Mapping the Tale: image making and the narrative tradition

Quite early in my career as a painter I began examining ways to create narratives in my work. To begin with those developed from my own stories and were essentially biographical. My father’s childhood fears and how they impacted his life and death were the source material of The Mare’s Tale. In many ways those were mood pieces, with the narratives forming underlying supports to material that for viewers could be interpreted personally and in diverse ways. I think of them now as more like orchestral compositions in which the character of the music carries listeners to their own imaginative spaces.

Tend, 2002. Private Collection

Later I painted several Annunciations, drawn by the drama of the New Testament account, and made a series of paintings, The Temptations of Solitude, based on episodes in the Lives of the Desert Fathers: a hermit dwells in a tree, attended and fed by an angelic visitor, and a cruel slave-master pursues a fleeing couple across a wildernesses, only to be stalked and devoured by an avenging lioness. I was discovering, perhaps as a legacy of my many years working in the theatre, that the type of paintings that interested me most were ones that told stories.

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The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying, 2004. Private Collection

Outside of the recent Hansel & Gretel illustration project for St Jude’s and Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop in Covent Garden, the work on Gawain and the Green Knight has been my most comprehensive and complete exploration of a narrative to date. Using the poem as my guide and inspiration, the intention from the beginning was to make fourteen sequential and editioned prints that would tell the story, though for every print to be stand-alone in the sense that I wanted each to work whether viewed as a single artwork, or as a part of the series.

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The Armouring of Gawain. Screen Print. 2016

The process of building an image that encodes not just the narrative ‘moment’, but also has a sense of linkage to what’s transpired and what will come after, takes planning and endless trial and error. Every image has to be built from scratch: composition, colour, tone, and mark-making all serving the narrative. Imagined landscapes, gardens and castles must be conjured, as well as interior spaces and their furnishings. Characters, shown once or repeatedly have to be realised, complete with garments, hairstyles, armour and weaponry. When appearing repeatedly there has to be a balance between keeping a likeness, and yet allowing for physical and psychological change. Arthur, Guinevere, the Lord and Lady of Fair Castle and Morgan le Fay each appear just once in the print series, whereas the Green Knight and Gawain occur repeatedly. In the fourteen prints there are three featuring horses, plus images of hunting birds, a stag, a boar, a fox and several peacocks. Each had to fit within this particular imagined world. Then there’s the need to honour the source material, in this case the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage. I wanted to make a visual response to his text rather than try to represent it illustratively, and to do that I had to steep myself in his words over a long period. The small, hardback Faber & Faber first edition was never out of my pocket. I can recite quite long sections of it, committed to memory by repeated reading.

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Above: building a print with layers of lithography film, each of which will be printed in a single  colour.

For me responding to a text is all about finding the spaces between the words and then colonising them. I invest the characters and events with my own imagined detailing, layering invented elements onto what’s provided by the text. In this way the enchantress Morgan le Fay, who’s only mentioned in the poem by another character, gets a whole print to herself, while the Gawain of my images sometimes appears in ways not found in the poem. He binds his wound with the green sash given to him by the Lady of Fair Castle, and by the end of the series his armour has transformed itself with foliate embellishments, while the back of his hand has been marked with a branching stigmata.

Though the prints were not made specifically to accompany the text, I want anyone looking at them while reading it to discover that the words and images are in dialogue. Gawain begins the story as a glittering young knight, unmarked, privileged and unproven. By the end of it his face is shadowed, his hair is shorn to stubble and he is all too aware of his shortcomings. It’s all there in the title of the final print: The Stain of Sin.

Below: the magical transformation of black and white to the luminous, transparent coloured inks of the final print.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press

opens at

The Martin Tinney Gallery

on January 10th, 6 – 7.30 pm.

Fourteen prints on the theme of the narrative poem, plus paintings and drawings.

 

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Update on ‘The Exchange’

Back at the beginning of September I made a post about my work on the preparation for number ten in the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series of prints I’m making in collaboration with Penfold Press. The post charted the progress of The Exchange from first sketches to completed stencils, the latter of which were dispatched to Daniel Bugg for him to begin the long work of transferring them to screens and beginning the proofing.

In my studio the image started as a sketch…

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… and ended as a set of stencils.

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Dan made two proofs to show me. While the first carefully matched my seven colours, the second was one of those happy accidents which sometimes occur and that you have to consider very carefully. For the second proof Dan had mixed varnish into one of the colours which then printed with far more transparency than he’d anticipated. While surprised by the effect, both of us loved the result. The jury is still out but I think we’re coming to the conclusion we should go with the flow and attempt to reproduce the accident in the edition. There’s something wonderfully ghostly about it. I particularly love the way it’s impacted the butchered stag on the right of the composition. I won’t show the whole print here. It still needs tweaking. Moreover we never reveal any print in its entirety until the edition is ready for publication. But here’s a detail of it.

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Tomorrow I’ll make some adjustments to the stencils that Dan returned to me, and then they’ll head back to him for the editioning to begin.

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Development of the Stencils for ‘The Green Chapel’

Guide Drawing

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Stencils are made on transparent film, one per eventual colour in the print, and so some impression of the image may be had as the layers build, though of course the colour is missing. The drawing lying underneath the stencils is the template of the image throughout the process.

