Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: the Penfold Press ‘Fourteen’ and James Russell’s Text

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Work began on the fourteen-screen print series based on the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in late 2015, and completed in January 2018. A collaboration between me and Dan Bugg of Penfold Press, at the start of it, with no-one other than ourselves to please, we had no real schedule or deadline for completion. (We’d airily thought we might make two prints per year over seven years!) However, the project quickly gathered a momentum of its own with an offer of a first-stage exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery in the diary for 2017, and suddenly the pressure to work swiftly was on. Art writer and curator James Russell joined the project and began making accompanying notes for the prints. Another imperative to complete the series faster than we’d originally intended emerged last year – more news about that later – and at that point, Dan and I knew we had little option other than to strap on our skates and fly.

The following is an extract from a letter to my friend Liz Sangster, with whom I worked in a past life at the workshops of the Welsh National Opera:

“I can’t think of a more wonderful project to have worked on – but the schedule has been relentless. You’ll recall from all those years you were at WNO that sometimes when a deadline has you in its grip, you go onto autopilot. Everything you know suddenly comes into play – all the deep knowledge and expertise – and the thinking seems to stop. It’s like floating at speed as the current bears you and carries you forward, rather than thinking about how to swim. Instinct takes over. I’d thought about these images for so long that when the moment came to make them it was as though they developed, like photographs. To be perfectly honest I can’t even recall the process of drawing many of them. How weird is that?”

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Christmas at Camelot. 2015. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

CHRISTMAS AT CAMELOT

All the joy and exuberance of Christmas at King Arthur’s court is expressed in this print, the first of a series of fourteen to be based on the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The author of this verse saga, the mysterious Pearl Poet, is unstinting in his praise as he introduces the courtiers, equating their finery with their moral worth. In his recent translation Simon Armitage describes the two-week-long midwinter feast as ‘a coming together of the gracious and the glad: the most chivalrous and courteous knights known in Christendom’.

Elegant, innocent and noble, these lively young men and women spend the evenings carousing and the daylight hours on the jousting field. Here we see the best of the best, King Arthur and his queen Guinevere (a woman whose eyes outshine the brightest of her jewels), and beyond them Sir Gawain. The horses prance. The riders eye us coolly, not least the knight, who seems ready for any challenge.

Another artist might have chosen to introduce the series with a scene of Christmas feasting, but Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ depiction of the three riders suggests the lightheartedness and energy of the youthful court, while also emulating the airy elegance of the poem. Dan Bugg’s expert handling of colour pulls a complex, multi-layered print together, making it feel as taut and snappy as a heraldic banner unfurling in the breeze.

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The Green Knight Arrives. 2016. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE GREEN KNIGHT ARRIVES

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.

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The Green Knight Bows to Gawain’s Blow. 2016. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE GREEN KNIGHT BOWS TO GAWAIN’S BLOW

The contrast between martial red and forest green becomes more explicit in the third print of the series. Having accepted the Green Knight’s challenge to strike him, Gawain stands helmeted, axe raised – the very picture of a proud medieval knight. His expression is steely, yet he is staring not at his victim but straight ahead, and when we look more closely at his eyes and mouth we sense his apprehension. Honour demands that he strike the blow, but the possible consequences are terrifying. For his part, the Green Knight seems perfectly composed.

Whereas the audience in the poem is the assembled might of Camelot, the action here is observed by an unsettling pair of onlookers. To the left a carved architectural figure – Green Man as caryatid – watches wide-eyed. To the right a griffin-like creature atop a sepulchre stares grimly down at the knight, who appears caught within a triangle composed of the Green Knight and his familiars, ancient beings once petrified but now brought back to life.

The arrival of the Green Knight has transformed Camelot from gleaming medieval palace (like those immortalised in Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry) to haunted castle. Like the protagonist of a horror film who wanders into a nightmare, Gawain stands resolute but scared. He may be the one wielding the axe, but the weapon belongs to the Green Knight – and only he knows what will happen when it falls.

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The Green Knight’s Head Lives. 2016. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE GREEN KNIGHT’S HEAD LIVES

This is the moment when we realise, beyond all doubt, that the Green Knight is a magical being. The axe has done its bloody work, severing the strange visitor’s head, but rather than fall to the ground and die the Green Knight picks up his head and holds it aloft to speak.

