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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Two of Everything

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2017 is my year of Hansel and Gretel. Two projects on the theme are now completed, printed and available for purchase. The picture book published by Random Spectacular is available from the publisher, while the toy theatre kit published by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop is available both from the shop in Covent Garden and online.

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They share common elements, though have separate characters and serve quite different purposes. The Random Spectacular publication was always intended as an ‘artist’s book’. In it I had the freedom to be as dark as I liked in my expression of the story.

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By contrast the Pollock’s project took a more playful approach, inspired by the traditions of the toy theatre as practiced by the great publisher of paper stages and the plays produced for them, Benjamin Pollock.

The two projects developed pretty much in tandem, as the arrangement with Pollock’s followed closely on my discussions about the book with Simon Lewin. And while there was no requirement from either publisher that the book and the toy theatre should in any way link, for my own part I wanted there to be a bridge between the two.

The Pollock’s toy theatre wasn’t conceived as an adaptation of the picture book. Rather my thinking on it was that the children of the picture book had survived their travails and moved on, travelling to London where a theatrical producer with an eye to the main chance had persuaded them to appear in a stage version of their own story. This ‘back-story’ was not something that needed to be stated in the sales material for the theatre, but was more by way of what I needed in order to better serve the subject. Just as an actor needs to create a history for a character in order to better play the role, so I needed to create a plausible route for Hansel and Gretel from the book that recounts their story, to the toy theatre that presents it in a changed form.

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Publisher Simon Lewin was incredibly generous in his support of the picture book. He was patient with the time it took for me to produce the images, nurturing the project to completion without making any compromises on the quality we both saw as being essential to our joint vision. The design of the book required a lot of attention to detail, not least because of the several fold-out pages that had to align exactly when in the closed position. It was essential, too, that the book lay flat when open, so that none of the image details were lost in the ‘gutter’, which is the valley caused by the stapling together of pages.

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At Pollock’s, Louise Heard and her team were equally painstaking in seeing through the production of the toy theatre kit. The project called for meticulous realisation because three of the six construction sheets were illustrated on both sides, which required precise alignment at the printing stage. Although small in scale I had ambitions for the model to be a fully functioning toy theatre, with 6 backcloths, 2 side-wings and all the characters and props necessary for a performance of the play.

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I wrote a script to be included with the model, and painted a theatre poster for the production.

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I know that all this provided considerable challenges for everyone concerned, and yet Louise never for a moment balked at the extra work involved. The little stage had to be proofed and trialled over and over to ensure the instructions were accurate and that every aspect of the model worked.

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As the idea behind the toy theatre was that it should represent a ‘stage’ version of the ‘real’ story as expressed in the picture book, I made the children the same in both, though they’re dressed rather more picturesquely for their stage adventures than the neat school uniforms they wear in the book.

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The book’s angry mother, with her slovenly appearance and her face pulled taut by the too-tightly fastened rollers in her hair, is portrayed on stage by a plump and mumsy peasant in a headscarf, deeply concerned that her children are missing in the wood, while the visceral horror of the cannibal witch with her prosthetic nose that she rips aside to better smell Hansel with her wormy nasal cavity, in the play is a less disturbing, more traditional fairy tale crone.

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I like the idea that the stage version wipes away the nightmare of what the children in reality endured, transforming it with glitter and evasions into an acceptable entertainment.

It’s interesting to compare the imagery. The palette is far more vivid and toy-like in the Pollock’s Hansel & Gretel, whereas the book takes a more delicate approach to colour.

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The Witch’s house is similar in both versions, though the stage version comes garnished with icing-sugar decorations.

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In the book Hansel is thrown into a cage by a lumbering, zombie-like gingerbread monster, and locked in to be fattened up for the cooking-pot. He suffers the same fate in the stage version, though there the gingerbread men are small and distinctly less threatening.

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While the Witch is grotesque in both versions, for the stage she is less extreme.

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The friendly Duck is yellow in the book, and pink in the toy theatre…

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… while the oven turns from blue in the book to red for the stage, and leaves out the skull and flames of the former.

