my last readings’ll not go to waste. What a good news.

I hope you’re well and many thanks for nice words about my knight. (You might know what my reaction was.) Sadly I had only shitty Xerox paper, but it was very relaxing for me – I hope that I’ll paint something bigger and better based on this sketch.

Brangwyn! (funny thing – I was thinking about adding some ink to this pencil piece) I know some of his paintings – especially the one with shirtless workers. I like his applying of paint: thick and bold but without fatal manner of Leyendecker, for example. Leyendecker stuck in “everything satin” style of painting, extremely fashionable in his time. Certainly he would be something like Sargent in illustration but without success and … without talent. Leyendecker is wildly weak and still idolized by crowds of contemporary illustrators – let’s try to guess why. Just terrible example of popular artist.

I understand very well your dilemmas about being illustrator, especially when you starting career straight as illustrator – you’re required to do job just like more advanced storyboard maker. In Poland this is daily situation and it looks like you’re not professional who knows what to do – you’re only man-machine doing exactly what they want. No risk, only conformist form of everything. Few years ago I was working as illustrator for Cracow’s University of Agriculture – some pictures illustrated collection of polish agricultural proverbs. One of them was about goat killed by wolf. Right, interesting for every draughtsman. So I did one inky picture and author of book refused to publish it. “Too sexual!” she said. Haha, OK, your loss! By the way – the bigger copy of this piece is hanging in the office of the director of publishing house. Too sexual for book but not quite for the office.

Detail of a screenprint stencil in progress for The Green Knight Arrives, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

So, you’re ‘approved’ painter and you’re becoming an illustrator… OK, hold on – I know nothing about it but when I’m looking at examples of covers made by you – I’m impressed. And I’m happy that you’re doing exactly what you want to draw/cut/paint. Because of that, these books are unique, well-designed and beautiful as objects.

Yesterday I showed your works friend of mine – in one word: she was chuffed! She’s studying fashion and business (really terrible mixture) in Denmark and she day by day write to me that she suffer because of all contemporary things. Not only rags, but art at all. So I’m some kind of super hero who brings cure for her pain – great pictures. This time the great ones were yours. She greets you and she told me that she’s happy because good painters are rarity. Especially with that power of colour!

And about your prints – are they lithographs? I’ve never did anything ‘really graphic’, expect one linocut – so you must forgive my question. I ask because the colours are extremely vivid. I associate litho with gentle palette.

Clive:

The Penfold Press specialises in screenprints. However, I’m making the separations on True-Grain, which is a transparent, granulated plastic film that was invented to replace unwieldy lithography stone. I work on the grainy surface with lithography crayon, which is why you might mistake the prints for lithographs.

Detail from Christmas at Camelot by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, editioned by Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press.

Below: working on True-Grain film at the Penfold Press.

 

 

Realising the Green Knight: Clive and Dan on messaging at Facebook

09/02/2016 12:32
Clive Hicks-Jenkins
I think I may have gone a bit mad with the cutting and taping. Does this look OK/do-able to you?

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Daniel Bugg
It looks great and should work fine. How many colours do you plan in total?

Clive 
Ummm, that depends on what you think. The main gold/green looks to me as though it might be done either in two passes with a light blue and a yellow, or one mixed colour.
So, the colours would be:
1) a mixed gold green or a light blue (to be printed under the yellow to get gold green)
2) a mid green ‘shader’
3) red
4) yellow to put over/under the red for brightness, and perhaps to use as a mix for the main green
5) grey or silver for the tattoo
6) black
7) strong blue for background.

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Does that sound about right?

Dan
That sounds about right. I think that should give us what we need and there is always the chance to add more. I was asking for mundane reasons really, I’m preparing screens today, working out my printing schedule for the next month or so. I’m allocating screens to different jobs.

Clive
OK. I’ll bang on.

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09/02/2016 16:48
Clive 
Thought you’d enjoy these pics of the separations. I took them by a really low light just before finishing work today, mainly to get something on screen to check how the clarity of composition was holding together. (I find that it can be easier to judge an image on screen at the end of a long day. It seems to condense everything and give a better overview.) Anyway, they turned out rather beautifully. Not particularly sharp, but the colour is intriguing, together with the soft graininess of the image.

Dan
The soft colouring looks beautiful. Like most things the interesting developments often come from unexpected sources. That’s why I enjoy printmaking so much. The chance discovery. It almost reads as a completely different image.

Clive 
An illusion really, coloured by light rather than by pigment. But it brings you up sharp when something suddenly starts speaking an unexpected language. Feeling excited about it right now.

Dan
True. I’m just sneaking a quick bit of reading in whilst the screens dry. I’m reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro in which Sir Gawain makes another appearance. I was bought it for Christmas without knowing the story. It’s funny but Gawain seems to be following me.

Clive 
WOW! I’m reading it too! It was my Christmas present from Peter. Synchronicity!

Dan
That’s funny. I guess those near and dear to us are keeping Gawain with us.

Clive
Slightly spooky!

Dan
A little like the book. Like most of his work it feels very cinematic. I almost see it as an enlarged film script.

Clive
Our next project!
Ha ha!

Dan
Moving through the literary world like the two cultured gents we are.

Clive 
I’m off for hot whiskey and lemon juice. Have a good evening. Love to all.

Dan
Enjoy!

preparing artwork for a print

Dan Bugg at Penfold Press and I are collaborating on an editioned series of screenprints on the theme of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But because I’ve never before done work of this type, I’m taking a tilt at the process by making artwork for a trial print unrelated to Gawain, using a drawing of a Staffordshire group of a man being slain by a tiger. The original postcard-sized drawing was made as a birthday present for my friend Ben Koppel.  I’m re-working it as a print at a much larger scale, which means I can include the ornate pedestal that I had no room for in the postcard version.

The original, postcard-sized pencil drawing

Pencil on paper enlargement, made as a guide

Working in greasy lithographic crayon on a sheet of True Grain

Adding Tusche Waterproof to define the negative space of the composition.

The True Grain is secured with registration pins over the guide drawing. What is painted red here, will be black in the final print.

Rendering the detail

I’ll be posting about this project as it progresses.

Gawain at Penfold

Centre: Dan Bugg of Penfold Press at the opening of Dark Movements on June 10th.

I’m pleased to announce that I’m about to embark on a long-term project to produce a series of editioned prints on the theme of Gawain and the Green Knight, a narrative that I’ve been exploring ever since I first read the Simon Armitage translation of the poem published in 2007.

Below: Gawain and the Green Knight, explored at my easel over the past seven years.

Dan recently spent time at Ty Isaf attending the opening of my exhibition, Dark Movements at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Around that event we walked my dog Jack along the banks of the River Ystwyth, and thumbed-through Gawain-themed sketches in my attic studio while discussing the way forward for the series, which we envisage as telling the story from start to finish in pictures. Although I’ve occasionally made lino-prints, screen-printing will be new territory for me. But with Dan to guide me through the processes, it looks fair-set for some creative play at the Penfold Press.

Gawain and the Green Knight sketches have long been tacked to my studio walls.

In addition to the Gawain series, Dan will be producing silk-screen prints of tattooed fishermen for my Skin/Skôra exhibition next year.

My thanks to Dan for his enthusiastic embracing of these projects, and to to my friend Sarah Parvin of The Curious One for initiating them.