To the Pearl Poet’s audience this was probably quite alarming, but in the age of the horror movie and computer-generated imagery we have become more used to shock and gore. Besides, the scene itself is so well-known that the twenty-first century artist runs the risk of descending into cliché, unless they can find a new way of communicating its ghastliness. Clive spent months working on different ideas, eventually coming up with this extraordinary image.

No architectural details distract us in this close-cropped study. Calm and resolute as ever, the Green Knight holds up his head. From his neck blood doesn’t so much gush forth as billow out, in a way that is disturbing but strangely beautiful. It’s as if he taken off a mask to reveal some other alien self: a primal organic form as ornately structured as lichen, or a lung.

Equally ornate are the embroideries of the horse’s caparison, which teem with foliate curlicues, flighty peacocks and talismanic eyes – wonders of the Green Knight’s world – but it is the animal’s expression that gives the print its urgency. In a manner reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, the bared teeth and rolling eyes express pure terror – the terror we imagine Arthur’s courtiers felt at the Green Knight’s supernatural display.

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The Armouring of Gawain. 2016. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE ARMOURING OF GAWAIN

A year has passed since Gawain’s first encounter with the Green Knight, and now he prepares to set off in search of his adversary, as he has sworn to do. In this portrait, designed as a pendant to ‘The Green Knight Arrives’ we see the young knight outside the walls of Camelot, alone as he must be on his quest. Gawain’s armour is magnificent, particularly the helmet with its splendid plume that flows and ripples like the Green Knight’s beard. The decorative stars and delicate tracery of foliage contrast with the robust trees and leaves with which his enemy’s skin is tattooed, reminding us that the world of Camelot exists at a remove from nature.

In the poem we learn that the front of Gawain’s shield is decorated with a five-pointed star, with each point representing a set of his virtues: the dexterity of his five fingers; the perfection of his five senses; his fidelity (rooted in his devotion to the five wounds of Christ); his reflection on the five joys of Mary in Christ; and the five knightly virtues (generosity, fellowship, chastity, courtesy and charity).

The reverse side of the shield bears a picture of Mary, depicted here. She seems to offer neither joy nor succour, but instead gazes coolly at the knight. To judge from his pallor and anxious frown, meanwhile, Gawain is terrified, too preoccupied perhaps to notice the locks of hair escaping untidily from beneath his helmet. Or perhaps they remind us that behind the shield with all its virtuous imagery a young man stands, with all a young man’s strength and weaknesses.

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The Travails. 2016. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE TRAVAILS

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

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Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

GAWAIN ARRIVES AT FAIR CASTLE

Compare this image with the first in the series, ‘Christmas at Camelot’, and it is clear that the quest to find the Green Chapel has been the making of Gawain. Fully armoured, with a visor covering his face, he has become a figure at once powerful and flamboyant, his cloak flying behind him as he gallops along. The sinuous form of the vanquished serpent now finds an echo in the elaborate dance of the banner tied to his lance, and there on his shield is the pentangle, proof, if any were needed, of his knightly virtues.

His horse, Gringolet, also seems to have grown in stature and is now a magnificent beast, its splendid chest bursting from a beautifully decorated caparison. Everything about horse and rider trumpets their power and their glory, from the set of the animal’s tail and tremendous curved neck, to the thrust of Gawain’s leg as he rides.

And then there is Fair Castle. We learn in the text that, on Christmas Eve, half-starved and freezing, Gawain prays to Mary for help in finding a place where he might celebrate Christmas Mass. After confessing his sins and crossing himself three times he looks up to see that his prayers have been answered. There stands a beautiful castle, white and shimmering according to the poem but in Clive’s vision a splendid Byzantine edifice perched on a preposterous pinnacle – a palace conjured by sorcery. A tell-tale oak leaf flutters down, but does Gawain see it as he plunges forward?

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The Three Hunts. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE THREE HUNTS

A historian researching medieval hunting techniques of hunting could learn a lot from the Pearl Poet’s lengthy description of the three hunts led by Bertilak, the Lord of Fair Castle. On succeeding days an entire herd of deer, a gigantic wild boar and a solitary fox are chased, dispatched with great relish, and bloodily slaughtered. This is hunting on an epic scale, gleefully and gruesomely described, and to the modern reader it comes as a shock.