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It’s not possible to get away from the fact that the original Hansel & Gretel by the Grimm Brothers is deeply disturbing. Hansel’s fate is to be cooked and eaten, but opportunist Gretel shoves the cannibal Witch into an oven first, slams the door and leaves her to be burned to cinders. No matter how much you gussy up the tale with gingerbread and icing-sugar, it has murder, or at the very least, manslaughter, at its heart. In the picture book I tinkered with the details and ratcheted up the horror. For the toy theatre version I toned down the monstrousness and conjured a picturesque world more suitable for a plaything. The two nevertheless remain linked, and for those in-the-know, they’re intended as companion pieces.

You may purchase the toy theatre

HERE

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and the book, HERE

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Out of these twin publications, picture-book and toy theatre, a third Hansel & Gretel project has been born that will carry the ideas explored so far into new and exciting territories and collaborations. I’ll write about it here when I am able. But you should know that the story is not over yet!

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The Toy Town Theatre

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It’s been a long year. For me, and for my partner Peter too, our various projects have kept us hard at work. Peter curated two exhibitions and wrote the catalogues to go with them. Moreover he’s just delivered his manuscript to the publisher on the art of Roger Cecil, and there will be an exhibition next year.

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For me 2016 was largely taken up with three projects: the ongoing series of prints on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, made in association with Dan Bugg of the the Penfold Press, the halfway point of which was celebrated with an exhibition at the Martin Tinney Gallery earlier this year. There was the publication of Hansel & Gretel (Random Spectacular), which had been two years in the planning and making, and the completion of my work on a forthcoming toy theatre being produced by Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop.

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2017 promises to be just as busy, with a yet to be announced project for the stage – which for the present time I must keep to myself – and the continuation of the Gawain project, due for completion in March 2018.

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For now, and in the sprit of the season’s greetings, the images in this post are of the Toy Town Theatre that Dan Bugg and I produced as a Christmas card for the Penfold Press. Working with Dan has been one of the great pleasures of 2016, and though there were times when we both thought we’d never make our deadlines, of course in the end we did. In the coming year there will be more Gawain work, plus a few surprises, forthcoming from the Penfold Press. Watch this space.

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A Feast of Marshmallows

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My  book of Hansel & Gretel, published by Random Spectacular, has been beautifully produced under the watchful eye of Simon Lewin at St Jude’s. The scans by Saxon Digital and the printing by Swallowtail, both in Norwich, are perfect. Every etched line and fleck of the original drawings, meticulously reproduced. The book’s six colours plus black have been created as Pantone separations, consistent in colour throughout and printed onto a matt paper that is so much more pleasing for being without the sheen of many illustrated books. The covers are a slightly heavier card than the pages, and the construction of the book cleverly ensures that every double-page spread opens flat, so that no part of any illustration can become lost in or distorted by the ‘gutter’.

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There are four, three-leaf fold-out spreads scattered throughout the book, and these took a lot of effort to get right in the early design stages. In the finished book the illustrations across each closed fold-out are perfectly aligned, which can have been no easy task for the printers.

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Technically this is just about the most accomplished book I’ve set myself the task of making. I told the story with little recourse to text, and such words as I allowed myself had to be woven through the images as though a part of them. I worked in a technique of colour separation that is relatively new to me. Indeed I was already over halfway through the project when I began learning from Dan Bugg of the Penfold Press the process of producing colour separations.

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I am unapologetically proud of this achievement. I have always believed that inexpensiveness should be no impediment to producing a commercial book with all of the attention to detail that might be expected from an expensive private press edition. I love the art of paperback covers – particularly in Czech and Poland – and have collected vintage and contemporary European children’s illustrated books for more than forty years. While Hansel & Gretel is not intended as a children’s book – it’s a tad too dark for that market – it nevertheless honours the traditions of the children’s book illustrators who have given me so much pleasure over a lifetime. I can hardly believe that at sixty-five, I have finally made my first illustrated book!

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Poet Damian Walford Davies writes of Hansel & Gretel:

‘Just amazing. Beautiful, terrifying. What a piece of work. The blues and pinks and whites have the smell and texture of marshmallow, which is fitting. ‘Eat and get fat’ might be the epigraph for the reader, too, who will verily feast.’

