Conversations with Ursula

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I was one of three artists selected by Ursula as her ‘inspirations’ on her GSCE course. (The others were Degas and the sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green.) Questions and answers were through the medium of e-mails and came about when our mutual friend Christopher Hammond-Davies put us in touch. By the time we began writing Ursula had evidently done quite a lot of research on my work. Her questions were well-prepared and insightful and made me think quite hard about working practices developed over such a long period that I sometimes forget I had to invent them in order to be the artist I aspired to.
Ursula and I have never met. I didn’t include her own images here because I felt I should first seek her permission, something I have yet to do.
Dear Mr Hicks-Jenkins
I have attached some pieces of my work! The drawing is just a picture my mum thought had emotion. The others are some prints, landscapes and drawings of my ponies in the field.
Here are my questions. Thank you so much for letting me ask your these.
1) You often have horses in your compositions. I know from your Artlog that your grandfather was thought to have done rather romantic things with horses. What do they represent for you?

I think horses – and horse riding – represented freedom for me when, in so many other respects, my life was governed by the tyranny of dance classes and rehearsals. I loved my chosen work, but riding was a wonderful release from it.

I remember being on a horse – probably at my grandfather’s – before I remember walking. I always preferred riding without a saddle.
2) Are you a fearless rider?

I was, once, long ago. But at sixty-seven I no longer ride and I don’t have a horse, though I live in the countryside and have land and a stable.

However my time is so consumed with being an artist, that there’s not enough of it left for what it would take to keep a riding horse. Success brings all sorts of things in its wake but time is not one of them. My diary is packed with exhibition and illustration commitments. My husband, Peter, works too, as a curator, and it’s already a challenge, finding the time to do things together. He doesn’t ride, and so it’s not an activity we could share.

3) Your inspiration is often from myth. Your pictures tell stories, but they are full of emotion. Can you say how you get so much feeling in them?
Right, that’s a tough one. When I began painting I was always striving for technique and proficiency. Emotion wasn’t a part of the equation at that early stage. But then I began to notice that I only became fully engaged with a subject when it triggered an emotional response in me, and that response was more reliably to be found when I felt deeply about the idea behind the painting.
The starting point for me was still-life, and I began to make better still-life painting when I used items with family – and therefore emotional – connections .
So now I use that technique to invest all of my paintings with maximum emotional content. The viewers don’t have to know how I do it, or even recognise the elements. But for me, they have to be present.
4) Do you know what the result will be when you begin a picture?
Yes and no. The starting point of any composition will always be a series of rough drawings. I don’t worry at this stage about anything other than working out the mechanics, and the drawings are sometimes robust and confident, though sometimes quite fugitive and wispy. And I often make many of them. In them I’m feeling my way with three principal elements:
 
i) likenesses
ii)  shapes
ii) arrangements
By these I mean: 
i) how the objects/people/animals/places will look
ii) what shapes they will make
iii) how those shapes will be placed in relation to each other
My main concerns at this stage are composition and positive and negative space. Colour and tone come later.
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In these respects, the works are definitely ‘planned’, whether as easel paintings for a gallery or as illustrations. But when the business of painting begins – when the brushes and/or pencils get busy on the work itself – although I may have very strong ideas, often the image will start to go its own way. I’ve learned not to become too fixed on how the final work will shape up, because there have to be elements that surprise me and perhaps even carry it in an unexpected direction. When this happens I don’t try to force things back into where I think they should be going. I follow where the painting is leading me. If at the conclusion I believe that the painting is good, if not quite what I intended, then I’ll set it aside to come back and look at again later, when I can view it freshly. I may finish there, and go no further. 
Here’s an Artlog post about making a painting, start to finish. I didn’t use a maquette for this one, but relied on the memory of a man I’d glimpsed at a fish market. It was the ‘memory’ that was crucial. It helped me make the mood of the painting.
I find that if I have a really good subject, then I return to it over and over again, because there is no single, definitive way to depict an idea. I learned that from Picasso, who would paint a composition multiple times and each version was compelling as a stand alone image. But he’d make it over and over, and it would become a series, and the whole series was as satisfying as any of the individual paintings, drawings or prints.
5) Do you have ‘happy accidents’ when the paint seems to do it itself?

