‘The Temptations’ stencils, from start to finish

When I began this project to make fourteen prints with Daniel Bugg of the Penfold Press on the theme of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (translated by Simon Armitage, Faber and Faber, 2017), I first made a painting of each image that I could then use as a guide when making the stencils. Seven prints into the fourteen I made the decision to work directly onto stencils, which means ‘holding’ the ideas I have for the colours of a print in my head, rather than referring to a painted study.

Like those for The Three Hunts completed last month, the stencils for The Temptations have been produced in this way. Once I’d mixed the paints for the ‘colour key’ (see below) I made the stencils while imagining how the colours would look once the print was underway The stencils are not rendered in the colours of the finished print, but with a grey, red oxide and black palette allowing me to better see the planned image on the transparent layers of drafting film that Dan will later transfer to the printing screens.

Below: rough sketch for the print.

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A more refined study for the Lady of Fair Castle.

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Gouache samples in the ‘colour key’ indicate to Daniel Bugg the six inks I want mixed for the print, plus black. Every colour requires a separate stencil. Sometimes several stencils of a colour are required so that the inks can be applied with varying tonal effects.

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Here are images of the stencils as they progress.

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Although they have their own allure, the layers of stencils give an entirely deceptive impression of what the print will eventually look like. The more layers added, the hazier the image becomes, as though viewed through a mist. It’s quite a feat, remembering all the colours involved and trying to imagine what they’ll look like when printed over each other. I keep notes to hand, but the process is one that relies entirely on being able to work toward an idea that won’t be revealed until the printer begins to assemble the image from layers of inks mixed to match my colour samples.

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After Dan has transferred the images to the screens, the long slow task begins of mixing inks and proofing. Once all the proofs have been examined, tweaked and finally agreed upon, the editioning of the print can begin.

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Finding Beauty

I’m in the throes of preparing number nine in my series of fourteen screenprints for the Penfold Press, inspired by Simon Armitage’s translation of the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published by Faber & Faber in 2007.

Gawain, weary from his journey, has come upon the beautiful – and until that moment unknown to him – Fair Castle, where he hopes to find hospitality.

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Above: making stencils for Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

On entering he’s warmly greeted by the Lord, his Lady and their retainers. The Lord receives Gawain’s story with great interest, and in return is an affectionate and generous host. He calls his visitor by name, though strangely, his own is not offered. Nevertheless his status is clear from the magnificence of his home and household. Fine garments are gifted to Gawain and he’s arrayed like a prince in costly fabrics and furs.

During Gawain’s stay the Lord goes out three times to hunt, though Gawain remains in the Castle. On each occasion the Lady comes early to Gawain’s bed to wake him. She initiates conversations that play on notions of ‘courtly love’, though they’re loaded with flirtatious banter that quickly raise the temperature. The visceral descriptive passages of the three hunts, for stag, boar and fox, are threaded through with the tensions of the Lady’s compromising early-morning visits to her guest’s bed-chamber, during which she presses Gawain for gifts of affection, embraces and kisses, while he valiantly attempts to defend himself from committing any breach of trust against the hospitality of his absent host.

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Above: detail from a colour study for The Three Hunts

Simon Armitage wrote to me of these passages:

‘I can never think about those “bedroom scenes” without the hunted and butchered animals being there in the room, the way they’re interleaved through the text. Not just as Gawain’s suppressed lust, but as his subconscious images of what goes on between the lord and the lady. There’s a sense of Gawain’s inadequacy in those episodes as well, or at least his lack of experience (we assume he’s a virgin) compared with the lord’s victorious masculinity and the lady’s apparent sexual knowing. The lord’s actions are invasive and exposing of all kinds of interiors – Gawain knows only the cortex of life, its rind and its appearance.’