Artist Ed Kluz writes:

‘I pored over your Hansel and Gretel last night – such a wonderful and wicked piece of work. The drawings are at the same time lush and cruel.’

Purchase Hansel & Gretel HERE

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Hansel & Gretel

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My picture book of Hansel & Gretel is now available for pre-ordering at St Jude’s. It’s being launched at the St Jude’s in the City exhibition at the Bankside Gallery (next to Tate Modern) on November 23rd, and orders will begin shipping the first week of December. Click on the link below for details .

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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.

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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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Hansel & Gretel: Don’t Go Into The Wood!

Producing the Hansel & Gretel book-trailer was a team effort that wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of my collaborators.
Film: Culture Colony Vision
Models: Philip Cooper
Music: Kate Romano

Hansel & Gretel Prelude performed on the toy piano by Kate Romano and recorded by Rob Godman

I’ve worked with Pete Telfer of Culture Colony Vision many times over the past ten years. He’s produced several films about my practice as an artist. Pete was cameraman and all round facilitator on the animated film I made to accompany Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the 2013 Hay Festival, and he filmed and edited the animation and model sequences for the music theatre project of The Mare’s Tale. (Composed by Mark Bowden in 2013 with a text by Damian Walford Davies.) Pete gently guides me through the processes of my ‘film’ projects. He is unfailingly supportive and manages the delicate business of giving me enough freedom to experiment, while ensuring that I don’t make a complete dick of myself.

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Phil Cooper and I have been friends ever since he caught a train from London to turn up at a maquette-making workshop I gave in Swansea that I was quite sure no-one would attend. He is a maker to his fingertips. When I saw some of the models he was producing as part of his exploration on the theme of German Expressionist film, I pounced and asked whether he’d consider creating a model version of the witch’s house for my Hansel & Gretel book-trailer. He used my drawings as a starting point, and then freely extemporised on the theme. I love what he created.

In September 2016 Phil arrived at Aberystwyth station carrying a suitcase packed with all the models and materials necessary to make his magic in our dining-room-turned-pop-up-animation-studio. Out came the steeply-pitched cottage, the conical-roofed tower, the boulders and ruined archway and a huge variety of trees, enough to cover the dining-table in an arboretum of impressive dimensions. We reconfigured the set several times over the two days, to get the most film coverage, and Phil glued and brushed and tacked cloth and crumpled tissue paper into the strange topographies of our fairy-tale wood. Moreover between the set-building and tweaking, he took to animation as though he’d been doing it for years.

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Kate Romano came late to the team. Just as I was beginning to panic that my original idea of creating a music free soundtrack for the trailer out of strange noises – all of which I’d have to create and record – wasn’t going to work, I took it into my head to suggest that she record a few bars on one of her toy pianos for me to use within the soundtrack. Kate suggested that she take a tilt at composing a beginning-to-end accompaniment for the film, and her Prelude for Hansel & Gretel, played on a two octave toy piano, is the result. I wasn’t able to show Kate any footage before she wrote and recorded the music, though she’d seen a dummy copy of the picture book. The character of what she produced was perfect, and Pete and I cut the trailer to fit it. I think the music is better for not having been tailored shot by shot. I was able to synchronise images to the soundtrack where the fit was good, and to cut across it when that seemed the better option.

Rob Godman is a composer in his own right, and a friend and regular collaborator with Kate. However I’ve never met him, and so his contribution of recording her playing of Prelude for Hansel & Gretel is a particularly generous one. He has my heartfelt thanks.

In 2014 Simon Lewin of St Jude’s undertook to publish my proposed picture book of Hansel & Gretel  under his Random Spectacular imprint. His support underpinned the project from start to finish. The book-trailer has been made to celebrate our bringing the picture-book to its conclusion.

Hansel & Gretel 

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale reimagined by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Published by Random Spectacular, November 2016

Printed by Swallowtail, Norwich

Scanning by Saxon Digital Services, Norwich

Random Spectacular is the publishing imprint of design collective and print gallery, St Jude’s. The imprint was launched in 2011, providing the opportunity for St Jude’s to explore further collaborations in printed and audio form.

The picture book will be available for pre-order at Random Spectacular from Monday 30th October. (Halloween!)

www.randomspectacular.co.uk