Gawain himself does not take part in the hunts, but remains at Fair Castle to be entertained – he thinks – by Bertilak’s wife. In fact, as we soon realise, she is trying to seduce him, and the main role of the three hunts is to prolong the gentle torture, delaying the moment of Gawain’s fall. So how to represent them? Much earlier, while considering how to represent the Green Knight’s decapitation, Clive decided to focus on the magical quality of the scene, and he has taken a similar approach here.

Like his castle, Bertilak’s domain is a fantasy, and here we see the forest conjured out of nothingness. A phantom huntsman blows his horn, startling a white stag; a wild boar lowers its head, preparing to charge. But where is the third creature, sly Renard? He has broken into the castle garden and killed a peacock – a bird we might recognise from the caparison of the Green Knight’s horse. Blood has been spilled in the magic domain, and the fox will soon pay the price.

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The Temptations. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE TEMPTATIONS

When we last saw Gawain he was making his triumphant approach to Fair Castle astride his magnificent steed, helmet on head and shield on arm. In this guise he has (we will remember) triumphed over medieval beasts both real and imaginary, and as far as he is concerned his sojourn at Fair Castle is just a pleasant if distracting interlude before he resumes his knightly quest.

Given what awaits him when he finds the Green Chapel we might forgive Gawain for tarrying a while, and given the warmth of his welcome it is no wonder he obeys Bertilak’s instruction to relax while the rest of the men are out hunting. We, however, have been forewarned by clues in the text, such as a reference to ‘tricks’. Gawain, we sense, is about to be tested, and now he has no armour, no shield emblazoned with the figure of Mary. We see him for the first time as a young man, athletic but vulnerable as he lies naked, his eyes closed.

Bertilak’s wife spends three days with him, testing and teasing, and almost until the end his resolve lasts. We see it in his face, this determination to be virtuous, as we see the luminous allure of his beautiful hostess. Without the third part of this tripartite design this would be a serious study of temptation, but nothing in this story is quite what it seems. Gawain, the would-be hero, is in one sense the butt of an elaborate practical joke to which we as readers are party. As he lies, eyes closed, wrestling with his conscience, he is unaware of the tapestry behind his bed, decorated with comical copulating rabbits.

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The Exchange. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE EXCHANGE

Having evolved over many years, Clive’s vision of Gawain is very much his own. So while this set of prints follows the Pearl Poet’s narrative, the imagery and themes are not all drawn literally from the poem. Each print is a work of art in its own right, rather than an illustration, and the whole set represents a sort of coda to the poem, an echo across the ages.

According to the poem Gawain inhabits a landlocked world of mountains and forests; he travels on horseback, not by boat. But here is a ship, apparently at anchor beneath the walls of Fair Castle, where our hero and his host exchange gifts. Bertilak has returned from the hunt with a magnificent stag (its gaping chest reminding us of the mortal danger Gawain faces), while Gawain has accepted one kiss from Bertilak’s wife. This he now presents to his host, who leans down over him in his splendidly patterned jacket – a magician’s cloak?

Again we sense the knight’s youth and vulnerability as he tries to follow the rules of this strange court and to treat his host and hostess with the appropriate respect. So might the boat symbolise his desire to get away, or perhaps the sense that he is ‘all at sea’? Are there currents swirling in the ocean deep, as there are perhaps within his heart? Or is this simply a design woven into a tapestry, that forms a backdrop to the scene?

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The Green Chapel. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE GREEN CHAPEL

When Gawain and the Green Knight last met, the former was wielding an axe over the latter’s head, and now it is time for the roles to be switched. Gawain has reached the Green Chapel, but has not yet noticed his adversary observing him coldly from afar. Then comes a dreadful sound, the sharpening of a blade, and, like the stag hearing the huntsman’s horn, Gringolet pricks up his ears.

This print is almost a dark reflection of ‘The Exchange’, with a similar use of perspective but a very different mood. Elaborate tapestries and bright colours make way for angular natural forms and the darker tones that bode ill for Gawain. A freak in Camelot with his long beard and tattooed limbs, the Green Knight is at home here. He blends in with rock and flowing water, in fact he seems at this moment to be carved from rock, like a sinister Assyrian god. His hand rests lightly on the head of the battle axe Gawain took up so bravely at Arthur’s feast, when no-one more senior would accept the challenge.

