from start to finish: ‘The Catch’

Detail of The Catch

There were three models for the fisherman of The Catch. The first was the real thing, glimpsed in the Rialto Market in Venice when Peter and I were there on holiday. He was hosing down his catch, and I circumnavigated the market several times to memorise his face. This was many years ago, but I’m good at storing remembered material for later use. While the Rialto fisherman was dark-haired, the other two models had fair to red colouring. Curator Simon Martin of the Pallant House Gallery was one of my references… he’d just had a very sharp hair-cut when we last saw him back in June… and the artist Paul Bommer was the other.

These are the first drawings of the Rialto fisherman, made from memory.

Then come the compositional sketches.

Above: the initial idea is to have the fisherman cradling the tray of fish.

Then I try him front-facing…

… before returning to his profile, though with the tray more loosely held.

The setting behind him in the sketch above is of Aberporth. But then I change my ideas, and make a background of Aberystwyth sea-front with ‘Old College’ taking pride of place and filling the upper quarter of the composition.

This last sketch is the final template for the painting, with the fisherman and his setting resolved. The outline of the figure is softer than in the earlier studies, sweeping up left of the composition. His shoulders though squared to the front, are more relaxed.

The painting begins. Acrylic on gessoed panel measuring 42 x 42 cm.

Below: the painting in progress amid my pots of Golden heavy-bodied acrylic. Because I am away from the studio I’ve brought many pots of paint to cover all eventualities, though the the final palette is muted, with the colours mixed from a very few pigments.

Below: the face begins to emerge, and a sheet of flame is added to the roof of Old College.

At this point I begin to think about the fisherman’s tattoo. My starting points are our Penparc Cottage plates, bowls and mugs from Gwili Pottery. I don’t know whether there’s an official name for the design, but we just call them the ‘shell’ china. Nothing so grand as a ‘service’, but a motley collection acquired piecemeal over a number of years. Hand painted, it seems to me that the designer must have produced a ‘pattern-book’ of elements, because no two pieces are the same. The china-painters of the Gwili workshops must have been given the freedom to fit the various individual designs to the objects under their brushes, whether mugs, plates or bowls. There’s a wonderful freedom to this ‘design’, as painters freely extemporise on the theme. Some mugs have a cluster of mussels at their bottoms, while others have a Caucus Race of them garlanded about their inside rims. Sometimes nautilus shells issue forth an elegant sufficiency of tentacles, while others sprout sheaves of them, streaming like hair in a riptide. Clam shells are made elaborate with sgrafitto coils and embellishments, and starfish squirm between razor-shells and whelks.

The shell design has turned up in many of my Aberporth still-life paintings. Like the Gwili workshop decorators, I ‘riff’ on the theme.

My first idea for the tattoo is merely decorative, a device to clad the skin in a marine pattern, seen on the left, here

But then I decide that what’s needed is drama and a hidden narrative, and I invent a scenario of a vessel plunging into the depths, a giant nautilus pursuing it with snaky tentacles. I use the ‘clipper’ motif from another Aberporth piece, a small oval box I’d decorated with a ship and waves about ten years ago. Because the box, filled with pralines, had been a gift from our friend Rex Harley, the newly decorated version became ‘Rex’s Box’, and has been titled as such in the many, many paintings it’s appeared in. (See third image above.)

‘Rex’s Box’

I play a lot with the design before I’m happy with it.

It’s a complicated idea, and I need to be confident enough to get it down quickly in paint for it to remain fresh. So I draw the nautilus-pursued vessel many times on paper before reaching for my brushes.

Finally I’m ready, and I nail it in one ‘take’. The sgrafitto means that things have to be done quickly, as the paint stays wet enough to work through with the end of the brush handle for only about forty seconds.

I paint in the embankment that holds the right side of the composition, adding sgrafitto to define the stonework.

Next come the fish. I work on them for a couple of days, and this time it takes three attempts to get things right, and there’s much sanding down and re-painting in between my failures. I ditch my original notion of many fish overlaying each other, and simplify everything so as to leave lots of pleasing negative spaces between five of them. The ‘ghost’ fish are a last minute idea. I like the strangeness of them, and their pallid contrast to the vividness of the ‘real’ fish.

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Finally I come back to the fisherman’s head, which has remained unfinished as I wasn’t clear about what I wanted from it. This is the first completed version

Something is not quite right. I feel the uneasiness that always makes me reassess what I’ve produced. After an hour or two of gazing, I sand back the lower half of the face, shortening the nose as I paint it for the second time. Then I rub back and re-paint the eye so that it’s closed, and everything begins to fall into place. He appears to be in a reverie, or perhaps dreaming.

As a final change, I crop his beard so that it falls short of the curve of his T-shirt neckline, and disconnect his previously conjoined eyebrows to soften his expression. The painting is completed the evening of Saturday 2nd August. Measuring just over 40 cm square and made on the dining-room table in Penparc Cottage, it took eight days to complete, not including the preparatory ‘thinking time’.

The Catch

Clive Hicks-Jenkins

2014

All enquires the Oriel Tegfryn, Menai Bridge

‘The Catch’

The Catch

Acrylic on gessoed panel. 42 x 42 cm. 2014

Peter and I have spent the last week at Penparc Cottage for a much needed break away from all things internet-ish. There have been al fresco suppers and lunches in the garden, coastal walks, twice daily swims and chases along the beach for Jack and evenings spent cooking and reading.

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Peter has very nearly completed his book on Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and I started and finished my painting for Oriel Tegfryn’s ‘Menai Festival of the Sea’ exhibition, begun at Ty Isaf in a series of portraits of a bearded fisherman, and completed on Friday evening with the final addition of a tray of mackerel. I shall write about the stages of the painting later this week. (I photographed it comprehensively from start to finish, complete with mistakes and changes-of-heart.) But for now, you can see the painting at the top of this post, together with the preliminary sketch (below) that pretty much nailed the way I wanted it to look just before the paints and brushes came out.

Preliminary sketch for The Catch

the man from the sea

Oriel Tegfryn has asked for a new work for their forthcoming ‘Menai Festival of the Sea’ exhibition, and today, rather late I fear, I’m starting the project. A rummage through my plan-chest has turned up a tiny sketch done years ago of a shop assistant who worked in a Spanish deli, Ultracomida, that I go to regularly here in Aberystwyth. (He works there no more, so no point in looking!)

I never made a painting from it, but I liked the composition of his arms cradling a large bowl of stuffed olives, and so I’m about to use that in conjunction with recent drawings of a rather fine-looking fisherman.

I have a pile of studies of fresh mackerel that I made when a neighbour gave me a couple some years ago, so put those all together and I hope I’ll have something worth looking at by the end of next week. I already have the title.

The Catch