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.

dsc00017

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.

DSC00396

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.’

DSC01092 (1).jpg

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.’

DSC01095 (1).jpg

DSC01090.jpg

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.’

 

DSC01091 (1).jpg

DSC01099.jpg

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.)

DSC01094.jpg

DSC01093 (1).jpg

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 –

DSC01096.jpg

– 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.

DSC01097.jpg

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.

DSC08473.jpg

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.

DSC06860

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.

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

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

DSC08912 (1).jpg

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.

DSC00008.jpg

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.

DSC00039 (1).jpg

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

DSC00017.jpg

DSC00031.jpg

DSC00030.jpg

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

DSC00033.jpg

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.

DSC00075.jpg

Little Acorns

DSC09763.jpg

The Toytown Toy Theatre that Daniel Bugg and I made this year as the Penfold Press Christmas card is a tiny thing, though the screen-printed 2 x A4 sheet kit took a lot of planning and producing. Originally we’d intended there to be a third sheet with the instructions. But that would have added significantly to the cost and effort of production, so given the model was quite simple, we decided to let the recipients figure out how to assemble it unaided.

DSC09549.jpg

First of all there were some sketches, then a model or two. I tried various ideas. At one time there was to be a ship at sea with a merman blowing a triton cresting the waves at the stage front. Then I had the notion of a toy-train with steam, and finally, a toy-duck with a top-hat as a steam funnel! Originally the stage front was more of a traditional proscenium.

14191638_10154184185723198_267698803_o-1

dsc09528

DSC09533.jpg

DSC09534.jpg

DSC09543.jpg

DSC09544.jpg

I’m not quite sure what prompted me to turn it into a toy town, nor where all the strange creatures that decorate it came from. It’s a bit of a mystery too, that while the roofs of the buildings are crusted with fallen snow, there are spring tulips decorating the front of the stage. Perhaps in Toytown all the seasons come together!

dsc09524

DSC09527.jpg

I rendered the artwork onto film ready for Dan to turn into screens, and finally, the sheets were printed by him at his Penfold Press studio in Barlby.

DSC09547.jpg

DSC09751.jpg

DSC09755.jpg

DSC09736.jpg

DSC09741.jpg

DSC09742.jpg

Dan sent me a clutch of construction sheets for my own use, and my last job was to snip and glue a theatre so that Peter and I had one for our mantelpiece. It was the centrepiece at Christmas, but long after the other decorations came down, it remained, and it remains there still, wishing anyone who cares to look, Toytown ‘Yuletide Greetings!’

Happy Christmas 2016 from Peter & Clive.jpg

 

The Toy Town Theatre

DSC09763.jpg

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.

DSC09758.jpg

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.

DSC09756.jpg

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.

DSC09751.jpg

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.

DSC09740.jpg

Happy Christmas 2016 from Peter & Clive (1).jpg

The Armouring of Gawain: thoughts on print No. 5

All the images are preparatory studies for The Armouring of Gawain, or details from stencils prepared for the print.

Gawain must seek out the Green Knight’s chapel, where he is oath-bound to submit to a blow from an axe that will very likely kill him. Everyone at the court witnessed the challenge from the Green Knight that led to this pass, and no-one believes that Gawain will return. So the acquitting of him in fine armour is a bit of a hollow pretence, a show of largesse from a King gilding the sacrificial lamb. (It was Arthur the Green Knight had in his sights, but young Gawain stepped in to be his champion.) Clad in chased and burnished gold, radiating light like Apollo, the young man’s gaze turns to the image of the Virgin he’s had painted onto the lining of his shield. She alone must steel him for the travails ahead.

In the distance Camelot, compromised by the moral bankruptcy that will one day see it fall, is already dark, as though light has departed with the last good man.

DSC08594.jpg

A savage wind has tugged locks of Gawain’s hair from his helmet and set them streaming with his dancing crest of plumes. He’s locked in this metal suit, living and perhaps dying in it unless he reaches a trusted place where others may be relied upon to uncase him. Shining and jewelled, the armour is both protection and prison. He must cook or freeze in it as the weather dictates.

DSC08637.jpg

DSC08569

Below, the application of greasy, lithography crayon and opaque fibre-tip pens on layers of granulated Trugrain.

DSC08644 (1).jpg

“blood unfurling, not gushing”

 

The Green Knight’s Head Speaks.

Final pencil study awaiting paint.

So here I am at the moment of the drama when the game changes, all the rules of the natural world broken. The blade has descended, flesh has parted and the head has rolled. But this giant of a man doesn’t lie down, even though separated from his seat of reason, and he strides off to retrieve it from where it’s rolled and rested. Arthur’s knights, unknightly-like, have kicked it for sport, making a football of the thing. Little wonder Camelot will one day fall.

The decapitated Green Knight, head in hands, turns to face the throng. Is the event to be shown from the front, or from the side, from a distance or in close-up? On horseback or off? More importantly, how is the severed head to be held? The territory is ripe for clichés. Somehow I must avoid them. Swinging the head by its hair is not an option, or it will look like every other scene in Game of Thrones.

DSC08383 (1).jpg

I explore the alternatives.

DSC08376.jpg

DSC08379.jpg

DSC08377.jpg

Having tried it all ways I resolve to show it grasped and held aloft in both hands, tilted to an angle with eyes sliding sideways from under half-closed lids while beard and hair stream and snap like pennants in the wind. But this is indoors, so is the wind a supernatural unsettling, or an earthly one, racing through a doorway left gaping after the Green Knight’s arrival? It doesn’t matter. We can’t see  anything of the space anyway. And there’s no wound for us to gawp at either, as I don’t want to distract with bleeding stumps. Nevertheless the head is off, no doubt about that, absent from where it should be and present where it should not, held high and cradled in strong hands.

DSC08386.jpg

There’s blood, or what passes for it with old magic at work. Dense with flow, not kinetic, but hieratic, spouting, fountaining frozen, blossoming atop a frilled column. This is blood unfurling, not gushing. My reference is a fungus I once found bursting through the black plastic of a neighbour’s bale of hay. It was huge. I broke away a grapefruit-sized part of it and brought it home to photograph and draw. I’ve lost the drawings, but a photograph of it survives, fluted like cathedral fan-vaulting and flowing in overlapping scallop-shapes. It will make a strangeness in the composition rendering the event not just supernatural, but beautiful. There’s beauty too in the horse’s embroidered caparison, which will swarm with foliate meanderings and flighty birds.

DSC08424.jpg

A significant element in the composition is the animal’s wildly rolling eye and fearful expression. The human observers are out of frame, and so it stands in for them in the matter of a response to what’s happening, its astonishment more meaningful than anything we might expect from those loutish, head-kicking bully-boys pissed on Christmas wine.

Above, reference photo of fungi, and below, beginning to create the embroidered patterning of the horse’s caparison.

DSC08423.jpg