Have Arthur and his knights spared a thought for Gawain as they enjoyed this year’s winter feast? Have they pondered the fate of the young knight who has been forced, through no fault of his own, to undertake a suicide mission? Here we see in the tiny, distant figure a solitary man dwarfed by a wilderness that is remote in every way from the world he knows. An innocent who is about to become a sacrificial victim.

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Gawain Staunches the Wound to His Neck. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

GAWAIN STAUNCHES THE WOUND TO HIS NECK

The Green Knight raises his axe to strike Gawain, but the knight shrinks from the blow. The second strike misses. The third nicks the flesh of his neck, and perceiving his salvation Gawain leaps away and demands that the Green Knight honour their bargain: a blow for a blow. The monstrous figure leans on his axe and, in a good-humoured tone, explains that Gawain has been secretly tested and that he has passed with flying colours. His only fault – which earned him the wound to his neck – lay in accepting the girdle from Bertilak’s wife and not revealing the gift to his host.

This we might think is an innocuous crime. Certainly Bertilak – for the Green Knight is he – considers Gawain the most honourable of men in spite of his lapse. But the proud young knight sees the situation very differently, and this print captures beautifully his horror and his shame. In the intense moment of realisation everything disappears in a burst of white light, leaving even the Green Knight a phantom. Crop-headed suddenly, and with the harrowed features of a seasoned soldier, Gawain stares down at his proud plumed helmet, from which foliate pattern bursts forth. It is appearing on his armour too, the grand armour which now seems to imprison his pale flesh.

From his neck the girdle flies upward and back, as if blown by the wind. But this animation, like everything else Gawain has encountered since the story began, is the work of magic.

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Morgan Le Fay. 2017. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

MORGAN LE FAY

Towards the end of the poem Gawain’s aunt Morgan Le Fay is revealed as the architect of his misfortune. It was she who transformed Bertilak into the Green Knight and sent him to Camelot to test the virtue of her half-brother Arthur’s court. She also hoped to frighten her enemy Guinevere to death.

Morgan Le Fay’s role as a villain in Arthurian legend was firmly established by the time the Pearl Poet included her in this story, and more recently she has evolved into something of an anti-hero, a seducer of upstanding young knights and general meddler. Meanwhile critics have argued that she has no real role in this story, and was included to tie Gawain and the Green Knight more closely to the Arthurian cycle, but Clive presents her as an essential player: dark goddess of the timeless wild. She is winged like a bat and crowned like a queen, and rides (side-saddle) a nightmare beast.

In a long and productive career Clive has given us numerous monsters, but this is scarier than most with its shark’s teeth, spiked tail and empty eye sockets. Its gaping mouth might remind us of the Green Knight’s terrified horse, only this creature is a source of terror. It is, perhaps, terror itself. Beneath the wonderful poetry of Gawain and the Green Knight lies the simple story of a young man who discovers that he is human, and afraid.

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The Stain of Sin. 2018. Screenprint. Edition of 75. 55 x 55 cms

THE STAIN OF SIN

This marvellously rich and varied set of prints finishes, fittingly, with a vivid portrait of Gawain himself, a portrait that shows him forever changed by his experiences. How he has evolved through the story, and through these fourteen prints! First seen as a keen but rather anonymous young knight riding at King Arthur’s side, he then took up the axe to strike the Green Knight and became an individual.

A year later, as he put on armour in preparation for his quest, we saw for the first time the humanity in his face. We have observed him battling monsters and riding proudly on his prancing steed. We have seen him naked and vulnerable, but arrogant too in his youth and beauty. Then horrified, dismayed at his own weakness. Today we might call this ancient tale a coming-of-age story. An untried young man is tested and in the process achieves maturity and self-knowledge.

According to the text of the poem, Gawain is welcomed home as a hero. He confesses all, is forgiven, and Arthur orders the other knights to adopt the green girdle as their badge. Like Bertilak, the king is far more impressed by Gawain’s good qualities than distressed by his flaws. Not so the man himself. He has seen what lies beyond the walls of Camelot. He has known the terror of the timeless wild and his own weakness in the face of death. Indeed, the timeless wild has marked him. First his armour, now his skin.

