‘Saint Kevin and the Blackbird’s Nest’

Completed  18/04/14

Saint Kevin and the Blackbird’s Nest 
Acrylic on gessoed panel. 60 x 81 cm. 2014

Lots of sgraffito here, used to enliven the the surface of the painting and add sparkle to the trees and bushes. As I’ve always loved painting water, the river has been a particular pleasure to work on. (It’s the river Wye, running past Catchmay’s Court at Llandogo, home of The Old Stile Press and our friends Nicolas and Frances.)

This marks my return to the subject of Saint Kevin after a long absence. Seamus Heaney’s poem has for many years been the source of inspiration for my work on the theme, and indeed I’ve made enough paintings to merit a whole Kevin and the Blackbird section in the Artlog archive. (Check it out in the ‘Topics’ box at top right.)

Kevin and the Blackbird’s Nest will be in:

Telling Tales: new narrative works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Tegfryn Gallery/Oriel Tegfryn

Menai Bridge


Opens May 10th

the saint’s landscape

Day seven, and the appearance of some sheep.

The landscape draws on work I did for the cover image for the second volume of The Old Stile Press Bibliography. Below Catchmays Court a gate leads from the garden through a hedge and into a field where balsamic poplars line the river bank, and sheep picturesquely graze. It seems the most perfect setting for this saint-in-the-making who turned his back on the world, an anchorite meditating in the wilderness. (But a slightly tamed wilderness here, with gates and fences.)

I’m cock-a-hoop that the great Ronnie Burkett popped by my Facebook page and clicked a ‘like’ on today’s Saint Kevin and the Blackbird image. I’ve admired his puppet artistry for so long. The man is a genius.

framing tales

The complicated matter of getting works finished and framed for the Telling Tales deadline required an agreed strategy of almost military precision between me and my framer Anthony. Because the period of painting for this exhibition was very tight, we had to agree the measurements of every frame at the outset. This included frames for the drawings and works on paper requiring glazing, and for paintings on panel framed without glass. And all this before my own work in the studio had even begun. Luckily I’m happy working to pre-agreed sizes, and so at the outset I made a list of what I planned for the exhibition, and Anthony and I discussed everything on it so that he could order in ample supplies, including the heavy tulip-wood profile I designed and that he has milled to order by a local supplier.

A Hervé and the Wolf drawing from 2011, now in a private collection, in a bespoke tulip-wood frame

There are just two types of frame that I use these days: those made from the bespoke tulip-wood moulding (see above) and the light frames for smaller drawings and works on paper, made from a simple, unfinished, commercially-produced moulding. Both require painting. Once made up, Anthony finishes the tulip-wood frames in paints I supply him with, using a red oxide primer under a mid-tone neutral grey.

With the narrow frames he prefers me to do the finishing, and so I collect them from him, bring them to my studio for painting, and then deliver them back to his workshop ready for him to insert glass, mounts, artworks and backboards, and to furnish them either with d-rings and picture-hanging wires or with mirror-plates, according to weight and/or gallery specification.

Narrow frames undercoated in red oxide drying on the terrace at Ty Isaf

It’s all very complicated, but we’re both good organisers and the arrangement works rather well. It has to be said that while Anthony is understandably quite stern with me about having the plan in place at the outset, thereafter he’s forgiving and helpful if I have to add another item or two to the list, or we discover that a new work I’d thought wouldn’t need glazing, suddenly requires spacers and glass to keep its fragile surface secure.

In the white-space galleries where many contemporary artists’ paintings are first seen, mine included, there’s an expected consistency of presentation that must serve both the artworks and the spaces. But my frames must additionally tread a fine line between the modern and the traditional, so that any would-be purchaser can envisage them in the home environment. The bespoke tulip-wood moulding is contemporary and fresh, and yet so generous in its proportions as to suggest an historic tradition of framing. By contrast the narrow framing is discrete, though I employ generous expanses of thick mounting-board to give presence.

Oberon under glass in a narrow, hand-painted grey frame

I’ve been using the same neutral grey for a decade, though I employ varying tones of it for variety.

Framing is a delicate balancing act, because the results have to be smart, yet subtle to the point of almost disappearing. It’s taken me many years of trial and error to get things just as I want them, but in Anthony’s frames I’ve found the perfect marriage of simplicity to craftsmanship.


Telling Tales: new narrative works from Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Tegfryn Gallery/Oriel Tegfryn

Menai Bridge


Opens May 10th

last minute title change

Completed on day five in the studio

Joseph and the Flying Bouquet

Acrylic and sgrafitto on gessoed panel. 80 x 80 cm. 2014

Soldier Joseph is hurrying, carrying flowers to the Princess who he’s rescued from a curse of sleep. (Or perhaps she was just a lazy stay-a-bed, pretending.) Love has loaned wings to his heels, but he’s tripped and sent sunflowers and tulips flying through the air. The Princess, alas, is not to be trusted, and our hero will be led into peril by her. Oh dear. And he looks so happy, here.

See all the stages of the painting from start to finish, HERE

Marly on ‘Borderlands’

In the studio three more Borderlands paintings are underway, moving toward joining the two little nighttime landscapes I made inspired by Mark Bowden’s and Damian Walford Davies’ music and libretto for their chamber-work-with-narrator, The Mare’s Tale. Last year Mark and Damian used my original 2001 Mare’s Tale drawings as inspiration for their darkly glittering psychological ghost-story, and now I use what they made to inspire new paintings. I like it when creativity evolves into a great snake swallowing its own tail.

Yesterday my friend Marly Youmans wrote of the new paintings:

‘I like your pieces for the exhibition–and am surprised by how much I like those weird, cold-lit scenes. As if by intelligent moonlight. Medieval dreams! They are wonderfully human but estranged in loneliness and sleep, when we abandon the world. Of course, I like the others as well–just was not expecting these.’

Marly Youmans

Marly lives in Cooperstown, NY, and wasn’t able to be at the work-in-progress performance of The Mare’s Tale given at Theatr Brycheiniog last September. But it’s interesting that she’s found in the two Borderlands paintings so much that I gleaned from Mark’ music and Damian’s text.

‘Joseph and the Sunflowers’

Day one of a new work on my easel

Joseph and the Sunflowers

Pencil underdrawing and acrylic on gessoed panel. 80 x 80 cm. 2014

Joseph and the Sunflowers is currently in progress in my studio. When finished it will join the series of new paintings that have drawn on the animated film of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale I made for the 2013 Hay Festival.

Shaping the hearts of sunflowers with sgrafitto

Below: maquettes of Joseph used for the animated film, and currently serving as models for the paintings

Paintings on the theme of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, soon to be seen in:

Telling Tales: new works by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Oriel Tegfryn/Tegfryn Gallery

Menai Bridge

Opening May 10th

The Covetous Devil



Going Home

Blue Fall

The Tulip Garden

Joseph Dreams of Home

Soldier Joseph

Above: King