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The bedroom scenes are nerve-racking to read. Gawain is at the mercy of a powerful and practised coquette, and their encounters become a duel in which her desire, pressed upon him, must be skilfully parried in order to avoid compromise or offence. He pretends sleep when she stealthily approaches him – as though that would stop her. Then he pleads for privacy to dress, but she counters:

‘Not so’, beautiful sir,’ the sweet lady said.
‘Bide in your bed – my own plan is better.
I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner,
then playfully parley with the man I have pinned.’

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Much is made of Gawain’s disadvantage of being in bed. The Lady doesn’t balk at physical affection, despite the fact that the young man is naked under the covers. She presses him for gifts, even though she knows he has little save himself to offer. It’s heated and tension inducing.

‘I come
to learn of love and more,
a lady all alone.
Perform for me before
my husband heads for home.’

 

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The poem is so full of references to the allure of young Gawain and the Lady of Fair Castle that it would be possible in any representation to become overwrought with the flesh on display and the heat under the surfaces. I have to curb my tendency to overly-refine images of beauty and stop before the vitality of an idea becomes compromised by overworking. I’ve tried many different compositional devices with this sequence of the poem, and it’s emerged that when the Lady is foregrounded, I work a tad too hard to capture her. (See the couple of too-sweet images above.)

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But a scrappy thumbnail sketch that placed her as a full-length figure sitting in the upper left of the composition (below) has a dynamic that pleases me –

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– and so I’ve pursued the idea and it’s the one that right now I’m moved to go with. Next I need to work up a full compositional study and see if I feel the same way. But as a precursor to that, here’s a small sketch defining her outline in the available space. I like it because the simplicity eschews the need for detail. Costume can become a burden in images, capturing too much of the energy and distracting attention from the meaning. This little drawing captures the dropped shoulders and tight sleeves of the period, but without feeling ‘historical’. It might be either her gown or her shift.

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The diagonal framing device at the right is where the foreground bed-curtain cuts across, giving me the opportunity to run riot with the decorative patterning that’s become something of a theme in the series, from the Green Knight’s foliate tattoos (an invention that isn’t in the text) to the peacocks and vines embroidered on the caparison of his horse. (More invention.) For the bed-hangings I plan a fevered idyll, all turbulent vegetation and frolicking rabbits.

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Above: detail from the colour study for The Green Knight’s Head Lives

When I began making prints on the theme of the poem I was clear about not getting enmeshed in the descriptive passages. They are so sumptuous and detailed that attempting to reproduce them would be visually overwhelming. Instead my inspiration has been filtered through my familiarity with the text. The prints were intended to capture some of what I feel about Gawain and his Green Knight.

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Above: stencils for The Green Knight Arrives

Occasionally I’ve returned to re-examine a passage of the poem only to discover that I’ve recalled it incorrectly in my image. But that, after all, is the nature of memory, and so I’ve not made revisions on discovering misalignments between what’s written and what I’ve made.

My thanks to Simon Armitage for his insights. The quotes from his translation are by kind permission of Faber & Faber.

 

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‘Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle’: the stencil-making.

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After the gouache and pencil study has been produced to work out how I want the print to look (see above), I begin on the stencils. These are first drawn and painted onto lithography film, and thereafter photo-developed onto the micro-mesh screens used to produce the prints. All but the last of the images below are of the stencils that will create the black layer of the print. I work with a greasy lithographic crayon, an oil-based pencil for finer marks, and a special fibre-tip pen with opaque ink. The pen marks are red here, but once this stencil has been rendered as a screen to print from, all the marks you see will be printed in black ink.

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A pencil on paper is mark-making with the tonal qualities created through pressure of the hand. However in screen printing any mark is a mechanical one, and any tonal aspect has to come through colour mixing, through layering and by the close proximity of the small dots of ink forced through the micro-mesh of the screens.

The images for the Gawain series are produced on film of two types: smooth and granular. The irregular surface of the granular TruGrain, means that a wax crayon drawing on it consists of dots caught on the raised parts of the film.

Below, a detail of a wax drawing on TruGrain taken with light behind it clearly shows the dots that build the effects of graduated tone. I’ve also used a scalpel to scratch through areas at the upper left and down the right hand side, to vary the mark-making in the finished print.