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The sample colours at the side of the stencils, indicate to the printer the colours required at the printing stage. This print will consist of five colours.

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As the density of the render increases with each stencil, I occasionally have to remove layers to better see what’s going on. The crayons, pencils, inks and paints used are not transparent, and so each new layer begins to obscure what lies underneath. The printing inks by contrast are largely transparent, allowing the many layers to show in the finished print.

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Using an improvised etching needle to break up the heavy lithography crayon with sgraffito and create what will eventually be a more tonal layer of ink.

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In the image below the sketches in the margin were made as I worked out the composition.

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In the image below, the scratches catching the light on the surface of the plastic stencil, in the print will create an area of softer tone

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Below, tonal stencils will underlie the stencils on which the details of the image are rendered.

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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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Man Slain by a Tiger

Man Slain by a Tiger. Screen-print. 56 x 56 cms.

Image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, printed in an edition of 35 by Daniel Bugg at Penfold Press.

Last weekend print-maker Daniel Bugg arrived at Ty Isaf with a brown paper parcel containing proofs and prints of my first screen-print project with the Penfold Press, Man Slain by a Tiger. (You can read about the genesis of the print HERE.) Dan has made a wonderful job of the image, and it was a pleasure to sit down with him at the dining-table on Saturday morning to number and sign the edition of thirty-five prints.

In a fortnight I’ll be making the stencils for the first image in our fourteen print series based on the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m using the Simon Armitage translation/reworking for my inspiration, which is the version I like best. The print will be launched in time for Christmas.

Ben’s Beast: ‘Man Slain by a Tiger’

Over at the Penfold Press in Selby, Daniel Bugg is working away on a test piece in the run-up to beginning our collaboration on the ambitious, fourteen-print series based on the medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But instead of making a Gawain test print, Dan and I opted to produce a print of what had originally been a very small drawing I’d made as a birthday gift for my friend Ben Koppel.

In 18th-century India, the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, commissioned the making of an automaton representing an incident in which a man had been attacked and killed by a tiger. It’s thought that the ‘toy’ was an expression of Tipu Sultan’s hatred for the British, and it was discovered and requisitioned by the East India troops when they stormed his Summer Palace in the capital in 1799. Tipu’s Tiger, as it’s since become known, is now in the collection of the V&A.

The gruesome incident was also commemorated in a rather jaunty Staffordshire group called The Death of Munrow, and it’s this vivid ceramic that was the model for the drawing made for Ben.

In the Staffordshire piece the man is identified as ‘Munrow’, and shown in the uniform of an army officer. However, it’s believed that the historic event commemorated in the Staffordshire group, was  the death in 1792 of Hugh Munro, a civilian. He was the son of General Sir Hector Munro, who had commanded a division during Sir Eyre Coote’s victory at the Battle of Porto Novo in 1781, when Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, was defeated with a loss of 10,000 men. Eleven years later Hugh Munro, while on a hunting expedition in India, was attacked and killed by a tiger, and Tipu’s Tiger appears to be an expression of schadenfreude by Tipu Sultan at the death of an old enemy’s son. The Staffordshire group The Death of Munrow, seems to have conflated the event portrayed in Tipu’s Tiger, with Tipu Sultan’s hatred of the British armed forces in India.

A few weeks ago I started making the separations for the print, working in lithographic crayon and paint on drafting-film and TrueGrain.

Below: pencil guide.

Below: lithographic crayon on TrueGrain, a drafting-film with a granulated quality that’s akin to lithography stone.

From my separations, Dan made the screens ready for printing, and began the process of assembling the print. Here are some of the proofs made as he’s tried various colours.

Below: a lemony yellow lends a pleasingly toy-like quality to the image.

Above: a warmer yellow, and an adjusted blue, red and pink, printed before the final, black pass.

Below: an olive green better harmonises the print.

Sombre shadow makes the image deeper and the mood more elegiac.

A rich and harmonic image, with the yellow, warmed, and the green not unduly pulling the eye.

These will soon be arriving in the post for me to look over. When Dan and I have agreed the way forward, he’ll begin the job of making a final proof, and then editioning.

A Gawain and the Green Knight workbook

Gawain

Work-books are mostly for play. Of course serious stuff gets done in them, too, but all under the general banner of play. So in this little Moleskin book, I’ll make image after image, most of which won’t have any function other than to serve as warm-ups to the main feature, which will be worked out elsewhere in much larger sketch-books.

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So far I’ve only made tiny portraits, though details of costume and armour will also be worked through in the pages, including deciding on whether I’m going for a fourteenth century ‘Age of Chivalry’ look, with Le Morte d’Arthur knights in shining armour and plumed helmets, or take the more austere approach of an earlier age. (Possibly even with a nod to Byzantium.)

Anyway, here’s my starting point.

Green Knight

Green Knight

Variations. Here Gawain wears a coif-de-mailles under a bascinet with a simple, shield-shaped face-guard that lifts up on a hinge.

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Soon I’ll be building complex maquettes: Gawain on his steed Gringolet, and a Green Knight with a removable head for the decapitation scene! There is also going to be a model of Camelot. It’s all go!