Yes. But I also ‘play’ a lot with materials. (Accidents, while great, can be useful tools if they can be repeated.) Each type of material requires a different skill-set and mastery, and playing helps me become practiced and fluent. Acrylic inks work in this way, oil paints in that. Primed canvas has these advantages, but gesso on board suits me better. Watercolour requires one set of disciplines, and acrylic tube-paint, another. This dry pastel fixes well, and this one changes colour when sprayed. The same pigment (colour) will behave differently in different brands of paint, because there are different versions of a pigment, some ’true’ and some ‘manufactured’. (The word ‘hue’ usually means a manufactured substitute of a natural pigment that may itself be too expensive. You have to read the information on the tubes really carefully.) I make up notebooks of working techniques and some of the earlier ones have been my companions for twenty years or more. You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. When something works well, I make a note on which brand and how the colour was mixed, or exactly which viscosity allowed for me to scratch through a layer of wet paint with the end of my brush. (A technique called sgraffito.) Materials are chemicals, and you need to understand how they work. I researched coloured pencils for over a year because I discovered that though it didn’t say so on the tins, most were wax-based while only a very few were wax and oil-based, and the latter were better because they didn’t ‘bloom’ when used heavily. Blooming happens when waxes mixed with the pigments manifest as a fine, white, disfiguring dust on the surface of the artwork. When it occurs some time after the work has been put under glass it’s as though white mould has set in. But the manufacturers are often not keen to show-and-tell what their products are made of, and so I had to extensively research to get the information I required, and that took determination. I phoned around the companies tracking down people who would talk to me and eventually I found the perfect coloured pencil brand for my purposes. (Faber-Castell Polychromos.) On another occasion I was dissatisfied with the way shellac-based aerosol fixatives affected the surfaces of my works in dry pastel, so researched until I found a casein-based product that came in pump activated misting dispensers. Sometimes being an artist requires the perspicacity and insight of a Hercule Poirot! 

Of course none of this matters a fig to the man or woman standing in the gallery looking at the work. But the knowledge is a big part of my discipline as a painter, because it enables me to be better at what I make across many disciplines of media. When I have an idea it’s reassuring that I can pick and choose exactly how I might go about making it a reality.  

6) Do you sometimes struggle to get the right gestures in horses and humans? I like that you prefer Stubb’s observations over Munnings’ photorealism.

Yes, I do struggle. This is where maquettes come into play for me. They help with that. But I think too that I should explain my attitude toward the life model. I like having a life model from time to time. It’s a great discipline. But I never make finished paintings directly from models because I’m not looking for those levels of reality. I make life studies for eye-to hand practice, and for information. But after the model has gone, I use the studies done from the model to make maquettes, and it’s those I use to make my compositional sketches. The maquettes free me from all sorts of levels of distraction that come with the life model. 

With the model I’m so busy looking and representing that I can’t focus on what I have in my head for a painting. The maquettes help free me of those distractions, and they help me better find what I’m searching for. In an entirely practical way, they focus me. 

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7) Do you think you need specific talents to be an artist, such as drawing, or is it enough to want to make things?

My methods are particular to my experience. I came to art very late. I was having a mid-life crisis when at forty I began painting, and because of my circumstances (I had to make a living) I didn’t go to art school as a mature student. I am self-taught. To begin with I taught myself in in an academic manner, by observation and painting from life. I improved my drawing. I taught myself by practice, landscape, still life and figure painting, and from books I learned perspective and colour theory. 

It was a long process, and I was still learning when I began to exhibit. But then, as I became more fluent in my disciplines, I realise that wasn’t the kind of artist I wanted to be. I wanted a more visceral, more ‘felt’ approach in my painting. I preferred the art of the early Renaissance, before the rules of perspective had been set. I liked the awkwardness when things looked slightly wrong. I loved ‘outsider’ art. And so I began inventing methods to pull myself away from academic discipline, evolving a practice of working with substitutes: wooden building blocks, constructed paper landscapes, found objects and maquettes. It was like learning the theoretic rules of music, before beginning to deconstruct. So the route was not straight forward, and I can’t say whether it would be right for anyone else. But it was right for me. In retrospect, though I can’t know what may have been had things been otherwise, from where I stand now I am very, very glad that I didn’t start painting earlier in my life, and that I didn’t go to art school. I think I would have been a quite different artist had I done so, and not necessarily a better one. It has been quite a lonely journey, but a really focussed one. I enjoy the challenges of finding solutions to my own problems.
Maquettes of Gawain and his horse Gringolet made in preparation for work on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I do believe that drawing is the heart of everything. But not necessarily academic drawing. Expressive drawing is the thing I admire and am moved by, and that can be many things. Awkward, clumsy, questing, delicate, unsure or rough as hell, drawing is the heart and soul, and to do it well, you need to be in touch with your heart. It’s not just about looking, it’s about feeling.