About the Author

James Russell is an independent art historian and curator with a particular interest in 20th century British art and design. His exhibitions include ‘Edward Bawden’ (Dulwich Picture Gallery 2018), ‘Lover, Teacher, Muse… or Rival? Couples in Modern British Art’ (RWA Bristol 2018), ‘Century’ (Jerwood Hastings 2016), ‘Ravilious’ (Dulwich Picture Gallery 2015) and ‘Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter’ (Towner 2014, co-curator with Sara Cooper).

When not curating exhibitions, he writes and lectures about 20th century British art, particularly mid-century landscape painting and design. His four-volume series ‘Ravilious in Pictures’ (Mainstone Press) celebrates the life and work of English designer, printmaker and watercolourist Eric Ravilious (1903-42), exploring the stories and characters concealed behind his mesmerizing paintings.

He has also written books on Edward Bawden, Paul Nash, Peggy Angus and Edward Seago, always endeavouring to write in plain English and to explore the artists’ lives as much as their work.

 

About Penfold Press

The Penfold Press was opened in 2005 by Daniel Bugg as a print studio where artists are able collaborate with a printmaker in order to explore the creative possibilities of a number of printmaking techniques. Working with an exciting group of artists who share an interest in popular art, the Penfold Press has gone on to publish editions of prints by Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton, Ed Kluz, Jonny Hannah, Michael Kirkman, Angela Harding and Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

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The Eight Stencils of ‘The Exchange’

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Seven colours and eight transparent stencils. (There are two black ones.) Here the eight are stacked, held in place by tabs over registration pins. The effect is misleading. The stencils deeper in the stack are rendered milky by the layers over them, whereas in reality the tonality will be evenly distributed across the image. But this dreamy effect is beautiful in its own way. Luckily I checked the last batch of photographs before sealing the package, because I noticed here that the light on dark of the ropes supporting the mast, needed adjustment because they appear to go behind the topmost waves. All corrected now. Today the parcel will be dispatched to Daniel Bugg so that his work can begin.

Colouring the Imagination

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Back at the beginning of discussions with Simon Lewin about the proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel, he suggested that I produce the illustrations as ‘separations’. My method of making illustrations up until that point had always been to paint as intended for reproduction. However, Simon works with print-makers, and the Random Spectacular imprint he created as an extension of his work at St Jude’s is one where he explores print-related projects that interest him. I am not a print-maker – or I wasn’t back then – and his suggestion meant I was going to have to learn some new tricks.

Separations are the layers of colour used to reproduce an image. Simon explained that my images for Hansel & Gretel could be made as separations on layers on drafting-film or heavy tracing-paper, prior to digital scanning. The digitised layers would then be ‘assembled’ in the computer ready for printing. Images made in this way have the feel of those in early illustrated books, when the colours were printed in separate passes.

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Simon’s vision of how the images might be produced was encouraging, but it would all be new territory for me and I didn’t want to let anyone down. He remained reassuring and persuasive, explaining that he’d guide me through the processes and then personally assemble the images ready for printing. He would design the book.

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I began researching and adapting the Grimm Brothers’ story to what I thought might work in a picture book. Initially I produced quite a lot of text, but eventually pared that back to twenty-seven words scattered throughout forty-eight pages. Enough to make a coherent narrative and to lend ‘voices’ to the various characters. I planned to letter the text myself.

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Above: lettering from the final render of the opening page spread.

Simon and I agreed on a square format book. We planned the dimensions of it and the number of pages, including four fold-outs that would spring surprises and carry forward the story-telling. What we put together at that point remained the template for Hansel & Gretel to the completion of the project.

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Above: rough schematic of how the book would appear when looking down at the top of it it, the pages fanned to indicate the inclusion of the fold-outs. The positions of the fold-outs would later change so they were spread evenly throughout, and they became full rather than half-pages.

I planned to make the images to the printed scale. This way I wouldn’t have to be thinking about how reduction might impact the artwork.

First came small, rough sketches, and later, maquettes of the characters. The children sprang to life almost immediately, barely changing from the earliest scribbles to how they appear in the book.

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However the parents evolved somewhat startlingly in ways I hadn’t expected.

The father eventually became a creature made from empty seashells, suggesting the hollowness of a man nagged and criticised to a point muteness.

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Over the months of development the mother became increasingly grotesque, and that eventually impacted on the witch, because I had to find ways to make her even more scary than the ‘bad’ mother.