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Below: tens of thousands of tiny dots build the tonalities I want in the finished print.

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Below: the completed drawing on TruGrain ready to be transferred to a screen for printing.

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The black layer of the print is the one that holds most of the compositional detail. The ‘coloured’ layers that will be printed beneath it, will be made up of one layer of red, two of blue and two of yellow.

Finally, a picture of the stencils ready to be rolled and sent to Dan Bugg at the Penfold Press. The image appears a little fuzzy only because it consists of six translucent layers.

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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.”

 

 

 

Print N0. 7: Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle

Work has begun on the seventh print in the Gawain and the Green Knight series. Titled Gawain Arrives at Fair Castle, much of the poem’s narrative takes place within the walls of Bertilak de Hautdesert’s sumptuous home. Here Gawain will find rest and succour and be treated as an honoured guest, though his stay is made awkward by the seemingly amorous attentions of Lady Hautdesert. All is not quite as it appears, though he won’t find out until after he’s left the castle what deceptions have been practiced on him.

Here’s a clean drawing laid out ready for me to start in with the colour.

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Fair Castle is reinvented here as a gold and enamelled Byzantine citadel. The steep ascent spirals the crag on which Fair Castle perches, and Gawain’s horse, Gringolet, looks uneasy at the prospect of climbing it.

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Pollarded trees reference the tattoos of the Green Knight seen in an earlier image.

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Above, detail from The Green Knight Arrives.

Change of Title

The Green Knight Speaks, while a great title for the fourth print in the Gawain series, doesn’t quite fit my image as it should. In the finished study for the work, the Green Knight’s lips remain firmly shut, and so the title must change. Right now I’m toying with several options, none of them yet quite there.  Suggestions if you have them, please.

In the meantime work is underway on the stencils that will create the print. Each title in the series begins as a series of rough sketches in which I try out ideas. In this print, the Green Knight, having retrieved his decapitated head, holds it aloft to speak

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After the ideas have been hammered out in rough drawings, I make a fully rendered painting of what I propose for the print. The image below is a detail of the painting for this print, showing the embroidered caparison of his horse.

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The next stage is to produce the ‘master-drawing’, the template that sits beneath the layers of transparent film on which I draw and paint to make the stencils. A master-drawing sometimes differs in detail from the painting, as it’s my opportunity to make any corrections to the composition.

Once the master-drawing is has been drafted, the stencil-making is a relatively straight-forward process of tracing and separating the elements of the image into layers according to colour. Here is a detail of the master-drawing that will underlie the drafting films to guide me through the business of making the stencils for this print.

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I begin with the stencil that will print as black. In dark red opaque marker-pens which enable me to make the sharp outlines of the embroidered motifs, I trace the background of the textile on a sheet of transparent Truegrain laid over the master-drawing.

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At the next stage I work with lithography crayon to soften and shadow the pattern, and then add a second stencil to print the green of the embroidered elements. A third adds the orange background.

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I use two varieties of stencil. Trugrain has a granulated surface that produces interrupted colour and mark-making… a kind of glittering effect… while drafting film is smooth and can yield dense fields of colour and unbroken lines. The stencils are worked in tonal variations of red-oxide and black, using pens, crayons, pencils and paints. On each stencil I make a note of the layer of colour represented. As I assemble the layers of stencils, I have to imagine what the colours will look like when printed over each other. For this print there will be seven stencils: black, yellow, mid-blue, dark-blue, red, orange and turquoise-green.

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The textile in this image is an invention in which I riff on traditions of Coptic and Romanesque embroideries. In the absence of any buildings or landscape in the background of the print to give it a location, the motifs of scattered talisman-like eyes, flying peacocks and scrolling tendrils bearing oak leaves and assorted fruits, fills one half of the composition with a sense of place and mystery. The Green Knight brings the wilderness into the halls of Camelot, through the decorations on his horse and the inking on his skin.