8) I really enjoyed working with a horse made of individual paper pieces, an idea borrowed from your Gawain and Gringolet. Do you develop an idea using a range of techniques in an organised way, or is it different every time?

 

Maquette of Gringolet under construction. I work in paper when creating the pattern, and then transfer to more robust card that I can work on in paint and pencils.

I takes time to build maquettes, and I’m always looking for different outcomes and improvements. The earliest ones were utterly simple and they served me well. Now they’re much more complex because I’m always looking to make them more flexible and articulate. These days there are all sorts of things going on behind them. Sliding bars and swivel joints allow me to reconfigure the maquettes so as to be more useful as compositional tools. Essential pivot points are no longer fixed, but can move around. Where once I had a half dozen maquettes, I now have many, boxes and boxes of them, ranging through animals, mythic beasts, saints, angels and knights in armour. I make new ones for every project. They’re my actors.

 

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Moreover sometimes they become tools for other disciplines, and over the past years I’ve used sets of maquettes to produce animated films.

 

 

An animated film to accompany orchestras playing Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, is performed all over the world, and more recently, I used shadow-puppet maquette sequences in the Goldfield Ensemble production of Hansel & Gretel.

 

But inspiration can come from many places. I have a particular love of German Expressionist cinema, and that too spilled over into Hansel & Gretel:
(I add these into my answers, because for me being an artist embraces many disciplines, including those of stage director and designer.)
Right, I think that’s it. But I’ll happily expand if there’s anything I haven’t answered clearly enough. Just tell me what you want. And I have yet to make a list of outsider artists for you, but I promise I will.
Very Best
Clive

Hansel & Gretel Q&A

 

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I did a question & answer for the main newspaper of north Wales, The Daily Post. Peter went to get a haircut at the barber shop in Aberystwyth, and our friends there had very kindly set aside a copy for us. I answered the questions so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I’d said. Here’s the transcript:

Your name:

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

How old are you?

Sixty-six.

Where are you from?

Newport, Gwent.

Tell us about your family

My father was a wayleaves officer with the South Wales Electricity Board. He was responsible for brokering contracts between SWEB and the landowners/farmers whose acreage needed to be crossed by power lines. But because he was a countryman and loved the landscape, he was an artist when it came to placing them where they’d least be visible, hiding them in valleys and along the edges of woodlands. My mother was a hairdresser. She loved films and from an early age she took me every Saturday afternoon to the cinema. Never to see kids’ films though. She loved more dramatic fare, and so my tastes were quite unusual. I don’t know how she bucked the certificate system. She probably knew the local cinema manager and bargained haircuts against him turning a blind eye to a seven year old watching Bette Davies melodramas!

What are you best known for?

Probably my Mari Lwyd-themed series of 2000-2001, The Mare’s Tale. I had an exhibition of that name, and it made quite a splash. There was a book of poetry by the late Catriona Urquhart that accompanied it, and in 2013 the composer Mark Bowden and the poet Damian Walford Davies made a chamber work of the same name, based on the underlying narrative of a psychological haunting.

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Tell us about your exhibition (what’s it called, what’s it on/where is it being held?)

The exhibition is at Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge, and it’s the result of four years of exploration on the theme of Hansel & Gretel.

When is it running from/to?

Sept 1st – Sept 24th.

What can people expect?

Last year the publisher Random Spectacular commissioned a picture book from me that was based on the fairy tale. As my version is very dark it’s been marketed as being more suitable for adults. (It’s been described as ‘George Romero meets the Brothers Grimm!)

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Simultaneously I was commissioned by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden to design a toy theatre assembly kit of Hansel & Gretel. This has been quite a thrill. I played with a Benjamin Pollock toy theatre when I was a child, and so it’s a great privilege to be asked to make a new one to bear his name. Published this summer, in contrast to the picture book it’s a sunnier affair, quite suitable for children. Even so I put my own visual spin on it. You won’t have seen a Hansel & Gretel quite like it.