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Before the final work of rendering began, I completed a made-to-scale dummy-copy of the book, with every image planned down to the smallest detail. The only element missing was the colour, which I was still thinking about. I passed the dummy to Simon Lewin when we met at the opening of Jonny Hannah’s 2015 exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It was a wonderfully exciting event packed with Hannah enthusiasts, and Simon slipped the dummy unopened into his bag for later study. After he’d sent an e-mail signing off on it, I prepared to make the final renders.

In June 2015 I’d met Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press to discuss whether we might collaborate on a print. We made a single, editioned screenprint together – a first for me – and as a result of that enjoyable and successful experience, we planned a project to produce a series of fourteen prints based on the the medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Dan guided me through the process of working on layers of drafting film with brushes, crayons and pens. Due to the complexity of what I planned for the Gawain images, for each print I first produced a fully rendered painting to use as my guide to making the separations.

Below:

a) original painting of The Armouring of Gawain made as my guide to creating the separations

b) layers of separations on drafting-film held in place by registration pins on the right

c) the completed screenprint

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Because of this, by the time I came to make the artwork for Hansel & Gretel I was feeling more confident about producing separations. However, having spent so long working out how to tell the story and creating the visual character of the book, there simply wasn’t the time to make paintings of all the pages. I hoped that as the colours of the illustrations were going to be more simply deployed than those of the Gawain prints, then the lack of guide paintings wouldn’t be a problem. I’d simply ‘imagine’ how the images were going to reproduce in colour.

The Hansel & Gretel drawings were made in black pencil on heavy board. With the exception of the separations for the cover (see top of post) which were cut from red lithography film, the separations for all the illustrations were produced in opaque paint on drafting film. Because separations define the areas of colours that will come at the later printing stage, they can be made in any colour. I used red oxide. At this stage the layered artworks looked quite strange.

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Between us Simon and I had agreed on a simplified palette of seven colours for the book: mid blue, pale blue, dark red, mid yellow, dull pink, black and dull yellow, selected from a universal Pantone chart. On each drawing and separation I indicated which colour I intended for that layer. Some of the black drawings were intended for reproduction in colour. Keeping track of how all this would look required a lot of imagining. When making a drawing I intended for reproduction in colour, I would scrawl that colour in large letters on a post-it gummed to the upper corner, to remind myself that contrary to how things looked in front of me, this was not going to be black when printed.

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Above: Hansel & Gretel drawing in progress, and below, digitally scanned and proofed by the printer in mid blue and dull pink.

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Some artists scan their drawings and separations and digitally colour them on the computer screen to get an idea of how they’ll look when completed. But I don’t have those skills, and so I have to work ‘in my imagination’.

The completed drawings and separations were scanned by Saxon Digital Services and then printed by Swallowtail, both in Norwich. Saxon and Swallowtail made significant contributions to the outcome of the translation from artworks to book. The original drawings were rich in mark-making, tonality and detail. I’d used etching needles to create hair-thin bright lines against the sootiness of densely worked pencil. Although made in black, the drawings had a delicate silveriness that came from the grain of the paper surface and from reflected light, and the printed images would have been pummelled to death had they been produced with too dark a contrast. Neither could the layers of colours be allowed to obscure the details and textures of the drawings. I lost a lot of sleep worrying about it all. But the results, when I saw them, were perfect. Every last detail had been reproduced, down to a thread of saliva stretched between the jaws of the witch as she anticipates dinner!

From start of project to conclusion, Simon Lewin was nothing less than magnificent as chief enthusiast, publisher, designer and project manager. No detail escaped him. He never put any constraints on what I produced, at all stages finding solutions to smooth the way forward for me. Moreover there was no deadline, meaning the work could develop and unfold without the pressure of a completion date.  There have been no compromises on Hansel & Gretel. Not one. The book is exactly as I wanted it to be.

Hansel & Gretel

The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanned by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

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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 Knight and the Virgin

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.

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The Virgin and child painted onto the lining of Gawain’s shield begin to take shape.

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Gawain’s helmet plume. Gouache and pencil.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This is how Gawain looked when composed of all the layers of stencils. Quite sooty!

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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.

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Proofing stage.

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Adding one of the black screens to the proofing stage, to check how things are looking.

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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.

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Below: the finished print.

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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

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.”