Artists and Illustrators – Gillian Ayres

Artists and Illustrators – Gillian Ayres

Knocking on the door of Gillian Ayres’ house sets off an explosion of dogs. I listen to the murderous scrabbling of paws on the door and shift my notepad over my balls. Adrenaline pumping, slightly off balance and feeling vulnerable is as good a state as any to encounter Gillian’s work. Her paintings are uplifting, beautiful and an antidote to fear. 
Her reputation as one of Britain’s leading artists is secure and her commitment to abstraction, which she believes to be the defining movement of twentieth century art, has been consistent since the early 1950’s. In the nineties, a series of major exhibitions, particularly the touring exhibition shown at the British Council’s Seventh Triennale in India ( 1991- 92) and the retrospective at The Royal Academy(1997 ), brought her work to a wide and appreciative audience.

She is principally known for her oil paintings, so the extraordinary prints that are on show at the Alan Christea gallery may well come as a surprise to her admirers. In an age that has seen printing increasingly defined by the computer and the camera, her latest prints hurtle towards the spectator from a world where gesture and touch are still an essential part of image making.

Standing before her paintings, it is sometimes possible to confuse the thickness of the paint with the solidity and the presence of her colour. The large amount of paint loaded onto her canvas appears to be responsible for creating colour that can be touched and has weight.

The prints make it possible to see clearly that her colour is given a body – made incarnate- in a way that has no direct link with the amount of paint that ends up on either paper or canvas.

The prints are often based on paintings and usually given the same title. The prints never reproduce the paintings but are a means by which pictorial ideas are developed to the point where the print takes on a separate identity to the painting. The main compositional patterns however, remain identifiable and the strong structure of her work is more obvious when one can see how that structure can be flexed and reformed, yet still remain essentially intact.

Usually the composition of the painting is reversed on the plate so as not to be “back to front” in the print. The print “Myrrh of Marib” is unusual in this respect in being the mirror image of the composition of the painting “Flighted Ones”. It is interesting to compare the two works. The painting (a diptych) measures 244 x 427 cms and the warm red base of the painting unifies the large space across which the eye must travel. In the much smaller print, this red base has been overlain with dark colours that allow the shapes within the composition to separate out; to react and dance with each other in a way that is reminiscent of the crooked flight of a butterfly – the print is referred to in the workshop as the butterflies print.

It is only natural to find representation lurking behind shapes and colours.

The coast is a ten minute walk from her studio. If you wish to see the blue of the Atlantic or the trees that line the valley conjured up in her work she is unconcerned – though sometimes puzzled. She says that mood is important and that the uplifting experience of being on the cliffs can be compared with the feelings that she aims for in her work. Although she might eliminate a line because it conjures up the horizon, in general, formal concerns override worries about what the spectator may or may not bring to her work.

Among the carborundum prints is a rarity entitled “Lime Light”, an image whose links with the landscape are acknowledged. The blue of the sea leaps up the valley through a space filled with light.

She has been working with carborundum since the early 90’s at the studio of the printer Jack Shirreff, who she has known since 1966 when they were both teachers at Corsham.

Lat Summer when I visited Jack’s workshop, near Corsham, it was given over entirely to printing Gillian’s work and had something of the air of a genial military operations room. Each print had been assigned a separate section of the workshop; proofs and colour charts, annotated with scribbled plans of attack, hung around the tables where formations of ink were manoeuvred into position on large zinc plates.

The carborundum prints are collagraphs, a term that covers every print making process that involves sticking something onto a plate instead of cutting into it.

Carborundum powder (an abrasive) is mixed with P.V.A. and painted onto zinc. The carburundum layer can vary in thickness and take on different textures, showing brush or finger marks. After drying, the plate is inked and the surface of the plate wiped so that ink remains in the grain of the carborundum. The plate is printed under a high pressure that presses the paper into and around the carborundum layer. The ink that was held by the ridges and mounds of carborundum sits on the print at the bottom of the pools and craters moulded into the paper. The thicker the carborundum on the plate, the deeper the impression in the paper.

This process forms a base for improvisation.

Once the plate has been wiped, if a rag full of colour is dragged over the surface of the print, the ridges of the plate take that colour so that the ensuing print has both an itaglio and a relief aspect to it.

The prints are usually printed over acrylic washes – sometimes put down with the aid of stencils – that further increase the richness and depth of colour. The washes can be very thin or contain areas of thick paint that pop up through the ink under the pressure of the printing process. Gillian leaves sheets of these washes behind her after her visits to the studio, occasionally producing “wild” versions to increase her options.

She sometimes allows the washes of colour to bleed off the edge of the print onto the white paper that surrounds it. While working in the intensity of Indian sunlight, during her stay in Rajasthan in 1990 (sponsored by the British Council), she noted the way in which colour appeared to jump boundaries, bleeding off objects onto the walls and the pavements. Colour was not contained by images or objects and it is that quality of colour that she recalls in the clouds of colour that sometimes bloom from the edges of the prints.

Occasionally, a band of colour is painted around the print, reminding one of Howard Hodgkin, another painter who works in Sherriff’s studio and has been influenced by the light of India.

The inking of the plate takes a long time. Surrounded by twenty or so labelled cups of printing ink mixtures, Jack Sherriff and his assistant Andrew Smith paste the designated rainbows of colour onto the different areas of carborundum before wiping the excess away. For the largest of the prints – a triptych 6’ x 9’ – the inking takes the two of them one and a half days to complete and uses between 6-7 kilos of ink.

Sometimes the print can be produced from one impression, but often two or three plates have to be used.

While working on one of the three circular plates that make up “Juno and the Paycock”, Gillian became interested in the way that the areas of colour on one of the plates were acting against the dark grey of the zinc. Printing on top of a dark grey acrylic wash that recalled the zinc, she began to work on this one plate and eventually produced a separate image “The Water Garden “

This willingness to take advantages of opportunities when they present themselves is typical of the attitude within the workshop. Jack is more interested in technique as a means rather than an end and Gillian finds it less inhibiting to work in his company than in the sterner atmosphere that surrounds the more puritanical printer. They both enjoy going beyond the limitations of printmaking that custom alone prescribes.

Gillian prefers to work at her printing during the winter months, the summer is set aside for painting long into the evenings, at her studio in North Cornwall.

She talks about painting and colour in an inspirational way; how it is the intensity of a colour rather than its tone that gives a colour value – the intensity of a brilliant yellow can be balanced against the intensity of a black in a way that would be impossible if one were to judge both colours in terms of their tonal values. She talks about the way in which a pencilled line in a Bonnard drawing may indicate the impact of a line of pink rather than a shadow and through hours that pass quickly, invokes Matisse, Blake and Hilton in favour of her arguments.

I left her house completely unscathed by the dogs, savaged only by the generosity with which Gillian dispenses alcohol and cigarettes.

Peter Stiles