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The Tegfryn Gallery exhibition consists of all the artworks made for the picture book and the toy theatre, plus illustrations for Hansel & Gretel alphabet primers that I made several years ago. Prepare for a Hansel & Gretel Fest!

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Tell us five things which make your exhibition great?

1) Scary and beautiful is an alluring mix!

2) I can guarantee it’s not going to be like anything you’ve ever experienced at Oriel Tegfryn.

3) What’s not to love about art in which family dysfunction, unhealthy appetites and manslaughter are the principal themes? This is a fairytale for the soap generation.

4) There are Liquorice Allsorts deployed as weapons and gingerbread men that bite back!

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5) If you want to know what horrors lie beneath a witch’s prosthetic nose, then this is the exhibition you’ve been waiting for!

Tell us what’s good about the venue

It’s a warm and welcoming gallery with wonderful staff. Visiting Oriel Tegfryn is like calling on friends who are always pleased to see you.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

The ‘who’ is George Stubbs, and the ‘why’ is because he painted animals with unparalleled compassion. His Hambletonian, Rubbing Down may be numbered among the world’s greatest equestrian artworks.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

Green George. It’s in a private collection here in Wales. If you type the title and my name into a search engine, you can see it. I paint only for myself and I never think about who might purchase. I made Green George as a painting I’d like to live with, though in fact I never did. It was finished only days before being shipped to the gallery, and it sold immediately. I knew even as I painted it that I was riding the wind. I couldn’t have bettered it.

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Tell us a little known fact about yourself:

I once played Batman’s nemesis, the Riddler, in an American musical.

What are your best and worst habits?

I’m a fiercely loyal and loving friend. But I’m also implacably unforgiving when betrayed. It’s an unattractive trait.

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on, or what do you plan to work on?

I’m on the last lap of a fourteen print series on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in collaboration with Daniel Bugg at the Penfold Press. The press has been publishing the series sequentially. The art historian James Russell has been writing accompanying texts. It’s been a wonderful experience.  The Martin Tinney Gallery is having an exhibition of the work in January.

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Then I go into rehearsals for a new music theatre work of Hansel & Gretel that I’m designing and directing. The production opens in London before embarking on a year long tour.

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the Origins of ‘Startled Peacocks’

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The painting has its roots in earlier work and interests. I’ve always been drawn to images of animals, and Stubbs is the master. His Horse Attacked by a Lion of 1769 has lodged in my mind since first I saw it, and it stays there still, appalling and sublime.

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Stubbs was working from classical models, as artists throughout history have done. The herbivore brought down by a carnivore is a potent metaphor for power unleashed upon the vulnerable, recognised and understood across cultures.

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In my painting The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness (collection of MoMA Mach), based on an episode drawn from the fragments of a Renaissance altarpiece at Christ Church Picture Gallery depicting the Lives of the Desert Fathers, I showed a man being mauled by a lioness, his limbs broken. Here’s a detail of her claws raking as she embeds her teeth in his abdomen. Her back is knotted with muscles. She’s as elemental as the heaving waves in Amlwch Harbour behind her.

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I drew on many models that had caught my eye, particularly Romanesque carved capitals of beasts attacking men.

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Lions have featured extensively in my work, though never in terms of studies from life. I’m interested in their forms and how they fill the spaces of compositions, and of course in what they can represent. Here’s a painting titled The Lion in Winter, made when lions were densely populating my imagination and sketchbooks. He stands on a pedestal in a snowbound landscape, the ruins of a Welsh slate mill behind him.

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The drawing for Startled Peacocks began with the Stubbs image so deeply etched in my imagination. Those wide jaws clamped down hard, haunt me.

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I listened to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time throughout the process of making the painting. The horror of my subject matter, a metaphor. Beauty and strength (the winged horse) brought down by brute force. Christ scourged and crucified.

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I worked by daylight with the large sash-window to my left thrown open, and after dark by lamplight. The images of the work in progress vary in colour because of the light conditions, though the photograph at the top of the post shows the painting as it appears when viewed in person. It was scanned for me in the photography department of the National Library of Wales, and the reproduction of its colour is spot on.

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I enjoy the images of the work in progress in all their variation, from the blue cast loaned by dusk to the gold washed across from the anglepoise  lamp I use after dark. Paintings, once framed and out in the world will be seen in light conditions beyond my control, so I like to see for myself how the effects of light of many types affect the images.

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